Well Balanced

How to build healthy friendships

May 09, 2022 Balance Season 1 Episode 27
Well Balanced
How to build healthy friendships
Show Notes Transcript

In continued celebration of Mental Health Awareness Month, psychologist Todd Kashdan joins Ofosu and Leah to discuss how the people we surround ourselves with affect our mental health — both positively and negatively.

About Todd Kashdan
A professor of psychology and the director of the Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University, Todd is a leading expert on the psychology of well-being, curiosity, mental flexibility, and social relationships. And he's passionate about translating science into practical tips to help improve our everyday lives. Todd's latest book, The Art of Insubordination, is now available through all major retailers.

[Theme up and fade under]

OFOSU: Hi, I'm Ofosu Jones-Quartey.

LEAH: And I'm Leah Santa Cruz. We're the meditation coaches on the Balance app. 

OFOSU: And this is our weekly show -- Well Balanced.

LEAH: This week, we’re continuing our celebration of Mental Health Awareness Month by bringing in a friend of the show — Todd Kashdan. Todd is a professor of psychology at George Mason University — he’s a leading authority on well-being - AND the author of a new book: The Art of Insubordination - which is worth a read.

Today he’s going to help us build on the conversation we had last week, which was all about how being “nice” can come at a personal cost. And how both of us are trying to work through that.

OFOSU: [reax]

LEAH: But…. you can’t change your behavior in a vacuum. If I’m going to stop being nice, I need to have people around me that can support me as I get more honest with myself and more direct with others. And I think the same goes for a lot of the behavioral changes we might need to make to really take care of our mental health. I think one of the big factors that affects mental health is the people around us. So, we have Todd here so we can ask him about what supportive relationships look like - and how we can build them.

Hey Todd!

[SFX + Interview Start]

OFOSU: Yeah. It's so nice to have you back, Todd, I can't wait to chat about with this with you.

TODD: I never turn down an invitation to hang out with the two of you, you know that.

OFOSU: I'm going to jump in and just kick off question number one, Todd, how do the friends that we surround ourselves with, how do they affect our mental health?

And is there a measurable effect or an actual effect on the brain?

TODD: Yeah. So there's this great work at University of Virginia, which basically says that when you calculate what's your mental fortitude, what competencies do you have? Um, how confident do you feel? We don't just look at ourselves. We actually make an evaluation of our bodily budget based on ourselves and the proximity of close, trusted people in our social network. So what that means is if I know that I can call you guys, you don't have to be physically present just knowing that you are one phone call away. I interpret whatever strengths you have are part of my strengths of folks. So you have that calmness and the serenity and equanimity, which is something as a New Yorker I don't have.

And Leah, you happen to have like this very soothing voice. To some degree, my nervous system is soothed by the sound of your voice and your presence. So I feel calmer. I feel stronger just knowing that you're there and each one of us does that. And knowing that our brain budgeting system includes other people we have to say to ourselves, are we adding people that are replicants of ourselves or are we adding people that are compliments that have strengths and capacities and skills that add to our own.

LEAH: Wow. So are we adding people that are just like, uh, It reminds me of that saying misery loves company sometimes. Like, are we, or are we finding people that have strengths perhaps that can help us maybe in ways that we don't even have?

How could I right now do that assessment and tell if my relationships are supporting my mental health, how would I actually do that?

TODD: So there's a number of ways to go. So let me start with one angle, which is from the age of kindergarten onward, we've been taught that the way to be a good friend is to be there for people during difficult times.

So if someone has stage one breast cancer, if someone car has a flat on a bridge at three o'clock in the morning, we're the type of person you can call us. We'll show up on the bridge. You don't have to tell us to bring over dinner. We'll be there on Tuesday with lasagna. We're not going to ask you.

We're just going to be there. That happens. What the science shows is that when you're thinking about satisfaction or relationship commitment in a relationship, it is better that someone is there a few during the good times, the triumphs and the glories, then being there for the most difficult times.

Now this is a little bit counterintuitive. When you have difficult times, random strangers will be there to help you. If they see that you've been accosted on the street, someone just yelling at you for no reason, people will step in - they'll step in and create a human shield between you and that person.

But if you were at the grocery store and you won the lottery, and you were screaming up and down people aren't there to support you because they're like you have the good thing that happens to you - I can barely pay my rent. So what did you need me to tell you, ask you questions about what you're going to do with the money, and then how did you pick the numbers?

So it's rarer for people to be there during good times. If someone's there during the good times it tests the alarm system that says, you care enough about my well-being that I know you've got my back during the difficult times. So you ask yourself, where do people show up? When you fall in love? When you have a really good conversation with somebody? When your kid makes you laugh hysterically and you have these great experiences?

Do they give a crap about those moments and are they asking you questions and elaborating on that story? 

[both react]

OFOSU: Completely counterintuitive. And it reminds me in my own personal experience, my wife and I were in a terrible car accident. Many years ago, we were driving down 95. We drove into a storm hydroplaned, our car spun around the entire length of the freeway, hit a jersey wall, jack knife and pancaked. And we walked out of there without a scratch. But what was just as miraculous as us escaping that unscathed was how the entire freeway stopped to help us. Everybody stopped and pulled up over to the side of the road to make sure that we were okay. I mean, we had no shortage of good Samaritans that day, the outpouring was unbelievable.

And so you're right. If something bad is happening, people will step in to help you. I'm trying to think of the moments that I've had major triumphs, and it's definitely not as many people that were on the freeway that day that are lining up to congratulate me or give me a high five. It's actually a small group of people who are genuinely happy for those milestones. That's an amazing observation. You kind of blew my mind. So before I get too caught up in this, let's look at what happens if the opposite isn't there. What do I do if my friendship, relationships aren't supportive in this way? If I'm doing like a mental inventory and I'm thinking of those joyful moments and the people that I would expect to be there, aren't there, what do I do then?

TODD: Great question. First of all, because you came out unscathed, I love the image of the 95. The world is filled with nicer people than we imagined. And the world is more benevolent than we imagined, but there's also some level of a ceiling where it's only a few people that go above and beyond that, where they are supporting loving, caring non-judgemental on a regular basis.

So both those things can be true. And this is why, you know, one of the things that we've discovered in our work and I think both of you will relate to this greatly - it's one of the reasons why I think the three of us love being together on this podcast. The greatest predictor that you enjoy being in someone's company and want to be in a relationship with them or having a satisfactory relationship is this single statement: I can be effortlessly myself around them. And I think that we underestimate what this means. What this means is that you could have what I call, you know, your B game or you're C game. You're not funny. You're not witty. You're not playful, but when you feel that you can be that version and not stay inside because you're not bringing the game today.

That's the sign of a good relationship. And if you don't have the kind of relationship, if someone supports your wins and you don't have the kind of relationship where someone doesn't allow you to be effortlessly yourself may say Leah, like, what's wrong? Like, why aren't you being your normal funny self today?

So when that happens, we are scared to say what we actually want to say, which is that, does it bother you that I'm not being funny or playful or feeling comfortable in my skin right now? So there's a question there that you can ask in terms of your triumphs. When you have kids, when your album drops and you can ask people like, hey, I was surprised I didn't hear from you for the first two weeks when my album dropped.

I just want you to know this was like one of the most pinnacle periods of my life. And I wanted the most important people there. And I was surprised that I hadn’t heard from you.  Now, yeah you’re inducing a little bit of guilt, but you're inducing it because you wish they were there. Now, how they respond gives you an indication of, to what degree, the care and concern about your life outside of your relationship with them is of importance to them. Because that's the key when they're not involved directly. Do they care about your work? And I think it's important to give people a shot to offer an explanation of why they weren't there or why they didn't respond in a constructive manner and not write off people too quickly.

LEAH: I like that. I can think back to times when I felt a friend didn't show up in the way that I wanted them to. And for me, I used vulnerability. As an intro into it, just kind of talking about my own, like how it made me feel. And I also think there's a role for like making those requests. Like here's what I would, how I'd like you to show up for me in the future.

Is that something that you can do? Is it something you're interested in? Do you have any thoughts on like how we can ask for what we want and need from our friends? 

TODD: Yeah, I mean, let's be guided by the science. Um, we'll start with the knot, which is, don't make a comparison to any other person who did show up.

So that's going to have no benefit whatsoever because then you're moving people from, I didn't like the way that you acted versus you are inferior to this other person. So now you’re rank ordering people, and you're actually saying there's some element of them that's better than elements inside you. So avoid doing that. Now, easier said than done, people do this all the freaking time.

OFOSU: I'm curious now, because as we're, as you're talking, going back to the person that you can feel completely yourself with, for me, that person is my wife.  My wife really is probably the best friend that I have in this world. And so. Uh, is it okay if all of the support comes from your partner or do you need to, um, kind of spread it out more? What, what do you think about that?

TODD: Yeah, so there's a lot here. So one, you're gonna get a lot of jealousy and envy from people that are listening to this podcast, too.

It's so sincere the way you're describing your wife. And it's a beautiful thing. So obviously it's a good thing. Most of our lives, people don't want to think about it. It’s as if we're on stage and we're performing, we're trying to show our intellectual side. We're trying to show our warm side. Both of you were involved in meditation on this app.

So you're, you have your contemplated, calm, quiet, serene side. You might not show the versions of you that give people the finger on the road, that version of yourself, you have multiple identities that happen there. So there's this performance. And just as if we were going to go on this tonight, when you go to give your performance after you're done, you go into the green room, you take off your makeup, you go put on your regular clothes again.

And in that green room, when you let your hair down, that's when you curse, you're crass. And so the person that could be your green room is a wonderful thing. And if it's the person you spend the most time with in your household, which is your romantic partner, that's amazing. That being said. There's a value in having a diversified portfolio of social relationships to protect your romantic partner from being potentially burdened by the needs, desires, and wants of you.

And you could ask, who can I go to, to cheer me up? Who can I go to if I'm feeling angry, that can make me feel soothed, right? Who's that person who's going to be my therapist and who's going to be my serious intellectual friend that's going to be a source of wisdom and knowledge. If you only have one person that shows up regularly in this portfolio, well then you've put all your cognitive eggs in one basket. So when you do have problems, which you will, especially with your romantic partner, you've got other characters there that make sure you have some level of sanity which is pretty important for your mental health, for the long haul.

OFOSU: You're making me appreciate the two or three homies I do have that check all those boxes for me as well. Yeah, my boys Johnny, Thomas, I'm going to shoot them just a little text just as just like a what up actually, I'm going to shoot them an I appreciate you text. 

TODD: Yeah, well, they just got a shout out.

It's just great. And this is what we want to do. We want to not keep it inside. When people are able to be a check to for all, for multiple roles that they play in our lives. And I think men are pretty bad at this people that are, um, that have kids are pretty bad at this. And then I think people that are in very healthy, romantic relationships tend to forget to satisfy these needs of the partners in their other relationships.

LEAH: So I have one last question for you, cause that's a really good point. And it's given me a lot of food for thought - as we work on our mental health, and that's really a focus we're having this month, what is the balance that you think we should strike between working on our own thoughts, our own perceptions, our own patterns, like what we can control within us and then working on our relationships, which is external.

TODD: It's a great question. I'm going to reframe it a little bit. because there's never going to be a balance. Don't aim for balance. Yeah. Sharon Brewer at Ohio State University has a theory.

She calls it optimal distinctiveness theory. Now stay with me here before I enter too heavily. When we are socializing in our little network, we have two needs that are opposing that we're trying to satisfy simultaneously. One is we want a sense of, we want to make sure that we belong. We're cared for.  We're validated that we're understood in some way. It's not just about being tolerated because tolerance is like white knuckling your hands when you're on an upside down roller coaster. It's being dignified of like, I see you and everything about you and you change me because of who you are.  That's what it means to fit in. 

The other need, which is contradictory to that is that we need to stand out. We need uniqueness. We even need to feel that we are indispensable and we cannot be replaced by another person that could take our role at the dinner party. We want to feel this sense of uniqueness. Like I have a unique value in my social group, in my relationships. 

So the balance it's not necessarily about self care and our relationships. The balance is between these two needs in terms of we want to fit in, but we want to honor, like we have a unique path and unique configuration of strengths and a unique life history. We want to honor that and approach our life and doing things that are honest to ourselves.

Where we stop lying and say, you know what? I don't like documentaries. I sound cool when I say I saw a documentary. I like seeing Rick and Morty. That's what I like doing. I should be outgrowing it, but you know what? I enjoy that. That's your uniqueness that you're honoring. And then the other part is I still want to fit in and I want to listen to what other people like and enjoy and ask questions and understand it, but it may not be my thing that happens there. So they'll never be equal, but you should check at the end of each day or the end of each week to see to what degree do you feel a sense of belonging and do you feel that you have a sense of uniqueness and that these needs are being satisfied?

LEAH: Well, I think it's pretty clear in this conversation to me that we can't do things alone in this world. Supportive people. We need a sense of belonging. We need to feel unique and valued. Thank you, Todd.

OFOSU: Todd, it's always so wonderful to catch up with you. Thank you so much.

TODD: Yeah. I love talking to you. It's actually very stimulating questions.

OFOSU: Yeah, I'm walking away with a lot to think about, so thanks, man.

[Interview End + SFX]

Closing reaction

OFOSU: Wow. I always love talking to Todd. One of the things that I love the most are perspectives that are counter-intuitive that are like, kind of right there in front of you, but you just didn't think about them like that. And Todd always brings that.

LEAH: Yeah. Especially like, um, being there for people during the good times not just the bad times. I mean, I think it's important to be there for the bad times too, but yeah, that really makes you do some reflection and like, huh, what are the good things that's happened to me? And who's been there and also have I been there for other people during their good times?  What kind of friend am I being? 

OFOSU: I love the catch that he made and asking about, like, if we do that inventory and we find that people haven't been there for us - or like, you're saying maybe we haven't been there. It's not that we get condemned or that we condemn others, but that we can just say, well, you know, this is why your presence would have been important to me then, and will be important to me in the future.

So I love that there's a little bit of grace that we can give people also.

LEAH: And then also being direct. Being nice, like we were talking about last week, but really asking for what our needs are. Yeah. I love this conversation. I think friendships are super important and I really want to reach out to my friends today and you who's listening - I hope that you also take this opportunity to do a little bit of reflection in your life and reach out and say hello to the ones that mean something to you.

OFOSU: I feel like singing the Golden Girls theme song to you. Well, I appreciate that you are one of my friends. Thank you so much.

[Theme up and under]

OFOSU: All right. Thanks for listening. And thanks to Todd for joining. And if you want to check out some more of his research and practical advice, he's condensed a lot of it into his amazing new book, which is called The Art of Insubordination. And we've got a link in the description. 

LEAH: Stay up to date with us on our show, subscribe or follow on your favorite podcast app.

We're going to be back next Monday with our next episode in our Mental Health Awareness month series until then have a lovely week.

OFOSU: Don't forget to be kind to yourself. Take care.

LEAH: Ciao.

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