Boulder, CO — Throughout our lives, we were flooded with images of what the so-called “perfect friend” looks like. However, this standard that people are given is often unachievable, and it can make those who have a hard time making friends feel like there is something wrong with them. In reality, there’s no such thing as the “perfect friend.”
Friendship coach Danielle Bayard Jackson teaches people how to navigate the messy, problematic parts of our platonic relationships. She started Friendship forward, an organization to help women build healthy and strong friendships, after she realized while running her own PR agency that many successful adult women struggle to make friends.
A former high school teacher, Jackson has a soft spot for college students, as she saw many of her students go off to university. She knows how hard it can be for young people to build friendships.
Jackson gave us some advice on how to have better friendships, especially for those who are in college and may not feel like they have the time to maintain healthy relationships.
This interview is edited for clarity and for length.
Emma Schulman: What makes a friendship healthy?
Danielle Bayard Jackson: [With] healthy friendships, you feel safe to communicate the things that you want. You feel safe to say what you need, what makes you uncomfortable — without fear of consequences or retaliation. You also feel like the best version of yourself and a healthy friendship. You feel energized after your interactions with this person and a healthy friendship, you are active.
So it's not just about what you are getting and how people show up for you. I know it's a popular phrase to say, “This friendship wasn't serving me.” And I understand that. But I also want to remind us that you have to be active. So that means your friend wants something, and you have to do the mental labor of listening and showing up.
ES: How does one deal with an unhealthy friendship?
DBJ: So the first thing is to take an aerial view of your friendship landscape. Do you notice any themes of dysfunction? Do you notice that you tend to go for the person who's unavailable or who belittles you?
The second is to think really long and hard about the kind of friend you want to be. Is there space for you to be that friend in this friendship? What are your values and do you act in alignment with your values?
The last thing I would say is to get really comfortable being vulnerable. And this I can't stress enough: Vulnerability is not the same thing as oversharing and dumping your big feelings. Vulnerability means there's a risk of rejection, but you've calculated the risk and you're going to go for it.
Vulnerability is good. In fact, research tells us that we tend to like people more after they've been vulnerable with us. It's called the Beautiful Mass Effect. [This] could look like you admitting something you're struggling with or that you're not good at, or if they see you accidentally spill something on yourself.
ES: How do you deal with jealousy at the college age?
DBJ: Jealousy and envy are normal. The difference becomes when you become so contaminated and consumed by your jealousy, you can no longer be a good friend. That would be a problem. But if you feel jealousy and envy stirring up, you need to go somewhere by yourself and ask yourself, “Okay, what is this about?”
Because for most people, you're scared that you will never be able to achieve what your friend has. So if my friend is having academic success, I fear that it's not possible for me. This has nothing to do with my friend. So some of us start to look at our friends with resentment and anger that has nothing to do with them. This has everything to do with your lack of security in a certain arena.
ES: What advice would you give to those who are struggling to find time to make friends?
DBJ: I know it could be a lot in school. You're juggling so many activities and studying and exams and classes…The trick is actually to layer the time that you already have. So if you're studying and you normally do that on your own, can you invite a friend to study with you? You guys take a break every 30 minutes to talk about something unrelated for five minutes, and then you jump back into studying.
ES: Describe what a season of friendship might look like for someone who is unsatisfied with their friends.
DBJ: I see too many people looking at their friendship situation saying, “I don't have any friends. And the few friends I do have, they don't even get me.” “People are just so untrustworthy, and no one understands who I am and what I'm going through.” That's very dangerous. So be very careful about projecting the state or condition of your friendship and creating general ideas around you and what you have to offer as a person.