The following is adapted from Conquering the Boundaries of Friendship by Mark Roman.
I followed the Grateful Dead for two years. I’ve been to forty-five shows in total. In 2017, I got to introduce them to my best friend, Ben, when Dead & Company, the current incarnation of the Grateful Dead, came through for a series of shows at the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Ben and I got there early so we could be in the front — literally on the rail, four feet from the band. I told Ben that being there up close like that was just like the first time I’d seen the Dead all those years ago.
Ben has returned the gesture more than once with artists he finds interesting, most recently with Owl City. Admittedly, the electric pop of Owl City isn’t usually the kind of music I’m attracted to, but it was a fantastic concert, and I’m glad I went. More importantly, I’m glad to have a friend I can share experiences like this with. It’s fun to be able to introduce someone to a meaningful part of yourself and your life, in this case through music. To have a friend who is open to that kind of experience — and who is willing to share his own passions in return — is one of the things that makes a good, meaningful male friendship so great.
Whether it’s sharing a concert or sharing a challenge, a friend is someone who’s going to help you be the best man you can be. I can say this about every one of the men in my circle, whether they be social friends, professional friends, or family friends. The question is, how exactly is it that our male friends can bring out the best in us, and how can we work to ensure we’re doing the same for them?
Silencing Your Inner Critic
Our thoughts affect our lives in many ways. They affect our ability to find happiness, to live our lives, and to make friends. Sometimes, however, we’re not aware of our thoughts or the impact they have on both ourselves and others. At some point, these thoughts can create substantial boundaries in our lives, and we need good friends to point these out to us.
As we discussed in the previous chapter, men grow up with a lot of different expectations put on them — often having to do with taking responsibility for a given situation. When we don’t see the outcome we want, our inner critic jumps in and we begin to criticize ourselves. A little of this is healthy in the spirit of self-improvement. However, when we let this inner critic go wild and rule our lives, then we’ve got a problem.
I saw these inner critics pop up again and again during my interviews. One friend told me, “I’m such a screwup. I don’t see how you could like a guy like me.” Just like many of the other men I interviewed, he proceeded to list out all his perceived shortcomings and failures:
“I’m too old.”
“I’m too young.”
“I’m not educated enough.”
“I’ll never get that promotion, and here’s why.”
“He makes more money than I do.”
“I could never compete with him.”
Not all of us tell ourselves every one of these things, but often one or two self-criticisms have a way of creeping into our minds and taking hold.
Sometimes, the inner critic can make what is already a tragic situation even worse. A few years ago, a friend’s son committed suicide. Whenever my friend and I talked about this horrible event, his inner critic always came out: “I should have known something was wrong. Why didn’t I know?”
The world around us already judges us harshly enough. We don’t need to do that to ourselves too, especially to the point where negative thoughts begin to rule our lives. A good male friend can see when you’re in a spiral and help pull you out of it.
When I hear my friend criticize himself about his son’s suicide, I usually interject with something like, “You’re letting your inner critic get the best of you. You’re judging yourself too harshly. You couldn’t have known Robert was going to do that. He never gave you any signals. He was doing well in school. He had a longtime girlfriend. He was a great basketball player. He had everything going for him. How could you have known?”
I know that my response alone won’t ease the pain or silence my friend’s inner critic, but I do know that it helps. If nothing else, it shows that I love him and that I have his best interests in mind. Having a friend who can challenge you on your thinking and your self-doubt is a crucial role of a strong support system. Without this, we can fall victim to our own worst tendencies and spiral into inefficacy and depression.
Correcting Feelings of Entitlement
Sometimes, it’s not the negative thoughts that stand in the way of true happiness but rather a sense of entitlement or being cheated out of something we feel we deserve. Many of my interviews had this reoccurring theme: “I hope X happens.” “I wish Y wouldn’t happen.” And so on.
Good friends are there to remind us that wishing and hoping are neither effective strategies nor an effective way to communicate. You can wish all day long that your senator wasn’t in office anymore, but it’s not going to change anything. Taking action and getting involved in your local political scene might.
We’ve all had friends who don’t take action, and maybe we’ve even been that person ourselves from time to time. If I ever catch myself saying, “I wish that senator wasn’t reelected,” I hope I have a friend nearby who will say, “Well, he was, but you never had a plan for how you were going to prevent it from happening, so what did you expect?” It might be a harsh truth, but it’s better that I’m stung temporarily from a friend than stung long-term by the results of failing to take action.
No matter how good our intentions are, we’re going to be stuck if we don’t take action. Our friends can help by talking us down, helping us manage our expectations, or reminding us that hope alone never changes anything.
You can learn more about making meaningful male relationships in Conquering the Boundaries of Friendship on Amazon.
As an adopted child without brothers and sisters growing up in the 1960s Midwest Rust Belt, Mark Roman had to quickly learn how to nurture friendships with other kids. As an adult, Mark’s professional career took him all over the country and the world; through these experiences, he noticed not only a lack of support for men trying to form lasting male relationships, but a void in academic and advice writing on the subject as well. Mark and his wife Loretta split their time between homes in Ohio and Virginia.