Friendship: Lessons from a Puppy

by Susan C. Litton, Ph.D.

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FriendsIf it's possible to have a learning disability for friends, then I think I've got one. I marvel at the simplistic interactions that transpire between two young children who have just met. You know -- those conversations that go something like, "You want to be my friend?" "Uh - huh." "Ok, let's go play." Then they scurry off together, each eager to play and each responding with an ease of interacting that has typically eluded me until after I've known someone for several years. If another child is encountered along the way, one or the other of the first pair will proudly introduce his new acquaintance as, "This is my friend!" or even, "This is my best friend!" Can it really be so easy?

I didn't notice my deficit in the friend department until adolescence. I was a content only child with primarily solitary interests, so it never occurred to me that I might be missing something. My first clue came in high school when two of my classmates decided to drop by for a visit. I knew how to answer the door and that was about it. What was supposed to happen next was totally uncharted territory. I invited them into the living room and offered them a seat. That's what I had seen my mother do with her friends so I assumed it was what one did. We sat. And sat. We smiled at each other and sat some more. I learned the true meaning of the word anxiety that afternoon. Shortly before the tension became unbearable, my new puppy decided to scamper in and meet the visitors. Now we at least had something to watch as we sat and smiled. Our giggles at his antics broke the awful silence but none of us seemed to know what to do beyond that. They left. They never came back. I was relieved. The whole experience had been grueling for everyone but the puppy.

In an attempt to make sure I never had to experience anything like that again, I unconsciously developed the ability to "fake it." I became so skilled at this art that I even fooled myself. In graduate school many years later during a course on the Myers-Briggs personality test, my classmates were amazed that I scored as an introvert. Faking it had the distinct advantage of being able to hide my discomfort when I was around others and also of being able to come up with things to say or do in situations like the puppy incident. The drawback, however, was that faking it took an enormous amount of energy -- even more so than just sitting and smiling and not saying anything. I'd go home at the end of a day totally exhausted and feeling that I'd somehow lost myself along the way.