Essay

The concentric circles of friendship

Here’s another message I’ve given to my children as they navigate their young-adult lives.

When I was young I held to the concept of having a best friend, that one person I wanted to do things with most because we fit together so well and enjoyed each other’s company so much.

As I’ve grown older, I still want friends like that. But I also want friends with whom I can be fully real and who can know about the challenges in my life in detail, and vice versa. It takes a lot to build that kind of trust, and it’s special and valuable when you have it.

Looking down on Monument Circle
Monument Circle in Indianapolis

As a result I’ve left behind the idea of “best friend” and instead think of each of my friends as being in one of several concentric circles:

Inner circle: These are people I will tell anything in full vulnerability, because they’ve proved themselves to be fully trustworthy with my heart and with the skeletons in my closet. I think everybody benefits from having at least one inner-circle friend, but few of us ever have more than a few of them at a time. At this moment I have three inner-circle friends, including my wife, and I feel truly blessed.

Second circle: These are good, close friends. We share interests in common, and have had some terrific experiences together. I’m willing to tell them all but the most private stuff. I have about five second-circle friends.

Third circle: These are all good people to hang out with, but I’m not likely to tell them the deep inner stuff. I struggle to call “friend” anyone whom I don’t trust knowing that I’m going through some tough stuff when that’s true. Friends in the third circle just don’t get to know what that tough stuff is.

Fourth circle: These are all acquaintances. I might do something with them if they come along with one of my friends in one of the other circles brings them along. I might have lunch or a beer with them if the opportunity presents itself. But I won’t share personal details.

Outside the fourth circle, you are neither friend nor acquaintance. You are just someone I know.

The more I trust you, the closer to the inner circle you come. Trust builds over time with a friend, and it involves both of us sometimes taking a risk and revealing something a little closer to the heart than we have before.

Sometimes, you take that risk and it doesn’t work out. You have to be prepared for that — and move people in and out of these circles accordingly. Sometimes, someone you’ve known for a long time might suddenly behave in a way that causes you to move them out one or more circles!

I encourage you to take those risks, however, as the reward can be deeply worth it. To have friends with whom you can be fully yourself, and thus fully vulnerable, is a rich blessing of life.

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