Right before the craziness of Fashion Week began, whilst the air was still warm, I travelled to the white sand beaches of Jervis Bay with my best friend Alice to hang at The Cove , take some pictures and explore the beautiful Booderee National park. She is a photographer, so sometimes we take these trips to shoot some pictures for me and some for her, because she loves landscapes and underwater photography. Our trips are a symbiosis of friendship and creativity; we spend our days exploring and creating and our nights cooking, drinking wine and talking about any subject on the planet and beyond. When it came time to write a story to accompany these pictures, I originally wanted it to be about the importance of taking time to get away but the words weren’t coming easily. Instead, other sentences kept pushing to the forefront of my mind, other ideas and feelings wanted to be known, the thoughts that truly whirred around my skull when we visited that beautiful piece of paradise, so here they are.
Alice and I have been friends for a long time, I believe we met back in 2001, which would make our friendship nearly two decades long. It wasn’t a bestie situation at first, we were regular mates in a group of friends and even though I liked Alice for her humour and intelligence, at times she seemed to me to be distant in those first couple of years (to be fair, I am sure to her, I would’ve seemed too loud and obnoxiously over the top ). Sometimes I'd see how Alice didn’t engage in conflict when necessary in her romantic relationships, leading to confusion and detriment, but I didn’t mention it or ask – I felt that it wasn’t my place and I didn’t want to intrude or cause any drama. Ofcourse, I wasn’t quite enlightened enough to observe my own bad relationship patterns and faults then - we were just young people having fun together. Years went by and life brought us challenges in our personal lives that induced us into growing together until I loved this woman as a sister. She saw me in three of my past long term relationships, through the birth of my child, new career, heartbreak, loneliness, resolve, happiness, depression, joy, fear, winning and losing . She saw me behave like an angel and a devil, unaware idiot and wise sage, happy go lucky airhead and geeky nerd ; every incarnation of me, every variety of my consciousness- just as I saw her through her trials and tribulations, ideal and not so ideal versions of herself. We lifted each other up, comforted in times of need, taught and learnt from each other, all the while accepting the annoying beings we could be.
But it hasn’t been all flower beds and rosé, cause there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. We also observed each other in times of weakness, bad reactions, runaway schemas and unhealthy projections. We blamed each other, gossiped, avoided personal responsibility and dug into the habits of our unhealthy attachment patterns until we nearly drove our friendship in the ground .
Alice is avoidant attachment and I am anxious ( if you do not know about this, please do an online test, it is necessary for understanding how you operate emotionally, what you need to be happy and how to fix it so you can feel secure in your close ties) - even though these patterns come out mostly in romantic relationships , they are also our fallback reactions in conflict with people we love . There were times when Al and I would fight in the past, and frankly it was toxic. She would take some resentment to heart I often wasn’t aware of or even meant to happen, but not talk about it directly to me, so she would naturally become more and more passive aggressive as the situation wasn’t dealt with and feelings were hidden. This would change the atmosphere of the friendship and as I noticed her burgeoning distance, I would get sad and angry that she was treating me so cold. I would then , true to my attachment, get overly emotional in demanding to know what is going on and tearfully blaming her which would cause both of us to explode into shouting. There were no winners in these fights, just a couple of upset humans battling with their own wounds , striking out unconsciously, not really getting to roots of problems and thus taking ages to get to the actual resolutions.
Just like my amorous relationships, our friendship would falter at times and I wondered why she would even want to be my friend or if she even liked me at all. Sometimes we grew unevenly and catching up with each other was fraught with confusion and hurt. Yet, unlike my lovers so far; here we were, 18 years after we met, chewing the fat whilst feeding kangaroos our apples at this cute beachside resort, laying all our worldy feelings on the table, not hiding an ounce of ourselves , talking about our anger and sadness, identifying our boundaries, whilst managing to find ways to shine a light on each other’s downfalls and faults in a loving way. How have I managed to find a way to do this with another imperfect human when I have failed to do so with all of my romantic partners?
The answer is, beyond frustrations and occasional angry feelings, there is mutual respect between us. We are both committed to our own individual growth and learning -these qualities have been tantamount to the success and longevity of our friendship. We strive to stay on the same trajectory of emotional and spiritual understanding - we obsessively send each other books and articles, learn whole concepts together and gain skills to think, feel and behave beyond our past behavioural habits. Nowadays when one of us falters into habitual reactions, the other is quick to call it out and most importantly, neither of us feels offended or criticized by this, just grateful to be seen, accepted and redirected. And that my friends, that is where the gold of love, friendship and endurance lays.
These two Brene Brown quotes in her amazing book Daring Greatly speak the most to me: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.” Speaking our truth or receiving truth can sometimes be so uncomfortable that we just avoid it, but in that we cheat ourselves and others because we end up stunting growth by not facing issues and challenges head on. Worse, when we avoid dealing with things by keeping quiet yet simmering, then exploding when the conflict inevitably happens, we cannot have resolution without drama and strife. Yet perplexingly, the problem was our lack of courage to be vulnerable with each other and welcoming of and productive in conflict, not the underlying issues, which were always solvable by compassion and compromise, or as Brene Brown says : “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive”.
Unless we can pack our knee jerk ego reactions to uncomfortable feelings aside, we won’t allow productive feedback and that means not taking on whole truths and changing – this is how we stay stuck in one place, repeating mistakes and expecting friendship or love to be all about validation and happiness. Bette Davis famously said: “ If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you”, and in fact, what I’ve come to realise is that the most important and healing relationships in my life are with people who aren’t in my life just to make me feel good but ones that accept me as a fallible person that I am, yet push me to be a better version by lovingly calling me out on my bullshit. Sure, not being challenged may feel safe and comfortable, but oh boy, does it eventually start sucking staying an emotional teenager when you get to middle age and are still experiencing the same old problems and hitting the same walls. I really hope my friends love me enough to never allow me to stew in my complacency and inability to grow.
And listen, I am not saying that longevity of a friendship is equal to a good friendship because it is not. A measure of a good friend isn’t someone you’ve known for longest, but how healthy your friendship is in enticing growth. It’s the people that have taken the time to understand you and stuck around even after you showed them your imperfections – it’s the ones that have the balls to apologise when they’re wrong and mean it, bring up issues and yet respectfully observe your boundaries.
Sometimes developing boundaries feels like criticism and rejection to people that were used to you having none. Yet, the only power we actually have in choosing our own wellbeing and happiness lays in how healthily we enforce our boundaries, not on changing other people’s behaviours. Believing in someone’s future potential while settling for immaturity in the present is a sure fire way to have your boundaries repeatedly broken, leading to anger and unhappiness.
Anyone that avoids or is unhealthy and unproductive in arguments is toxic only because they are emotionally immature and unable to see the point of conflict which is always resolution. If one is not seeking resolution, then one is seeking destruction - there is no other role to play. And destruction in the form of cutting off ties should only be chosen for ones that have repeatedly crossed our boundaries, refused to take personal responsibility for unhealthy behaviours, declined learning better ways of communicating and showed us that they’re untrustworthy with and dismissive of our feelings and needs.
There is a huge difference between having healthy boundaries and building a wall to hide behind and stay stuck, so it's very important to acknowledge the distinction. Walls are raised by ego , boundaries are raised by self love. How can we understand which is which ? Walls are built when we are unwilling to look at or work at our faults - when kindly challenged to examine our behaviour, instead of reacting with vulnerability and willingness, we choose to feel offended, angry, reactive, judged and criticised. In fact, these reactive emotions are just the ego's protective way of avoiding the feelings of shame and guilt - emotions too painful to examine because the process was never learnt in childhood. Yet, shame and guilt are normal human emotions that guide us into depths of introspection and lead to realisations and personal accountability - they are just a flag marking a wound that needs to be healed. Unless we are able to go beyond shame and guilt to the actual issues, acknowledging the emotions as simply markers to dig deeper, we won't look at our wounds at all, we will instead blame others for making us "feel bad". Walls are a way to avoid looking at ourselves through stubbornness, unwillingness and wilful ignorance. Raising boundaries on the other hand is about preserving standards and principles of healthy behaviour so that one can maintain nourishing relationships - a boundary is a need for codes of ethics to be observed so that one can feel safe. A wall is a way of blocking out people and change - a belief that one shouldn't be made to feel uncomfortable by people that love them, it's denial and deflection, a refusal to come to the table and work on issues. Walls are unhealthy ego being allowed to take free reign unchallenged. A boundary is self love because it asks for resolution and is willing to work on a problem if rules of conduct are observed. A healthy person will criticise unhealthy behaviours and actions, which are the actual problems , honing into productive solutions and compromise in resolution , an unhealthy one will criticise the character and personality of a person, refuse to be productive or flexible in conflict, and thus the only focus becomes destruction of intimacy.
Avoiding conflict means avoiding resolution and in that avoiding true intimacy because we are sidestepping having to deal with facing ourselves through the reflection of another , thus dodging being truly seen or giving them a chance to be. Sadly, being truly seen can be too scary to the old programs that run our character because it has potential to take us into uncharted territory of being truly happy and accepted. Intimacy is the biggest trigger for some of us, so we push it away with drama. What we call “toxic” is just fearful people that haven’t integrated their wounds, unaware and unable to drill into their own emotions for clues to unhealthy reactions and thus unable to drive productive resolutions.
These days , if there is an issue, I ask my important relationships for honesty and direct lines of communication. I ask them to tell me how they feel in the moment they feel it, to not hold it in and let it fester like a cancer, sapping away the green from the vines of our friendship , but tell me kindly and directly , the brutal truth. I want to be given the privilege to hear all the words, have the questions, discuss the issue and learn something new about us all in the moment it’s relevant. I want to be triggered on my pride,anger, impatience, shame and other unsavoury emotions and deal with it transparently. Nothing but the truth can truly achieve that objective for when we are not being honest with others in our lives, we are not being honest with ourselves. If we are here to learn lessons, how are we all to learn what is sent to us to learn if the messengers don’t deliver the needed realisations? Avoidance is just a creative form of lying. I want my friends to give me a chance to struggle with my ego, to see my thoughts so that I can understand how they are unhealthy and how I can change, because even though truth is sometimes not the whole truth, for it is subjective, there always is a grain that needs to be heard, examined and grown from, added to a greater whole from another perspective. There is always a way to stay open and hear another, acknowledge them and understand. Truly, if you love a person, you will find a way to lower your ego and learn tools in how to communicate effectively.
Productive conflict is a blessing for any intimate relationship because it allows us to step closer and lean into love and vulnerability, deepening our connection. Eckhart Tolle said it best : “ If I accept the fact that my relationships are here to make me conscious instead of happy, then my relationships become a wonderful tool that keeps realigning me with my higher purpose for living”. Even though I know that Alice and I will continue to trigger each other for the rest of our lives, I am glad to have her friendship be a conscious mirror illuminating my shadow so I can see it and transform it. There were times when my hurt ego would've found it easy to judge and discard her , but loving someone means learning empathy and compassion, having faith in them as ever changing people, understanding that relationships go through ups and downs, our perceptions change constantly, love and excitement ebb and flow and that it is natural for us all to be disgustingly humanly fallible sometimes.
Trust me; people that truly love you will know that love is a verb, not a feeling- it means actively choosing willingness to lean in instead of out, accepting invitations to understand more and become better people together. By gaining more knowledge in how to resolve conflict in healthy ways, my bestie and I give each other a chance to heal our attachment patterns. When we choose to be courageous with our vulnerabilities, funnily, conflict is no longer scary or emotional anymore.
Check out Alice's beautiful photography here!
With thanks to The Cove