Show me your friends and I will show you who you are.

The above quote, sometimes attributed to John Kuebler, speaks volumes about the state of friendship in our world today. A recent New York Times article by Kate Murphy wondered whether most of our friends actually like us at all. In this era of people having thousands of Facebook friends, and connections with complete strangers via Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram etc., exactly what constitutes a friend is becoming more difficult to define.

In my practice, I’ve noticed that there has been an increased need to clarify when my clients refer to their friends, exactly what they mean. Are these people they feel secure and comfortable with, able to just be and allow themselves the freedom to express their feelings and thoughts without self-censorship? Or are these people they feel they owe an obligation to care and share with? Perhaps these are people they don’t see nor speak to often but whose opinions and feelings count for a lot with my client? Then again, maybe these are virtual strangers whose anonymity somehow makes it easier for my clients to expose their deepest insecurities and fears without fear of the information being used against them within a friendship circle?

Under different circumstances and situations, all or none of the above descriptions might fittingly describe a friendship; the key appears to be how a person feels – and is made to feel – by the people they call their friends, and how they respond accordingly. In therapy and counselling, the exploration of friendship often leads to realizations that cut to the bone of one’s sense of self and identity.

The ability to relate authentically and truthfully with one another appears to be in short supply. Friends often use one another – sometimes egregiously, cruelly, other times carelessly, or even unwittingly – and at other times shower us with untold generosity, kindness and love. What is striking is that much as we might experience these consequences as victim or beneficiary of a friend’s behaviour, we ourselves are often playing the role of aggressor and benefactor in our friendships with others: how often do we use our friends, or bless them with our selves?

Maybe a useful response to the saying at the start of this post is: “Show me how you treat your friends and I will show you who you are.” I have found this an illuminating path to traverse with my clients in counselling, leading them ever closer to a profound understanding of themselves.