About 10 years ago, I noticed something puzzling about my relationships. It was subtle at first but as I began to tune in it became more apparent something wasn’t quite right. When I spent time with one friend, Ginger* I would feel tired by the time our visit ended, drained, like I needed a nap. When I spent time with Holly* I felt wide awake, energized. What was it? I pondered. I liked them both each was a good person doing good things. Why did I feel so different after spending time with each one of these ladies?
I noticed an imbalance in my relationship with Ginger. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I started making mental notes and became more aware of what was happening. Ginger had experienced a variety of difficult circumstances in her life but so had Holly. Both had experienced major disappointments and losses. So had I. Our common experiences were a part of what drew us to one another. It was very likely the reason we connected. With that in mind, something else was at the root of this unease I was feeling. As I tried to understand what was different in these relationships, I noticed some important themes.
Holly had a job that she loved and was involved in activities outside of work that filled her up. She was involved in professional organizations and attended a women’s weekly bible study. Holly gave of her time to those less fortunate. She often talked about her good support system. She had a few other close friends in addition to me and made a point of doing something fun with each of us a few times a month. She had a regular self-care program including getting adequate rest. When Holly and I met we talked about the work we were each doing and loved. We also talked about ideas that excited us and many fun interests. We talked about social issues and politics. We often disagreed with one another, but It was stimulating to toss around different thoughts and ideas.
Ginger had a job in ministry she loved. All her outside activities were focused on helping others in need. This is certainly commendable. I admired Ginger; she was making a difference in the world around her. However, Ginger was exhausted by Sunday, her one day off. She didn’t make friendships a priority. She was always on the run and didn’t get enough rest. She didn’t make time for a regular self-care program. She spent all her time giving to others and there was nothing left for herself. She was disorganized, never having the time to stay on top of things. She often seemed distracted and out of sorts.
When Ginger and I would meet we’d usually talk about the ministry, and her struggles. She also sought my advice. For a while that felt good, after all I liked giving advice. However, after a time, I noticed she rarely took my advice or asked about me. Sometimes at the end of a visit she would say, “Oh, sorry, I have spent all our time talking about me, how are you?” At this point, I was tired and ready to leave so I replied with only the minimum of information.
When Holly and I would meet she sometimes had a challenge she wanted to talk about, but she also wanted to hear about my life; the good things happening or what was difficult for me. She was a great listener and very empathetic. She was encouraging. She gave me truthful advice when I asked for it. I did the same things for her. Our time felt engaging and uplifting. It was mutual.
Then it occurred to me. That was it. Our time was mutual. Back and forth, give and take. I always felt much lighter, and more energized after Holly and I met. When Ginger and I met, I felt drained as the visit went on, listening to all of Ginger’s struggles. It was generally the same issues, with different people. I cared about her and admired many things about her, but our relationship was very one sided, not mutual at all.
It became clear; I was getting fueled by my time with Holly. I was getting drained by my time with Ginger. Ginger was running on an empty tank whenever we were together. She was depleted. It made sense that she was hungry for attention, encouragement and help. It seemed I was her only friend outside of her work life.
In varying degrees, people are either a positive energy source and fill our tanks or they are a negative source, and they drain our energy. We need air, water and food to live but we also need the vital nutrients people give us to thrive. We also need to give those nutrients to those close to us. What a great picture of relational health – energy flowing from us to someone and then back to us. Fueling our tanks, giving us what we need to flourish and prosper. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Back to Ginger. What was I to do? I really liked Ginger. She had a big heart and gave to others. She would have benefited from separating ministry from friendship as these are not the same. You can be a caring friend to those you serve but these are generally not mutual relationships. We need mutual relationships with others to thrive. Give and take in equal measure. If a friend is in crisis, of course, your focus is on them but that should not be most of your relationship with them.
I felt stuck in my friendship with Ginger. I had a decision to make. It wasn’t an easy decision. I have remained friends with Ginger, but I don’t see her as often anymore. Whenever I do see her, I make sure my tank is full. We are responsible for all aspects of our lives, including getting what we need from our relationships in order to thrive. It’s vital to learn how to give and receive. It’s not either or, it’s both.
I am very excited about Dr. Townsend’s new book People Fuel. He presented it at our last Ultimate Leadership workshop. He does a great job of explaining what we need from our friendships or close relationships. It is important to learn what the nutrients are that give us fuel. Dr. Townsend gives clear descriptions and examples of the 22 nutrients we all need for full rich meaningful relationships. These nutrients are organized in 4 Quadrants:
1 Be Present 3. Provide Reality
2. Convey the Good 4. Call to Action
Each Quadrant has 5- 6 clarifying statements to help you identify what you need from the other person. It’s then up to you to ask for what you need in any given situation. I certainly wished I’d had this information 10 years ago. However, it’s never too late. The next time I see Ginger, I will have a way to describe what I think will improve our relationship and ask for what I need from her. People Fuel can help improve your relationship too. You will have a new language to use with the people you care about and take your relationships to the next level. Onward!
*Names and details were changed to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned in this article.