What I Talk About When I Talk About Friendship

Agnes Martin, Friendship, 1963

When I was seven years old, I had a pretty standard friendship experience. My best friend decided she wanted to be best friends with another girl and not me. I suspect many young people go through a similar experience, with most making up quicker than it takes to drink a kiddie size carton of juice.

The difference with my experience was that we didn’t make up at all. I’d spent half-term making us matching friendship bracelets, and when I asked for it back, she refused. Instead, she orchestrated a convoluted plot for another girl to trick me into letting her try on my friendship bracelet, which she then ran off with and gave to my ex-best friend, who promptly gifted it to her new best friend.

Imagine it! At seven years old, this is one of my earliest memories of friendship, and it still makes me feel slightly nauseous. The deceit! The hurt! The audacity to steal my friendship bracelet!

The truth is, I can’t remember any of those girls' names now or what they looked like. But I remember how the scenario made me feel, and I recognise as an adult how this early experience has impacted the ways I socialise and allow friendship into my life. It’s acknowledging this that’s helped me come to terms with a truth about myself: I don’t make friends easily.

For a long time, I've been wary of anyone attempting to be friends with me, and it plays out in my general demeanour as I interact with new people. Even my best and longest-serving friend, Louise, likes to remind me she thought I was a total b*tch when we first met. It’s a funny story because I can’t say that I wasn’t a b*tch. When I first met Louise, she was so opposite from everyone else I’d thus far spent time with in my life, and I immediately judged her as someone I wouldn’t get along with. Life circumstances forced us to get to know each other, and the result has been one of the warmest, funniest, and most enriching experiences of friendship I've had.

Louise isn’t alone finding a weird pleasure in telling me what she first thought of me. Stuck-up, rude, judgemental, stand-offish: I’ve heard it all from my friends and their first opinions of me. We laugh about it now, but it’s a sad truth that for many people, our first meetings were fleeting and never to be replicated. I used to cringe heavily thinking of the sheer number of people that must exist in the world who think I’m a terrible person because I ‘failed to connect’ when first meeting them (genuinely something someone has said to me on the second time they met me).

I have often observed individuals who appear to make friends as easily and quickly as making a cup of tea and felt a pang of jealousy. I’ve tried to pick apart how they behave to understand the difference between them and myself — how come they’ve found it so easy?

I’ve allowed this thinking to make me feel inadequate in many ways about who I am as a friend and how I engage with others. It’s a heavy weight to bear, if I’m honest, leading down a one-track thought process that ultimately comes back to black and white thinking of ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m a bad person people don’t want to be friends with.’

In reading more about the topic to understand why this feels so heavy, I found a great article by psychologist and friendship researcher Miriam Kirmayer. She talks about the challenges of making friends as adults, with the only fact being there is no rulebook. As adults, we’re more set in our ways, so making friends easily while staying true to ourselves is no easy feat. She also advises about the dangers of ‘should’ thinking when it comes to socialising:

“When making friends, it’s easy to fall victim to the “shoulds” we impose on ourselves: “I should have more friends,” “I really should go to that party,” “I should be more outgoing or extroverted.” The reality, though, is that imposing these kinds of rules or expectations can be wholly counterproductive. Instead of getting caught up in self-imposed rules, focus on the things that genuinely represent who you are and the kinds of people you’d like to meet.”

Although there’s something to be admired for those who make friends easily, the ones in my direct sphere of influence whom I’ve observed all seem to have one thing in common; they adapt to suit the person they’re interacting with.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but I’ve had to concede — it’s not something I’ll ever be good at. Something that’s helping me come to psychologically safe terms with this part of my personality is that I’ll never be one of those who hits it off with everyone I meet.

Accepting the situation (and myself) for what it is removes the burden of feeling the need to be liked and make friends everywhere I go a lot easier — it even makes it easier to make friends, as I’m not consciously thinking about it all the time. Through accepting myself in this way, I shift my self-perception and find ways to allow my personality to work for me.

This is an ongoing journey for me, but the older I get, the more comfortable I feel in my own skin and the easier it is to accept the person I am. A few little things that are helping me along the way include:

Checking My Self Talk

Instead of thinking negatively about my social prowess, I’ve switched my internal chatter to focus on accepting the reality of who I am. Rather than thinking, ‘I suck at talking to new people,’ I gently nudge myself to remember, ‘You get nervous around new people — and that’s okay.

Remembering the Difference Between Social and Social Media

As most of us know, what’s represented online is rarely a match for real life. Carefully curated social media feeds of friends hanging out and odes to friendship don’t always equate realistically to how these people are in person. Social media is a crutch we rely on and compare ourselves to, and I’m remembering that most of what I consume on these platforms doesn’t really mean very much.

Socialising is a Skill

For many people, socialising and making friends ‘easily’ is a skill they’ve cultivated through need and, to some extent, desire. I’ve moved cities a lot because I enjoy getting to know new places and experiences. Being alone when I move somewhere new doesn’t bother me because I’m usually too focused on other priorities. I know of others who’ve moved around a lot too and where making friends is their utmost priority when they’re in a new place. They’ve cultivated this skill because it matters to them and who they are/want to be. Again, their way nor my way is ‘wrong’ — it just depends on who you are. I’ve always valued my alone time above all else, so making friends isn’t a skill I’ve worked on as much.

Knowing Who I Am (Good and Bad)

I’m an introvert. Every so often, I meet people who I click with straight away, and those people are usually hardcore introverts too. My friend Louise is an extrovert, and she’s the only real anomaly in my close-knit friendship circle (but she’s worth it). I’ve learned I’m much happier having a small, core group of people who I know I can trust, rely on, talk to and seek help from any time. The people I’ve cultivated and maintained friendships with are sturdy rocks, and that’s why I put most of my energy into keeping those relationships flourishing. Kirmayer advises that as adults, we should have a stronger sense of who we are and how we want to spend our precious energy. Allowing the wrong types of friendships into our lives can be detrimental:

“Not only can these relationships take a toll on our mental health and well-being, they rob us of the opportunity to form more supportive, mutually beneficial friendships with others. Invest your heart wisely and focus on quality over quantity.”

But it’s also important not to go too far to the other end of the spectrum. I have a broader group of friends, but I realised I could be quite dismissive of anyone new entering my life because I felt I already had ‘enough friends.’ That’s faulty thinking I’ve had to correct and remember that being friendly doesn’t mean I have to become lifelong friends with someone if I don’t want to.

The other really key thing that’s helped me accept my (un)social self?

My Current Friends

Instead of constantly looking outwards, I’ve turned the energy I was wasting, wondering why I wasn’t ‘good enough’ at making friends back towards the people who really matter. I have a rich group of people who I genuinely care for and who genuinely care for me. Some of these friendships have lasted years, and I know they’ll last for many more to come. Learning to be happy just the way I am (with a few small tweaks where needed!) has been vital for my overall social acceptance.

As a society, we tend to reward and celebrate extroversion and the most outgoing people. We see these individuals as the epitome of social vivacity — and it can lead to many (myself included) believing that this is the bar we should all aim for in our social lives.

Acknowledging that our capacities for making, maintaining, choosing, and accepting friendships is as diverse as any other part of our personality is the best way to get comfortable with who we are as friend-makers. As Kirmayer advises — there are no die-hard rules for making friends, just the ones that work for you.

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