“Humans fundamentally need connection,” says life, career, and wellness coach Izzy Lenihan, a faculty member at Kripalu. “It’s the neurobiological reason why we’re all here. We long for intimacy, closeness, comradeship, warmth, understanding, and acceptance.”

Nurturing friendships that provide that sense of connection requires being vulnerable and exposing our shame, guilt, regrets, weaknesses, and wounds, Izzy says. It necessitates entrusting another with our hearts and with our deepest secrets. But it also means establishing healthy boundaries and ways of communicating. 

Sharing Without Oversharing

We can tax our closest friendships when we’re not mindful about our communication style. Do we share our personal challenges so often and at such length that our closest friends feel dumped on? Are we expecting our besties to function like therapists? Does our consumption with our own dramas prevent us from being able to shift our focus and offer them our undivided attention when they’re in need?

Izzy says we’re not “out of bounds” when we share our deepest pain with close friends, but we need to remember that we get what we give. “Can you listen without judgment and honor confidentiality?” she asks. “Can you refrain from always trying to fix or save? Sometimes all we need is someone to listen, deeply.”

That said, Izzy acknowledges that some issues are best worked through with a therapist or other practitioner. “You may need to kindly suggest that, although you care deeply for your friend, they may find more help with a professional,” she notes. “Creating and respecting healthy boundaries is essential to maintaining healthy friendships.”

There Is Such a Thing as Too Much Listening

While it’s important to give ourselves permission to be vulnerable in our closest relationships, to share our pain and suffering out loud, the retelling of our story over and over can keep us reliving the pain and suffering. And too much listening from our friends—as much as it can feel nourishing—can actually enable us to stay stuck in our stories. “It’s a delicate line to draw,” Izzy admits.

In order not to deplete our friends, we need to be aware of their body language, tone of voice, and level of engagement. Meanwhile, listeners need to exercise various levels of patience, tolerance, empathy, and compassion, depending on their abilities and the situation. “Illness or the death of a family member, for example,” Izzy notes, “requires far more patience, sympathy, and understanding [from a listening friend] than a problematic relationship that has been filled with drama from the onset.”

For listeners, the distinction between empathy and compassion may be worth contemplating. “Empathy is the capacity to feel what others feel, take their view, and look through their eyes, but compassion goes further,” Izzy explains. “It includes empathy, but it also has the quality of caring and concern. Compassion expresses our desire to contribute in some way, while empathy can lead to the spiraling of unpleasant feelings and emotions.” Over-empathizing isn’t good for listeners or sharers.

Four Steps for Conscious Communication

To deepen our friendships without pushing them to their limits, Izzy suggests using conscious communication. Here’s how to do it:

When speaking, practice self-inquiry. When you’re talking, ask yourself what you’re truthfully feeling, noticing, and aware of in that moment in respect to the situation at hand, Izzy advises, and share what’s going on with you (using “I” statements), rather than blaming and complaining. For example, ‘I feel so frustrated in this relationship. I’m afraid he’s not hearing what I’m saying.”

When listening, listen deeply. “That means no cross-talking,” Izzy says. “Imagine giving yourself permission not to need to fix or save your friend. Your only job is to create a safe and nonjudgmental space for them to share what’s going on. Just listen with attention and an open heart and refrain from giving advice. Trust that your friend will find their way.”

Ask permission to give feedback. That means respecting if the sharer does not want help. And if you’re sharing, make it clear if you just want to be heard. “Set an expectation before communicating if you feel that all you need is an ear to sort through your thoughts,” Izzy says.

Keep it confidential. “Nothing severs trust in a relationship more than if what is shared is not kept safe, honored, and protected,” she notes. Remember, if the person you’re sharing with often shares others’ personal details, then the chances are good that they’ll share yours as well.

When close friends set healthy boundaries and communicate openly about their individual tolerance for each other’s personal disclosure, the rewards are great. “You end up building a lifelong community that mutually gives and receives,” Izzy says. “And you live a wholehearted life filled with love, a sense of belonging, and authenticity—the ability to be fully yourself.”

Originally published by Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health