One of my earliest school memories is hiding in a tire in the playground during recess because I was too shy to play with the other children. Eventually I grew up, and while I am still an introvert, I learned how to make friends. I have also worked with several children and teens who had social anxiety and wanted some tools to help them make friends. I definitely understand that making friends can be really difficult. And, if friendships aren’t going well it can be really hard to go to work or school or other social places let alone enjoy them.
While making friends is a lot more than a simple 10 step list there are some principles that are helpful to remember.
Don’t Run and Hide from Anxiety or Shyness When Trying to Make Friends
Making friends isn’t all fun and games. Oftentimes people, especially us introverted ones, may feel shy, anxious, nervous, or awkward. That’s alright. Hard emotions are a part of life. The problem comes, however, when we run from these feelings and allow them to stop us from reaching out to others or acting in a way that promotes our happiness or enjoyment.
Accept Negative Emotions
Different therapy theories emphasize the importance of accepting negative emotions. No, this doesn’t mean wallowing in it or dejectedly believing that things will never change. It means that sometimes we might feel shy or anxious when trying to talk to others, and that’s okay. Accept that and move forward. If we do so then we will understand how we can still continue to reach out to others despite the butterflies in our stomach.
Let me try to illustrate this concept by using an everyday situation. Imagine that you’re stuck in a traffic jam. You can become more and more frustrated and think about how awful it is because it’s been a long day and you just want to get home. You can feel like you can’t stand being there another minute. Or, you can accept the situation and move on. Even though you don’t enjoy the traffic jam, the acceptance of it lowers your blood pressure and lets you feel more at peace with it. The same goes for making friends. Sometimes making new acquaintances will involve feeling nervous or shy. We have the option of either hiding and arguing to ourselves that we can’t go to the event because of fears and feelings of anxiety, or accepting it and interacting with others anyway.
Find Relaxation Skills and Positive Slogans or Reminders
To help cope with nervousness, anxiety, or other negative emotions, try finding relaxation skills that work for you. For example, you might take deep breaths, imagine a safe place before you talk to someone, exercise or do yoga before a social activity, take a walk, think of something funny, or listen to your favorite music.
In addition to relaxation skills, you might create a positive slogan or mantra that can encourage you to get through the interaction. It can be as simple as “I can do this because I’m awesome and lovable!” It can be as serious as “Even though I’m feeling nervous, I need to remember that we enjoyed our conversation when we met last week and I think I can really get along with him.” Or, it can be as funny as, “Be a peach, not a pit.” What matters is that it fits you personally and makes sense to you. For more in depth explanations and examples of this, read our post on how to create these mantras (regarding self-esteem, but the concept is the same). We also have included an explanation of this skill in post about how to help children cope with anxiety.
Find Outside Help if Necessary
I recognize that social anxiety can be overwhelming. If you’re finding that social anxiety is more than you can handle on your own or with the support of loved ones, seek help from a licensed professional. None of these steps are intended to provide therapy or be a cure-all.
It might be easy to look at others who are popular and have lots of friends and wish we were like them. But, there’s nothing better about having a large group of friends as there is to having 1 or 2 friends in a close-knit group. What matters is that you find people who support you and that you feel loved.
There are so many wonderful and positive traits about each person, regardless of personal popularity. I love Susan Cain’s Tedtalk about the power of introverts. She talks about how there is value in introverts just as there is in extroverts, even though introverts aren’t as front-and-center in life. Again, you don’t have to do everything that everyone else does or be the life of the party. You simply need to be yourself.
There are so many awesome qualities and interests about each person. No one has to change who they are to make good friends. Just be yourself and find friends who appreciate the positive qualities and interests about you. It may take a while, but remember that being true to yourself is necessary to making true friends.
Don’t Wait for Others to Come to You; Come to Others When Endeavoring to Make Friends
We can’t always expect the more outgoing people to plan activities, invite us, and reach out for friendship. Instead, we need to muster the courage to reach out to others. We can’t passively sit by and wait for friendships to come. If we want friends we need to act on it and try to get to know others. We might accomplish this by attending more social events, making more conversation with others at work or other activities, or inviting others to do something or go somewhere.
Like with everything else in life, baby steps are really helpful. The first day on a new school or new job we don’t have to immediately make weekend plans. Instead, try opening up and reaching out one step at a time. Making good behavioral plans with baby steps is especially important if anxiety is high. That way it isn’t too overwhelming and the objectives are attainable. To read more about how to create an effective behavioral plan, you can read our post about it here. (Although it is focused toward anger instead of anxiety, the principles are the same.)
This may be obvious, but it can be a lot easier to break the ice with someone when you’re both involved in an activity instead of just staring at each other trying to get past an awkward silence. Making or eating food is almost always enjoyable. Many people love participating in activities and exercises outside. Or, maybe you both enjoy performing arts. There are a million different possibilities.
Look for Potential Good Fits when Making Friends
This may be another obvious principle to try to find someone who would make a good friend. But, I have found that some people try to fit in with the popular crowd instead of looking for friendships in more likely places. They also sometimes try to keep trying to fit in with a group despite repeated rejection from them. Instead, try looking for potential friendships with people that rationally seem like they could be a good fit.
Look for people that have similar interests with you. Yes, opposites can attract and friends don’t need to have everything in common. But, it’d be difficult to be friends if no interests are shared.
Also look for potential friendships among groups that are open. It’s difficult to talk to a group where all the members are life-long friends and act as if no one else in the room, right? It’s a lot easier to make friends when others are also looking for friends or if they’re accepting of many people.
Last but not least, look for people who have similar standards and values, as well. Remember, be who you are and don’t change that to try to fit in. Look for praiseworthy qualities in a friend such as compassion, kindness, good-humor, and loyalty.
Be Smart About Making Friends
The need to have friends is strong and powerful, and it is a good and necessary part of life. Occasionally we need to be wary that it doesn’t cause us to make poor decisions that lead to eventual pain and hurt. Find your inner strength and courage to be true to your values. Be smart about making online relationships. Don’t allow others to bully, harass, or belittle you, and reach out for help if they are.
Avoid Confirmation Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophesies When You are Trying to Make Friends
Confirmation bias means that you only look for evidence that supports your theory. So, if you think that you don’t fit in and that others don’t want to talk to you then you’ll find evidence that confirms your belief. However, despite some probable negative interactions, we can also find several positive interactions if we look for them. Make sure the door is open to look for the positives.
Self-Fulfilling prophesies happen when you believe something will occur and you then act in a way that supports it and hence bring about the fulfillment. For example, you might believe that no one who wants to be your friend or likes you. This causes you to be quiet, not reach out in meaningful conversation, attend events, or invite others to events. Perhaps you then seem closed-off or uninterested to others. At the very least, no effort has been made to make friends. Ultimately, this will probably lead to the fulfillment of your prophesy because no friendships are made. Try to be aware of your beliefs and thoughts and act in ways that invite interaction and closeness with others.
Keep Trying to Make Friends and Strengthen Friendships
Last but certainly not least- keep trying! Everyone has failures. Not every attempt at making friends with someone is going to work out. Sometimes we’ll have to try meeting different people before meeting someone we really get along with. Sometimes first time hang outs are going to be awkward, but the second or third interaction is fun. Just remember to pick yourself up and try again if you fall down.
Disclaimer: this post does not provide therapeutic services If you are struggling with social anxiety that is more than you can handle on your own, or if you want outside help, please seek the help of a licensed professional.
Cain, S. (Feb 2012). The power of introverts. Ted. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts#t-266999