I spend a lot of time thinking about how to be a better friend. As someone who maintains a lot of long distance friendships, I’m keenly aware of the need to put time and effort into friendships. But after a conversation on the topic the other day, I realized that there was one thing that had helped me the most over my years of moving around, making new friends and keeping the old.
This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts I’m calling Unsolicited Advice. Despite being far too young for wisdom, I feel compelled to share a few stories from my life that I think could help other people. This is because I need external validation that I am helpful, and you are a part of that. Thanks. But be warned, this is a long post, so if you don’t have the time or attention span, here’s the 30 second summary:
Spending my time and energy waiting for other people to read my mind and talk to me, invite me places, or generally pay attention to me made me miserable. If I wanted to make new friends or maintain long-distance friendships, I had to just decide to reach out first. All the time. It made me happier and improved my friendships. 🙂
Panicking about moving away to college is basically a right of passage for high school seniors. I was no different. Sure, I was excited to have my first taste of independence, but what if all of my friends met new people who were cooler than me and never spoke to me again? What if I was the only one who didn’t fit in when we all scattered to new states and tried to rebuild our social circles? What if they had only been my friend all of these years because it was convenient? These were just a few of the approximately one million world-ending anxieties that filled my brain as I approached graduation. And, as a perfectly rational being, I chose to deal with them by becoming hyper-aware of how everyone around me acting, searching for signs that my friends were getting ready to dump me.
No one likes feeling left out of things, but I almost plummeted into a state of lost puppy desperation for attention as I contemplated moving away. It wasn’t just feeling hurt if I found out that some friends had chosen to participate in an activity without inviting me. Suddenly, I was letting any empty space in my social calendar feel like a gaping hole of rejection. Impatiently I would wait for friends and acquaintances alike to hear my telepathic cries that I was lonely and wanted to hang out. If it did manage to occur to me that I had the power of technology and could use my words to invite them myself to participate in a variety of activities, I inevitably came up with an excuse as to why I could literally never do that. These excuses generally involved not knowing the person that well or being too awkward or not knowing what to say. Instead, it was much better to make myself miserable just waiting.
If I ever did reach out, my high school self had a very calculated plan for doing so. Despite my rather apparent neediness, I could never be the first to reach out to someone more than twice without looking unflatteringly desperate. It didn’t matter how busy I knew the other person to be, or how close we were, this was high school and appearances were everything. If I crawled out of my hole of social awkwardness for them too often without thorough reciprocation, I began to resent them for making me do all of the work in this friendship. Add anger to the list of negative emotions I was subjecting myself to.
Then, finally, I had a sudden realization. Other people were not the reason I was so upset. I was. I was the root of all of my problems here. When I was bored and alone on Friday night, there was nothing stopping me from making my own plans. Sure, I felt a little awkward and I was afraid of getting rejected, but that is normal. I make myself face that. I would learn over the years that everyone experiences those feelings differently, and some people have much more difficulty putting themselves out there. It’s not that they didn’t want to, they just had much bigger obstacles to overcome. Maybe it was time I started treating my friends like they were human, not alien telepaths.
It was then I resolved to become an initiator.
I wasn’t going to let the anxious lizard in my brain tell me that a few weeks or months had put an inseparable distance between my friends and I. If I needed forgiveness, I would simply ask for it. I would trust the people I loved, and say goodbye to manufactured misery and release myself of scores of guilt.
I wouldn’t let the pettiness of “but I reach out the last three times” keep me from seeing the people I wanted to spend time with. Right there, I released all of the pent up anger and resentment, all of the feelings of implied rejection, and secret fears that no one really liked hanging out with me. Not just from the past, but for every time in the future.
I wasn’t going to move to a new state afraid to ask the cool people I met if they wanted to hang out. If I wanted new friends, I needed to tell them that I wanted their friendship. Sure, I would feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
Now, I have failed to live up to this resolution time and time again. But even so, it has been immeasurably helpful for me as I have navigated college and beyond.
Making new friends has been one big test of my resolve to reach out. I still struggle to meet people when I’m new in town, but once I’ve forced myself to go to an event, more often than not there are some cool people there. Cool people who I might want to see again. And people who are cool and at social gatherings will usually give me some way to contact them. Then comes the other hard part. I have made myself go into the unknown to socialize, and now I have go and put myself at the mercy of another’s whims once again and invite that person to hang out.
The upside of this strategy is that I get to take an active role in forming the friendship. I can chose who I want to devote my time to, rather than waiting for others to decide. Plus, I get hours of my life back not agonizing over every minute facial expression of the person who I am waiting to text me, trying to determine their innermost thoughts. I can simply ask. And while I do put myself at some risk of being rejected, there are not as many people who secretly hate me as I sometimes fret over there being. I’m not asking my new friends for their first born child. I just want to grab coffee or see if they want to go to an upcoming event. Viola! New friend.
But not all of my friendships were new. Even as the friends I had in high school and I dispersed across the country, and then around the world, I wanted to make sure we stayed in touch. Plus, it felt like every time I was settling in somewhere I was getting ready to leave. I needed a plan. My plan ended up being pretty simple. If I thought of someone, whether randomly or because I saw something that reminded me of them, I would do my best to stop for a moment and let them know. If one of us was busy, we didn’t have to have a huge conversation about it. But this helped to shorten the breaks between when I had spoken with everyone last. It gave my friends an opening to say by the way, something big has happened in my life and I’ve been trying to find the right way to tell you. All I was doing was making sure to keep communication lines open, and the friendship themselves were what made the distance feel like nothing.
In the end, this system is simple. It isn’t easy or perfect, but it has made me significantly happier since I made it a part of my life. If you are reading this and relate to feeling rejected and upset when trying to start or stay in contact with people, I highly encourage you to run your own experiment. Live your life with the inviter setting on. Text first like no one is counting. And then let me know how it goes. Do you feel less stressed and better about your relationships? Are you happier? I know I am.