In my barely 19 years of life, there’s one lesson that has been particularly difficult for me to learn: the best solution to a problem isn’t always the easiest or most popular one. Doing what’s right for you more often than not takes a bit of work, and it’s probably not going to be very fun. When it comes to applying that concept to friendships, I find most people unwilling to try it.
It seems that the majority of my peers have a hard time facing reality. We’re wrapped up in and insulated by social media that only shows us what we want to see, invested in TV shows and YouTube videos that transport us into a world so different from our own, and obsessed with creating a better version of ourselves to show off to others, even if that’s not our authentic selves. That’s not an indictment on Generation Z — real life is terrifying right now, and I know there are many days where the latest episode of “Santa Clarita Diet” seems so much more appealing than reading another headline about our dying planet or perilous political situation. But reality eventually finds us, and that’s where the value of friendship comes in. My friends are there to joke with me and ease my mind when I’m feeling anxious, yes, but they are also there to ground me and talk me down when I’m about to make a bad decision.
Here’s the thing, though — a significant percentage of Gen Z doesn’t appear to want that from a friendship. The amount of classmates and acquaintances I’ve encountered who would prefer a “yes man” or “yes woman” — someone to solely placate and, frankly, baby them through life — is staggering. I’ve said this before in other columns, and I still stand by it now: the best things in life, including our relationships with others, require effort, and they aren’t always fun and games. The friends I’ve known the longest and trust the most aren’t the ones who say, “Yes, girl, do it!” to every idea I have. My closest friends are the ones who aren’t afraid to tell me, “That isn’t a great idea,” when I’m going down the wrong path. I value their input because I know their opinions come from the heart, not from their idea of what I want to hear.
That’s what friendship should be. Researchers agree, too. One study conducted by Wellesley College’s psychology department found that the degree of authenticity in 14-year-old girls’ relationships could predict the quality of each individual friendship and the girls’ psychological health. According to the study, as the number of authentic relationships in a girl’s life increased, her self-esteem and depression-related symptoms improved.
It can be hard to discourage a plan when your friend’s feelings are at stake. However, sugarcoating the truth is only going to hurt him or her in the long run. I’ve heard people say, “Well, even if I don’t tell them they’re making a bad decision, someone else definitely will.” Depending on other people to do your job as a responsible friend is a risky plan, and it could backfire. What if the next person your friend talks to about his or her life choices has the same reaction, and the next person after that? The chain of enablers might never break, and it could lead your friend down a never-ending path of poor decisions.
Being honest and upfront with your friends about the quality of their decisions might evoke some anger from them, and it might cause a conflict or two if you associate with people who aren’t great at handling constructive criticism. You may even earn the label of the “mom friend,” a term simultaneously endearing and dismissive. I’ve certainly faced times where I wondered if it would make everyone happier for me to just stay quiet when asked for my opinion. In fact, there have been instances where I have sat idly by and watched my friends screw up. It’s because I’ve had those experiences that I know the role of the “yes woman friend” isn’t for me. When I don’t say something and my friends make mistakes they regret, I can’t ignore the guilt I feel.
That’s not to imply that my friends don’t make great choices 90 percent of the time. I am lucky to have intelligent, responsible and overall incredible people in my life, and I could not be prouder of them. But I know that even the best of us have moments of crisis, times where we slip up and can’t see the right path clearly, and those are the moments where we need our friends’ insight most. If not for my roommate, I may never have embarked on formal recruitment and joined the sorority I am so blessed to be a part of today. If not for my best friend of five years, who inspired me to get involved in activism, I may not have felt the deep passion that inspired me to join the Collegiate Times’ opinions section. If not for my confirmation mentor, I may not have strengthened the ties to my faith that have gotten me through some of my darkest times over the past few years.
We can all have a positive impact on the people in our lives, whether they’re passing through or here to stay. It’s up to us to have the courage to tell them the truth, even if it hurts.