Sunday, November 2, 2008

How to make friends

There are many reasons why a person could have trouble making friends; here are a few:

1) shyness (social anxiety)
2) depression (with resulting lack of energy & motivation)
3) difficulty with social skills (in initiating contact or communication with new people, with continuing on after an introductory contact, or with maintaining healthy ongoing friendships)
4) difficulty finding a community of accepting peers, despite having addressed other factors, such as #1-3 above. So, for example, a person with a particular lifestyle or cultural interest may not be able to find many people with whom to share this in the local community.
5) sometimes there may be qualities about a person's behaviour that cause others not to want a friendship (e.g. recurring temper tantrums or other overt manifestations of hostility).
6) lack of time, energy, or money

Here are some ways to address the problem of making friends:

1) treat shyness. Pharmacologically and psychotherapeutically. Strong effort needs to be spent on practicing cognitive-behavioural techniques. I encourage all who believe they may be shy to start by reading some of the many books on the subject of shyness.
2) treat depression
3) Learn about social skills. This can start with reading. A therapy group of almost any sort can be a good resource. Psychotherapy can be a setting to practice social skills. Other activities can be great places to practice, such as taking a class, joining a group, Toastmaster's, etc. Skills have to be practiced. The skills need to be practiced in all three domains (initiating communication with new people, continuing on to the next step following an introduction, and maintaining ongoing positive communication and activity within existing friendships).
4) Identify individual lifestyle and cultural interests, and deliberately seek out groups that can share in this (for example, regarding music, the arts, orientation/identity issues, hobbies, sports). Be willing to at least slightly expand your horizons of cultural interest & involvement. If you have a healthy solitary interest, try to make it a healthy group interest.
5) Identify factors within oneself that may make it hard for someone to befriend you (e.g. temper problems, refusal to allow closeness, etc.) Be very honest with yourself about this. The gentle feedback or support from a therapist can help. It needs to be emphasized, though, that in a depressed state, many people believe they are unattractive for a variety of reasons, and this type of thinking about self can be a symptom of the depression. If you falsely believe that people don't like you -- for any reason -- then your social actions may lead you to become more isolated and alone.
6) Time, energy, and money may need to be set aside, to allow for the development of a social life. There are many community resources that are free, or that may specifically welcome and try to help those in economic need. Maybe your community does not have enough of these types of resources--if this is the case I hope there is the possibility that you can find a different community that does have enough.

In today's world, we of course have access to "virtual communities" and other types of relationship-building that can be done on the internet. I think the internet is a powerful resource, and can be very helpful for making friends, or practicing social skills. But the medium of the internet can itself be addictive, so this needs to be watched for. Some people may spend so much time on internet relationship sites that their non-internet relationship life may be shrinking rather than growing.

A brief google search on the internet with the name of your city or town plus "social networking" or "meetup" may yield a variety of possible real-life social groups to consider joining, some of them geared towards simple friendship, others may be oriented towards a particular activity, others especially for people who are shy, etc.

Here are some of the explanations people have given me about their difficulty making friends:

1) "I'm not attractive enough"
2) "This city is unfriendly"
3) "I can't be bothered"
4) "It's not worth the risk"
5) "I'm too busy"
6) "I'd rather be alone"
7) "I would be/am a burden on other people"

All of these explanations need to be addressed and challenged.
1) Beliefs about unattractiveness are a powerful social obstacle, because they cause the person who feels unattractive to withdraw, assume in advance that others don't like them, etc. Also a belief about innate unattractiveness can cause a person to be resigned to this false belief, such that actual esthetic enjoyments--including superficial but important things such as choice of attire, "spa treatments", etc.--may be unnecessarily avoided
2) While it may well be true that certain cultures or parts of the world have more or less social opportunities and a more or less socially engaging style, I find most complaints about the "unfriendly city" to be projections of one's own social frustrations onto the fairly neutral ground of the geographic city. I would encourage people to do what they can, with an open heart and mind, right where they are geographically, rather than contemplate a move right away to some supposedly more friendly place.
3 - 5) Friendship-building requires energy, and can be frustrating. There is a component of risk, at the very least of being disappointed. I stand by the advice that friendship-building is a necessary health activity for everyone, as is daily exercise of some sort. So it is necessary for your health to bother with it.
6) We all require solitude. Some of us are most comfortable alone. Many of us desire more closeness or intimacy, but have become resigned, such that we tolerate having very little. It can be a symptom of depression to become more and more isolated. Isolative resignation is a problem that needs to be worked on in the treatment of depression.
7) Belief in being a burden is another depressive assumption, just like feeling unattractive. It is time to let go of this kind of belief. Every relationship does require give and take, though, and it can be part of the process of practicing social/relationship skills to be observant of the general balance in your friendships, so that no one feels that the relationships are one-sided.


Anonymous said...

Do you think that there are instances of people who-- for no real medical or psychiatric reason-- struggle to enjoy other people's company, find relationships overwhelming or exhausting, or otherwise avoid developing close relationships with other people?

I recently read a book by Temple Grandin, in which she observes that she derives meaning from what she DOES (her academic and professional accomplishments, her intellect, etc)-- whereas other people (I suppose most people without autism) derive meaning from what they FEEL (their connections with other people, intimacy, etc). I'm not autistic by any stretch of the imagination, yet I wonder if it's possible that there are other people (without autism) who can relate to this feeling. In her book Grandin says that she feels that she is glad that her parents allowed her to spend her energies developing her talents and abilities-- and that they did not push her to engage in age-appropriate social activities (eg hanging out with friends as a teenager, going on dates, etc). She says that she is grateful for this because it is allowed her to create a life that for her has meaning-- i.e., she was able to focus her energies on developing her various intellectual abilities, which she delights in, whereas if she had spent a lot of time and energy trying to develop various social skills she would not enjoy this same sense of purpose and meaning.

(I know that you've written about the importance of not putting all of your energy into any one area of life-- but again, are there maybe exceptions to this general rule?).

GK said...

Thanks for the excellent comment. I agree with you, and I should have expanded on this possibility in the post--that some individuals may have a smaller or more different social need, inclination, or comfortable "set point" than others.
Yet, irrespective of these differences, there may still be some work to be done to satisfactorily reach this set point; and sometimes the set point itself (i.e. the type or degree of social engagement) could change with time or circumstances. In Temple Grandin's own case, for example, I was recently reading about how she used to use a machine she invented to give her hugs; but in recent years she has stopped using the machine, and her hugs are now with other people. Even though her engagement with life may come largely through work (as is the case for many), her journey has led to changes and developments with human attachment as well. Sometimes we may need specific plans or help to work on these types of changes or developments.