Are Your Friends An Elevator or a Cage?

December 16th, 2004 by Steve Pavlina

As a follow-up to the last entry, let’s explore the role of the people in your life. Are they elevating you to be the best person you can be, or are they holding you back?

I mentioned in my last entry that when going through major life shifts, like changing careers, I would shift the people with whom I spent the most time. We’ve all gone through periods where the people in our lives have changed — graduation, moving to a new city, getting a new job, joining a new club, etc. I don’t think I need to convince you just how much influence other people can have over your identity. If you’ve ever experienced a major shift in your people environment, then you know that you change as well.

Most people don’t make these choices consciously though. You might consciously decide to spend more time with a certain friend, or you may ask someone out on a date to begin a new relationship. But few people choose the bulk of their existing friendships deliberately. Chance meetings may be out of your control, but the strength or weakness of your existing connections is largely under your control.

Think for a moment about the 5-10 people with whom you spend the most time. Even include online communities if you spend a lot of time reading them — which individuals are having the most influence over your thinking right now? Actually write out the list — it should only take a minute. And this includes family members.

Now look at the list. It’s been said that this list will give you a glimpse into your future.

Do you want to become more like these people? Yes or no. Is anyone on the list a bad influence that causes you to backslide? Is anyone on the list a shining light that encourages you to reach new heights?

Now have you ever thought about consciously changing this list? Do you realize that you have the ability to populate this list by choice instead of by chance? You’re free to say no to having certain people in your life, and you’re also free to make the effort to introduce new people you want in your life. Sometimes there are serious consequences, such as with family members and bosses, but it’s still a choice.

There’s no “getting rid of people.” People are always drifting in and out of each others’ lives. Associations grow into friendships, and friendships fade into associations. You don’t get rid of anyone. The truth is that in order to make room for new people and new experiences, you may need to loosen up some of your existing connections.

What about loyalty? Shouldn’t you always be loyal to your friends? Once you have a close friend, even if their influence on you is somewhat destructive, shouldn’t you stick by them?

Loyalty is one of my personal values. But my value of loyalty means being loyal to my vision of my highest and best self and to my core values. And this runs both ways. While I know I can’t afford to hang on to friendships that conflict with my values, I also can’t hang onto friends that I may be holding back in some way. I only want to have win-win relationships where everyone benefits.

Loyalty to a friend sometimes means having to let go. It means being loyal to their highest and best self as well. If someone is destroying their health by smoking, for example, you aren’t showing loyalty by smoking right along with them. What are you being loyal to then? Death? True loyalty sometimes requires that you break destructive connections, get yourself back on solid ground, and then decide what you can really do to help your friend (which sometimes requires letting them hit bottom).

How about a realistic example? Back when I was in college, I would occasionally use pirated software. I had several friends who were software pirates and who’d keep offering it to me, and I’d sometimes accept if it was something I wanted. But when I started my own software business after graduation and began thinking about the kind of person I wanted to be, I realized that software piracy had to go. So I decided to stop.

But of course what happened next? You guessed it. Some more pirated software was offered to me, and I gave into the temptation. And then I beat myself up about it. And that pattern cycled a few more times until…

I realized if I wanted to stop using pirated software, I had to stop associating with pirates. So I consciously decided to let those relationships fade, which on a couple occasions required actively telling the other person I couldn’t have them in my life anymore (and why). Then I built closer friendships with more honest people who would never consider software piracy. My new friends and associates elevated my thinking to their level, and I found it easy to let go of software piracy permanently. I was positively infected by the thoughts of those who don’t pirate software, so my new mindset just doesn’t even consider piracy. I either buy what I want, or I do without.

Today I use a lot of shareware programs, and they’re all registered. Even though I could save money by tracking down pirated versions, I just don’t. I won’t even consider it. And it has nothing to do with being worried about getting caught or getting a computer virus or not having the latest version or wasting too much time. Software piracy just isn’t me. I’m a non-pirate.

This change had some unexpected positive side effects too. When I let go of piracy, I felt a lot more deserving of my successes. It elevated my sense of self. There was nothing on my computer to give me the subconscious message: yeah that was a nice success, but you’re still a thief. This is one very basic example of how consciously changing the people in your life can change you for the better.

What about trying to change/rescue people in need? Although I don’t think it’s impossible to transform a destructive relationship from within, it’s very difficult unless you have a lot of support. While you’re trying to elevate the other person, you’re sinking at the same time. You’d probably need a buffer of many other strong relationships in order to transform one destructive relationship. I think the best approach is to leave the destructive relationship behind, form new relationships to get your strength back, and then (keeping those new relationships), you’ll have the ability to revisit and transform the old destructive relationship with a much reduced risk of being sucked back into old patterns.

I think you can get a pretty good idea of what a person is like by looking at the people who surround that person. Think about it for a moment. What kind of people does George Bush spend the most time with? What about the Dalai Lama? Your children? Even Jesus was surrounded by the 12 Apostles. So one betrayed him, and one thrice denied knowing him, but 10 out of 12 isn’t bad. If you had a dozen loyal devotees following you everywhere, perhaps you might enjoy some fairly elevated thinking too.

It can take a lot of courage to tell someone, “I’m sorry, but I can’t have you in my life anymore.” But even though this might seem like a selfish act at times, it’s often the best thing for the other person too. If a relationship is holding you back in some way, understand that it’s also hurting the other person. For example, if you work for an abusive boss, your acceptance of that situation constitutes silent approval, encouraging your boss to continue to behave abusively (towards yourself and others).

If you smoke and suddenly say to all your smoker friends, “I’m sorry, but I can’t continue to be friends with people who smoke anymore. I’ve decided I need to be a nonsmoker,” you’ll probably meet with a lot of resistance. But if you follow through with it, your actions will eat away at some of those old friends. And a year later when you’re a nonsmoker, one of them will contact you privately, “I’d like to quit too. Can you help me?” And you will be able to help. You might even renew your old friendship, but at a whole new level.

The kinds of relationships I seek out today are those which have the potential to be win-win, where both people can help each other to grow in positive ways without holding each other back. Not one person using the other — synergy. I’m always open and inviting of new friendships of this kind. If I ever feel like I’m stuck in a cage, I know it’s time to reach out and make some new connections and/or loosen up some old ones.


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