What are you willing to give up in order to become the person you are meant to be?
Are you a people collector?
You have hundreds of Facebook friends. Your address book holds everyone from the girl you sat next to in English class to the couple you enjoyed drinks with on holiday last year. Keeping up with them all is easier in the electronic age but still, reacting to the updates takes time. But you’re happy to do that because you value connection.
Or maybe you’re a people curator.
You have a select friends group of whom an even more select few make it into your inner circle. You use the word friend like you use the word love – with care and intention. You nurture your small group and put effort into it because you value connection.
I wrote about the cost of personal growth recently with relationships particularly in mind. The connections that served the person you were might not support the person you want to become.
Then a reader commented that the article didn’t answer her question, “What about my old tribe, the ones I don’t want to treat as disposable?”
This prompted me to wonder again about letting go and moving on. How can we preserve relationships in the process of personal change without letting go of things we already value?
Circles Within Circles
Letting go means to come to the realization that some people are a part of your history, but not a part of your destiny.
Someone at a party once told me she didn’t trust any woman who didn’t have a posse – six or eight female friends she shared everything with. You might agree and find this natural, or you might be horrified at the idea of living by committee.
Research suggests that we can maintain only five really close friendships, which form our inner circle. Outside this are wider circles where connections are looser, up to a maximum of one hundred and fifty people. Introverts and extroverts have varying numbers in their circles.
You share different things with the people in each circle. When you begin the process of change, your position relative to each person changes too. This might mean moving closer to them, as you share more, or it might mean moving away.
The conversation and connection is louder and stronger if you both move in the same direction. But you can’t expect they will follow you. That decision is theirs alone, and they have the right to stay exactly where they are.
That doesn’t negate all that’s gone before. You still have shared history. But your shared future has changed, because you’ve changed.
What held me back from even contemplating growth was the fear that I would be left without connections, by having to reject my entire life as it was then. All or nothing thinking kept me trapped.
There’s a better way to think about preserving relationships as we change.
Caught In a Web
There’s a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over – and to let go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its value.
Most people resist change. We value the familiar. We need much more brain space to deal with novelty, even though we’re hard-wired for it. So we want the same but different, and this contradictory desire drives industries as different as movie franchises and hotel chains.
The same applies to people. Consider your circles of friendship. Rather than concentric circles, think of your circles overlapping like a Venn diagram. Some circles overlap almost completely, like your very best and oldest friend, the one you can call at three a.m. Some barely touch, like the person who always takes the bike next to you in spin class.
Shifts in common ground – the area of overlap – isn’t about making disposable relationships, using people only for what they can give you. This transactional approach to connection is common, but it’s hollow and lacks authenticity. We all hate to be a means to someone’s end.
You can do completely different things yet still share something with the person in front of you. Existing relationships can be maintained even if you share less of your life and current interests. New relationships can find their place in your network as you evolve.
However, time is the forgotten variable.
Some connections have an expiry date; work colleagues, soccer parents, neighbours. It’s okay to let these fade out and eventually exit the outer borders of your friend group, especially as others come to replace them.
Holding on to everyone you ever connect with is exhausting, and leaves less energy for those who matter most. Perhaps the biggest challenge of personal growth is leaving behind not only an image of who you were, but also a pattern of connections that served you well until this point.
You might also find that a relationship you thought was solid is anything but. Years ago I moved cities to follow my partner. I found myself adrift (before social media) without anyone I knew nearby or the much-needed job that would have helped me make the transition. I called my three a.m. friend and poured my heart out. She dismissed my struggle and returned to rehashing the same issue in her life that we always talked about.
I’d placed her in my inner circle of friends, but I was much more distant in hers.
Although I didn’t want to accept it, the signs were there. You need ongoing positive interactions to nourish friendships, and I’d been making excuses for her lack of interest to keep our friendship going.
We had some great times together, but our paths diverged. It was hard to walk on without her, but who said life was easy?
Embracing Old and New
Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.
Unlike Janus, god of doorways and transitions, we can’t look back and forward at the same time. At some point we have to leave the past behind, taking forward only what we have learned from it.
So you’ve decided to change, and that’s great. You’re becoming more of yourself by aligning more closely with the core of who you are.
While you do that, hold on lightly to ideas, behaviours, scripts, and relationships.
Be ready to loosen ties without letting go at first. If you stop calling your friend and making all the plans, see how they respond. Don’t prioritise people who don’t prioritise you. You have finite time and energy, so spend both on people and activities that give back.
When you change, the people around you choose how they respond. You don’t have to cancel everyone but you do have to re-evaluate where you stand now, and whether they have a place in the group of people who matter.
Whether you let go or are let go, be grateful for what you’ve learned. Accept that life’s lessons always come at a cost and let yourself mourn if need be.
Then face the future and keep moving.
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.
Tao Te Ching