Friendships have been the subject of many a great song, book, film (hello, Thelma and Louise), and even a sitcom based on the simple premise of six friends living in New York City that’s still finding new fans nearly 30 years after it first aired. In our own lives, friends can be many things: someone to laugh with, cry with, hear us out, help us out, or simply hang out with. One recent study found that having and meeting friends and good-quality friendships were associated with high overall life satisfaction, while low-quality friendships could elicit anxiety. It’s no wonder the Italian philosopher Thomas Aquinas once said, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.”
Yet, like any relationship, friendships take work, whether it’s making new friends or keeping the ones we have. It can also be unnerving when a friendship isn’t working out. But, thankfully, there are expert strategies for navigating the many ins and outs of making, keeping, and even letting go of friends.
Before you can figure out the best way to make friends, you need to look at what stage of life you’re in because friendships correspond to those stages, according to Andrea Smoak, founder of Your Girlfriend Next Door Friendship Coaching. She says as children, we tend to form friendships based on common interests. As we become adults, that focus often changes.
“As we go to adulthood, there’s a level of competition,” says Smoak. “It can be careers or women with children competing with other mothers. There’s an underlying ‘What can this person do for me?’ When you’re younger, it’s more about ‘What can I do for them?’ As we get older, the balance is not there.”
Then, as we reach our 30s and 40s, Smoak says life choices and maturity often cause our friend group to dwindle down to those who share our common outlook and goals. Later, as people become empty nesters, friendships can once again change. “Up to that point, your world was your children, and without that, you may not have much in common with other parents anymore,” says Smoak.
In addition to the life stages of our friendships, we also make different types of friends throughout our lives, says Smoak.
“We show up differently for different types of friendship,” she says. “A great example is the coworker you can rely on, who you’re more serious and reserved with. Then there’s that girlfriend from high school you can relax and have a good time with. I call that your ‘best friend/sister/girlfriend,’ and you might not even ever introduce her to your coworker friend.”
Knowing what stage of life you’re in, the type of friendship you’re looking for — and what type of friend you want to be — can help you when you’re looking to cultivate friendships. For those who want to make new friends, the biggest obstacle is often mindset, according to leadership coach Debra Joy. “Mostly, what stops us is fear,” she says. “It may come disguised as lack of interest or ‘busy-ness,’ but often our unconscious or conscious fear of rejection holds us back. Even when we secretly long for connection and intimacy, our fear can stop us.”
Joy says the best way to overcome that fear is to notice where, how, and when you’re safe. “Really feel that in your body. That helps your nervous system regulate so you can access your higher thinking. Then take small steps toward what you want,” she adds.
Smoak says a great place to start is by finding others with common interests. “Figure out what you like to do,” she says. “If it’s riding roller coasters, join a roller coaster club. Make everything simplified. Whether it’s roller coasters, crocheting, or photography, find those with similar interests.”
Many people have relocated during the pandemic, and finding others who share our hobbies and interests can be a great way to make friends when we’re new in town. Joy, who’s relocated herself several times, wrote a blog on steps to take when you want to make new friends, including connecting with nature, your passion, and a cause.
And, while social media allows us to stay connected when we or others move and makes communication and meeting others easier, it’s not a replacement for in-person friendships, says Joy.
“Social media by its very design is addictive, and it wires our brain to seek distraction. We get instant hits of gratification, and our craving for more increases,” she says. “This can mask our need for true engagement and meaning. Friendships can be diminished to transactions. Social media can fuel our sense of competition and fear of missing out. All of this can make us feel more vulnerable and alone, which can make it harder to reach out.”
During pandemic lockdowns, a lot of us became isolated from friends, both casual and close. Now, as the world slowly begins opening up again, you might be putting off reaching out to those you haven’t seen because you don’t know what to say. But, that only makes things worse, says Joy.
“A funny thing happens when we haven’t connected with someone in a while,” she says. “We feel awkward because it’s been a long time, so we don’t reach out. Then more time goes by. We feel more awkward because more time’s gone by.”
The easiest thing to do is just take that first step and text or call the person you’re thinking about, advises Joy. “Just act. Don’t worry about getting it right. If you don’t know what to say, lead with appreciation,” she adds.
Smoak says you can start the conversation by saying things as simple as “I wanted you to know I was thinking about you” or “I wanted to let you know you’re on my mind.”
There’s an old saying, “To have a friend, you need to be a friend.” Making sure to show the friends we have how much they mean to us can keep those valued friendships strong. One way to do so is by having what Smoak refers to as a “sister circle” on a regular basis. “One of the fun things you can do is to have a gathering for a heart-to-heart session,” she says. “Make it neutral ground where you can go around the table and say whatever you like. There is no judging. Just allow each person to be heard. Make it a place to indulge, love, and support one another.”
Another way to let friends know you appreciate them is by giving “just because” gifts. “If a friend likes tulips, pick them up some tulips,” Smoak says. “So often we put emphasis on birthdays and anniversaries. Show up for them in ways that are unexpected.”
Those with spouses or partners can also tend to neglect their friendships. “Make sure your friend also gets some time,” Smoak says. “For example, say, ‘Every third Thursday, I want to do something special with you.’”
Unfortunately, the time might come when we question if we want to keep certain friendships. Breaking off a friendship should never be a kneejerk reaction, say both Smoak and Joy. Instead, it’s something you want to evaluate and take your time thinking about. Smoak suggests starting by figuring out your current value system, be it through journaling, prayer, or meditation.
“Ask yourself what you value in yourself and what you look for in others,” she says. “Then ask yourself: Do the people in your life align with that at least 80% of the time, and can we laugh, be happy, and enjoy each other?”
Smoak says the current political climate has put a strain on a lot of relationships, but just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you should automatically cut them out of your life. “Ask if it bothers you enough that you don’t have the same opinions,” she says. “It’s not ‘Do we disagree?’ but ‘Is this healthy?’ Some people are so full of anger, and it’s not always about politics.”
Joy says you need to evaluate friendships the same way you would any aspect of your life that might not be serving you anymore by asking questions such as:
- How do I feel about myself when I’m with this friend?
- How do I feel about myself after I’ve been with them?
- Do I feel like a better version of myself or at least a good version?
- Can I be my true self with them?
- Does this person support who I want to be and where I want to go in life?
If you still aren’t sure, Joy says talking to others you’re close to can help you gain insight. “Sometimes we can get so entangled in a relationship we can’t see it clearly, and it’s hard to feel ourselves as separate from it,” she says. “In that case, it’s helpful to get feedback from others. If people you know and respect don’t like this person for you, or who you become when you’re with them, pay attention to that.”
Smoak says unless it’s a very bad situation, instead of cutting friends entirely out of your life, it’s better to put them on a shelf, so to speak. “If it’s someone you’ve been friends with for 10 or 15 years, I’d never advise you to get rid of them,” she says. “Roles may change in the future. Maybe just check on them once every quarter of a year. Your core group with the values that align with yours, those are the people you keep close to you.”
If you do need to end a friendship, Joy says, above all else, be kind. “It’s always easier for the person leading change than it is for the one having change thrust upon them,” she says. “Don’t blame your friend. Explain the change in you that’s taking you in a different direction. You can be honest without being brutally honest. Be lovingly honest.”
Finally, if you need help navigating the complicated world of friendships, don’t be afraid to reach out to a friendship coach. Smoak says she helps clients with everything from evaluating friendships and dealing with loneliness to mediating between small friend groups experiencing conflict.
“A coach can create a safe place for you to find your truth,” says Joy. “They can help you find your passions and build confidence in yourself. They can help you see through some of your conditioning that may be holding you back, and give you some practical tools to move forward.”
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