The Power of Family and Friend Families for Optimal Health
We are barely a week into the month of April, and already I've been reminded about the power of family and choices. My grandmother was rushed to the hospital earlier this week, and for two days, we weren't sure what was wrong. She ended up at a top-notch hospital receiving excellent care. However, when a family member falls ill, you remember just how important family is. My mom, sisters, and I texted constantly back and forth while taking turns staying at the hospital with my grandma..."she just ate a great lunch and asked for pickled eggs," "she is feeling really tired," "she was chatty Kathy with the staff today," etc. We all came together because....well...that's what family does. I'm different from my family in many ways. I've made different life choices and have chosen to live in a different geographic area. Those choices were not without ramifications for myself, for my son, and for them. However, making those choices has made me the person I am today.
After my grandmother stabilized, I returned home and immersed myself in my son's birthday weekend. We had breakfast out, a soccer game, a stroll through town, a visit to the toy store, and we ran into friends and acquaintances each place we went. We celebrated on our own and with friends. As my son's friends excitedly rolled into the indoor arena for a party consisting of an obstacle course and a nerf battle, I realized that we had created a fabric...a network....of family. I hugged the kids' moms and joked with the dads. My heart swelled as I saw the joy on the kids' faces from the activities and from the friendships they have formed. My cheeks still hurt a little from smiling and laughing so much.
Family is your blood, and your friend family is what you create on purpose. Both are necessary and make for a richer and happier life. I'm grateful for my blood family and for my Friend Family, too. I've always had a bit (okay, sometimes a lot) of wanderlust, and in some ways, that desire to move and travel has prevented me from planting roots in a community of friends as deeply as I could. This weekend helped me to see that getting more deeply rooted doesn't have to change my wanderlust ways. Rather, it only means that I can have a richer connection here in the present moment because that’s really all that I know for certain. As I thought about this, I came up with a few ways to strengthen my Friend Family here and now. You, too, can use these strategies to amp up your Friend Family.
1. Casual dinners. I grew up in a very rural area. It was easier to have cows over for dinner than other humans. But now, I live in an area where friends are a short walk or bike ride away. It's geographically easy to get together. So, why haven't I done more of that? That would be due to my mental chatter telling me that the food I serve at these casual dinners should be homemade and served in a clean house. My food is often homemade and my house is often clean, but those two things don't often coincide at the same time. I've feared the judgment of others from not having a Paleo Food Network worthy meal or a floor free of random cat hair tumbleweeds. As I teach my clients, this criticism that I fear is not from others but from myself. My own internalized voice from programming installed when I was growing up and from my own perfectionist tendencies are the real culprit, not my kind friends who are probably grateful for a meal that they don't have to prepare.
2. Say YES. I am an introvert, and I often turn down social engagements that I perceive as potentially energetically taxing. What's the key word in that previous sentence? I heard you, and that's right...perceive. Negative experiences stick in our brain more than positive ones do. It's an evolutionary mechanism called the negativity bias. If we didn't attend to the negative threats (e.g., a tiger lurking in a bush), we'd be dead. So, it was advantageous for us to be on guard for the negative event and to remember it. Despite the lack of tigers in my world today, that negativity bias still exists. One or two draining events in the past spring to the forefront when I consider a new social event. I can talk myself into YES, like I am now, but it takes practice to do so.
3. Think outside the box. Spending time with my Friend Family doesn't have to be time spent away from my family or my introvert re-charge time. We can do family events together. Furthermore, we can combine things I like to do in my free time with Family Friend time like hiking, walking, meals out, library visits, shopping, and more.
4. Say NO. I just said say YES, why am I saying say NO? Because we want to reduce the power of the negativity bias by cultivating lots of positive experiences from which my brain can draw. So, by saying no when the activity or time isn't really my jam or won't fit well into my schedule, I'm making room for more positives YES experiences.
5. Think Less and Be More. I spend a lot of time in my head. Sometimes, I'll feel a pull to do something but then the aforementioned mental chatter pipes up and clouds my original instinct that I felt in the moment. By tuning into and acknowledging that pull, I am in the present moment and can make a decision from that space rather than thinking about what happened in the past or what I need to accomplish in the future. Being in the moment when I am in social engagements rather than second-guessing if I made a "wrong" choice or thinking about what I need to do after that is crucial to enjoying the moment, because when you are in the moment, be in the moment.
6. Have Fun. Remember the things you used to enjoy doing as a child? Give them a try as an adult! Maybe you loved riding your bike or spending time at the library. Maybe you enjoyed baking with your family, having picnics in the neighborhood, or going for walks in the park. Whatever it is, try it out again. You can try it with a friend or you can do the activity and meet others who enjoy it, too. For me, it was spending time outside. Now that the weather is warmer, I look forward to doing a lot of that! Another way to have fun is to try something new. What activity or group has been of interest to you? Has a friend asked you to join them in an activity but you haven't said yes yet? Give it a go.
The research supports the power of friendships and social connection, but you don't need a peer-reviewed article to understand how good it feels to be around people you care about who care about you back!