One of the selling points told to me upon considering attending Mount Holyoke College was that I would be immersed in a siblinghood hundreds of years in the making. A camaraderie that possessed many generations of students who cultivated friendships at the college and created memories that they would cherish for a lifetime. After being on campus for nearly four years, I realized what the Moho culture of being a friend actually entailed.
To be a Mount Holyoke student, you are obliged to be the perfect scholar, friend, and social justice advocate. There is an expectation that somehow you have to simultaneously get all A’s in your classes, immediately drop anything you’re doing if a friend is in need, and effortlessly participate in at least three different organizations you’re passionate about. To say that this impossible balancing act takes a toll on one’s emotions, well-being, and psyche would be an understatement. Serving as the extra icing on the cake, our campus acts as a consistently pressurized and self-perpetuating pocket of stress. Always trying to one up one another on who slept less and did more, we make ourselves martyrs for the academic disciplines we are interested in, the people we surround ourselves with, and the passions we possess fervor for. As a result, people often serve as each other’s support systems, even if it comes at the expense of their own wellbeing.
For many of us, we come to this college to shed the societal constructs we were inscribed with from our various backgrounds. However, the reality for students who identify as women on campus is that we unconsciously perpetuate and live out the societal expectations we were taught to embody. It’s the stereotype that, as women, we must constantly be attentive to other people’s emotions, understanding of everyone’s circumstances, and accommodating of everyone’s needs. Though our well-being is important, society still believes that we should ensure that the people around us are cared for and nurtured by our “socially believed” maternal tendencies.
Let me quickly iterate though that there are positive elements of the experiences I listed above. Mount Holyoke College has undoubtedly made me into a better student, person, and friend. The things I have learned in my dorm rooms, classrooms, and organizational meeting rooms have helped shape the person that I am today and would like to be in the future. Striving to be the best version of yourself, and helping others around you do the same, is an honorable and worthwhile pursuit. However, I would be remiss to not also acknowledge the emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical toll that the pressures to be good, perfect, or the best at something can have on a person, especially in terms of one’s interactions with friends. So as you explore how you should conduct friendships with people at the college, it might be helpful to look back upon your own previous experiences. For me, reflections on friendship show a transformative journey of changing expectations and needs.
I learned my first lesson about friendship as a toddler. I specifically recall my best friend in kindergarten, Layla, getting in trouble one day for eating the glue during arts and crafts day. My response was to poke someone next to me with a pair of scissors so I would end up in the timeout corner with her.
At the ripe age of 6, being a good friend meant getting in trouble so your friend wouldn’t have to be in the timeout corner alone.
Nearly five years later, I tried out for the soccer team. Despite the fact that the soccer team was mostly filled with middle schoolers, I was convinced that I would be the fifth grader that made the team. Though the tryout was brutal (apparently soccer practice required a daily one mile run), I came out of it thinking that I had done a decent job and that I could at least be a second or third string striker. To my disappointment, the soccer coach told me that although I was talented, I wasn’t tall or muscular enough and should try again next year. Even worse, I found out that there were a couple of other boys in my grade that, despite their similarity in stature and age, did make the team. Perceiving my heartbreak, one of my friends told me that he and a couple of the guys in my grade were playing soccer during recess and suggested that I join them.
At age 10, being a good friend meant offering to play soccer with your friend who didn’t make the team.
Things started to get a bit more serious in high school. One of my friend’s parents suddenly and tragically passed the day after Christmas during my senior year. In one moment, we went from playing Dance Dance Revolution to crying in her living room. Without any personal experience with tragedy like this, all I could do was shove food into her mouth, find stupid television shows to watch with her, and sit closely to provide her with anything she needed. It was one of the most challenging and necessary things I had done as a friend in my life thus far. To this day, I think about the things I could have done better: I could have treated her to a Starbucks coffee to keep her awake for her multiple jobs, which she did in addition to completing her schoolwork, just to make some extra income. I could have allocated more time to just do fun girl things rather than focus on our homework, our potential colleges, and our undetermined futures. Instead, I made the best Bath and Body Works care package I could afford and tried to carve out whatever time I had to just hang out with her.
At age 18, being a good friend meant giving cheap fruity lotions and decent company to a person you love as they tried to reinvent themselves after catastrophe.
I was prepared to learn a lot of lessons in college. However, the subject that I was convinced I was already an expert in was friendship. I thought I knew all it took to be a good friend to other people. Besides drinking wine together all night and binge watching movies on Netflix, there was nothing about friendship that I hadn’t already experienced and understood.
Or so I thought.
Almost immediately, I was exposed to a variety of individuals that possessed mental illnesses, different sexual/gender embodiments, various cultural considerations, and life situations that I had never learned about or been taught how to deal with. Partially a reflection of my socialization, personal background, and educational exposure, I stumbled through correctly identifying people’s pronouns, understanding exactly what to do when someone had a panic attack, finding a way to assertively – but not forcefully – get a friend to complete her meal, and carefully maintaining the balance between how to be there for someone else, while also taking care of myself.
Spoiler alert: The last one was the hardest lesson to learn.
I think about this reality every time I board a plane. As the flight attendant announces the instructions over the intercom (the ones you ignore while sending that one last text on your phone before they make you turn it off), there is one thing that they always say: “Put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you.” This quote has been used as a mantra for a person trying to create and maintain practices of self-care. Its meaning is basically that the only way you can be helpful as an individual or a friend is if you are first a friend to yourself. Almost every individual you ask will confirm the validity of this statement but when push comes to shove, it often falls to the wayside. When a person is mentally exhausted from their job or severely sleep deprived after completing their research paper, sometimes all a person needs is for their friend to be there. And that is nothing to be ashamed of and in fact an important part of a healthy friendship.
But there is a limit. There is a point in a friendship at which it is clear that a person cannot be there for you in the same way you are there for them or that they require a lot more insight and help than you can provide them. Though it is nice to believe that all our friends are amazing and often the ones who know us best, they’re not indestructible or invincible. Therefore, when that point comes, you need to make a decision about how you will proceed, whether it means continuing to be in that friendship and weathering the storm or deciding that you cannot be in that friendship and should exit it because you believe it has become negative or toxic. Either option is completely valid and understandable.
Therefore, for me at 21, being a friend to someone else meant first being a friend to myself.
But what does this entail? How can you be a good friend to the people you surround yourself with while also maintaining your sanity? How do you prioritize your friendships when you have passions, workloads, and personal situations that always get in the way? I by no means claim to have all (or really any) of the answers but there are three suggestions I can provide based off of my personal experience that might save you many grey hairs, long nights, and unnecessary fights.
1. You are not someone’s parent, doctor, or psychiatrist -- just their friend.
If you take anything from this essay, it should be this. In dire situations, we are often put into situations that we need to make quick decisions, regardless of whether or not they are the correct ones. You should not immediately speculate when your friend is in a time of need, “Am I the most qualified person to help you with this?” However, when your friend is going through something that is about more than just a bad day or low grade, you have to evaluate your knowledge and preparedness in assisting them with that issue in the long term. If you have little to no knowledge, let your friend know and ask them what they need. If you have more insight, explain to them that you understand and make sure that they know they’re not alone. In both situations, though, you need to acknowledge where your limitations might be.
When there are more bad days than there are good ones or more hospital runs than trips to the mall, a caretaker, psychologist or doctor might need to be entered into the equation. I don’t even presume to know what would be specifically helpful for each situation as there are a variety of options for even more diverse conditions and circumstances. But there is one option I would advise against, which is the “I can handle all of his or her problems alone” route. Because there are years of training, study, and understanding that go behind these disciplines (after all, that is why people go to school for a long time and make a career out of it), it is highly possible that, in your effort to be a good friend, you could either do what your friend asks and hurt their progress (by doing things like enabling detrimental behavior) or do what you think is right and ruin the friendship either way. Your support is crucial for your friend to get better or improve their state of being. However, you need to ensure that you are providing them the support you are capable and qualified to give — not what a caretaker, parent, or doctor should provide.
2. It’s okay if what you want changes. You just have to be aware of those changes and articulate them.
Hopefully I was able to illustrate through my own personal examples that your expectations of what it means to be good friend can radically change throughout your life. You should not feel as though you are stuck in this permanent contractual agreement and are unable to change what you need from the people you surround yourself with. What you need as a first year in college can and will likely be significantly different than what you need as a sophomore, junior, and senior. This could mean that you want to do less partying and more intellectually stimulating activities (or vice versa) or have an urgency to do things that are more aligned with your interests (interests both that you have always had and recently developed). The good news is that Mount Holyoke students often have different and multifaceted interests, which allow them to have many passions and goals. So if you change, it is possible that your friends can still accommodate for your needs. But in the case that they aren’t supportive (either because they don’t agree or believe that your changes infringe upon your ability to be a friend), you need to decide for yourself whether or not those changes are making you a better or worse person and friend. If you decide that it makes you better, and the people around you do not support that decision, then you should find people to be with who support your endeavors. If those people are truly your friends, they will understand that need to learn and expand and support you. If they prove not to be there for you, you have to be comfortable and confident about moving forward, even if it means leaving some old friends behind.
3. Be prepared for the best and worst case scenarios
In the event that none of these tips or pieces of advice actually helps you avoid catastrophe with an individual friend or group of friends, you really shouldn’t have any expectations of how it unfolds. In any given situation, both the best and worst case scenario are entirely possible. It could be a positive learning experience in which you or your friend clearly and charitably explain what has been going wrong, exchange whether or not they or you agree with these evaluations, and all persons involved agree about how things can be changed and refined in the future. In this scenario, things actually do get better and the friendship improves as a result. After something like that occurs, you can think of yourself as one of the main characters in High School Musical and dance the worries and tension away with song.
In the cases when this doesn’t happen, you might instead feel like you’re in a horrible Heathers or Mean Girls plotline. The people you thought were your friends talk behind your back, treat you terribly, gang up on you, or take no accountability for their actions. On the other side, you might be sick and tired of a friend’s terrible behavior and just can’t deal with it anymore. Considering I have been on both sides of the table, I can tell you that anger, frustration, and disappointment is often highest with people you thought you could trust and depend on the most. At that point, you need to evaluate if open communication was used and trustworthiness was present or can be recovered. If you believe you did everything you could to articulate your concerns to someone and they still didn’t change, the rest might be out of your hands. On the other hand, if you or your friends slip into the mean girl role and attack and exclude simply because, a massive reality check might need to take place. Communication and trustworthiness can only occur if people are earnestly interested in promoting and upholding it.
The tone of this piece is not supposed to be totalizing. Rather it is meant to positively and pragmatically assist you in evaluating your current friendships and differentiating between the ones that make you the best version of yourself and the ones that only leave you with additional pain and stress. Friendship isn’t always supposed to be easy and wonderful. Especially at Mount Holyoke, it requires long hours, due diligence and constant evaluation. But in our effort to be ‘good’ or the ‘best’, we must remember to give ourselves the opportunity to grow, trust our instincts, and be comfortable with the decisions we make about ourselves and other people. Sometimes, you will make mistakes. Sometimes, you might be a bad friend. But if you are constantly open about what you need and who you are, you are more likely to have people around you who share your same values and expectations. Then you’ll see what it’s like to have those good friendships. Because true friendship never leaves you second-guessing about someone’s intentions or wondering if they actually give a shit. More often than not, you can tell the difference between the ride-or-dies and the "I'll be friends with you when it's convenient to me" friends. To be fair, that does not mean that you will not have fights, disagreements, and bad days. It does mean, however, that when you look back on your time here, you won’t look back and question the quality of the friendships you possessed and the meaningfulness of the memories you had. Rather, you will confidently be able to say that, in addition to heading a gazillion organizations and getting straight A’s (a girl can wish, right?), I was a good friend to myself, to the people I loved and damn, they were some good friends to me too.