Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Marshes of Middlefriend

A couple of weeks ago, I danced the aisles of Target, singing the praises of chocolate Easter bunnies. There were two main reasons for this moment of public insanity: 1) I am insane and 2) I was in public.

Like most people, I have the glorious freedom to be myself--goofy, sarcastic, insane--with my close friends and family (Note: my best friend, Beth, was dancing through Target with me). What I didn't realize until recently is that I often have the same confidence to be myself among strangers. There is a good reason for this. What did I care what all those Target shoppers thought of me? I would never see them again. They had the same attitude toward me, I assure you. As I have matured as a person, any general acquaintance will inspire confidence in me as well. I usually have little trouble being myself with people I know, but only just barely.

It's when a relationship steps past jovial acquaintance that I freeze inside. When we are not strangers or acquaintances, but are still not close friends. That is what I call middlefriend--the uncharted, untamed, often impassable marshes of middlefriend. They are thick with expectations, muddied with embarrassment, and teeming with self-consciousness. You have moved past the season of not caring what another person thinks about you. Suddenly, what they think matters. You begin to adjust to their signals. You learn which jokes they laugh hardest over and which just go too far. You want to become comfortable with them, but the two of you haven't spent enough time getting to know each other. You will often misconstrue signals simply because you haven't a clue how the other person ticks. The goal of middlefriend is to move past the world of indifferent acquaintance and into good friend to know another person well enough that trust is mutual and shared life a priority on all sides. Middlefriend is that place where you want to trust somebody else with yourself, but you worry they will judge you or just plain flee if you do. You want the other person to want to be around you, so you hide who you really are so they will.

Most acquaintances that reach middlefriend never make it through the thick marshes of doubt, insecurity, and mistrust. There are many causes for this. First, many people simply don't notice that they have entered the marshes at all. They care neither one way nor another, as they are entirely to busy to form any more close friendships thank you very much (or any close friendships at all for that matter). Still others gauge whether the other person is worth their effort and pull away or press on accordingly. The possibility of being on the receiving end of this transaction is what makes middlefriend so nerve wracking. A third group includes those who have a whole crowd of middlefriends in tow--people they genuinely admire and share life with, but they never try to go any further on the trust scale. They wear a permanent facade.

I fall into yet another category. I hate the tension involved in being in middlefriend so much that I like to push through the marshes as quickly as possible. I risk everything, lay my whole self out on the line. I dare the other person to like me. This often results in my freaking people out. The most frustrating feeling within middlefriend is when you trudge firmly onward toward authenticity, but the other person holds fiercely to their facade. I usually overcompensate, and, again with the freaking out thing. (Note: This is not always the case. The TriMu became my best friends almost immediately.).

Middlefriend is an uncomfortable, sticky mess. I have noticed of late that when I am in middlefriend with a number of people at the same time (e.g., new church, new job, new class), I can hit humiliation overload. I can be having a great day, then say or do something stupid and end up trying to crawl under my chair to escape my shame. When you have a big group of middlefriends who are all lost in the marshes, you end up repeating the process over and over and over. I love to mingle with strangers, I hate to mingle with middlefriends.

Within the mess of my last hike through permanent multiple middlefriendship, I discovered something. In all my maddening attempts to force my reluctant middlefriends into good friends, I neglected the good friends I already have. I lost sight of how much they mean to me while I strove to attain shiny new friends. The best way to navigate the marshes of middlefriend is to 1) let people stay in the marshes if they want to and 2) remember and appreciate the real friends who already trudged through the marshes with you. It will make the mess a lot less sticky.

Because I know that if you actually read this whole blog post, you are my real friend, I just want you to know, I love you guys!


emillikan said...

I'm not sure that last line applies to me, but also, you haven't scared me off yet. :)

Resonant, this blog - I totally relate to trying to scare people off at the middle stages, or similar sentiments. I say more stupid things to something-beyond-acquaintances... For me I feel like it's more "I dare you to keep liking me even though..." there's a hint of despair in it, if I'm lonely, too.

Suddenly my head is singing: "make new friends / but keep the old / one is silver but the other gold..." :) (pretty sure that's my mother's voice i'm hearing.)

haricot vert said...

Emillikan, I agree with you on the "dare you to keep liking me even though..."
I find myself doing that when I have people that I care about a lot, almost perversely, figuring that I can push them away by revealing myself, before they find out on their own and leave me.

Christy, part of your post could have been written by me. Kind of freaky, and at the same time, strangely reassuring that I'm not the complete pod person that I desperately fear I am.