One of the complaints I hear often from my clients is that it’s hard to make friends, especially as an adult. When I drill deeper, what I discover is that, most of the time, there actually are people in their lives with whom they spend time—but they don’t feel connected, and they blame that on the lack of “friendship” or connection with the other person.

The truth, of course, is that the feeling of isolation or alienation is not caused by the other person. It’s caused by their thoughts.

That’s the opposite of how most of us think friendship works. We think it’s a mutual connection where some mysterious alchemy between two people produces an emotional state and relationship. I don’t think that’s how it works at all.

I think you can just decide you’re friends with someone, even if they don’t know you’re friends—even if they don’t know you exist!

Think about it: Some of you hear me in your brain even when you’re not listening to the podcast or reading my emails and feel a connection to me. You think about me, spend time with me via my teachings. You probably kind of feel like we’re friends, don’t you?

I don’t think that’s weird or delusional—I think it’s true for you. We are friends for you, because you experience the positive feelings of friendship when you think about me. You feel connected to me and care about what’s going on in my life. You feel supported and helped by me. And I feel that way about you.

How is that possible? It’s because our thoughts cause the positive emotions we associate with friendship. Our thoughts cause connection, caring, feeling supported, feeling love, and feeling loved. You can be friends with me without me even knowing! And I can feel connected to you without even knowing exactly who you are.

Isn’t that fun? It means you can have so many friends if you want to, and you can feel the benefits of that friendship when you think about them.

Here’s something even crazier: You can be friends with someone who knows you exist but doesn’t even like you. Whether you know they don’t like you or not, if you want to feel connected to them, you can.

If you think about the things you like about them, you’ll feel connected to them and feel affection (or even love) for them. You’re enjoying their existence and the friendship in your own mind, and they don’t have to participate. They don’t even have to agree you’re friends. If you think about how funny, interesting, and smart they are, you’ll feel friendly towards them, regardless of what they feel about you.

This sounds crazy because most of us think of friendships as transactional. Most of us would say friendship is about loving, giving support, and being there for the other person, but we only want to do that if we’re getting a direct return on our investment. We only want to love, give support, and be there for the other person if we believe they’re doing the same thing for us.

And many of us want our friends to validate us. We track who issues invitations more, who texts or calls more, who asks what kinds of questions. We keep this running tally to analyze whether someone is performing well in the role of “friend.” But meanwhile, all this measuring and analyzing is blocking us from feeling connected, which is the whole point of friendship.

I frequently get questions from people who want to know when they should “stop putting so much into” friendships where, say, they are the person who always initiates plans. It reminds me of the idea that you shouldn’t have sex with people who haven’t “earned” it by following your manual about how they should behave. This is so backwards to me. Sex is fun; hanging out with your friends feels good. Why would you deny yourself that pleasure, in either scenario, based on your opinion about someone else’s behavior?

Friendship (or sex, for that matter) isn’t a reward you dole out for other people acting the way you want them to. If you enjoy spending time with your friends, you can either keep spending time with them or stop. You get to choose between those alternatives, but it’s good to know why you make whatever choice you make.

Your friends aren’t there to create your feelings, solve your problems, do the heavy lifting for your self-esteem, or otherwise take responsibility for your unmanaged mind and emotions. Your friends are there for you to love them. That’s it.

When you love them, you get to feel that love, and it feels amazing. When you choose not to love them—when you choose to withhold or trade your love based on whether they are following your manual for how you want them to take responsibility for your feelings—you’re the only one who’s hurt. You’re the one who feels the opposite of love—whether that’s anger, hurt, resentment, or shame.

So next time you’re thinking about a friend, remember their only job is to be there for you to love them—not to validate your choices, make you feel popular or special, invite you to their birthday party, or initiate plans to solve your feeling of insecurity (which doesn’t work anyway). It’s just to be there, being who they are.

You get to decide whether to love them or not, and the more you work on loving them, the easier you’ll find it to love yourself. And then you’ll be your own best friend, which is an incredible place to be.