Last week I had a fabulous evening catching up with a close friend I hadn’t seen for a few months. One of thosenights! Tucked away in a snug London bar, a couple of glass of wine down, she is gesturing animatedly as she fills me in on the last couple of months in her soft Irish lilt. As the evening wears on, not only do I begin waving my arms wildly to intensify my points, it appears that suddenly I too have a hint of the Irish about my voice! To anyone watching from a distance we would seem like two good friends who are alike. What has actually happened is that over the course of our evening together we have become synchronised.

 We have a natural tendency to imitate those around us if we spend long enough in their company – subconsciously copying their expressions, gestures and their intonation. It’s a form of human behaviour psychologists term as ‘mirroring’, and to me this is fascinating. Do we choose our friends because they are similar to us at the outset or do we develop these similarities over the course of the friendship? You have to question – how exactly does the company we keep determine who we are?

It’s human instinct for most of us to want a sense of belonging, acceptance and to be part of a community. We gather a friendship base around us, and it doesn’t matter what age we are­ –childhood, school and university to our jobs, neighbours, hobbies or just a holiday – it seems there are always more friends out there to be made. And mostly we are thrown together by chance. We recognise a common thread and begin to nurture this aspect of each other as we go along. We start to share likes, dislikes and opinions, we develop a similar language of words and phrases, we introduce friends to friends and it feels good to be accepted into a group. It’s not that we are losing our individuality but more that our willingness to coincide in a social setting helps us to feel safe.

Our friends become a backbone of support when we have problems. Difficult decisions, choices to be made, a bad relationship or just a hard day all get laid out for advice and reassurance. It’s not that we are asking them to solve our problems, but if we are in unfamiliar territory we want to see how it could be done. Ultimately, any decision is going to be our own, but we do tend to look to those around us for cues on how to act. And if we’ve surrounded ourselves with people who have had similar experiences or made the same choices, it helps to validate our judgement.

Positivity Post, a site that publishes practical articles and news about positive thinking, offers an interesting insight:  “… the people we choose to be around shape our experiences — they influence the way we think, act, see the world and live our lives. Whether we’re fully conscious of it or not, the people we call our “friends”frame our personal reality — they are a direct reflection of who we are today, and thus, will affect the person we will become tomorrow.”

To a certain extent this is true. Our friends do rub off on us. How they think and act in any situation becomes embedded into our subconscious over the years so that when we need a way forward, it can guide us. It does make sense, but equally we’re not going to embrace every character quality, like or dislike and adopt it as our own. I can’t say I’d take up stamp collecting or basket weaving with gleeful abandon, but it doesn’t mean that the friend who does can’t impact my life in other inspiring ways. The number of friends I’ve tried to entice into my Sunday night dance class – they’re having none of it. So we’re not always going to agree with our friends or do the things they want to do. We need to be challenged so it would probably make for a very dull friendship if we did.

For me, my friendships are paramount. They get me through. But if the notion that the company we keep can determine who we are is true – and regardless of whether similarities are what drew us to these friends in the first place, developed over time or a combination of both – it’s clear that we do need to choose our friends wisely.

Surrounding ourselves with friends who are a positive influence is essential because their positivity will be infectious, in the same way that someone with immense self-discipline can only help to boost our own willpower. The friend who makes us laugh when we need it the most, who is essentially happy and upbeat, lifts our mood. Their optimism is catching. We might choose our friends in that moment of chance when we see a hint of shared humour and thinking, but if we have chosen wisely, they will be friends for life. Most importantly, if our friends see us as how we would like to be, it can only give us the self-belief to go on and be that person.

So – anyone for a spot of dancing?

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