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Don’t Be Too Normal If You Want to Make Friends

One of the great hurdles to developing deeper friendships is the assumption that, in order to prove acceptable to other people, we need – first and foremost – to come across as extremely normal.

It’s on this basis that we devote an uncommon amount of energy to hiding away all the sides of ourselves that we feel sure would horrify and revolt other people: our hesitations, our sexual quirks, our self-doubts, our neuroses and our moments of panic and despair.

We live in a world that continues to imply that reasonable people might exist. Even as, at an intimate level, no one has ever yet met such a rare creature.

To acquire friends, we have to make our peace with a perhaps remarkable sounding idea:  that it is normal – and even very sensible – to find life unbearable. We have crises not because we are strangely incapable of living, but because we are – all of us – inevitably at points overwhelmed by the plain unreasonableness, cruelty, senselessness and arduousness of existence. 

Real friendship is not so much threatened by disclosures of vulnerabilities and compulsions as built out of them. It is impossible to become a close friend to anyone until we have dared to induct them to our less than impressive aspects, until we have been brave enough to display the full scale of our tearfulness and our idiocies. We may awe strangers with our strength, but it is only once we dare to present them with our frailties that we are in any position to turn them into sincere allies.

Nineteenth century Romantic culture had a lot of time for emotional eccentricity. There was a recognition that ‘genius’ could at times be aligned with outbreaks of what was plainly referred to as ‘madness’. Talented scientists, poets, artists or philosophers were more or less expected to lapse into the odd demented moment: they might run weeping out of meetings, try to cut off their ear, mess up their finances, rant or refuse to get out of bed for a month.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

But no one panicked because it was understood that certain very good things about these people – their extraordinary sensitivity, authenticity, creativity and insight – were powering moments that might seem at odds with the stern dictates of a flat and unimaginative society.

The error of the analysis was only that it was too narrow. It’s not in truth only scientific or artistic paragons who should be given leeway to go off the rails. We are all of us entitled to sympathetic interpretations of those less conventional instances when we are driven to distraction by a frenzied world and by the momentous contradictions in our own natures.

Everyone is inwardly distressed. Most of us keep our potential madness at bay, but we are perfectly well aware that it is there. We should not be scared off by our own turbulence or mistakenly assume that no one could like us if – with a few precautions – we were one day to let on as to our multifaceted reality. We should not continue to lock ourselves into our loneliness from a ruinous belief that no one could witness us and keep faith with us.

By making peace with our true selves, we will also be doing others a great favour; we will simultaneously be encouraging them to befriend their own exiled parts. A friend – in the highest sense – is a select person who is alive to, and has been allowed to see, the collapse of another’s respectable facade. If we never allow this to happen, if we are immensely careful never to be exposed at our worst, we can acquire a reputation as a solid-seeming person and even be celebrated as a grand and impressive one. But we will also – paradoxically and painfully – be closing the door on one of life’s most nourishing and sustaining gifts: a sense that we have been fully seen and, wondrously, remain liked.

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