Richard G. Petty, MD

Friendship and Psychological Distress

“To lose a friend is the greatest of all losses.”
Publilius Syrus (Syrian-born Latin Writer, 1st Century B.C.E.)

Severe and persistent mental illnesses are one thing, but there are many, many more people who are miserable and unhappy, without that unhappiness necessarily getting to the level of an “illness.” The offices of primary care physicians and therapists are full of people in genuine distress for all kinds of reasons.

I first began to think about this many years ago when a woman came to see me and promptly announced, “I’ve come for psychotherapy. I’ve been in therapy for seventeen years, and I want some more.” I wasn’t being in the slightest bit flippant when I responded by asking her if, after seventeen years, she really felt that it had offered her anything? She looked at me blankly, and it soon became very clear that what she needed was not more therapy, but a friend to talk to.

There has been another puzzle: why is it that women are more likely to develop depression than men? The most profound gender difference in mood disorders begins to emerge after puberty, so it would be easy to attribute it all to hormones. But that would be a mistake.

I recently pointed out that there are some fundamental differences in the ways in which men and women interact: women tending to be more relational and men tending to be more transactional. The female sense of self tends to be more entangled with her relationships, while a man’s self-worth and sense of self is more often associated with his achievements. Most of these differences begin to emerge in early puberty: when girls talk to their friends, their conversation tends to be more emotional and to be concerned primarily with relationships, while boys tend to be more reserved and to discuss facts, statistics and achievements. There is some evidence from research in different cultures that these different styles seem to be the norm throughout the world. Yes, there are of course plenty of people of both genders who behave differently, and so it is more accurate to relate these differences to the male and female factor or essence, rather than getting it confused with anatomical differences.

Emotional language tends to put more strain on a relationship, and it is well-recognized that girls’ relationships turn over much more rapidly than boys’ ones. An interesting hypothesis proposed some years ago by Professor Sir David Goldberg, is that this high turnover in relationships may lead girls to experience more disappointing experiences in their social networks, and it is this string of disappointments that predisposes young women to depression.

A happy, healthy, dynamic network of friends is a cornerstone of developing and maintaining psychological resilience. Without them you become progressively more vulnerable to the reversals that affect all of us from time to time.

“A friend might well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson (American Poet and Essayist, 1803-1882)

“To know how to live in a brotherly way with those around us is to be rich, for each of us, with our face, eyes, voice and thoughts, contributes something alive, something warm, which nourishes everyone.”
Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov (Bulgarian Spiritual Master, 1900-1986)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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