All Grown Up, but Suddenly Alone? Adult Friendships Don’t Come Easy
Adult Friendships Don't Come Easy
Any adult who has made a big move or major transition feels my pain. It has been a little over six months since my family and I spread our wings and moved to Texas. With two kids and an aging father-in-law in the house--not to mention trying to start a private practice over from scratch--it might be no surprise that we are just now starting to feel the ground steadying under our feet. We have found some favorite restaurants. We have met some neighbors. The kids have made friends and started participating in after-school activities.
Things are starting to settle down. So, naturally, more and more I am noticing the one huge gaping hole that usually comes with uprooting your life and starting over.
My husband and I have no friends (at least none that are local). Yes, cue the violin music.
But seriously, while I have family here in Texas, I find myself really missing those relationships that have supported me for the past 18 years. And (don’t tell anyone), but what it really comes down to is the fact that I am actually pretty shy. I know I get up and talk easily in front of a room full of people for speaking engagements, and I meet new people on a regular basis in my practice, but meeting people in a social situation and building friendships outside of my kids’ activities is something that does not come easily. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Naturally, I have a lot of time to think about it while I am actively avoiding doing anything about it.
Still, the longer I put off taking the plunge and actively fostering adult friendships that are mine and not solely created (and disbanded) around one of my kids’ activities, the larger the loneliness hole becomes. It turns out having no friends is a very bad idea for any of us long-term.
What the Research Tells Us
You see, the Harvard Study of Adult Development run by Robert Waldinger has found that having connected, secure relationships over time is the single most important thing for our health, life span, and happiness. Not money. Not fame. Not a healthy diet or lifestyle. None of this matters as much as having friends and family that we enjoy, spend time with, and can rely on during times of stress. Dr. Waldinger talks more about this study in a recent Ted Talk, which I highly recommend: (https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness?language=en)
This Ted Talk certainly got me thinking about what I am investing my time in and what the expected rate of return might be. After an honest look at my time allotment for the past several months, I have been pouring myself mainly into my kids and my practice. A little leftover time goes to my husband and some basic self-care (ie. I exercise). I definitely have spent a good portion of time reconnecting with my family, which has been wonderful. But, again, if I’m honest, some of that time (particularly time allotted to my kids and practice) could—and should--be balanced out with some social time. As great as my family is, I need friends my own age that get me and like the same things. I need to find my Texas tribe.
So, okay, the first step is awareness of the problem, right? That’s great. I recognize the problem. I actually knew it was going to be a problem before we even moved, but over the past month or so, I have come to realize I have no idea how to solve it. The last time I did this was…gulp…18 years ago. I was just a kid straight out of college. I was used to making friends at that point in my life. I had tons of free time and only me to think about. How do you make friends as an adult?
Since I have come to recognize that this is an investment in my very health and happiness AND it is something that isn’t just happening easily because 1) I am shy and 2) I have limited time as a parent of young kiddos and 3) I seem to have endless schemes for avoiding it, I have decided I need to get a little more organized and spell it out for myself.
I also know, as a therapist, that this is not a problem I alone am experiencing. I have worked with many clients who find themselves in a similar situation perhaps because of a move or a divorce or suddenly realizing that they have completely lost any resemblance to themselves because they have been consumed by parenting or a career or whatever. The sad fact is that many of us come to a point in our lives when we find ourselves needing to make friends and not remembering how to do so.
After some research and some observing my kids to see how they so effortlessly do it, I have come up with the following suggestions:
1 . Be bold.
This first step is going to be painful for some of us. Prepare yourself. I’m going to just jump right in.
Here it is.
Are you ready?
To start new relationships you have to actually get out of the house and do something among people. Even worse, you can’t just go out and skulk around somewhere in the background. No. You…I…have to go out and then strike up conversations with people you don’t even know. To those of us who are somewhat introverted or, let’s face it, not in sales, this prospect can be downright terrifying. I know this has been one of the main obstacles for me.
So, I’ve set myself a little goal. I am challenging myself to strike up a conversation with one person every day for a month. I expect the first few days to be tough, but eventually this will get a little easier. I have promised myself that I will be compassionate and gentle on myself when I am awkward and goofy. I will remember that I do not have to hit it off with every person I meet. I just need to open up some opportunities with new people.
2. Be present.
So, once you’ve pumped yourself up enough to have actual contact with an actual human being, it helps to actually pay attention to them. I know. I know. This seems like common sense, but the more anxious you are about meeting new people, the more self-conscious you are likely to be. Racing thoughts like “Am I asking enough questions?” “Do I have something in my teeth?” “Aaack! I’m drawing a blank! I have nothing to say!”--these thoughts can seriously distract you from the person in front of you, and you will most likely come across as disinterested. This is not a great way to start. So, just try to take some deep breaths and stay in the moment. See if you have anything in common. If not, oh well. Chalk it up to a good exercise in bravery.
4. Be observant.
This part actually helps with those awkward silences and the fear of having nothing to say. For those of us who are a little shy, it helps to have a few go-to topics for small talk. If I’m at a baseball game with my son, I might ask the parent next to me about their child on the team. If I’m waiting in line, I might ask the person in front of me about something they are wearing. I want to look for connections that might bring myself and the person closer together. The best way to do this is to observe and ask questions.
5. Be kind.
Kindness is something that has become increasingly important to me. It is something I really want to define my new Texas tribe. In the past, to overcome my shyness, I shamefully admit that I have stooped to sarcasm & (gulp!) gossip, at times, to connect with others. It is surprisingly easy to connect over something negative—like griping about a new school or work policy or poking fun at someone else’s appearance or behavior. The problem with this—other than it being generally negative and potentially hurtful to others—is that beginning a relationship with something negative tends to bring either insecure or generally negative people into your life. This is something I want to avoid. So, I am going to make a concerted effort to focus on kindness. Just breathe and reset.
6. Be persistent.
Relationships are not built in one day. In order for them to go anywhere, you have to spend time…repeatedly…together. So, if you find yourself connecting with someone, get their contact info and follow up with a text, Facebook message, or even better an invitation to do something. Don’t wait for them to make the first move. Don’t let the connection go. Before you know it, you will have a rich selection of relationships to boost you mind, body and soul.