Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Major Green Flag

I wanted to talk about a particular green flag I've noticed in some of my closest friendships, a quality that tells me I should proceed forward with someone. I don't know the word for this quality, so I'm going to describe it.

We all have different needs, different things that matter to us, and different things that are okay and not okay for us. Sometimes you learn that something you never think twice about is a major problem for other people. Sometimes you teach someone that something they never think twice about is a major problem for you. Most of us have a cognitive bias where, when we receive new information that is inconsistent with what we already know, we alter the new information to make sense with what is already in our minds. If you previously held the notion that, say, dodge ball is fun for everyone, but you meet someone who tells you that dodge ball is very stressful for them, you may be inclined to deny what they say because you are attached to the belief that dodge ball is fun, and if you truly accept what they've said, you may need to change your behavior and ask people before assuming they want to play dodge ball with you. You may invalidate the person and say, "How can anyone not like dodge ball?" or you may be polite but secretly think they're weird and that what they've said is not worth making room for in your mind. OR you can believe them, and make a conscious effort to rethink what you thought you already knew, to change what's in your brain to make room for this new information that not everyone likes dodge ball. And by doing this, you're going beyond just validating this one person's feelings - you are going to be much more understanding of other people who don't like dodge ball. The more you let new information like this enter your mind, the easier it is to accept other things that you didn't realize before. Once you start accepting other people's experiences, you won't be as weirded out when someone tells you about an experience that's very different from yours.

This quality of accepting and valuing a person's experience to the point that it changes the way you think and act even when that person is not around is a huge green flag for me. A close friend told me that reading my college story helped her to understand something she might have done wrong with another person in the past. I've always wanted to have that effect on people - to have them read my college story, or other things I've written, and actually become more aware of the issues I've raised and change their behavior because of it. And when I thought about it, the impact I had on my friend went beyond this one incident that she mentioned. I had known this friend for a long time before we became really close. We used to only see each other at group events, but we'd always hang out together and talk a lot. And ever since we both opened up about our secrets and I told her my college story, I noticed that she often clarifies that she doesn't want to push people to do things. If, for instance, she is talking about how a particular thing is very important to her, she will especially clarify that she is only talking about herself and that it's okay if it's not what everyone wants to do. I've always appreciated this so much, but I had never stopped to realize that it pretty much started after she read my college story. Reading that story wasn't just a one-time thing. It wasn't just one instance of giving lots of hugs and cuddles and saying, "I'm sorry that happened to you." We refer to Colby all the time as an example of how not to be, we have inside jokes and quotes about it, and we never refer to Colby casually without at least cracking a joke about the horribleness of it all. My story left a permanent impact that will be a part of us forever. And her stories have had a permanent impact on me as well. I understand a lot more about what I did wrong in high school, how wrong it was for me to push everyone to be happy all the time and act like happiness was a choice, and I don't want to ever do that again.

My friend Eli taught me a lot about neurodiversity and how to be more consent conscious. I've stopped using the concept of "empathy" interchangeably with kindness or not being a jerk, and I've stopped thinking that a lot of things are universal. When I asked Eli if ze had learned anything from me, Eli said that ze learned a lot from me about social pressure. Eli does not experience social pressures zemself, so my experiences are a big part of their morality surrounding pressure.

The ultimate green flag for me is when we can learn from each other's experiences. When we go beyond saying what will make someone feel better in a given moment, but we actually learn about the issue they're describing. We change our own ideas to make room for this new information. This goes beyond just how we treat our friend - we change our behavior towards everyone so that whatever problem our friend has been through, we won't cause for someone else. This is one of the biggest ways that I know I can trust someone. It's what I'm going to look for in all of my relationships going forward.

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