Have you ever noticed you can go weeks or even months or years without really connecting with a friend, but when you see one another it feels like no time has passed? That is because the bonds we develop with complete strangers (at one point in our lives) can last longer than relationships we share with family members. Family is not chosen, but friends are, and that is why those bonds can be more impactful on increasing and maintaining mental health stability.
In the book, Our Emotional Footprint, by Saul Levine, MD, he points out that the personal and positive nature of friendship is voluntary because we are a social species that need that sense of belonging and acceptance that we find in cherished friendships. However, It can be very difficult to make and keep friends, and please know it is completely normal to not have friends. One in five people report having no real friendships. Imagine that every fifth person you meet has no close friends. Visualizing this can help us feel less weird and alienated: You're never alone feeling lonely.
Danielle Bayard, a friendship coach, identified that extroverts struggle to make friends because while they seem talkative, they might not go deep with people. Introverts struggle because their energy comes from being alone. Those with social anxiety struggle because they are in their head and second guess themselves. People without friends often experience the vulnerability of loneliness. When we get lonely, we start to think about the past, overthink about current stressors, and even work ourselves into panic or worry about the future. Having someone to reach out to in times of uncertainty, pain, sadness, and joy, or just to vent our emotions and share experiences with improve mental health.
Friends give us the truth we sometimes don’t want to hear, but need to in order to make better, healthier decisions. Friends allow us to feel comfortable being ourselves, even in times we don’t feel we’re at our best. Positive, healthy friendships are resilient through life’s challenges and provide support when needed. Oftentimes, however, our friends take a back seat to life’s other commitments, such as work and family. That is a mistake according to science journalist Lydia Denworth. She argues that friendships can help us find purpose and meaning, stay healthy, and live longer.
Friends give us so much, which is why we need to invest in making them. Here’s how:
Assume that people like you.
Practice ‘overt avoidance’; meaning don’t avoid social situations where you have the potential to meet new people. Not feeling confident can hinder one’s motivation to attend that work picnic, community gathering, or social event, but say ‘yes’ anyway.
This can be the most difficult step for many people. Break the ice and start a conversation. While this can be uncomfortable, we have to put in effort. Assuming connections with others will just happen organically is a myth.
Keep showing up.
Once we have made contact with someone and initiated a connection, accept that invite and show up. Yes, anxiety and vulnerability can set in, doubt, and fears of being rejected or put in an uncomfortable situation may fill your head. Don’t allow those negative thoughts and worries to allow that connection you made be for nothing.
Vulnerability is the next step in deepening those connections you made. Open up to those individuals about your family, past experiences, likes, dislikes. Share who you are with them.
I admit it gets harder to make friends as we get older, we have to put ourselves out there and try because having friends actually makes us happier. While the most common place to make friends is at work or school, we might have to try other places for the opportunity to make connections. Here are a few:
So, make yourself available, join a club, and put yourself out there to make some strong bonds that can have everlasting friendships. If you struggle with social anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, there is help out there that can assist in reducing the negative symptoms that hinder making connections with others. Learning and utilizing problem solving techniques and coping skills, role playing exercises in therapy, and identifying, challenging, and reframing negative cognitions can allow you to open up more freely to others and start making connections.