One of the most important and formative types of relationships you will experience in a lifetime is friendship. Friends are people you can share intimacies and experiences with, and you are an important part of each other’s lives. They give you a sense of belonging and security knowing you are loved and cherished by the people you most care for.
The beauty of friendship is that you get to choose your friends, unlike with family. But anyone who’s ever had a negative experience with someone they thought was a friend can probably attest to the fact that it isn’t always easy to spot true friendship. So we spoke with mental health experts Chaute Thompson, LMHC, and Jinnie Cristerna, LCSW, Rh.D., CHt, about what exactly makes someone a good friend and some tips on how to be a good friend yourself.
What makes a good friend?
Of all the traits a good friend could have, honesty is certainly among the most important. An honest friend is someone who can and will tell you the truth instead of lying to you to keep you happy or placate you. A good friend will tell you the truth even if it’s hard, Cristerna says, because they love you.
A nonjudgmental friend makes you feel confident in and loved for who you are and not someone who instills self-doubt or insecurity in you. Nonjudgmental friends listen to you and do their best to see things from your point of view.
True friends accept you even when your lives move in different directions. True friends understand that your choices are yours and accept those decisions because they know that what’s right for them isn’t necessarily right for you.
Trust lets us feel safe with friends—safe to be vulnerable and to share our plans, our true selves, and our lives. A trustworthy friend keeps your secrets, keeps their promises, and is dependable.
Many longtime friends point to the fact that when they haven’t been in touch for a while and finally reconnect, it is as if no time has passed. In other words, friends shouldn’t require all of your attention all of the time and understand when life gets busy.
Tips for how to be a good friend:
1. Prioritize making time for each other.
Free time is sacred because we don’t have much of it. At the same time, friendships grow through shared experiences and quality time together. The mark of a good friend is someone who makes time for you and makes spending time with you a priority. A good friend will also look for opportunities to maximize the time you have together by seeking fun and unique experiences that strengthen and maintain your bond.
2. Open up and allow each other to be vulnerable.
A good friend is someone genuine, someone with whom you can be yourself and they can be themselves around you, Cristerna explains. A good friend allows you to be vulnerable with them and vice versa, meaning you can expose your emotions and circumstances with each other and trust one another to listen, be supportive, and have each other’s best interests at heart.
“Being able to have fun and share special memories are the result of having a trusting relationship that feels safe,” Cristerna adds. “For example, all of my friends and I have an understanding that we support one another in every way (yes, even ridiculous ways!), unless the level of ridiculousness is too much or would create a situation where we feel uncomfortable.”
3. Pay attention to the little things.
“A good friend is able to read between the lines of what’s being said because they pay attention, and they know your heart,” Thompson says. “For example, if I ask, ‘How are you doing?’ to a close friend and the response is ‘OK,’ I know immediately that she is not OK. A good friend pays attention to the details because you care to take the time to understand the heart of your friend.”
4. Be willing to challenge each other.
A good friend pushes you to grow, will let you know when you are on the wrong path, and will “challenge you when you need to be challenged,” says Thompson. And this is “all done in love and with respect.” In this way, you can grow together and support each other along the way.
“In a personal story, I was angry with someone, and one of my good friends stopped me midway through my rant and said, ‘Jinnie, you know you’re wrong. I am always with you, but on this one, I can’t ride with ya. Stop and think about the role you played in this.’ That moment stays with me to this day because she loved me enough to tell me to knock it off, and it came from a place of love. I was able to receive it because of that,” Cristerna explains. “That’s what friends do.”
5. But be open-minded.
To be a good friend, you have to be open-minded, says Thompson. Being open-minded allows your friend to be their true selves, especially when they are making decisions. By remaining open-minded and not inserting your own biases into your friend’s decision-making, you demonstrate that you are understanding and supportive.
“Good friends support us, give us space to be ourselves and make mistakes, and they respect boundaries,” Cristerna adds.
6. Look out for them.
“A good friend is a courageous friend who will stand up and do the right thing when no one is looking and even if it doesn’t benefit them. This may not be the type of definition most people have about courage, but trust me—it takes a lot of courage to do this,” Cristerna says.
For example, you might find yourself in situations where other people aren’t treating your friend well or where you know your friend may be put in a sticky situation. As much as possible, a good friend is willing to stick their neck out on behalf of their friends, whether that means shutting down gossip about them, making sure they get home safe after a night out, or something else.
What about bad friends?
Here are some signs of an unhealthy friendship, according to Thompson:
You feel drained whenever you talk to them.
The friendship is one-sided, meaning every time you talk to them or try to share with them, somehow the conversation turns around and goes back to them.
They aren’t making time to listen to you or allow space for your contributions to the conversation.
Your time or boundaries are not being respected.
They don’t respect your feelings.
You often feel belittled by them.
You feel overly reliant on each other, a hallmark of codependent friendship.
Friendship entails reciprocity and respect, Cristerna adds. Without these two qualities, the relationship will be limited and fizzle over time. When you are in what feels like a toxic friendship or codependent friendship, it is best to determine what is the healthiest way for you to end the friendship.
In communicating the need to end the friendship, you want to ensure that you own the decision and be clear about how the relationship does and doesn’t work for you. This is not the time to blame, however—in fact, this is a time to forgive and ask for forgiveness with grace and ease. Ending a friendship is already hard enough. Cristerna recommends trying to be compassionate, so if you cross paths again (and you usually do), you can say hello and catch up in a comfortable and natural way.
The bottom line.
A true friendship is defined by knowing someone has your back, no matter what. A good friend will watch out for you and ensure you are safe, feel supported, and are loved. A good friend will never purposely lead you into making decisions or taking actions that aren’t good for you. A true friend will always have your best interests at heart.