“The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble.” So says David Whyte, poet and philosopher. If it sounds dramatic; it is. Whyte articulates what’s missing in many peoples’ lives, which we might not notice until it’s too late. Often, we’ve been too focused on work or immediate family that when a crisis occurs there is no-one to call on.
This is in direct contrast with how society teaches us to be: Self-sufficiency is held to be what we should all strive for – reaching out is weakness. And yet, we hear a lot about depression these days. In their videoed stories in national depression initiatives, people tell how they survived depression, they make mention of friends sustaining them through the dark days. The quiet encouraging whisper of a friend at the end of the day can make all the difference in getting the strength to get up again.
But as precious as true friends are, the question becomes how do you make friends, real friends that you can count on, as an adult? On the surface it looks like an easy problem: Get out, join a club, or in today’s world, join an internet meetup group. Most of us that have done these things with high hopes of long lasting friendships can quickly dispel the idea that friendships happen spontaneously. In fact as with much of psychology, the idea of an external fix (e.g., join a club, find like-minded people in a similar life stage) is not the full story. Having said that, if it works for you, keep doing it!
While there is definitely truth to the fact that if you hang out for long enough with the same people you’ll start to talk and build familiarity with them, it’s also true that just been physically close (e.g.,neighbours, work colleagues, coffee group meet ups where all you have in common is a similar age baby) doesn’t mean you will like each other.
This year a book was published called “The Like Switch.” In it, an ex-FBI agent turned psychologist talks through the tools to “influence, attract and win people over.” He includes a friendship formula: proximity + frequency + intensity + duration. This seems like an incredibly dry way to describe the magic that comes from knowing another person, but does point to the fact that it takes ongoing contact of sufficient intensity to make a lasting connection.
Learning how to make friends is largely about knowing yourself, your values (in other words, why bother going to the effort ), your mind ( how it will talk you in or out of contacting people and whether you can let the thoughts/feelings be there and act skilfully) and your passions (what excites you and feeds your soul). Your confidence in dealing with your trigger points plays a part too – the dramas that play out in friendships usually reflect patterns you have learned through your life.
Let’s start with a familiar scenario:
Have you ever met someone and had the immediate thought, “they are really great, I’d like to get to know them better?” What’s the next thing that happens? For many of us, this is when our minds start churning out reasons not to make the next move: “they’re probably busy, they probably have enough friends, seems like they are really happy with their life how it is, I don’t want to be needy/desperate, if they are interested they’ll contact me…” If we’re having a really judgemental day and didn’t get enough sleep last night, the thoughts might include more self judgement “I’m not good enough, smart enough, witty enough to hang out with them.” If they have a partner/family your mind uses that too, “they probably only hang out with other couples/people with children…”
These thoughts are obstacles that might pop up even if you have been brave enough to make the first move and get their number/email address; the pressure of calling or emailing is subject to the same thoughts and you might not ever get to actually making contact. The thoughts can be accompanied by fear in the form of panic or anxiety, which might result in taking no action (freeze response), but later you regret not having followed up when you felt like there was a connection worth pursuing.
So far, so difficult – we are facing similar vulnerabilities as asking someone out on a date: putting ourselves out there to potentially be shot down. So how can we work with ourselves when faced with the dilemma of “I want the friendship but not the anxiety?”
What are your values?
You have to know why you are going after this friendship and how you want to be (even if you don’t get the response you want). These are your values. For example, if one of your values is authenticity for example, you will want to share your feelings even though your move may not be reciprocated.
Knowing that friendship involves showing yourself and risking getting hurt is a good start in acknowledging the vulnerabilities inherent in getting close to people.
Are you willing to do what it takes in order to create what is important to you? Are you willing to try a number of times with a number of people until you find the right fit? Values help you make room for uncomfortable thoughts and feelings like those mentioned above to get a more meaningful life.
Next, working with your mind: how do you deal with those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings?
An underrated skill is that of acceptance. We are conditioned to fight for what we want and try and make unwanted experiences go away. We’re good at this: our minds are expert rational problem solving machines, we take pain medication for headaches, and avoid experiences we don’t feel good in. What’s necessary is to get familiar with the particular ways your mind talks you out of things that ultimately would make your life better. If you can accept that your mind will ratchet up a particular story when you are feeling vulnerable, you can notice it without it determining your actions.
How has your learning history influenced life patterns?
All of us come to relationships with different life histories and stories. People who find it difficult to make friends in a particular stage of life might benefit by reflecting on their past friendships. What do your friends know about you that they don’t say? I often ask my clients how their friends would describe them. This gives them a clue as to 1) first impressions 2) barriers to connection/friendship.
Typical traps that people get stuck in include trying to be what they think others want, i.e., the people pleaser who is so practiced at turning themselves inside out meeting other’s needs, they forget their own. They first come across as easy going, having no strong opinions but can leave people clueless about who they really are. This type of person will often do a lot for others (e.g., cook for them when sick, help with childcare etc) but be puzzled and bewildered that the offers are not reciprocated. This ultimately builds anger and resentment and friendships might be abruptly cut off.
The other extreme is not knowing how to be vulnerable enough to let people in. People seem distant, aloof and hard to get to know. They may have shut down from early life e.g., gotten hurt too often so blocked themselves off. They have experienced critical or avoidant parents and worked hard to not show who they are, which at some stage of their lives was necessary and protective.
While the extremes above tend to come from childhood, there is also the experience that comes from your life as an adult – the rejections and heartbreaks you’ve endured will have given you messages that you have consciously or unconsciously woven into how you present yourself to the world. A question to consider if you are willing to do this inner work is, how do you make sense of the friendship beginnings and endings you’ve experienced? What is your contribution to the dynamics that have played out? It takes courage to own our own stuff, how we contribute to unpleasant uncomfortable dynamics, but ironically this means greater freedom and risk in choosing friendships going forward.
Finally, knowing your values and mind helps in knowing what excites you and makes you feel alive. Coming from a place of groundedness in knowing who you are makes it much easier to connect to others. You find commonalities and common purpose which line up your internal and external world.
The last word goes to David Whyte who gets to the heart of what it means to have a meaningful friendship :
“the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”