"My friends are my estate," wrote Emily Dickinson. Though many people filter in and out of your life, it's the ones who become friends that often define how you measure our success and happiness as human beings. According to Dr. Jan Yager, author of "Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives," the ultimate tests of fidelity in counting your true friends derive from time, circumstance and the respective personal challenges faced by both parties.
Make a list of the people in your life to whom you feel the closest as well as those you've known the longest. Reflect on the circumstances of your first meeting and whether that environment is still your primary connection point. Alan Loy McGinnis, author of "The Friendship Factor: How to Get Closer to the People You Care For," stresses the importance of making time and space for your friends. If, for example, you first met in high school, subsequently moved to opposite sides of the country but still talk and get together on a regular basis, this is likely a stronger bond than one where you don't interact or socialize outside the context of a mutual office, church or club.
Assess the communication skills of the friends on your list. Consider whether they listen attentively, offer feedback and remember the details you've told them. According to McGinnis, this generally reflects a better friend than the one that repeatedly interrupts you, turns every conversation back to herself and can't recall anything you've said. A true friend ignores distractions to give you 100 percent of her attention and offer feedback in a constructive, nonjudgmental way. True friends can disagree about things but never escalate anger and criticism beyond the issue being discussed.
Consider whether your friends are primarily givers or takers. Roger and Sally Horchow, father and daughter authors of "Friendship: 70 Simple Rules for Making Meaningful Connections," explain that true friends are more interested in giving than receiving. These are the ones that go the extra mile to help you, perform favors without being asked and derive pleasure just from seeing a smile on your face. They do these things without expectation of return because their love is unconditional. Acquaintances, the Horchows illustrate, tend to make promises of fidelity based on how many favors you'll do for them first.
Reflect on challenges in your friendships. Think of occasions when others might have embarrassed or hurt you and why. While some people may hurt your feelings unintentionally, others may do so on purpose, even if they call you a friend. Jan Yager, author of "When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal With Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You," emphasizes that toxic relationships have an adverse effect on your confidence and self-esteem. A true friend understands your vulnerabilities and would do nothing to jeopardize the trust between you.
Accept that all friendships are a work-in-progress. According to Yager, the sign of a healthy friendship is one in which both partners are allowed to grow and change in order to become their best possible selves. A friend who doesn't embrace personal evolution as a reality of life needs the friendship to remain static because it's the only venue in which he knows how to operate. True friends don't resort to this control mechanism because what defines the union is acceptance and encouragement.