Most of us value the opinion of our friends more than the opinion of some stranger off the street. This is true especially when it’s a question of who we think can offer the best account of our character. Unlike strangers or occasional acquaintances, we know our friends and they know us. Indeed, friends tend to know each other better than anyone else. It is my contention that friends know each other better because of the sort of relationship they have. Our friends know us so well not only because we disclose our identities more fully to them, but also because our identities are more closely linked to our friends. Though we have usually developed a sense of self by the time we enter into most of our friendships, once they are entered into these friendships—and typically alter—that understanding.
Like other close relationships, friendship is a relation that exerts a special influence on the self. This relation’s unique capacity to affect personal identity results from the level of intimacy it encourages and the security that it offers the individuals involved. Though the effects of friendship on personal identity may not be as dramatic as the effects of the relations that individuals have with their parents or care-givers during their formative years, the friendships that individuals have in childhood and over the course of their lives do serve to shape their selves. As relational theories like Sartre’s explain, a sense of self not only emerges within a social framework, it is something that is affected continually by social relations. Though our sense of self tends to achieve an increasing degree of stability as we move toward adulthood, our selves are never fixed. Rather, our selves are always evolving. As we grow and change through the course of our lives, so too does our conception of self. Our selves change subtly but constantly in response to our relations to others and the information these relations provide.
Friendships are especially influential when it comes to the self because we let ourselves go with our friends. Unlike in other situations in which individuals may feel that they need to be on guard or otherwise forthcoming with respect to personal information, individuals tend to tell and show all to their friends. Individuals are less reserved in their speech and behavior with friends than they are with others generally. Individuals tend to be more open with their friends because they feel safe with them. The open and honest communications that friendships encourage are important to the formation of self because selves are formed relationally. As Sartre argues, a self is an idea that an individual forms reflexively in response to the information she derives from her social relations. Our relations with others allow us to see ourselves. In order to show us ourselves, others need information. Without ample and accurate information, others cannot do that effectively. Without a reasonable degree of openness, the understanding of self that an individual can derive from her relationships is at best a superficial one.
Real friendships however are not superficial. We trust our friends and tend to be open and honest with them. We are able derive a dependable sense of ourselves from our friendships because we share ourselves more fully with our friends and because we trust the information they offer. Our friendships contribute to the shaping of our selves because of the unique closeness and camaraderie that they promote. Unlike with other individuals, we share our deepest thoughts and dreams with our friends. The trust and closeness implicit in the relation makes it possible for us to tell our friends our most embarrassing secrets. Often without knowing what will result from the activity, we spill our hearts out to our friends. Often to our surprise, the relations we have with our friends make us to realize things we never knew about ourselves. The conversations we have with our friends commonly compel individual insight. The unexpected arguments we engage in often expose deeply held personal principles. The experiences we share disclose to us interests and dispositions that were hitherto unknown. Ultimately, giving ourselves over to friendship gives us a fuller sense of ourselves. Friendships inform our sense of self because the journey to self is one of mutual discovery. Selves are forged through our associations with others. The structures of our selves are affected by each successive relation. Friendships influence the shaping of self more than other sorts of relations because we are so deeply invested in them.