Back in college, it seemed easy to make friends. Those campus days were the perfect intersection of what sociologists say are the three key ingredients to forming close friendships: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to confide in each other. In your late 20s, 30s, and beyond, making close friends becomes a lot less easy. Outside of work, it’s hard to see friends regularly, and although the office offers consistent interactions, it’s hardly a setting conducive to confiding. As you get older, your career and family take preference over going out, and the few good friends you do have keep moving away (or you keep moving). As a result, you end up with an increasingly large circle of acquaintances but few people you can call close friends.
Growing friendships as an adult is a lot like dating–it’s filled with many of the same rituals, anxieties, and even false starts. If you’re socially anxious, this already difficult task can feel even more daunting. You might struggle to feel worthy of others’ friendship, worrying you’re not cool enough, talkative enough, or funny enough. You might fear asking acquaintances to hang out because you think they’ll reject you, or laugh at your request. If social anxiety is filling your head with self-doubt, here are 8 strategies to help you grow relationships from acquaintances to friendships:
- Ask questions and look for shared interests. You might worry that you won’t know what to talk about or have anything interesting to say when hanging out with a new friend. However, remember that if you get along with this person, you likely have shared interests in common you can talk about. You can also ask questions about their hobbies or past experiences to get to know them better. Remember, conversation is a two-way street, so they’ll likely have a lot of questions for you too–don’t put all the pressure on yourself to carry the conversation!
- Initiate invitations to hang out. People with social anxiety often struggle to host or invite people to hang out due to a fear of rejection. However, a basic step to growing a friendship is simply spending more time with that person. If you’re always waiting for an invite, you might not see that person enough to deepen the relationship. Besides, remember that your friend may be equally self-conscious and she/he may be unsure you want to be their friend if they are always doing the inviting.
- Understand that if they say no, they’re not rejecting you. If a friend declines your invitation to hang out, don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that they don’t like you or don’t want to be friends. Likely they just already have plans that night or are busy with work. Try asking them if there’s a different day that works better for their schedule.
- Don’t overthink the activity. Many people worry that if they don’t pick the “perfect” activity, others won’t have fun and will no longer want to be friends with them. However, remember hanging out is really about spending time with each other so you can get to know each other–the activity really isn’t that important! Something as simple as grabbing coffee or dinner should work, or you can try choosing an activity based on a shared interest like movies or music.
- Recognize there’s more to friendship than entertainment. Socially anxious people often worry that they’re not interesting or charming enough to be worthy of others’ friendship. They’re anxious about being too quiet, and feel pressure to be more talkative, especially when hanging out in groups. Remember that true friendships are about more than just being “entertaining”– they involve being supportive and there for each other in times of need. Besides, your friends chose you for your personality and don’t expect or want you to act like someone else.
- Get personal. You might feel like you need to hide any flaws and present a “perfect” self to others in order for them to want to become friends with you. However, research suggests the opposite. Studies have found that self-disclosure, or confiding personal information like your worries and fears, is actually key to building closer friendships. So sharing your vulnerabilities and things you struggle with may actually strengthen your budding friendships.
- Call or text them “just cause.” If you’re socially anxious, the idea of calling or texting a friend for no specific reason might be intimidating. You might worry your friend will think it’s weird, or that they’ll think you want something from them. However, with busy lives, it can be hard to find time to hang out regularly. You might go weeks or even months between seeing a new friend. In the meantime, calling them just to catch up or sending them a text message to see how things are going can help you maintain that relationship. It’s likely your friend will be happy to receive these messages–imagine how you’d feel if a new friend called or texted you to check in.
- Remember other people want to make friends too. Social anxiety can make you feel like the only person struggling to make friends, but it’s important to remember you aren’t alone in this. A recent survey found that Americans report having one-third less close friends than they did just two decades ago. So remember, it’s likely the person you are trying to become friends with is looking for friends as well!
Decades of research have made it alarmingly clear: close friendships are key not only to our happiness but also to our health. Studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation are equally important risk factors for mortality as weight, exercise, and smoking. For example, a meta-analysis from Brigham Young University found that people with stronger social relationships were 50% more likely to survive over the given study’s time period than those with weaker social ties—“a risk comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and one double that of obesity.” Other studies show that having close friends can boost our immune system and help us recover faster from illness. Don’t let social anxiety rob you of the chance to continue forming deep friendships as an adult–see how Joyable’s online Cognitive Behavioral Therapy program can help.