Over the past 28 months, I’ve been enjoying deep conversations about making friends as an adult. While that doesn’t make me an expert, I’ve learned a lot about why we struggle to connect in adulthood. Through these conversations, I’ve come to realize that we share many of the same fears and hang-ups. As I recognized my own weaknesses, I found the courage to lean into them and in the process, nurtured new friendships as well as old.
Like most important life skills, many of us weren’t taught how to make friends. At best we learned by example from the people around us. And considering that we’re all perfectly imperfect, this is bound to make forging healthy connections more difficult for some of us than others.
As we move into adulthood, maintaining relationships and building new friendships becomes more of a challenge. Many of us have our own families we’re responsible for taking care of. We have jobs, other commitments, and full lives. And speaking for myself, my standards have completely changed over the years. When I was 12, I’d put up with
just about anything to not have to eat lunch alone. 30 years later, I prefer to eat alone and refuse to take part in abusive relationships.
Needless to say, it’s a complicated topic and one that I’ll likely continue to discuss for the rest of my life. Today I’ll share what I’ve learned so far. I’ll share stories and commentary from generous and vulnerable friends. And I’ll also offer additional resources to help you continue to improve on your own.
HOW TO READ THIS ARTICLE
This post could have been a short ebook. It’s a great reference piece and covers a lot of ground.
When I first brought this topic up 28 months ago, I could see it was something almost everyone had strong feelings about. Then over the years, the topic kept coming up. Partially out of my own curiosity about belonging. But others were mentioning their struggles too. Then earlier this year I started to pay closer attention. I asked questions, listened, and compiled 30-some pages of notes, much of which you’ll read below.
Over the years, my articles have become longer and less frequent. I found that I enjoy diving deep into a topic instead of scratching the surface on a bunch of little things. I was surprised to find how many people were actually reading and digesting the entire post. We’re constantly reminded of our short attention spans, but I’ve seen otherwise with this meatier content.
As this post came together, I quickly realized that it was going to be long. I thought about breaking it up into multiple articles, but that can get tricky for readers to navigate. So I decided to put it all out there at once. If you read it straight through, it’s an enjoyable 50-minute read.
If you want to read it quickly, I’ve included plenty of headlines to make it easy to navigate. I’ve also added LIFE LESSONS that get straight to the point. But I hope you’ll come back and read the entire post when you have time.
Be sure to pin or bookmark this post so you can continue to reference it as you work on growing your own friendships. And please feel free to share generously because it takes at least two people to build authentic and meaningful friendships.
WHY WE NEED FRIENDS
Human beings are where we are because we’re social creatures. As tribes, we were able to hunt, gather, and build communities. We were able to educate our young and create the technologically advanced societies we enjoy today. The moment humans learned to work together was the moment we began to thrive. While our society has become much more individualistic today, we still need human connection. We need each other to survive.
Somehow though, we’ve found ourselves in an era of loneliness. Nearly 40 percent of American’s report that they don’t have a single person who they feel knows them well. Some blame capitalism and others blame social media. I believe there’s good and bad in everything and that much of this comes down to personal responsibility. Social media, for example, can bring us together just as much as it can drive us apart. It depends on how we choose to use it.
Loneliness in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. It’s a biological signal that we need to connect. The problem with loneliness, however, is that it perpetuates more loneliness. When we feel lonely, we begin to question our worthiness. Then we start to believe that we’re lonely because we’re not likable. This perpetuates more isolation and loneliness.
I imagine we’ve all felt lonely at some point in our recent memory. In reading the book Together by Vivek H Murthy, I discovered that there are three distinct types of loneliness. I’ve felt all three at some point in my life, and likely all three at the same time. Here are the three types of relationships human beings need to feel connected.
The first type of human connection we need is intimate and emotional. This is the type of relationship I have with my spouse. This relationship brings me feelings of trust and safety. I know that no matter how bad I screw up, I’m still loved and have a home.
Next, we need relational and social connections. These are friends who we can be open and vulnerable with. They’re the people we can call when we’re having a bad day or need a helping hand.
The final type is group or collective relationships. These are the connections we forge at work, through volunteer assignments, or in other social groups. Families, neighbors, and larger friend groups also fit in here.
Of the three, this is the one where I’m lacking at this stage in life. I work on my own and don’t belong to any larger groups. Until I read this book, I didn’t realize this area was deficient. But now I can see that this is an opportunity for improvement.
Our need for connection also depends on whether we’re more introverted or extraverted. As an introvert, I can feel quite lonely when I’m in a large group of people I don’t know well, like a big party or a family reunion. On the other hand, I’ve spent weeks traveling alone, and never once felt lonely. Conversely, my husband, Jer, who is more extraverted, couldn’t wait to get back to the office after the covid-19 stay at home order came to an end.
I think we all agree though, that whether we’re introverted or extraverted, we all need human connection. Throughout the rest of this article, I’ll share tips and resources to help you build better and stronger connections.
WHY IT’S HARD TO MAKE FRIENDS
As I mentioned, I’m not an expert at making friends. I’m sure there are people out there who have spent their entire careers studying the topic. I personally know plenty of people who are better at making and maintaining friendships than I am. And that’s precisely why I decided that I am the perfect person to write this post.
For most of my life, I’ve struggled to feel like I belong. And if I’m being honest, it’s something I’m struggling with right now as we deal with these current crises and political divisiveness.
I’ve thought a lot about my lack of connection and belonging during the last few years. I found the courage to discuss these barriers with others and I learned that they’re much more common than I believed. You may have struggled with some of these obstacles yourself. I challenge you to start thinking about your own barriers to connection, and more specifically, how you might be getting in your own way.
After a lot of really uncomfortable reflection, I’ve come to realize that most of my issues with making friends are my issues. I’ve struggled with lifelong trust and attachment issues that have made it difficult to connect with people on a deeper level. There are times when I question my worthiness and don’t want to be a bother. On top of all that, I am afraid of being rejected and the following shame spiral I’ve been known to subject myself to. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons I’ve struggled to make friends.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit the things I’m about to tell you. But I know that I’m not the only one who has struggled. I hope that by being vulnerable, you will be able to recognize your own challenges and use that insight to improve your relationships moving forward.
It wasn’t that long ago that I’d freak out if someone was nice to me. I’d question their motives and assume they were being fake or wanted something from me. What I realized though is that it wasn’t so much about the other person and their behaviors. What I was really doing was building walls so that I wouldn’t get hurt.
Here are some other ways we sabotage relationships. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but hopefully, one that will get you thinking.
IS IT JUST IN YOUR HEAD?
Earlier this year I took an extended cross country road trip to see friends and explore parts of the country I hadn’t visited before. Shortly after I came back, I caught a bad case to the post-vacation blues. On top of that, the world was shutting down as covid-19 picked up speed. This uncertainty combined with a Minnesota winter that felt like it would never end caused me to start feeling a little lonely. For a week or two, I threw myself an epic pity party and lamented about how I don’t have any friends.
As things progressed and we adapted to our new normal, friends I hadn’t heard from in a while started checking in. With this slower pace of life, I was able to catch up with people I hadn’t talked to in a while and I had a lot of wonderful conversations. I realized that I actually have a lot of friends. Our busyness just kept us from connecting as often as we should.
Often the answer to our feelings of loneliness is simply getting out of our heads and reaching out to connect. The next time you’re feeling bummed out and alone, reach out to three people. If you don’t feel better, do it again the next day. Eventually, the conversations will start flowing and you’ll feel more connected and less alone.
FRIENDS AREN’T A BOTHER
It’s not uncommon for me to think about reaching out to friends but ultimately decided against it because I don’t want to bother them. Can you imagine if we all did this? Thank God for the generous and outgoing people who aren’t afraid to reach out. Otherwise, we’d all be sad and lonely forever.
Not wanting to be a bother has been a life-long limiting belief of mine. And I’m not alone. When I started this conversation on Facebook and Instagram, I heard loud and clear that we “don’t want to burden others with [our] ‘stuff’!” We’re taught “to not make a big deal of ourselves.” And as a result, we don’t “realize how much people care.” Then we pat ourselves on the back for being “humble and not too self-important.”
Someone else told me, “I need lots of alone time, and then when I do feel like connecting I worry that I’m putting someone out by asking to spend time together. [I know it’s] stupid but it’s the reality of how I feel.”
The truth is that by trying to be kind and accommodating, we come off as rude and standoffish. We quickly become the friend who others complain about because they’re always reaching out to us and we never return the favor. In trying to not make a fuss of ourselves, we can unintentionally come off as big jerks.
So how do we get past this? Especially if we’ve had this habit for 20, 40, or 60 years?
What if you made an agreement with yourself that as soon as someone pops into your head you reach out to them? From there it can go in any direction. The point is that you take the first step. It can be as simple as sending an email or text saying, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you. Hope you’re doing well. Let me know what you’ve been up to.”
Confession—I’ve never felt like I belonged. I still don’t feel like I belong in many situations but I’ve grown to be comfortable with it. I’m proud of my thoughts, beliefs, and lifestyle; and if that means I don’t belong with everyone, so be it.
Jer and I were driving to Florida to visit friends earlier this year. On the way down, we listened to Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown. There’s a section in the book where she talks about feeling like she didn’t belong in her family growing up.
I paused the book and asked Jer if he felt like he belonged in his family. He looked at me like I should know the answer to the question and asked, somewhat sarcastically, “What do you think?” I laughed and said, “So, no?” He smiled and said, “not at all.” We discussed his situation and then he asked the same of me. My response was a solid “hell no!”
I’m not sure if this is the oldest child thing, an only child thing, the only girl, or whatever. But I imagine almost every family has someone who feels like they don’t quite fit. I know this because as I shared this conversation with others, I heard a whole lot of, “oh my gosh, me too!”
Maybe that’s just how some of us are. Take almost any topic and I find that I just don’t fit into the mold. And I’ve always felt this way.
Take politics for example. I don’t consider myself a democrat or republican. I believe that everything in life is much more nuanced than right or left; black or white. As such, many democrats assume I’m conservative, and many republics take me as a liberal. I’ve received some really disgusted looks from both sides when expressing certain opinions. I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that a lot of people view me as the other.
And then there’s religion and spirituality. I doubt there’s another human being who believes exactly what I believe. It’s not uncommon for both religious and non-religious people to be taken aback when I share my thoughts and ideas.
Up until recently, I’ve kept most of my beliefs and opinions to myself. Firstly, because those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still. But also because rejection hurts. There’s a real fear that if we express our truth, we’ll lose our friends and loved ones.
I’m beginning to see, however, that we all need to speak our truth more often. The loudest voices don’t always represent the majority. And if people stop liking me because I shattered an illusion they had of me, what kind of relationship is that anyway? All too often people speak their truth only when they think everyone will agree with them. I imagine that’s part of the reason we’re in some of the messes we find ourselves in today.
All that aside, I believe that all of us belong somewhere. Maybe Jer and I felt like we didn’t belong in our families of origin, but we definitely feel like we belong together. And I have friends across the country who feel like family, separated at birth. So remember, just because you don’t belong somewhere, doesn’t mean you don’t belong anywhere.
Try and do your best to not judge others based on one or two things you disagree with. You’ll never find someone you agree with 100 percent. I’m not even a full 85 percent on board with my spouse and we’ve been attached at the hip for two decades. Think about how much it hurts when you’re judged for something you believe or have experienced. Choose to be the one who stops spreading that hurt around.
FEAR OF REJECTION
I imagine that we’ve all dealt with gut-wrenching rejection throughout our lives. Whether it was a parent who couldn’t hold space for you, a friend who pushed you around and bullied you, or a boss who belittled and publicly shamed you, we’ve all felt the pain of rejection. I’ve experienced it too and there have been times that I felt like I’d rather spend the rest of my life alone than deal with that devastating rejection again.
I mentioned this to someone during these friendship conversations I’ve been having. She said, “OMG! I just got a message from a gal who reached out to another woman to try and get to know her on Instagram. The woman turned her down and she said that ‘the rejection was so painful it makes it not worth it!’”
All these tiny slights add up. They often have little to do with us, but we internalize them and carry them with us. Then to avoid putting ourselves at risk to be hurt again, we start building walls.
That’s exactly what I did.
In the summer of 2017, I camped alone for the very first time. Surviving that first night launched my journey to visit every state park in Minnesota over the course of a year. As I traveled from park to park, I had more quiet and solitude than I’ve ever had. Something happened around day 10 and a veil was lifted on my limiting beliefs and self-sabotaging behavior. Overnight I was able to see myself in a whole new light.
A couple of months later I was making one final fall trip to hit a half dozen more parks before winter arrived. Before I left, a woman I was connected with on social media reached out and wanted to get together to go running. As I traveled through southeastern Minnesota, I listened to the conversations in my head that covered every excuse I could use to get out of it because, in the end, I knew that she wouldn’t like me once she got to know me.
These conversations went on for a couple of hours and then it hit me. I had spent my whole life pushing people away and building walls just so I wouldn’t have to risk being hurt. I was willing to be alone and forego all of the wonderful experiences that come through connection because I was letting my fear of rejection control me.
That day I promised myself that I would take more risks and I have. Some of those risks have turned into wonderful connections, and others not so much. But three years later, I’m happy to report that my life is richer because I put myself out there.
REGIONAL BARRIERS TO FRIENDS
I was born and raised in Minnesota. Many of the early settlers arrived here from Germany and Scandinavian countries. With them, they brought pieces of their culture that can be experienced to this day. While they brought many amazing things like sauerkraut, spätzle, and pickled herring; they also brought nuances that are a challenge for outsiders to try and navigate.
Minnesota Public Radio covered this topic on their blog several years ago and sparked a lot of feedback. When explaining why we are the way we are, I love to reference this piece, Minnesota Nice, Explained. It describes how, “In a nutshell, the state’s settlers from northern or central Europe — primarily Germany and Scandinavia — had a profound impact on how the social culture here developed.” “Swedes’ lifelong friends were chosen from among people they went to school with and their kinship group. An individual made friends slowly, but they were friends for life — in the true sense of the term ‘for life.’”
As I was preparing for this post and seeking feedback on Instagram, a connection from Sweden wrote, “Minnesotans seem to be like a typical Swede. We are actually nice but reserved. We usually don’t need “superficial friends,” and rely on a few close friends.”
Another friend contributed, “Whether it’s Scandinavian, German, or a unique upper Midwest thing we’ve created; we have a deep sense of not belonging and not being worthy. Our enculturated defense mechanism to this unworthiness is to project that we can just carry on, not needing anyone else or caring what anyone thinks. [But] just below the surface we care desperately what everyone thinks. I think the important realization is that all of these things are false-self strategies … they’re ways of coping with the feeling that we aren’t as connected as we should be. They’re ways of protecting ourselves from having to feel that we aren’t as connected to each other as we should be. We learn at an early age how to shield ourselves from deep pain through the creation of a ‘false-self’ that insulates our true-self from pain.”
All of these insights explain why I’ve heard over and over again how difficult it is for transplants to make friends in Minnesota. I started reflecting on this several years ago after a presentation where the speaker shared how difficult it was for her to make friends here. She had moved from New York where everyone is social all the time. Here, she explained, she’d go out for coffee or dinner with people and never hear from them again. She was heartbroken that she couldn’t make any real friends. And then she realized that it wasn’t her, but rather, just how we are.
I realized that I’m guilty of this too. I rarely reach out to anyone to get together. I’m also quick to turn down an invitation to “come visit.” And I assure you that it’s not because I’m a jerk. It’s because I don’t want to be a bother.
Here’s a recent example. I was thinking about a friend and wanted to invite her to do something. Before I could finish that thought, the voice in my head I was telling you about, (we’ll call her Tammy) chimed in and said, “Leave her alone. She’s probably busy with work. Not to mention, every Minnesotan has their entire summer booked already. Don’t be so self-centered and thoughtless.”
I realize that this kind of behavior comes off as disinterested. It’s the opposite of what it means to be a good friend. But old habits are hard to break. Simply recognizing that I do this is a solid step in the right direction.
Here are more tips for navigating regional differences.
1 – Evaluate your expectations
You might wish the people where you currently live were just like the people back home, but wishing is unlikely to create the change you desire. Instead, try to realign your expectations. Take people for who they are and learn to work within those parameters.
2 – Embrace differences
Don’t let one thing, like politics, lifestyle, or religion prevent you from connecting with someone who could one day be a great friend. There’s always more that connects us than divides us.
3 – Think empathy
If you live in the city or state you grew up in, ask your transplant friends what it’s like to try and connect with your people. If you don’t have any transplant friends, that might be part of the problem. When you gain a better understanding of how outsiders see your community, ask how you’d feel if you were in their shoes. Then adjust your behaviors to be more inclusive.
If you’re an outsider, be open to learning and engage from a place of grace. I didn’t grow up in Minneapolis and although I’ve lived here for close to two decades, I still feel out of place sometimes. By showing up with grace and curiosity, I’ve grown as a person and made great connections I otherwise wouldn’t have.
4 – Be the inviter
If you’re not getting the social invitations you desire, take it upon yourself to be the inviter. If you can’t find a group where you feel like you belong, create your own. A fit and healthy friend of mine recently started a hiking meetup for homeschool moms. What a great way to add physical and social nourishment to her life and the lives of others.
OUR LIVES ARE FULL
American’s often wear busyness as a badge of honor. For years, if people asked how I was doing, I’d include a comment about how busy I was. It was as if I believed that my busyness was a direct reflection of my value as a person.
Since realizing this, I’ve tried to let go of some of that busyness. I’ve tried to clear more time for the things that are important to Jer and I. But our lives are still very full. We have work, hobbies, and existing relationships. Everyone else has varying degrees of fullness in their lives too. Keep this in mind as you’re working to build better connections.
This got me thinking that perhaps we could learn to communicate our current life situation with more kindness and empathy. Rather than making up an excuse or blowing someone off, we could practice saying something like, “You seem like someone I’d like to get to know, but I only have time for my top three priorities right now. I’d love to get to know you better on social media though.” Not only does this help minimize feelings of rejection, but you might even nurture a new connection you can invest in when life slows down.
Finally, if your life is full of too many things that don’t make you feel good, figure out what you can start cutting to make room for things that do feel good, like friendship and connection. We get one shot at this life and I’m a firm believer that you should be doing more of what you love and less of what you don’t.
THE GREAT DIVIDES
The final roadblock to making friends is what I call the great divides. This is when someone goes through a major life change that can be out of sync with the rest of their friends. Examples of great divides include: marriage, having children, divorce, becoming an empty nester, not having children, or the death of a spouse.
We’ve all had that couple in our friend group who got divorced. Sometimes these relationships remain amicable and continue to enrich our lives. But more often we keep one, often the original friend, and say bon voyage to the other.
As someone who never had children, I’ve gone through waves of “losing” friends when they began building families. I imagine single folks feel something similar as all their friends couple up and get married. All of these life changes can leave people feeling lonely.
As we take different paths in life, people come and go. But I think we could all do better at considering those who are going through a big life change. Call that new mom and invite her to go for a morning hike. Reach out to your recently widowed neighbor and invite her over for dinner. And don’t forget to check in on those recently divorced friends. Because we all go through stages in life when we feel like we’ve been left all alone.
THE DIFFICULT TRUTH ABOUT FRIENDSHIP
It would be wonderful if we were all instant BFFs, but the truth is that not everyone is a perfect match. That doesn’t mean that we can’t get along. It simply means that our personalities and life experiences propel us to create deeper connections with some people more than others.
Try to not take it personally if someone doesn’t instantly love you. You shouldn’t feel obligated to connect with people who aren’t the best fit for you either. This also means that you are not required to hold onto old friendships that aren’t healthy just because you have history.
As we learn, grow, and experience different phases of life, we change and so do our needs. We shouldn’t expect that everyone we meet will be able to accompany us on our entire journey through life. This doesn’t mean that we should cut people off and live in resentment. If we accept that it’s okay for people to come and go, it will be easier to take a step back without hurt feelings.
Being open to allowing relationships to flow through our lives more organically also open us up to more connection. When I was younger, I was cautious about building friendships because I didn’t want to get “stuck” with someone. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that enjoying someone’s company, if only for a season, can be a wonderful thing.
Sometimes friendships grow distant or fall apart. I’m not the same person I was when I was 27. Likely, I don’t have a lot in common with the friends I was palling around with back then. Just because we don’t have common ground to get together regularly doesn’t mean that we can’t remain friends though.
When relationships start to grow distant, the goal should be for both parties to find space without feeling hurt. Just because you don’t hang out doesn’t mean you have to stop being friends. You can still care about each other and send birthday texts. This should be the goal when once meaningful relationships begin to grow in different directions.
BETTER FRIENDSHIPS START WITH YOU
For the past several years, I’ve been saying that the key to loving others is learning to love yourself. At the same time, I recognize that neither Jer nor I would be where we are in our self-acceptance without the safe, loving, and encouraging environment we created. As we’ve uncovered and accepted our true selves, we’ve become better partners in our marriage.
I believe that we’re all born with a healthy sense of confidence and self-acceptance. Think back to the pride you took in things you created as a child. That picture you painted was fabulous, and you knew it. You weren’t afraid to show it off and accept compliments.
Through a series of life events, we begin to lose that innate sense of self-love. Many of us learn that it’s selfish to put our needs first. We’re called braggarts for sharing our accomplishments, no matter how quiet and humbly. And for an even greater impact, we see these behaviors repeated and modeled by those around us.
The good news is that it’s never too late to change. Relearning how to love yourself takes time and practice but I assure you that both you and your relationships are worth it. Check out this post for great tips to help you get started.
Interestingly, one of the ways we get to a place of healthy self-love and acceptance is through solitude. I’ve written about this in my pieces on solo camping and backpacking here, on Instagram, and in my weekly email.
Former Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, covers the topic in greater detail in his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Here’s his brief summary of the benefits of solitude.
“Solitude is an experience of being alone, but it’s pleasant, centering, and grounding, and it’s actually quite important in maintaining our emotional well-being. If we allow ourselves moments of solitude and let the noise around us settle, we can reflect on what’s happening in our life and simply be in a world that is constantly about doing and taking action. When we approach other people from a place of being grounded and centered, we find our interactions are often more positive, because we can show up more authentically as ourselves.
I believe that in this time of turmoil, when the world seems to be racing faster and faster, the moments of solitude are even more important than they were before. Those few minutes that we take to simply be, to feel the wind against our face, to feel gratitude by remembering three people or three things to be thankful for, can be really grounding and renewing.” – Dr. Vivek H. Murthy
Hopefully, you can see how solitude can help you build better relationships. But who has the time?
We often think that finding solitude means going full-on Thoreau. But we can all work moments of solitude into our daily lives. We can get up early for a quiet walk each morning or start the day with a silent yoga practice. You could close your office door and meditate for 10 minutes over your lunch break or simply sit in silence in your car for 10 minutes when you get home from work. It might be uncomfortable to sit with yourself at first, but as you practice you’ll find solitude to be a valuable part of your life.
ASK YOURSELF ONE QUESTION
How do people feel after spending time with me?
That’s a difficult and uncomfortable question, isn’t it? But it’s an important thing to ask if you want to build deeper and stronger connections.
One of my goals is for people to feel better after spending time with me than before we got together. For me, that means asking questions and listening, having deep and meaningful conversations, and offering support and encouragement.
I’m perfectly imperfect and don’t always succeed, but simply making the effort counts more than you know. One of the ways I do this is by setting an intention or saying a little prayer about what I want to leave people with before we get together.
If we’re not getting what we need from a relationship, that’s mostly on us. If we leave all of our interactions with friends feeling more negative and pissed off than before we got together, that’s likely a reflection of our own energy. Like attracts like. If you want to be around positive and supportive people, you need to be positive and supportive. Setting the intention for how you want each interaction to go is a great first step.
Vulnerability is a struggle for many of us. In an unscientific Instagram poll, 60 percent of respondents indicated that they find it challenging to know if they’re being vulnerable or sharing TMI (too much information). But when I asked the follow-up question, “How much do you appreciate when people are open and vulnerable with you?” everyone unanimously said they love it. So like many of the challenges we’ve covered so far, our issues with vulnerability are mostly on us.
It’s in our nature to want to be liked and accepted so rather than being vulnerable, we often share what we know will be readily accepted. Different generations and families have varying comfort levels when it comes to vulnerability. I can’t imagine any of my late grandparents publicly sharing some of the things I’ve shared with you in the article.
All this talk about family and vulnerability reminds me of a conversation Jer and I had several years ago. Jer and I were discussing the keys to making marriages and relationship work. This naturally led to looking at the relationships around us.
Jer asked me about some extended family members. When I responded that I didn’t know, he asked, “How could you not know? They’re you’re family. You grew up with them.” I explained how we only really see extended family on holidays and people tend to put on a good show to make it look like everything is perfect. You never really know what’s going on the other 363 days a year.
He seemed shocked by my response. Since I assumed this is how most families behave, I brought the topic up with a handful of friends. For the most part, they all had similar family experiences. As I said, we all grew up in different environments. But if many of us were raised in families where it wasn’t okay to be vulnerable, it’s no wonder we find it so challenging today.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I spent nearly 40 years of my life believing that vulnerability was a weakness. To this day, it’s hard for me to admit if something is wrong. I’ll hide my limp from a sports injury for weeks to see if it goes away on its own before admitting that I’m hurt. When my city was burning to the ground a couple of months back, I communicated my worry by asking Jer if he was scared. His response? “It’s unsettling.”
My struggle to be vulnerable doesn’t stop with the inability to say how I feel. I find it challenging to ask for help, even if I know that someone has the answer I need. But I also know that we can’t truly connect unless we’re vulnerable, real, and allow people in. So here are a few tips to help you practice being more vulnerable.
HOW TO BE VULNERABLE
- Let your guard down and slowly start to let select people in.
- Say what you believe and need to say even if you’re worried that it may lead to judgment or rejection.
- Admit what you don’t know. No one likes a know-it-all. Be open to learning from others.
- Get comfortable asking for help. Allowing others to serve you creates stronger bonds.
- Learn to apologize. This is hard, especially if you grew up in a family that never apologized. I’m slowly learning that a good apology is a key component in building healthy relationships.
TRUE FRIENDS LET GO OF THE ILLUSION OF PERFECTION
For those of you who’ve been reading my work for a while, you know about my life-long struggle with perfectionism. For years I wore perfectionism as a badge of honor. That’s until I realized that it was hurting me more than it was helping me. Not only is perfectionism harmful to ourselves, but it’s also detrimental to fostering healthy relationships.
As a recovering perfectionist, I must constantly remind myself that everyone is perfectly imperfect. It’s so easy to put people on a pedestal when looking from the outside in. But once we get to know them, their humanity becomes clearer. This causes some people to feel betrayed—like the other person was putting on a show and they’re not who they seemed to be. But as we mature, we can learn to be drawn to the beauty that lies in the imperfections of others.
How would you react if you heard someone talking about you the same way you talk about others?
We all need to talk about things to process and heal. So talking about people and how they hurt us isn’t necessarily the same as gossiping and talking smack. From what I’ve experienced, talking about others becomes toxic when it’s used to hurt people. Toxic people often smack talk others in an attempt to create rifts and damage relationships. Shaming, blaming, insulting, and pointing fingers are common ways I’ve seen people do this.
As I’ve grown conscious of my own shortcomings, I’ve gotten better at filtering what I say about others. But let me assure you that Jer calls me out at least every month. Here are a couple of acronyms that help keep me in check as I strive to be more trustworthy.
FRIENDS THINK BEFORE THEY SPEAK
TRUE – Is what you’re saying true, or is it ‘fake news’? Lies and misinformation hurt others and create the belief that you’re untrustworthy.
HELPFUL – Are your words helpful? Is what you’re saying helping you and the person you’re speaking with become better versions of yourselves?
INSPIRING – Are others inspired by what you are saying? People are inspired by words that encourage and challenge them to do great things.
NECESSARY – Do your words really need to be said? Language that actively hurts others is wholly unnecessary.
KIND – Is what you want to say kind? We all know the saying “if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all”.
THE SEVEN ELEMENTS OF TRUST
from Dare to Lead by Brené Brown.
BOUNDARIES – You respect boundaries and when you’re not sure what’s okay, you ask.
RELIABILITY – You do what you say you’ll do.
ACCOUNTABILITY – You own your mistakes and apologize.
VAULT – You never share experiences that aren’t yours to share.
INTEGRITY – You practice your values rather than simply professing them.
NONJUDGEMENT – We can ask for what we need and talk about how we feel without judgment.
GENEROSITY – Extend generous interpretations to the words and actions of others.
Now that we’ve discussed the ways we can get in our own way and what we can do about it, let’s look at some practical tips for nurturing more meaningful friendships.
10 WAYS TO BUILD MEANINGFUL FRIENDSHIPS
1 – EXISTING RELATIONSHIPS
I haven’t done an official count, but I imagine that there are at least 100 people out there who were once a part of my life who I consider friends. Old classmates, coworkers, and friends who have moved away or took a different path in life are all wonderful opportunities to reconnect.
I mentioned in the section, IS IT IN YOUR HEAD, that I can fall into the trap of lamenting about how I don’t have any friends. But in reality, I know so many people I’d love to connect with on a deeper level. So before you start searching far and wide for your next BFF, take a look at the people who are already in your life.
2 – FIND FRIENDS THROUGH MUTUAL INTERESTS
As I’ve asked for tips on making friends over the last 28 months, this has come up more than anything. Finding people with mutual interests makes a great entry point to connect.
What do you like to do? Are you a hiker? Reach out to other hikers and get together for a long hike. Love cycling? Join a group ride and get to know other local cyclists. Are you an avid gardener? Get together for a beer to discuss all things organic peas and kale with another neighborhood gardener.
The truth is that we can find mutual interests with most people. Seek out the things you want to do or learn. Join a meetup or take a community education course. Volunteer or get involved with local politics. The opportunities are endless. All you need is the courage to take the first step.
3 – FILL THE AGE GAP
I’m starting to feel like I should rename this article, The Ignorant Things I Used to Believe. I’m really pushing the limits on my vulnerability here. 😉
For a large portion of my life, I believed that hanging out with younger people meant that I was immature. Which I assure you, I was. I was also terrified of older people because I didn’t want to be seen as immature.
Today I’m insanely blessed to have people I call friends who range in age from their late 20s to late 60s. The truth is that age has very little to do with how well we connect with someone. So widen your age range and start enjoying more meaningful friendships today.
4 – LONG-DISTANCE FRIENDS
Here’s another fun fact for you. After I graduated from college, I never had a “real” office job where I showed up to hang out at the watercooler with my work pals every day. I’ve always worked remotely with teams spread out across the country. To this day, I have clients, readers, and customers worldwide. So long-distance connections have always been “normal” to me.
I was recently reminded of the value of long-distance friendships. On Memorial Day of 2020, the city I live in was shaken by unspeakable police brutality and the death of an innocent black man named George Floyd. The city erupted in protests and riots. Hundreds of buildings were looted and burned to the ground. Thousands of state police and National Guard members were activated in an attempt to bring peace. For about a week, military helicopters flying overhead became the new normal.
All these weeks later, it’s still hard for me to put words to all of this. By the length of this article, it’s clear that I don’t usually struggle with words.
During that crazy, scary, heartbreaking time, I heard from so many people I hadn’t spoken to in years. It meant the world to me to have all of these thoughtful long-distance friends check in on me. They asked about my experience, listened, and offered support. It’s hard for people to do that for each other during a crisis. It’s in times like these we need those long-distance friends.
5 – SCHEDULE TIME
I already addressed our cultural disease of busyness. But I didn’t mention how this busyness directly impacted my feelings of loneliness.
Social connection is important. It’s just as, if not more, important as that meeting you have scheduled at work today. So why aren’t more of us scheduling meetings with our friends?
If it’s important to you you’ll find the time, if not you’ll find an excuse. Think about how this plays out in your life and make adjustments so you can live in better alignment.
6 – BE INCLUSIVE
I imagine we all know how it feels to be overlooked and left out. So when taking the initiative to plan things, think inclusivity. Who do you know who would like to be included in your book club? Heading out for a group camping excursion? Who do you know that’s expressed interest in camping for the first time? Simply inviting one extra person you may have overlooked is a huge step toward inclusivity.
Keep in mind that most people aren’t naturally comfortable taking the first step. My husband, for example, is a raging extrovert, but not much of a planner. He probably won’t reach out to you to grab a beer, but will jump at the opportunity if asked.
Don’t forget to consider those who don’t fit into the traditional mold like your single friends, the newly divorced, or childless couple.
7 – BE A GIVER
We all desire to feel important. We want to be appreciated and recognized. So why not be the person who freely gives that to others without expecting anything in return?
Healthy relationships are a give and take but I believe the best first step is to give. Some great ways to give include offering help and asking questions and listening.
Genuinely compliment people and make them feel seen. Reach out to old friends and let them know how they’ve impacted your life. Send people books, articles, or podcasts that may be of interest to them. Share their work and recommend their services. There are endless ways to be a loving and generous giver.
8 – ASK FOR WHAT YOU NEED AND ACCEPT HELP
Can I let you in on another secret? So much of what writers write about are things that they’ve struggled with themselves. This includes me and that means much of this article is advice to self.
I’ve come to recognize that if I’m not getting what I need from relationships, that’s on me. We all have different needs and preferences. And aside from that fortune teller at the renaissance fair, I’ve never met a mind reader. That’s why it’s essential that we learn to communicate our needs better.
If I’m lonely because no one reaches out to connect, it’s on me to be the one reaching out. When a friend consistently cancels on me, it’s up to me to establish boundaries and say what is and is not okay. If you need someone to talk to, you simply need to ask. So many people want to help you, why not start letting them in.
9 – BECOME A GREAT LISTENER
I don’t know if social media and loneliness have made us worse listeners or if it’s just our natural tendency. I imagine it’s a little bit of both.
In a recent podcast interview, Dr. Harriet Learner shared a story about how she once did a workshop on how to speak to be heard. The workshop oversold and they ended up adding additional sessions. Later in her career, she offered a workshop on being a better listener. Not surprisingly, only three people signed up and she had to cancel the event. We’re all so desperate to be heard that we overlook the power of being a great listener.
As a coach and an introvert, I think I’m an above-average listener. I have my moments when I need to be heard, but generally speaking, I’m an engaged listener. This makes me very attuned to the moments when people aren’t listening.
One of the funniest interactions I’ve had with a terrible listener was while getting my hair cut at my neighborhood salon last summer. One of the other stylists overheard something I was saying and decided to share her two (thousand) cents. She took what I had said and connected it to something she had seen on The View. She then asked if I watched The View. I responded that “we don’t own a TV, so no.” She went on to talk about Whoopi’s hair, and then asked what I thought of it. I responded that “I haven’t seen it because I don’t own a TV.” And then she said, “Well when you get a chance, tune in to The View and check out Whoopi’s hair.” It was so hilarious I wasn’t even irritated.
When I focus on being a great listener, I find that I always get back what I put in. When you deeply listen to others, they’ll be more willing to do the same. This is especially important with difficult topics like religion, race, and politics.
Listening is wonderful because most people are way more interesting than me. I already know everything about myself. I want to hear about other people’s adventures and learn from their experiences.
10 – BE PATIENT
Be patient and trust the process. Building meaningful connections takes time. Resist the urge to force yourself on people. The friendships I have today are years in the making. There’s no such thing as instant friends. Building and maintaining friendships is an investment and hard work. And it’s totally worth the effort.
BONUS TIP – FRIENDS SAY IT FIRST
Call the people you like and enjoy being around friends for goodness sake. They don’t need to say it back and it doesn’t need to be official, like changing your relationship status on Facebook. You’ll have more friends the moment you take the initiative to be first and call someone a friend.
WHAT IF YOU’RE AN INTROVERT?
This question came up every time I brought up the topic of making friends as an adult. Everyone needs meaningful connections, even introverts. Although I’m perfectly fine alone, spending time with others adds so much more to my life. The advice below isn’t just for introverts; everyone can benefit from these tips.
This is great advice in general, but it’s especially important for building relationships. I almost always feel a bit anxious before getting together with people. The thought usually crosses my mind that I should cancel. But I always stick to my word and I’m always happy I did. It’s true what they say that the best of life lies just outside your comfort zone.
This sounds silly to some of you I’m sure, but it’s been helpful to me to set interaction goals. Depending on the time of year and other things I have going on, I set a goal for the number of friendly interactions I want to engage in that week. Then I share it with Jer so he can encourage me and hold me accountable.
Make it a habit to say yes more than you say no. Not every invitation will be a hit, but you need to wade through the so-so to get to the incredible.
Use online connections to build real-life connections.
I’ve met a lot of wonderful people through Instagram and Strava. Both of these platforms are great because you have access to a large pool of open profiles. Strava is an app for athletes that allows you to connect with other people who are passionate about the same activities.
You can use Instagram to pull up photos of things you’re interested in by hashtags or specific locations like The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Following someone for a few months will give you a good idea of who they are and what they’re in to.
Comment on their content and join the conversation. Even if you’re not trying to make friends, that’s kind of the point of this thing called “social” media. Send a direct message or share something that they might find interesting. Become the person who reaches out and eventually others will start reaching out to you.
If you reach out to 20 people and 20 people say no, it’s okay to feel hurt. But then take this as an opportunity for reflection. Could there be something that you’re doing that’s rubbing people the wrong way? Or maybe you’re chasing after the wrong crowd. It’s painful to have to examine yourself like this, but you’ll be happy you did when you start to build better relationships in the coming years.
Volunteering is a great, low-pressure way to meet other people who share your passions. Look for opportunities with organizations that are enthusiastic about the same things you are. Then be open to getting to know all of the wonderful people you’ll encounter while you serve.
Go out alone. This is especially relevant to anyone moving to a new city where you don’t know anyone. Don’t be afraid to go to dinner, parks, or vacations on your own. Don’t sit around waiting from someone to find you. Get out there and start exploring on your own.
If you’re ready to learn more about building better connections, check out these additional resources.
Brand new for 2020, this is a must-read book for everyone who cares about health and personal connection. In this book, former US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy takes a deep dive into the loneliness epidemic. He discusses our evolutionary and biological need for connection and so much more. It was full of so much great information, I listened three times in a row.
This book addresses so many of the challenges I mentioned in the section on why it’s hard to make friends. This book is especially important during these divisive years of presidential elections when blame, shame, and name-calling are at an all-time high. It’s a must-read for anyone who values true belonging.
How to be the person everyone wants to be around!
Listen to this short interview with my 10 year-old-friend Ellie Rose for a reminder on what it means to be a good friend. It might seem odd to take friendship advice from a 10-year-old, but trust me, this is the purest, most untarnished advice you can get. I was blown away the first time I listened and have listened many times since. You can access the full episode here.
A must-read book for anyone who wants better relationships. This short read will help you work through the common conflicts we all run into with our friends and loved ones. When you’re done, be sure to keep reading The Fifth Agreement for more life-changing tips.
This book is filled with common sense that isn’t all that common. I read this book in my early thirties and my mind was blown. I learned a whole new way to communicate and connect with people in all areas of life. Originally published in the early twentieth century, this book has a salesy self-helpy vibe but the advice is solid and it works. My only regret is that I didn’t read this sooner.
Making friends as an adult can feel like a daunting task. But know that you’re not alone. In another unscientific Instagram poll, 96 percent of respondents indicated that they’re eager and ready to make new friends. Keep that in mind when Tammy (remember that voice in my head?) tries to tell you differently.
Like I mentioned in the beginning, this is a long and comprehensive article. Trying to do it all at once will not be helpful. Pick one thing and focus on it until it feels comfortable. For example, if you’re someone who always says no, commit to yourself that you’ll start saying yes.
Building deep and meaningful friendships as an adult is possible. And if you’ve read this article to the end, you’re well on your way. Now just be kind, patient, and enjoy the journey.