Who are your people?” Karen asked. I thought it was a trick question at first. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect. It was my first Diversity Equity Inclusion (DEI) workshop and our facilitator, Karen Tronsgard-Scott, had started us off with this question to help us settle in. She was a few years older than me, with short dark hair, a beautiful smile and a laid-back L.L.Bean style which made sense given she was ZOOMing in from Vermont.
Her question sparked my Type A personality and I immediately started putting together my Oscar worthy list of people: my sister, my mom, my husband, (unsure about the order), a few close friends, and some women I had worked with in the past. ‘Was I leaving anyone out?’ I wondered, suddenly worried that maybe I didn’t have enough people.
Truth (that’s what I call going inside myself and fessing up. In other words, the thing(s) I seldom share with others).
The truth is that I often feel like I don’t have that many close friends, especially in my own zip code. Even though I’ve spent the past 15 years living in the same small town, I sometimes feel lonely and wonder, who my ‘real’ friends? The kind of friends that I can call anytime – day or night – the kind that I can be 100% honest with – without judgment, the kind that have my back, no matter what. The deeper truth, it makes me sad that after all these years, I don’t have a tight-knit, local group of women that I can be completely vulnerable with and one hundred percent authentically me.
Karen went first. To my surprise, instead of rattling off a list of people’s names, she artfully described a type of people instead: people with specific preferences, ideals, passions, pursuits, weaknesses and fears. Listening to her completely unscripted, unguarded honesty, I felt flooded with emotion. Her words were like a calling, an inward pilgrimage and my mind began swirling with words, adjectives, thoughts, and images of who MY people were.
It was my turn to speak.
“My people are curious,” I started, feeling my voice crack, my eyes already brimming with tears. “They are lifelong learners.” I took another deep breath in, and the rest went something like this…
- My people are active. They’re hikers, bikers, walkers, skiers. My people like to move.
- My people are REAL. They’re not full of fluff. They’re willing to share and be vulnerable. They’ll ‘go there.’
- My people are criers.
- My people are adventurers, explorers, wanderers and seekers.
- My people can find calm in a storm.
- They’ve lived lives before.
- My people are dreamers. They like to laugh and play.
- They also know how to work hard and get dirty. They enjoy life.
- My people are filled with tremendous joy as well as DEEP sorrow.
- My people definitely like WINE.
- My people are multi-passionate and wear many hats.
- My people value being connected to something bigger.”
I had to pause halfway through. Something ripped open inside me and it was hard to hold back the tears. Saying the words out loud made me think about those I appreciated, loved and respected, most of them my oldest friends living in different states and abroad, the history that binds us, our unspoken language, and late-night laughter after too much time apart. Then I thought about those I had a more strained or complicated relationship with, whose expectations and personal beliefs no longer aligned with mine and how their focus was often on taking rather than giving.
I’ve given this question, “who are my people,” even more thought since the workshop, and I’ve shared the experience of feeling lonely with others. I’m becoming what I call a self-described ‘sharer’ because, as it turns out, the more I share, the more of my people I meet. (who knew!) And in sharing, I’ve, yet again, realized that I’m not alone. Many of us feel this way and question who your real friends are. In fact, I was just listening to a recent Kelly Corrigan podcast with Johann Hari, in which they discuss about a study in which 41% of Americans agreed with the statement that “nobody knows me well.” So yes, It’s apparently completely normal to feel like you don’t have enough, or even any, ‘close’ friends.
My friend and life coach, Paige Nolan, took the idea of relationships one step further in a series we hosted together called Being50ish, where we talked about the importance of being intentional about friendship, especially as we age. She reminded us how life can get more complicated as we settle into our 40’s and 50’s. You’ve got aging parents, bigger kids with bigger problems, and in many cases divorce, illness, even death. Having a select group of what she called ‘oak trees,’ close friends that are deeply rooted in your life, grounded and permanent, who provide support and strength when you need it, are invaluable.
She went on to explain that friendship comes in other forms, too. Some are more like ‘flowers’. They look and smell pretty, and you can absolutely enjoy them, but they’re often circumstantial and don’t necessarily last. Interestingly, when you start thinking about it, you kinda know exactly who the flowers are. And then you’ve got the ‘weeds,’ the ones that keep coming back no matter how hard you try to get rid of them. (Yup, now those friends have a name, too.) The net net is that there’s room for all kinds of friendship, but the key is to understand the differences between them.
The idea of exploring friendship through these different lenses, with an eye towards the past, but also towards the future, is powerful: Who am I? What energy and inspiration do I crave? What boundaries do I need to create? Also the notion that we have a choice resonates as we ask these essential questions. Deep down we know who our people are. The unmistakable spark we feel when we connect with them. We recognize what makes them authentic, interesting, likable and relatable. But the real question is do we actively seek these out and consciously connect with people that embody these traits and characteristics? More importantly, do we make the difficult decision to let go of those who don’t?
Since the workshop, I’ve taken a ‘gentle’ inventory of my friendships (it’s a process). I’ve made choices, reprioritized weekends, and been more intentional about who and how I spend my time, whether it’s a beach walk or a back porch dinner. And not surprisingly, this fine-tuning has made it easier to be more authentically me.
So go ahead, ask yourself “WHO ARE MY PEOPLE?” Write it down. Stare at it. Cross things out. Add more. Once you have your list, consider your oak trees. Maybe there’s a few ‘saplings’ taking root too? It’s cathartic, trust me. Particularly at the tail-end of a two-year pandemic where almost everyone has felt some degree of isolation and loneliness. Answering these questions is an opportunity to recalibrate, a new lens to view relationships through. Putting it into words, saying it out loud, acknowledging it, embracing it, is liberating, like a welcome home, bookended with an opportunity to let go. Let go of relationships that are no longer serving you so that you can better nurture those that do.
And the good news is, your people are waiting for you.
Thanks for taking a few minutes to read this post. These ‘truths’ are part of a much larger conversation about how we as women feel, but don’t openly share. By putting these thoughts + reflections out there, my hope is that others feel less alone and instead more supported + inspired. If this essay resonated with you, let’s keep the conversation going. Forward to others: friends, neighbors, sisters, colleagues. We all need to feel a bit more connected. And as always, don’t forget to subscribe to the blog (see footer below) so that I know where to send the next edition. best… julie
Julie Flakstad is a coach | advisor, speaker | writer and small group facilitator with a passion for helping support women + entrepreneurs through transitions and life stages. Follow her @jtflakstad and learn more at julieflakstad.com