Full text of relationship expert Shasta Nelson’s talk: Frientimacy: The 3 Requirements of All Healthy Friendships at TEDxLaSierraUniversity conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Our world is fractured by an epidemic of loneliness. And I’m not so worried about the stereotypical recluses and hermits that we kind of tend to picture when we, you know, think of that word.
I am more worried about the vast majority of us in this room who are lonely and don’t acknowledge it, who may not even recognize it in our lives.
You know, we often think, “I can’t be lonely. I know more people than I can keep in touch with.” And yet we report feeling largely unknown.
We know more people than any time in history, and yet we feel very much like we have nobody to confide in. Our social networks just keep growing and growing and growing, and yet so too do our doubts about whether we actually have a safety net and who would be in it should we need it.
Modern-day loneliness is not because we need to interact more; it’s because we need more intimacy.
Case in point, one of my moments of loneliness, I was actually hanging out with five of my closest friends, and we had met on a weekly basis, we had taken a few weeks off for the holiday vacation. And we were coming back together and decided to go around the circle and each give a little update on what life had looked like in the last month.
And so when it got to the fourth person, the one right before my turn, she said something that reminded somebody of something they had read, which reminded that person of something that their sister had said over the holiday, and you know where this is going — the train left the station, and I had not shared.
And I remember thinking, “Any minute now, one of them is going to say, ‘Oh wait, we should get back to the sharing so we can hear about Shasta’s holiday.'” Nope.
And then somebody looked at their watch, and said, “Oh, I didn’t realize the time. I need to go.”
I said, “Oh, they’re going to feel so bad when one of them realizes like ‘Wait, we haven’t heard from Shasta yet.'”
And they, one by one, hugged me, and we all said goodbye, and we left.
And I got in my car, and I was driving away from time with friends, and I have this little, I don’t know — you have this? I have a two-year-old bratty voice in my head. She’s got pigtails and she was like all huffy and puffy and was like, “I can’t believe it. Seriously, you’re the one that’s facilitating sharing time, and then they don’t even want to hear from you? You need better friends.”
I had friends. My loneliness wasn’t from lack of friendships; my loneliness was because I didn’t feel seen. And “frientimacy,” the closest relationship we have — “friendship intimacy” — is where two people both feel seen in a safe and satisfying way. I did not feel that, and I am not alone.
When I asked over 6,000 people in the last couple of years, “How fulfilling are your friendships on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most satisfying, how close do you feel with your friends?”
Think about that number for a second. On any of my surveys, anywhere between 50% to 70% of us score a five or below. We are not just leaning toward dissatisfaction with our closest of our relationships; we are two to four times more likely to put a one or a two than we are to say we’re fulfilled with a nine or ten.
This is a lot of relationship dissatisfaction. We are hungry for being close to each other.
And contrary to popular advice, when this loneliness happens, the answer is not “Go meet more people. Join a club. Make new friends.” The answer is actually learn how to develop better friendships.
The vast majority of us have never taken a class on how to build relationships. And so I went and I compiled — like when you would look at all the social scientists and what they’re studying when they look at what bonds any two people, who we confide in, what makes two people best friends, what makes for a healthy marriage, what builds trust.
Three common denominators emerge. And it’s like a formula: you have to have all three. You can’t just have two of them, so I want to unpack all three of these, and I use what I call a “Frientimacy Triangle” so we can see how they fit together.
At the beginning of all our relationships, the first requirement is the letter P, and that is POSITIVITY. Because how many of you woke up this morning and thought, “I wish I just had a few more cranky, whiny, manipulative people in my life that made me feel like I was never doing enough”?
When we want friendship, we want the reward, we want joy, we want to feel good. This comes from smiles and laughter and kindness and acts of service and empathy and validation, gratitude, affirmation — all those things that leave us feeling accepted.
And let’s be clear. This does not mean we have to be Pollyanna. We still get to cry on each other’s shoulders, and we still get to vent and complain.
But social science is telling us that every relationship, to stay healthy, has to have a ratio of five positive interactions for every negative interaction. So that means for every withdrawal you’re making, from your whining and complaining, you have to be making five deposits of joy and reward. Requirement for all healthy relationships.
The second requirement, the letter C, is CONSISTENCY. Because we’ve all met people we enjoy and are positive and have fun being around, but if we never saw them again, that wasn’t a friendship.
Consistency is the hours logged. It’s the history we build. It’s the time we spend together. This is where we make rituals and we create patterns. We increase our interactions. This is where we get to know each other.
This is actually — as we put consistent time in together, this is actually how we build consistent — we start knowing what consistent behavior looks like. This is where trust happens, this one.
When we say, “I want to trust somebody,” we don’t ever want to feel we’re walking on eggshells, meaning we don’t know how to predict how you’re going to respond. We feel safe when we can predict, and we can predict by we have created a pattern, and we spend more time with each other.
This is actually the one that made friendship feel automatic when we were kids because school was consistent. And this is the one we still end up building relationships at work, at school, at church and associations because our consistency is automatic.
You wouldn’t pick those people to be your friends if you had a lineup of 20 other options. You’re friends with them because you have consistency with them, and you end up building these other two components in.
A lot of us have relationships that we enjoy — the positivity — and that we do things on a regular basis, but without the third requirement, it’s not a healthy friendship.
And the third requirement is VULNERABILITY. Vulnerability is where we share, where we reveal, where we let people in and let more of us be seen.
I teach five different types of vulnerability in my book, but suffice it to say, it’s not just sharing the skeletons in your closet, the insecurities and the shame. It’s also talking about what’s going well and your successes and risk bragging to your friends.
It’s also sharing our history, our dreams. It’s being able to articulate what we’re feeling and ask for what we need from somebody else. That is tremendous vulnerability.
Because at the end of the day, for us, we want to feel loved, and we only feel loved if we feel known, and we can only feel known if we actually share ourselves.
Do these three make sense? These are the basis of every single relationship. You’ve never built a healthy relationship without these three things.
And I could unpack this triangle for days, literally, but we’re on a deadline. So the part that’s germane to our conversation today is how we can know so many people and yet still feel so lonely, and that is because every relationship starts on the bottom, on our foundation of positivity.
No matter how much you think you like somebody or how much you want to be best friends with them, they all start on the bottom of the triangle. And then our relationships develop as we incrementally increase our consistency and our vulnerability.
In other words, the more time we spend, the more we get to know somebody. And so, therefore, some of our relationships will move all the way to the top of the triangle, but they go up bit by bit, so you can see how the vast majority of our relationships will be all up and down this triangle.
For the ones at the top, that is the one that I have found that when we describe being lonely, it is for lack of having built this top of our triangle.
When we are lonely, it is not because we need to add more people to the triangle. While some of us may be in that situation, the most of us, when we’re lonely, it is not for needing to add more people, it’s for actually needing to move some people up.
Because, remember, friendship is not something we discover, so I can’t say, “Oh, I have an opening at the top of my triangle. Let me put on a little job-hiring sign and audition you, and, ‘Oh, you have two kids, I only have three … ‘” And we play all these games like “Oh, do a little tap dance,”
“Oh, she was funny. I like her. Yeah, we’re going to be best friends.”
We don’t get to like put people in there based on whether we like them. This triangle is not about how much we like somebody; this triangle is about how much we practice the three requirements of friendship with somebody. And the only way we get somebody to the top of this triangle is by developing those relationships by practicing these three things.
So by the time somebody is at the top of the triangle, we have been vulnerable, we have shown ourselves, we have shared our feelings and shared our stories. We have done consistency, we have built history, and hopefully, we’ve even survived some life changes together so that we continue to find new ways of being together.
And we have increased our positivity so that we know how to love each other in meaningful ways for each other. That’s the top of the triangle, and that’s our goal.
Because when we can do that, when we have high vulnerability, then we feel seen. When we have high consistency, we feel safe, and when we have high positivity, it feels satisfying. And that’s what we all want, and this is what we’re craving, and this is what our bodies are literally dying without.
Our physical and mental health is so dependent on our connections. Dr. Ornish says, “I am not aware of any other factor in medicine than intimacy and love, not diet” — doesn’t matter if you had a green smoothie this morning — “not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery — that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death,” from how many causes? All.
In fact, if we feel lonely, it is as damaging to our bodies as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, it is the equivalent of being a lifelong alcoholic and more harmful than not exercising and twice as harmful as obesity. Let that just sink in for a moment.
How we answer the question “How loved and supported do you feel?” will tell us more about your health 10, 15, 20 years down the road than any other factor.
Our former U.S. Surgeon General just came out recently with a statement in the Harvard Business Review. He said, “Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety. During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes.” It was what? Loneliness.
And he is joining a resounding chorus of voices in medicine and psychology and the social services, all saying this is — they’re calling out this epidemic. Truly an epidemic. I’m not up here exaggerating. I’ve been known to do that before. This is not an exaggeration.
In fact, some are declaring this to be the number one public health issue of our time. Because when you think about it, it’s bad enough to just think about millions of us being lonely because that only affects all these millions of individuals not being as happy and healthy and as having as long of lives and feeling a strong of immune systems as they possibly could, but that also means we have millions of people who aren’t as practiced at these three skills as we would want them to be for solving the problems of our world and dreaming up the solutions we desperately need.
I can go down a list, and that’s a whole other day. I can go down a list, though, of how every single subject, from addiction — the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connectedness — homelessness, acts of terrorism. Almost every single major problem has at its roots: lack of relationships.
And almost every dream we have and every idea we want to accomplish in the business world and the political world — I mean, let’s just look at politics and religion for one hot second.
Here’s two entities that both want to be known for bringing people together and creating unity. And they have broken their relationship with the vast majority of our public for lack of vulnerability and positivity. We now distrust them and have more fear and frustration.
Every organization cannot accomplish what it’s meant to be doing without knowing how to build the relationships that matter. We need to be a part of this.
The world needs us, desperately, to know how to be adding more positivity on a regular basis, for our leaders, for our customers, for our teams, for our students, for our children, for every single person so that each person feels seen and valued for who they are.
We want to just keep repeating this cycle. These are the things we’re being called to practice. These are muscles that can be developed. And I want to do this for the world.
And before I can show up in the world and be like, “We’re here to change the world with love and meaningful relationships,” I have to practice it in my own life.
So as I was driving home that day, and my two-year-old was just having her little pity party and being like, “Remember, you need better friends. You are too good for these people,” another little quiet but oh-so-wise voice was trying to get my attention too.
She eventually broke through my little sob story, and she said, “You know, Shasta, you could have handled that differently too.”
I was like, “Excuse me? Seriously? You’re putting that on me? That is so not my fault.”
And she goes, “We’re not talking about fault. We’re talking about connection. You could have just as easily said, ‘Hey, before we talk about X, I want to make sure I have a chance to tell you about Y.’
And you know your friends would have leaned in a bit, ‘Oh, yes.’ It’s one thing if they were like, ‘No, we’re purposefully not letting you talk. But they would have jumped in, leaned in, been present, and then you could be driving home, Shasta, feeling connected instead of licking your imaginary wounds.”
My friends made a mistake; that happens. That’s one act of positivity that didn’t feel all that great.
But at the end of the day, someone asking about my life is not one of the three requirements of relationship. What is one of the three requirements is both people feeling seen, and I had neglected to share.
At the end of the day, that’s an act of vulnerability to say, “I need to speak up for my needs.” But that’s a muscle I could have practiced building.
I can guarantee you that any relationship in your life that is not fulfilling, it is because at least one of these three requirements is lacking. You can look at any relationship in your life and identify, “Oh, yeah, that one. Well, we hardly ever see each other. It always feels good when we’ve got positivity, but we don’t have consistency.”
Oh yeah, you can kind of quickly start identifying exactly which one of these would make the biggest difference for moving your relationships, your vast network of so many people. It is not that you are lonely from lack of people; it’s you’re lonely for intimacy, for frientimacy.
And we have the power to move those relationships up. That loneliness is your body saying, “I want more connection,” and that is one of the most beautiful messages you could ever receive.
Why we would feel shame around that is just something I’m trying to change. We should be like, “Oh, wow. That’s — I want more in it. I want more meaningfulness.” That’s amazing.
And I hope today that you now know exactly what three things — POSITIVITY, CONSISTENCY and VULNERABILITY — that you can practice in order to move yourself to greater frientimacy for your sake and for the world.
Resources for Further Reading:
- Why You Feel Anxious Socializing (and What to Do about It): Fallon Goodman (Transcript)
- How To Find Joy When You Love An Alcoholic: Kim Moore (Transcript)
- Psychological Abuse – Caught In Harmful Relationships: Signe M. Hegestand (Transcript)
- Pet Loss Grief; The Pain Explained: Sarah Hoggan DVM (Transcript)
- Chemistry For Your Sex-Starved Marriage: Jessica Gold (Transcript)