On Friendship, Flow and First Impressions

by Ellen Nordahl on March 2, 2010

There have been a handful of times in my life when I’ve just met someone and immediately known – without a moment’s hesitation – that we would become true friends. When a mutual friend introduced me to Carly, I was bored to tears in Zoology lecture.  Within two minutes of talking to her, I had a feeling that she and I would be a force to be reckoned with.  I didn’t have any hesitation or insecurities in befriending her – there weren’t any elements of my personality that I tried to “play up” while masking others.

At other times, I’ve met people only to be instantly turned off by their demeanor.  They may have uttered just a few sentences, but something about the vibe they gave off made me feel as though for some reason I couldn’t quite articulate, I should be cautious in getting to know them (or avoid the process completely).

However, I realize that I don’t always make first impressions that are truly characteristic of my personality.  I can be guarded, and seem aloof or distant when really I’m just trying to get a feel for the individual or the situation.  So, I push my intuition aside and decide to “give it a go.”  Such was the case with my former roommate, who I refer now to as “She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named” because she’s the female counterpart to Lord Voldemort.  I only wish I was joking.

When I first met Lady V, I was completely put off by her egotism and attitude of entitlement; her interests seemed to lie not in people, but in what people could do for her.  Long story short, when we were living with 3 other roommates, I gave her a chance and forged a friendship with her.

Things were fine until we moved into an apartment by ourselves.  Every nagging suspicion, every assumption that I had initially made about her but later written off as foolish, proved to be true.  While living with her, I was in a constant stage of agitation and anxiety.  I felt like a prisoner in my own home – should I open my bedroom door to find her sitting on the living room couch, her only acknowledgement of my existence was to shoot me the stink eye and go back to watching her favorite TV drama: The Hills.

You may have heard of the concept of “flow” at work or in a psychology class.  Mihayli Csíkszentmihályi established the idea in his 1990 work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  By definition, flow is “the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy…”

With a friend like Carly, I was completely myself from the get-go – the way I am only around my family and long-established friends.  It was (and is) the concept of “flow” applied to friendship.  When you’re with that person, you are spontaneous, energized and happy to be alive even though all you’re doing is laying around listening to Radiohead while pondering the merits of a summer road trip.  You’re fully involved in the conversation -  not daydreaming or hiding an eye roll thinking, “oh great…here we go again.”  There’s no anxiety or agitation – there’s only joy.

Csíkszentmihályi identified 9 elements of flow in his research.  When you spend time with an individual you are truly yourself with, 8 of the 9 appear in abundance.

-  There’s immediate feedback to one’s actions
-  Action and awareness are merged
-  There’s a balance between challenges and skills
-  There is no worry of failure
-  Distractions are excluded from consciousness
-  Self-consciousness disappears
-  The sense of time becomes distorted
-  The activity becomes “autotelic” (an end in itself, done for it’s own sake).

Some friends drain you.  They call you only to unload a myriad of complaints while waiting for the obligatory pep talk and ever-insightful words of encouragement.  Naturally, every friend requires a solid reminder of their awesomeness every now and then, but you know the type I’m talking about – the 80% “all about me” with the half thought-out “so, how are things going for you?”

The best friends are those with whom you are true to your own nature, but who also challenge you to explore the unknown and get out of your routine.  They have the remarkable ability to make you lose all sense of self-consciousness – like when they drag you onto the dance floor at a show (and you’re awkwardly lanky and profess not to dance in the continental US)…and 3 minutes later, you’re gettin’ down like it’s your full time j-o-b.

When you meet someone and feel like it’s “flow,” go with it.  Relish the freedom of being you – no pretenses, no red flags, no sweeping things under the rug.  And heed the warnings of your intuition: if something about the person you just met doesn’t sit right with you, trust yourself.  Research has shown that the correlation between first impressions and long-term perceptions is remarkably strong.  And, when you’re choosing friends, remember Csíkszentmihályi’s words of wisdom:

“Repression is not the way to virtue. When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished.”

  • http://rummaged-and-ransacked.blogspot.com/ ciaradawn

    it's so hard to find those friends that you can “flow” with. In 26 years I've met 2 and I am holding on to those two friends with all I have! We don't even live in the same state anymore but we are totally bonded. I remember meeting my oldest friend. We were in 4th grade. That first impression must've done it because we've been “flowing” ever since.

    Although I gotta say, sometimes we do sweep things under the rug, like the time she dated my brother and broke his heart. I can't talk to her about it and I can't lose her as a friend. So we sweep it under the rug. And the fact that I'm getting divorced and she didn't want me to. We don't talk about that. She's in my corner but maybe there are things she doesn't say. But it's the fact that we don't let those things get in the way of our friendship that make us “flow”.

  • katethegr8

    Elle the first night we “flowed” in that Pallisade apt full of, well to put it lightly, “colorful” personalities (some of them poo-colada brown) we might of had a best selling book or reality show on our finger tips. :) I'm thankful to have such wonderful friend like you in my basket to continue to weave new adevnturous memories to look back on when we're driving around golf carts sipping Arnie Palmers as fabulous retirees in Florida or somewhere where we can embrace our wrinkles. :)

  • Haleybop

    Miss Ellen! This was an amazing entry! I felt from the first time that I met you that we “flowed”….(right use of the word??). I felt so comfortable and understood and so interested in all that you had to offer and it didnt even require work! I have to admit that I feel as though I have been the 80% friend lately. I appologize and want you to know that you are so wise and wonderful. Keep up the awesome articles. Talk to you soooon

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