Last November, I set aside several days to take meetings with my editors and agent in the heart of Manhattan. Over the course of five days, I saw a Broadway show, hit as many coffee joints as possible, met a friend for craft cocktails, and shopped along Fifth Avenue. I ran nonstop. I ignored text messages. I walked the streets alone, submersing myself in solitude. I went where I wanted to go, and I saw who I wanted to see.
As I sat in Bryant Park with a chocolate-drizzled waffle on the last day of my trip, a feeling of dread suddenly punched me in the gut. I should have been exhausted—New York was still reeling from the craziest election in American history—and yet it was a welcome reprieve. It wasn’t the bustling city with its endless diversions and distractions that I found draining: Home was what had depleted me.
It wasn’t my life back in Michigan, exactly, that had so zapped my inspiration: It was my social circle, and its unspoken obligations. I had adopted too many roles with too many people—shoulder to cry on, career coach, cheerleader, spiritual guru, complaining-partner—all of which now seemed to test my definition of friendship, and my ability to stay sane. I recalled moments leading to this insidious exhaustion: a barrage of career questions from one friend, with barely a “how are you?” in between. Dinner with another, who got drunk and complained about the guy she was seeing the entire evening. The invitations and requests that popped up when I served a purpose—donations, event attendance, post-breakup girls’ night—from those who were largely silent when I did not.
Back in Bryant Park, I speared the last bite of waffle, tossed its container in the trash, and made a mental plan. The next morning, I packed and caught my flight back to Michigan, unloading a slew of personal baggage upon touchdown.
Energy is finite, I reasoned, and it takes a lot to do your best work. I had just six months to complete the career project of my dreams—a book—and I was struggling to hit my stride during the first leg. Knowing I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t commit to the writing process for the three months to follow, I decided to turn myself into a drill sergeant for preserving emotional energy. I didn’t see anyone that first week home. I dove into a new “phone off” writing routine. When people started to ask for spots in my calendar again, I paused before accepting. I passed every person and invitation under a microscope, making instinctive decisions. Who was helping me grow, inspiring me to do my best, and consistently supportive? I gravitated to those people. Who had a record of sucking me down a rabbit hole of drama and exhaustion? I sidelined these friends; a few had to go immediately.
Some of the hardest words to utter in a friendship are actually the most self-preserving: “I’m really swamped. I will let you know the next time I can get together.” It will feel cold at first; selfish, too. When a friend texts you at midnight for guy advice, you will feel bad letting the questions linger unanswered in your iPhone. When you decline a dinner invite because you’re overstimulated, you will wonder if that person now actively hates you for prioritizing elsewhere. Women, especially, seem to run from this looming cloud of guilt whenever they don’t dole out social and emotional support in spades.
I have always believed in adopting a giving attitude toward relationships. Never keep score. Expect the ebb and flow of changing life circumstances. But, especially during life’s most taxing periods, you must get a return on your investment in order to stay sane. As the saying goes, “Givers must set limits, because takers rarely do.”
A friend of mine recently received a brutal breakup letter from her now-ex. She was blindsided by the split. She didn’t immediately understand it, she said, but upon reflection, he had been doing a lot for her. Bringing her takeout, coming home from the office early, checking in on her emotional well-being. “The thing is, I didn’t ask for that,” she said. The way I see it, everyone gives in their own way—and everyone has a limit. The scale had tilted her way for too long. And there it was—his limit, in black and white. As he explained it, his behaviors within their relationship were taking him further away from the person he ultimately wanted to be. He was ending the relationship to invest in himself again. That was it. Nothing else mattered—putting yourself first can be reason enough. It was the most freeing thing I had heard in years.
There’s a synergy whenever you’re surrounding yourself with people who bring out your best self. My best friend and I call each other “soul friends,” because we always feel inspired and uplifted after spending time together talking about life and work. You’ve got to find your soul people, the ones for which the answers to these questions—does our relationship feel easy? Am I better for knowing this person? Do they help me become closer to the person I ultimately want to be?—are always yes.
I once read that you should invest five or 10 times more on these “soul connections” than what you spend on other friends and acquaintances. You can still be a mentor. Or a therapist. Or a cheerleader. These are kind, worthwhile things. But they don’t fill you. And if you’re not full, you can’t give back. And if you want to grow, you have to raise your standards. Ask yourself: With who is life easier? With who am I better? With who am I closer to the person I want to be?
Invest intentionally, and see if your soul connections don’t emerge. You may be surprised by who barely notices your retreat, and who steps up to become a bigger player in your life. Every time I’ve tidied up my personal life, essentially Marie Kondo-ing my relationships, periods of intense personal growth have followed. My career has flourished. I’ve felt inspired, light. I’ve learned my capacity to do fulfilling work has a lot to do with my mindset. After a full-blown social edit this past November, I completed my first book. I even had energy to spare.
You are the main character in your own life. So, choose growth. Choose wisely. Be a giver, but not one without boundaries. Choose yourself first.