Why I’m putting EVERYONE in the friend zone

In early November (when the weather was still tolerable, heh), my dear friend, Ambr*ise, and I were walking in the Arnold Arboretum and the topic of friends came up. Prompted by his experiences with online dating, he shared with me some insights he’s had this year about how he spends his time with close friends and not-so-close friends. As he explained his insights, he also shared that he felt like his conclusions were really weird. But the things he shared were aligned with how I’ve been thinking (influenced by much reading and conversation) for what feels like a while now.

Over the course of our (physically and ideologically) wandering conversation, we touched on two main ideas that I want to walk through. First, the difference between energy giving and energy draining relationships. Second, what that means for social gatherings.

It’s all about energy flows

I could get overly complex about this and talk about energy in terms of food and sleep and introversion and extroversion and on and on… but in the end, I think the basic point would come down to this: spending time with people (on dates or otherwise) who you don’t have and aren’t planning to have deep relationships with is energy draining. This is as opposed to people you do have or are building deep relationships with being energizing and life-giving.

Although those statements trigger a negative reaction from some people, many folks after sitting with it, agree. In my mind, it can be as simple as this: When I’m tired or cranky or in some otherwise non-optimal state, there are some people who I still can be around and don’t mind being around. I don’t have to explain myself (because we know each other well) and our relationship is already pretty strong.

But when I’m tired or just not feeling particularly social, I usually don’t enjoy things like (a) hanging out with new people (who I have to explain my life to) or (b) hanging out with people I’m not that close with who it will take lots of energy for us to catch up with what we’ve each been doing since we saw each other last, where we’re from, etc etc.

Now, to be clear, I have no normative judgement on either of these categories and I certainly don’t mean to say that spending time with people you’re not super close with is bad. Or that you should spend as much time as possible with people you’re close with. It’s just to acknowledge that they are different and have different impacts on you.

As i’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed I want and need different things. Sometimes i verbalize this as becoming more or becoming more aware of my introvert self. Other times I think it’s just that I’ve found a balance that works for me instead of being subject to what society tells me I should be doing. (Social norm #1: the more friends the better. Social norm #2: every time someone says they want to hang out, you have to say yes and do it soon or else you’re a rude/mean person). As I get older, the clearer I am about the reality that if I’m out of balance, I really don’t feel good.

I learned this lesson in 2016, too, but the lesson is deepening and scaled up a level…

“Appreciate the invitation, and…”

Last year I learned that I really just can’t be good friends with everyone. That lesson was integrated into how I (and Ambr*ise) think about parties. He and I have different cutoffs for this for but there’s a ratio (for me is 1:1) of people at a gathering in order for me to treat it like a close friend (energizing) gathering. If it’s more than 1/2 people I don’t know (or folks I’m not intentionally trying to know more deeply), it gets counted as an energy drain.

And, real talk, sometimes I love (I might even say need) those types of gatherings. But they are occasional, not every weekend. This is a marked difference from my college days. These days, if a group of close friends is gathering, I’ll pretty much rearrange my schedule to make it (this can sometimes include crossing state boundaries). What I get from those times is literally life-sustaining.

But if I’m tired, there can be a party literally in my building and I won’t go (and feel totally great about it (lol)).


The implications?

As I get ready for my upcoming annual retreat, I’m beginning to list out things I want to do with my time and I think this means I need to spend some focused time on my friendships. I want to get really concrete about how to spend time with my current friends, how to develop new friendships, and how to let old friendships go. In my wandering with Ambr*ise, we both felt like maybe it was a little weird (counter-cultural?) to get as explicit as about this as making lists, but I also felt like this is exactly the sort of thing that we (as a society) need to get much better at. Because not being clear about it, at least to ourselves, makes us believe things that aren’t true. (Did you know that the average American only has one close friend?)

Planning out my friend ecosystem

I love biomimicry and living systems as inspiration for modeling human systems. I’ve done a lot of thinking about how ecosystems can be used to support communications systems (initially taught by Danielle Coates-Connor and now exploring my own approaches), but why not try to apply a similar approach to my understanding of my community?

One framework that Danielle helped me cut my teeth on is the zone system in permaculture. It essentially helps you think about where to place which resources in your landscape in order to optimize energy “whereby the things you use most often, and the things you have to pay the most attention to, are placed closest to the house in the design. Consequently, the things that are used the least often, or that require little or no attention, are placed furthest away in the design, and things that fall somewhere in between are placed accordingly.”

Caption: illustration of the zone system. A small home icon in the middle of 5 concentric circles, labeled from the inner circle outwards as zones 1 through 5.

Plants that need a lot of tending or plants that you harvest continuously should be on a pathway that you travel daily (Zone 1). For example, if you gather things from your garden daily, it would be wise to place it on or a near a path to the door you used to enter your house most often. Things that need weekly tending could be placed a little farther off the daily path, but still close (Zone 2)… and onward and outward.

So as I think about next year and my friends, I think I’m going to actually put my friends into a zone system. (Note to self: this could backfire stupendously.)

Zone 1: My woes (thanks, adrienne). They hold me, I hold them, and in each relationship, we are helping each other work to be more of the people we’re meant to be. We know how to do that work for each other because we’ve invested tons of time into our relationships, know each other well, and can see how to support each other as well (lovingly) check each other when needed. These are people that I structure my life and time around.

Zone 2: Good/close friends. These are folks I know and love but, for any number of reasons, aren’t people I can see frequently enough to be Zone 1. Maybe they were previously Zone 1, but have moved across an ocean. Or maybe our lives have diverged for sociopolitical reasons. Or maybe we just have schedules that don’t align anymore. Whatever, the reason, these are folks who are still dear to me, but I don’t structure my time around being with them. When I can, though, I definitely make time to see these people. One reason to be very particular about who these folks are is that they help connect me to other parts of my network and learn (more on that over here). Anyway…

Zone 3: Other friends. Folks I like and enjoy spending time with but am probably not going to rearrange my schedule to see. If we see run into each other and can reconnect for a bit, awesome. If not, so be it.

Zone 4/5: I think is basically everyone else. Among other things, I think this is where my weak ties live. I think Zone 4 is people I know of and Zone 5 is people I don’t know exist… and maybe also people I don’t care to know. One of my favorite lines from the first full episode of How to Survive the End of the World was adrienne saying “We wish you well in your own transformation… far away from us.” #tooreal

Anyway, that’s all my current thinking on this to date. I’m going to hold a specific block of time during my annual retreat to create this zone map of my friend community and we’ll see how it goes! Maybe it won’t work… who knows…🤷🏾


PS — For a second while I was writing this I thought maybe it would be interesting to make this zone map public. I actually think that’s a terrible idea (but maybe I’ll do it someday anyways).

PPS — thinking of this so explicitly also brings up another dimension of relationship in my life: learning. I grew up in a community that believed that people were doing the best when they were (a) being taught by some people, (b) learning together with other people, and (c) teaching people younger or less/differently experienced (although “teaching” is never unidirectional). Maybe I should to make time to add those people on to my map as well… maybe it looks like:

Caption: a pen drawing of the zone system with a layer above the home that says “teaching,” and a layer below the home that says “learning from.” The layer with the home in it says “learning with.”

PPPS— a few weeks ago i heard adrienne maree brown say she has some 100% honesty friends; that they’ve committed to being 100% honest with each other and that practicing that with these folks has helped her be more honest in other/all parts of her life. Maybe I’ll try that out next year, too… 😱

PPPPS—Thanks to Abraham Lateiner for pointing out the OBVIOUS opportunity to get a solid pun into the title and gifting me 20 different piece titles of which I have chosen one.