It seems like my whole life I’ve heard how you really find out who you are when you hit your 40s. I found that to be a curious statement because I always considered myself to be a strong, confident woman. I thought, “Boy, whoever really believes that must not have much faith in themselves.” But as the years went by, a funny thing happened. I started to find my true strength.

The farther I got into my 40s, the more I understood what that statement really meant. To me, it was profound. There wasn’t one magical day when I woke up and looked in the mirror at a changed woman staring back at me, aside from a new day’s variation of my curly-haired bed head. It was more of a slow simmer, a gradual appreciation of my strengths, a more gentle kindness to myself. A decreased tolerance for pettiness and people or things that will somehow steal my sparkle, personal or professional. I became more interested in taking stock of who I am and where I am in my life, of how and with whom I want to be spending my days. Of the appreciation for and value I can bring to the world around me.

And that’s about the time I vowed never to chase after friendships again.

In order to have personal growth, you have to open yourself to reflection and introspection. You have to be willing to ask the hard questions and have candid conversations with yourself. Those conversations will sometimes make you uncomfortable, or other times expose the real reasons why you’ve done or said or believed things your whole life. The revelations will lead to your true growth.

It was during those self-discussions that I recognized that for much of my life I have chased friendships. Not only that, but once I started taking a sort of “friendship inventory,” I discovered that this pattern went back as far as high school.

How is chasing a friendship different than cultivating one? Chasing is much more one-sided. Chasing means one person is doing all the work. One person is initiating contact, suggesting outings, fostering the conversations, asking the questions. Get-togethers revolve around their tastes and schedule. Conversations centre on them. In return, there will be some interest, maybe a certain degree of reciprocity. To the outside world it may have all the semblance of a healthy friendship. To me it often felt like we were inseparable.

But a funny thing eventually happened. When I stopped being the initiator, the friendship would invariably whither into nothingness. Looking back through the fine-tuned lens of hindsight, I realize that eventually I was the only one working to keep those friendships alive, and that’s not healthy.

It’s true, all friendships require work. All relationships do, for that matter. They need to be nurtured and watered in order to grow and thrive. Both sides need to equally contribute to the growth and maintenance of the relationship. But when the work becomes lopsided despite your best efforts, it’s time to step back and let it fall away.

When you chase friendships you lose yourself. You stop placing importance on your own identity, likes, dislikes, and values, and shift all that to the other person. Insecurities blossom when calls aren’t returned or conversations turn one-sided.

As I take stock of my past, I recognize how that pattern happened over and over throughout the years. A seemingly larger-than-life friendship would form only to eventually disappear when I called off the chase. Believe me, that revelation is not exactly an ego boost. It really made me question friendships at different points in my life. Friendships that felt like they would last forever eventually fell apart. It made me question whether it was something I was doing or not doing. It made me analyze my words and actions. My reactions. It made me wonder why those friendships I willed to last and grow didn’t, while some others in my life have quietly, effortlessly endured for decades.

Along the way I realized it doesn’t matter. Those temporary friendships taught me a great lesson even if it took until now to recognize it. They taught me that while I was busy looking for validation from someone else, I was damaging my own self-worth. I was putting too much stock in what other people thought of me. They taught me to value myself, respect myself, and to honour my own strength. They taught me to cherish and appreciate those enduring friendships that softly knock at your door, year after year, welcomed each time with open arms. The ones where it doesn’t matter if it’s been six months or six years since you last shared a laugh; you pick up right where you left off. Those are the ones to hold close to your heart. And those are the ones that most likely reflect your true self.

Left behind is a trail of “what happened?” But as anyone knows, the real adventure in life lies on the path ahead, not in the route you took to get here.

Read more on this topic in FRIEND OR ACQUAINTANCE: When to stick by a friend and when to let go»

image: Young woman sitting via Shutterstock