Childhood and adolescence was a time filled with organic and convenient opportunities to develop friendships. Whether you were in the same class for years, in extracurricular or team sports, friendships seemed to just fall into place. For most adults, this is anything but the case, with increased roles and responsibilities, such as obligations to spouses, partners, children, or bosses it may seem downright impossible to sustain any semblance of a social life in the limited free time an adult has.
A meta-analysis conducted in 2013 concluded that friendship networks had been shrinking for the last 35 years. Adult loneliness is a real thing and is important to avoid as some studies suggest loneliness and lack of social connections puts individuals at higher risk for depression. In another study, researchers found that the key difference between those who were the most unhappy and those who were the most happy were the social connections they had. As a therapist, I often work with clients on how to make deliberate efforts in order to get out of their comfort zone and make new connections, or I also teach skills to invest in deeper connections with current friendships. If you’re feeling stumped on how to make new connections or if you’re wanting to nourish and deepen your current connections, read along.
It’s important to normalize the reality that friendships in adulthood shift for many important reasons. As we evolve, we typically want friends who share the same values as us in a way that perhaps wasn’t on our radar as children and adolescents. Despite the convenience factor with making friends in childhood, simply being on the same sports team doesn’t guarantee you would vibe with other aspects of a person’s character in order to be strong friends. As adults we usually want to ensure we are seen by our friends and that they will support us through life’s many chapters, and vice versa.
So how does one go about making new connections?
An enlightening exercise I would do with a client is have them create a list of the qualities they desire in the ideal friend and then we get creative with imagining where that exact person spends their time and hangs out. After this step, I challenge them to make deliberate efforts to spend time in those spaces where they would most likely meet this person. For instance, if you want a friend who is emotionally mature and also lives a sober lifestyle, where might they spend their time, what communities or places would you find them? I also help my clients on getting crystal clear on what they have to offer a friendship. Why would someone want you in their circle? If recognizing your strengths as a friend is difficult, then we may work on self esteem building. Vulnerability is essential in making new friends and with this comes the normal fears of rejection. We have to be able to tolerate the distress involved with this in order to put ourselves out there.
If you’re struggling with initiation when coming across someone new, I want to normalize that vulnerability is hard, rejection is possible and the potential benefits are worth it. I encourage my clients to assume that others’ like them versus not. One research study suggests that when we assume others’ like us we act in ways that make these beliefs more likely to come true. They suggest that if you go into social interactions more open and less defensive and you share more about yourself that it’s more likely others will indeed like you. Instead of focusing on the fear of rejection we gently challenge the idea that others don’t like us in the first place and go in with more openness. When my clients witness themselves behaving in a new way or that none of their fears happened it builds confidence and resilience, which are necessary ingredients for developing friendships.
Already have connections but you want to go deeper with them?
A skill that is often not taught is the art of active listening and clear communication. Few people are naturally great listeners and most of us need to practice skills which may be exactly what is standing in the way of you feeling more connected and supported in your friendships. First, it’s important to check-in with yourself when interacting with others, are you in your head? Distracted? Try shifting your focus entirely on the other person. In order to truly understand and see another person we need to be present. Second, this should go without saying, but please put the phone away and also be conscious of body language. Lastly, drop the agenda - resist urges to interrupt, give advice, or relate to what the other person is sharing. Active listening is being able to reflect back what you heard the other person say and using their language allows the person to feel truly seen and understood by you. When others feel this way, they are more likely to feel safe with us and invest in the relationship in return.
If you typically take on the role of always being the listener in your relationships, perhaps find ways to ask for what you need. If you need to work on sharing more about yourself and leaning on your friends for support, check to see if they have the emotional capacity for that before sharing, or schedule a time when they can be all ears. Often two people enter conversations without clarity on what they need or what their role is. If we express both straight away it usually allows for everyone feeling satisfied with the interaction.
Erica Basso is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist practicing statewide in California. She helps guide women in overcoming anxiety, perfectionism, and relationship challenges. To learn more about working with her, visit www.ericabassotherapy.com.