I do not really know anyone who would say they like the feeling of being challenged or criticized. But the reality is we often gain more from honest relationships and constructive criticism that will tell us the truth, even when it hurts.
A friend that always agrees with you, never questions your motives or decisions, or praises you for even the most basic expectation of behavior, is not really a friend. That is called an enabler.
You may be familiar with the term “enabler” as it pertains to the world of addiction. In this context, an enabler is someone who allows or even assists an addict in continuation of self-destructive behavior. This dynamic can be extremely complex and it is not a cut-and-dry moral situation. The interpersonal relationships of an addict are often rife with codependency and mental illness, in addition to chemical dependency. The Enabler may be at the mercy of their own struggles, unable to help themselves let alone anyone else.
Sometimes Enablers are friends or family members with good intentions that simply cannot bear to cause their loved one further suffering. But the paradoxical truth is placating someone who is engaging in self-destructive behaviors does not avoid suffering. In some cases, it only prolongs it. Often, in the context of addiction, true transformation can only come from utilizing objective resources. Friends and family members play an important supportive role, but may be too emotionally involved to give the kind of objective support alone needed to conquer addiction.
But in the context of everyday decisions, this dynamic is not so complex. We are all susceptible to self-deception and acting out of ulterior motives. We are all guilty of at some point giving ourselves excuses not to pursue something that we really want. A friend who not only understands what your values and goals are, but actually pushes you to pursue them, despite adversity, can be valuable.
A friend that will give us healthy feedback can help us stay realistic with ourselves. They can help us reflect objectively on our decisions and situations, so that we can act in accordance with our overall goals, and not just what we might want short-term.
It may not always be comfortable to have a friend like this and you may even have conflict with one another from time to time. But conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Opposing viewpoints or challenging discussions can help us grow in ways we might not have realized we needed. They expand our viewpoints and our understanding of ourselves — and others.
So long as your pushback remains respectful and does not cross personal boundaries, it can be helpful to both sides of the relationship.
Maybe you’ve found yourself in a situation where you wanted to give pushback, but you feared the reaction from your friend. Some of us fear criticism; even the constructive kind will result in a revocation of friendship or love.
Instead of direct advice, try posing a simple, open-ended question to your friend, coming from a place of true curiosity. This innocuous practice is enough to protect you from enabling, while also still giving your friend the independence and responsibility of making their own decisions. This way, you avoid the perception of making a personal judgment on the situation, but you can still point to factors that you feel are important for your friend to consider.
For instance, if your friend is deliberating between two job opportunities and they ask for your advice, you might ask them about their top goals for employment and how each option aligns with these goals. Helping your friend think through the opportunities critically and objectively is an important function of friendship. Not just making them feeling better about what they desire in the moment.
Of course, every friendship needs trust. In order to be able to effectively give objective pushback in a friendship, you first must have an established trust with one another. This trust is developed over time, over many different contexts and interactions. Once established, this trust grows even deeper as you both acknowledge the honest feedback you are able to give one another when making tough decisions.