As a therapist with a robust practice, many people assume that I deal with “crazies” all day. That is simply not true. I deal with normal people. Normal people with normal problems that really get them down.
One of the problems I hear about so often is loneliness. In a world where we have never been more connected via social networking, cell phones, texting, etc., it seems surprising that loneliness has increased as an issue. Loneliness can exacerbate anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
Adults often believe that their loneliness is due to things like the adult friendship culture where they live (“My town is really cliquey“), not being in the same place developmentally as others that they are in contact with (“All my friends are married and I am single”) or that they don’t have enough time. In other words, adults think their loneliness is someone or something else’s problem. Thus, the loneliness continues to exist because if the problem lies outside of themselves, so do the solutions.
But I disagree. I believe we have a crisis with loneliness because our culture struggles with connection and vulnerability. This affects our parenting, our romantic relationships, our jobs and definitely our friendships. So I want to spell out the steps to making a friend as an adult which is really about learning to be vulnerable with people.
So first off, where does an adult make a friend? If you aren’t in school and work doesn’t provide a setting or an opportunity to meet other like-minded adults, just how do you find these illusive friend material types? Then, if you do find them, how do you make them your friend? In grade school, a simple note with a check mark would do the trick. These days, the awkwardness of exchanging phone numbers increases the complexity of soliciting a friend for the purposes of interviewing. And even if you can meet these people, get their contact information with little incident, how do you know if they are even friendship material?
Let’s walk through this. First off, if you are not engaging in activities of some sort, you must start. I don’t care if you blow glass, attend your children’s sporting events and clubs, work out at the gym or cruise facebook pages. But you must do something. And do something that interests you otherwise the lack of authenticity will either lead you to a crowd that isn’t a good fit for you or the stench of being inauthentic will turn people off.
So, step one, do some kind of activity. Join something.
Step two is a little more scary. Actually, a lot more scary. Once you are around people, either virtually or in person, you have to open up a little. A little, not a lot. Brene’ Brown, a renowned shame researcher from the University of Houston, uses the metaphor of lighting when conceptualizing how to share about yourself. Too much information is like looking at a floodlight. People will get overwhelmed and look away. It’s too much. She says to think of sharing like a strand of Christmas twinkle lights. Each bulb represents a small fact or story about you. It’s calming and easier to handle.
So now we have step two down. You talk about yourself. But not in the conversational narcissist way of dominating the conversations or one-upping others. When sharing, realize that connection happens when your message is “I get it. Me too.” Share small bits. The word to keep in mind is empathy, not problem solving. Let’s say a person talks about their child getting lice at daycare. Instead of launching in to the best natural remedy that worked on your daughter/niece/second cousin, listen to the emotion of the story. If you have a story with a similar emotion, talk about that. Ask questions. That is how we open up in bits.
So now you have met people, are being open without scaring people off, what is next? The next thing is to invite people to you rather than waiting to be invited. I cannot tell you how many people are waiting to be invited and no one is doing anything. Make it something simple like “Hey, I am going to get coffee after this. Want to come?” “I just bought Frozen and my kids are watching it all weekend. Want to come over and bring your kid?” “I am going to hit balls at the range tomorrow. You should come with me.”
Now that you know all the steps, continue and repeat.
Lastly, I want to talk about boundaries. I know what you’re thinking, a therapist cannot have a blog entry without talking about boundaries. Which is true. But regardless, it’s important to note that not everyone you use these steps with will be your new bestie. You may open up and they do too and you find that your values are very different. Or your schedules change and you can’t find the time anymore. Or you may find that you really don’t like them. They gossip or complain. Or maybe you are a bit gun shy. I am guessing everyone has been burned in friendship. You opened up and they let you down. Maybe monumentally, maybe on a small scale. THIS IS NOT A REASON NOT TO TRY.
But setting boundaries means that you don’t compromise. Don’t go places just to fit in. Don’t order coffee even if you would rather have a Diet Coke. Listen to your feelings of discomfort because THEY are your boundary alarm bells.
Think of the art of adult friendship with a shotgun approach. If you send out a lot of connections, chances are, one is going to hit a bull’s-eye.
Whitney Warren Alexander is a licensed marital and family counselor and licensed drug and alcohol counselor. She works in private practice in Stillwater, OK. Her area of interest is in helping clients create connections.