The Critical Friend


Silencing our inner critic is said to pave the way to success, but where does that leave our critical friends?

You can’t move for them on Twitter. Positive affirmations. Aphorisms that advise you to put aside the ‘negative’ people in your life, the negative influences, the negative thoughts. Only this way will you find success – that holy grail; that ephemera.

It’s true. We beat ourselves up even when the world doesn’t bother us. We unpick threads of doubt, unravel mysteries that didn’t seek to be answered. We worry, and worry at ourselves, filled with a future anxiety that clouds the present, darkens the past.

I can be better than this. I will be better than this. At this. The inner critic can be as much about drive as doubt, but either signal discontentment in the present tense. Drive turns it into action; doubt, so often, to inertia.

Or trolling, the strategy of many a self-doubter in this irksome present, silencing their inner critics by turning them out on the world. So much easier to take down someone else than dismantle yourself to see what’s lurking there.

Of course, Twitter doesn’t lie. One of the best ways you can silence your inner critic – the one that tells you not to be so stupid, not to believe you can, not to even bother trying – is to have people who are positive about you in your life.

They needn’t necessarily be particularly positive people in themselves – not everyone responds to a sunbeam – but they do need to believe in you and express that belief.

Friends are followers, after a fashion (though I don’t think it can be said followers are necessarily friends). The role of leader in the friendship may oscillate, or constantly remain clearly designated Alpha-Beta, but, nevertheless, friends follow each other throughout their lives.

The follower makes the lone nut a leader. Leaders take action, whatever their doubts. If we are to lead our way in life, if only by managing to tread our own path, friends are surely the best cure for possible inertia. Supporting us. Spurring us on.

But this is where it starts getting thorny. What makes a good friend? Could it be that surrounding yourself with only cheerleaders might be a great way to silence your inner critic, but could lead you to taking stupid actions?

What if you are being stupid, believe you can when you can’t, shouldn’t bother trying – wouldn’t a good friend tell you?

Every tyrant learns, eventually, the loneliness of sycophancy.

What a good or not so good friend would, could or should tell you is the burning issue at the heart of almost all reality TV, most of morning TV and the majority of soap opera storylines. We spend a great deal of time judging what makes a good friend. 

According to studies, integrity and reliability are right up there. Even more important than being ‘fun times’, in fact. A good friend does tell you. In a caring, sensitive way. In a non-judgmental way. Because they still believe in you. And they’ll support you in whatever you decide to do with this new information either way.

This is the point, and it’s just as true for the ‘critical friend’ in business. You’ve got to be on their side, even if they’re flawed, or maybe because of it. You’ve got to share the same goal, however much work it might be to achieve it.

We’re back to belief. Not blind faith. Not cheerleading on the sidelines as someone collapses. Good friends know you’re a flawed human being, because they’re one, because they know we all are. They choose you knowing this. In good faith, they might want to help you avoid the excesses of your worst flaws, and hope you’ll do the same for them in return.

There is currency in all friendships. The critical friend in business, in good faith, will want you to avoid any pitfalls (in bad faith they may avoid pointing out certain ones in the hope of more work, and you want to avoid those ones). A good, productive, constructive job, and payment, is enough in return.

What we expect from our friends in return for our choosing them – well, that’s thornier still.

Tabs and tallies of drinks rounds and children’s presents, hosted events and attended events, returned and unreturned calls and texts, invitations accepted or declined, things said, jokes made, points not taken too kindly – scratch most friendships and there’s a secret list of something being created.

There’s good reason for this too (in most cases). It’s the currency thing. A friendship, however loving, is conditional. A good relationship, however conditional, is balanced. An imbalanced friendship is never a good thing. Never a good choice.

But, joyously, as Twitter will frequently remind you, you have licence to step away from those negative people (for some people, whatever you do, the list never balances out).

Before you do though (and even with the best will in the world, it can be easier said than done to divest yourself of a toxic friendship), ask yourself one thing: is it the balance that’s out of sync, or the critique that’s out of order?

If someone tells you something you don’t want to hear, or points out a blind spot, that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in you. But if your friend can dish it out but not take it back, or never counters their critique with ‘evidence-based’ praise, that’s a big imbalance right there. Step away.

The critical friend in business works best when it’s the choice of the business to engage them, when the ‘friend’ already has a really good understanding of them and what’s important to them, knows ‘the deal’, and sensitively approaches how they give their advice.

The critical friend in life does pretty much the same thing, they just don’t expect to get paid for doing it. But they don’t want to be out of pocket either (which is why a surefire way to lose a friendship is to borrow money – just watch any episode of Judge Judy).

So often the inspiration for the voice of the inner critic is one that doesn’t stem from choice, it’s one foisted upon us – it’s the voice of the family, authority, society. It’s the voice of restriction.

To counter it, we do need voices of expansion – people who tell us to think big, who always want more for us, better for us, love to see us on top form. But a really good friend can also help us to see ourselves better, the good, the bad and the downright deluded or ugly lurking in the corners.

A really good friend won’t duck the really difficult conversation. They’ll try to find the right time. The right words. They’ll already have tried to see it from your point of view. That’s real love, right there. Real friendship. Expanding. Enriching. Vital. Critical.



4 thoughts on “The Critical Friend

  1. I have so many thoughts about this, it will be hard to be concise but…I have been blessed in my lifetime with many long-term friendships with people I adore. They, like me, are flawed and sometimes exercise bad judgment. I don’t mince words when I think they are being harmful to their own best interests. EXAMPLE: one of my best friends in the world is a smoker (ahem, Sinclair) and I have offered, from time to time, to run him over with my car to get the job done quicker. I am nobody’s yes man. But I also understand growing pains and how when we stumble we need support, not judgment. I think the biggest mistake people make in friendship is thinking it is a “one size fits all” affair. There cannot be a fully realized “good friend template” because each individual is different and therefore feeds and supports you in different ways. I have written about friendship often on my blog and my best friendship advice remains: don’t go to the hardware store for milk. If you need each of your friends to be all things to you, you are in for a world of hurt. Let people be themselves and if that does not work for you, step away. But I have found in true friendships there is a mirror that can consistently provide opportunities for growth and deepening intimacy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Friend!

      Sorry for such a delayed reply. I completely agree with you there’s no template for what makes a good friend, and that friendships, like all relationships, all have their own unique flavours and dynamics. I have a very diverse set of friends and, indeed, there are plenty of my friends who I wouldn’t introduce to other friends of mine as I know there would be no simpatico between them (I once had a birthday party where I mixed it up – it didn’t go completely smoothly to be honest: never again!). My funeral should be interesting (and yes, I know, it’ll be sooner than I’d like if I don’t quit the smoking!).

      But, and here’s my big but, while I don’t think there’s a template for what makes a good friend, I do feel there is a bit of a template for what makes a good friendship. Friendships can bring as much anxiety for many people as joy, and I think this anxiety usually exists because boundaries have not been established, or are being crossed or ignored.

      As you probably know by now, I’m a big believer in establishing boundaries and expressing them. All too often we don’t do this and then little things build into a big problem. It’s tragic when a friendship becomes about resentment or settling scores, but they do, and this is usually rooted in some hurt or slight that was never talked about. Those boundaries might be very different according to the individual friend – one size doesn’t fit all – but if they’re not there at all, that’s usually when it all starts to go awry.

      I don’t seem to get into a lot of the scenarios with my friends that a lot of my friends experience with their friends, and I can only think this is because I’m so clear about my boundaries and what you can expect being my friend. As you know, I’m not good at routine, so if you want a friend who you’re going to want to see every Wednesday evening for eternity, I’m so not that guy and will start to feel very caged if you try to enforce it!

      Thankfully, my friends know this about me and accept me for it (and any friend who doesn’t won’t last too long – life is too short to spend too much time being someone others want you to be) but that acceptance can only come from real openness and honesty (and for me, that is the thing that’s really at the heart of every friendship).

      M xxx

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Boundaries are the key. I recently took one of those silly FB quizzes, because it promised to tell me what is the quality I have that tweaks/triggers people the most. Drumroll, please–it was my HONESTY. I don’t let resentments build, much to everyone’s chagrin, because I call B.S. the minute I see it, even in my family. However, I have recently had to confront the fact that in spite of my truthtelling, I still have significant relationships where I get taken advantage of because I am the queen of second chances (and third…and fourth…) If somebody says, “I hear that you are bothered and I will work on that” I have a strong tendency to give them the poor boundary of ETERNITY to fix it. I am a Cancer and a clinger and have a hard time letting go of relationships even when they are hurting me. So this is my challenge in middle age, I guess. My inner Pollyanna says most people are intrinsically good and deserving of love, but my reality says even if that is true, if they are mistreating you they must be released back into the wild. Hard lesson for me! xx

        Liked by 1 person

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