Understanding and forgiveness – I’m a failed befriender


It seemed the right thing to do; loneliness to me seems to be one of the most challenging things to face in older age in modern society and surely befriending could help? Two years ago in January I set out to try to offer something to help with loneliness somewhere. It took me ages to find a way of helping (blogs about that here and here) but earlier in 2015 I became a befriender for a small local charity.

I am no longer a befriender.

This feels like a confession but I equally feel compelled to write this down – It didn’t quite pan-out as I thought it would.

The charity, rightly, do loads of vetting before you can go one the list of befrienders. Interviews and CRB checks. We both went together, thinking that as a family unit we might be more helpful to someone. My husband is a great handyman and can be really helpful doing ‘jobs’. I am a consummate chatty coffee drinker and have loved working with older people all my nursing life. I know I’m friendly, chatty and kind.  What could go wrong?matching

It all started with the matching process really; for me it didn’t feel right at the start. The lady I went to see is lovely but I confess I didn’t feel the connection, somehow it didn’t feel right inside.  One of the primary reasons for ‘matching’ us is location, we live quite close to each other.  But even that didn’t feel like enough.

But that’s just me, right? Not trying hard enough?

I went every weekend for weeks and weeks. I learnt that she hadn’t asked for a befriender but her daughter, who lives 3 miles away, had done so. She has other family too who come fairly regularly, grandsons and their children. I got to know her and heard all about her family. But it still wasn’t right.

The task of visiting became more like a chore as the weeks went on. We did talk but there was no depth to our relationship.

She once said to me – ‘you don’t have to come you know!’ and I said to her ‘But I like to come’ – I lied.caring hands

From then onwards she seemed to think I was going for me, that it was me that needed her company. I continued to not to want to go but do so from a sense of duty and my natural optimism – ‘It will get better’ I used to tell myself.

But it didn’t and in the end I stopped going and I feel guilty.

What did I learn?

  • Relationships are organic and dynamic and sometimes two people may not connect.
  • Befriending is sophisticated and complex.
  • Just because you want to do good it doesn’t mean you can.
  • Kindness is a good start but it takes more to be a great befriender.
  • Lonely people and potential friends are tricky to match well.

I feel bad, I feel guilty but I have stepped away. I want to have a healthy befriending relationship not one where I don’t want to go and it feels like a duty and a chore.

I am rethinking my thoughts on loneliness and befriending. Perhaps in my naivety I was in fact patronising – of course I would be a great be-friender! Err, no Anne, it’s much more complicated than that.

So I continue to find ways I can help.  My next plan is to say hello to as many people as I pass in the street and smile more.  Being well-meaning isn’t enough – friendship is more than that.

Best friends at the seaside

Fun photos of friends at Scarborough beach

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14 thoughts on “Understanding and forgiveness – I’m a failed befriender

  1. What a brave and honest blog. Those of us who are fortunate enough to know you appreciate the original intention to share your kindness and warmth and respect your integrity which allowed you to withdraw from a situation that wasn’t quite right. I’m sure both of your lives are a little richer for the experience.

  2. Your blogs always have searing honesty and make us all think Annie. I bet your natural smile will have far more success than going through all the agencies in the world. Obviously very important to protect people but I think sometimes these arrangements are very artificial – if you go with your heart you will find people who appreciate your time and love 🙂 xx

  3. Thank for this honest, reflective piece. Like many, I’m sure, I’ve thought about exploring befriending but haven’t. I hope you give yourself credit for trying & also for recognising it wasn’t working and acting on that. Reflecting on why it didn’t work as hoped will help you find an alternative means of sharing your warmth & friendship and It’s great that you shared your insight with us. This process looks very familiar from nursing (& much else of course)! Xx

  4. I’m so sorry this didn’t work out. What you wrote was tremendously moving, and particularly important at a time when Befriending is being “scaled up” as “a solution to loneliness”, as a technology of well-being.

    Befriending is as much “a solution to loneliness” as a going to a restaurant is “a way of ensuring cooks have jobs.” Yes it is. But approached in that way kind of misses the point of both activities.

    Organisations who offer befriending need to be thoughtful about the way they broker relationships, and in particular adhere to the Iron Law of Successful Befriending. This states that to be successful, relationships must be
    a) elective (ie something both parties actively “want”)
    b) based on a shared interest (which has nothing to do with “being less lonely”)
    c) fun (ie enjoyable, and not a chore)
    d) mutual (ie who is giving and who is getting should not be or become lopsided)
    e) honest and straightforward about what’s working, and what’s not
    f) dissolved if any or all of conditions a-e cease to be met.

    From what you describe (and this may be unfair) more time and effort was put into the process of recruiting and vetting you, rather than ensuring strict adherence to the Iron Law.

    As a consequence, it’s left 2 people feeling slightly worse than before – which is not a great outcome for any service, let alone one that aims to help people feel better about themselves.

    But this is what happens when organisations allow themselves to become focused on process, rather than person centred. When a pathway becomes a tramline without brakes.

    It also ends up with a simple thing like meeting someone and having fun being thought of as complex and specialist. It’s not, when approached using the Iron Law.

    I’m really sorry this was your experience. It sounds rubbish for both of you. Which is why it’s important you try and tell the org about your experiences. They really will want to know.

  5. Hi Jon
    Thank you for your lovely comment and explaining the iron law. I have tried to feed back to the charity but maybe I can’t explain it well enough for them to understand. Their insistence that the lady was ‘lonely’ despite my questions went on for a while. And of course when you ask two essentially nice, possibly very British, people how things are going you are most likely to get the reply ‘oh good thank you’. I suspect that’s what the lady said.
    So constructive feedback is very hard to hear as well as give. But I will try again. Xx
    Ps you should blog yourself too. You have so much to tell us all that I love xxx

  6. Thanks Anne. Oh, it’s enough to make you weep: an org who thinks their opinion trumps that of the older lady herself. Meanwhile, happy in the fact they (and the daughter) were right all along, they forget that the match was a dud, and leave you (and the lady) questioning the value of the time spent.

    It’s hard to change the narrative that seeing a need, meaning well, and working hard are not all it takes for an org to be good at what it does. Higher moral purpose does not take away the need for reflection, especially for those who inveigle their way into the lives of others.

    People are too damn polite to meddling do-gooders (and I count myself as a meddling do-gooder). One of the nicest aspects of doing street outreach with homeless people was the refreshing candour with which many told us to go forth and do one. Unlike the polite acquiescence you describe as very British, their response embodied another traditional British value – a deep seated suspicion of people with money and status who reckon they want to help. Our motives (viewed through the lens of gender, class, poverty, ethnicity, and long-term disappointment) often appear quite opaque. Our own inability to publicly own our feelings (or willingness to suppress them in order to appear “professional”) adds to this suspicion, I’m sure.

    I’m also sure that the quickest way to build trust with someone is to listen, and find something you can help with, before asking for anything (or even offering an opinion) in return. To find something you can do to help (on someone else’s terms) demonstrates respect. If you (or the org you represent) can’t think of anything you can help them with (on their terms), then it’s worth considering if you’re the right people to do the help.

    Anyway sharing your story has been tremendously helpful in helping me reflect and think some things through. It’d be great if I could use your reflections as part of some group reflection/training with some befrienders I know. Would that be okay?

    As for blogging – you’ll note my first response was essentially a series of tweets. For some reason, I’m much happier tweeting than long form blogging. Although in this case, I relished the opportunity to present a person-centred response in the form of an inflexible process-model (ie the Iron(y) Law) in a way that Twitter would never allow. Thanks for letting me hijack your comments section.

  7. It sounds like the befriending wasn’t really needed in the end. You haven’t failed … You have put your hand up to get involved!
    If the experience has made you feel sad, remember happily back to your intuitive ‘how can I help you hear’ comment that became an important hashtag. That came from consideration for a friend 😊

  8. Hi Anne. What an interesting and honest blog. As a general point, I think finding satisfying voluntary work is more difficult than you expect. Since my husband died, lots of people have suggested volunteering (‘so many places are crying out for good, committed people!’) and full of enthusiasm, I contacted a well-known local organisation to offer my services. I had been told these people were on the look-out for helpers.

    Result: silence. Two-three months on, there has been no response to my application and follow-up phone calls have left me feeling fobbed off. I don’t know if their relatively high local profile camouflages an inner chaos so great that they cannot even process applications (I have heard rumours that this may be the case) or if it’s something else. Whatever the reason, making it so difficult and being so unwelcoming is not a great advert for voluntary work and makes you feel like there’s no point.

  9. Thank you everyone for your comments. You made me glad I wrote this down. I trembled a bit about it…. I normally write positive upbeat blogs, or I try to, but of course sometimes things are not like that.
    I’ve learnt a lot. I just hope you all have managed to hear some of my learning and the wisdom of my commenters A xxx

  10. ‘Don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains’ – anniecoops

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