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A Therapist’s Guide to Making Friends as an Adult

As children and adolescents, we are given many natural opportunities for making friends. School, extracurricular activities, and sports teams were all places where it was easy to find people to connect with, many of whom you saw every day of the week. However, as we transition to adulthood, we often lose those built-in opportunities for friendship. This may feel even more amplified by the increase in remote work and telecommuting to jobs across the country or even the world! With organic spaces for making friendships limited in adulthood, it may seem difficult to meet new people and even harder to make those casual connections into lasting friendships. Yet, these lasting friendships are extremely important for our well-being: loneliness and lack of social connections can have a significant impact on anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns [1]. If you find yourself wishing for closer social connections, but feeling uncertain or even anxious on how to begin creating new friendships in adulthood, this guide is for you. Below we’ll discuss some helpful approaches to finding, creating, and keeping friendships in adulthood. 

Finding: Do Something You Enjoy

Throughout our lives, especially in childhood and adolescence, we often rely on proximity to make friends. You were likely friends with someone who lived in your neighborhood or who sat next to you in class. While friendships of proximity can be close and secure, these sorts of friendships do not necessarily share common interests, life goals, or value systems. If you are looking to create new friendships as an adult, start by joining an activity group or organization that does something that you already enjoy. 

Some possible examples: a book club, a board game night at a local venue, joining a class/lecture series on a topic of interest, or volunteering at a local organization. 

The benefits of joining an organization, club, or group of interest when you are looking for new friends are two-fold: first, you will be able to meet a wide variety of people while doing an activity you enjoy, and two, believing that people do not share your interests is cited as a major factor that negatively impacts friendship development [2]. By engaging in a regular group activity that you enjoy, you will already know that the people around you share at least one common interest, and likely share many more!

This first step can bring up a lot of anxiety– it can feel overwhelming or scary to join a new group. If you notice that you want to join an activity that you enjoy but feel anxious about the prospect of meeting new people or being in a group setting, you are not alone! It may be helpful to send an email to a group organizer (if there is one) with any questions you may have. Not only will you learn more information about the group you may join, but you will also create a contact person who you know to introduce yourself to on the first day you join the group. Other helpful things to do are: come up with some questions that you may want to ask other people (i.e. what T.V. show are you currently watching?), give yourself a goal (i.e. I want to learn the name of three people at today’s event), or practice challenging negative judgments you hold toward your ability to meet new people (i.e. instead of saying “I am so awkward around new people” try saying “it’s normal that meeting new people feels a little weird at first.”

Finding: Your Values and Your Friend’s Values

So you joined a club- great! You are now in an environment where you have more opportunities to meet people who may share interests with you. However, just because someone loves reading the latest fantasy novels, does not mean that you necessarily want to be close friends with them. The next step is to identify characteristics that would be meaningful qualities for a potential friend to have, so you can begin looking for these similar traits in new social connections. This means looking out for not only common interests but also core values in potential friends. 

The potential characteristics that you value in a friend can be various! Perhaps you really value empathy, and you notice that one of the people in your arts and crafts group is always checking in to see how others are doing- this may be a sign that this is a person who has friend potential! 

Possibly, you love the idea of a friendship filled with humor. This means you’ll be looking out for other people at the animal shelter where you volunteer who use puns to name the new rescues or who always make a well-timed joke when everyone is starting to feel stressed. Recognizing your values in friendships will help you decide who you may want to transition from an acquaintance to a friend.  

One note: You do not have to limit yourself with expected values or interests in a friend nor should you expect that every friend will meet all of your expectations. It is common to have different friendships that satisfy different social and connection needs.  You may find that while you have always appreciated friends who are more outgoing and extroverted than you, you may get a different avenue of enjoyment from a new friend who prefers movie marathons and discussing books together. Similarly, your friend who always knows how to make you laugh but who always reschedules lunch dates may not be the person you ask to drive you to the airport. It’s okay if you have different friendships with differing expectations as long as core values such as trust and openness are consistent!

Creating: Chat Openly and Often, Casually and Deeply

Now that you’ve met people who share some common interests and have identified some values that you would like in a friendship, the next step is to begin creating relationships. While this may feel like a big leap from meeting new people to making friends, the components to creating new friendships are more straightforward than you might think. In order to begin cultivating a friendship try to talk to the person you may be interested in forming a friendship with often and openly. Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to conversations:  

Repetition: While it may seem simple, making sure to consistently touch base with a person you are interested in being friends with is fundamental to building a friendship. This does not mean that you have to text someone every day or stop by their cubicle at work every hour. This does mean to make it a point to speak with someone as regularly as possible (for example as you are coming into the office or on your lunch break with a co-worker or sending a text once a week to the person you met through an activity of common interest). While this may feel unnatural at first, consistent opportunities for communication will help you to move from acquaintances to friends. 

Small Talk: People often comment that they “don’t like small talk.” For some, it can feel unnatural or fake, and this may mean that they avoid talking to people whom they are not already close to. However, small talk does not have to be inauthentic, and it is an important part of talking to new people with whom you may want to create friendships. Maintaining curiosity, being open to new ideas, and acting on others’ suggestions are all parts of more casual conversations that can help you to build connections. An example: 

Let’s say you ask someone who you are interested in creating a friendship with, “what did you do this weekend?” If this were to be a typical “small talk” conversation, they may say “I went out to dinner” and you may respond with “oh that’s nice!” 

While there is nothing wrong with the conversation above, it may not feel like a genuine social connection and it ends pretty quickly. Now let’s try this conversation again, while implementing the approaches above: curiosity, openness, and acting on suggestions: 

“What did you do this weekend?”

“I went out to dinner.” 

“Where did you go?” (curiosity)

“This new Italian restaurant downtown.”

“That sounds great, I haven’t had Italian food in a while! Did you enjoy the food?” (openness and curiosity)

“Yes, I would definitely recommend the baked ziti, so delicious!”

“I have been looking for a place to bring my parents who are visiting next week, I’ll take them there!” (acting on suggestions)

While the conversation above is still “small talk”, it also lets the other person know that you are interested in them and their life, are open to their interests even if they are different from your own, and are willing to try new things. All of these are great foundations to building a friendship and are likely traits that you would look for in a friendship too!

Deeper Conversations: The final component of conversations that we’ll discuss today is having vulnerable conversations. For some people, diving into talking about their feelings, stressors, or past may feel easy and they may even look forward to this part of relationships. However, for others, the process of transitioning from a casual friendship to a close friendship may feel overwhelming. It is common to feel nervous about sharing deeper emotions with a new friendship, so let’s discuss some things to keep in mind as you progress toward greater emotional vulnerability:

Three aspects of having deeper conversations that are helpful to take note of are- setting, reciprocity, and starting small. Setting means choosing a place that feels safe and comfortable for you to be more emotionally vulnerable. Going to a quiet park or hanging out at one another’s house will likely feel more comfortable for sharing emotions than talking at work or at your shared activity of interest. Reciprocity means looking out for whether the person you are becoming friends with also shares increasingly personal information about themselves. While this may be hard to detect at times, people sharing feelings of anger or sadness or stories where they may not seem “at their best” are all signs that your new friend is willing to be vulnerable with you too. Finally, starting small means that you do not have to dive into the most painful emotions or memories that you have all at once. Instead, you may start with expressing frustration about a certain situation or incident that is currently happening in your life and then continue to share more as you build trust in your new friendship. 

Importantly, friendships do not often stay in all small talk or all deep conversations, and opening up emotionally does not mean that you have to lose the more casual playful parts of your friendship. As you build close friendships you will likely notice that you will naturally travel between casual conversations and emotionally vulnerable conversations- both help to make a friendship strong.

Keeping: Checking In and Making Time

You’ve created a friendship with someone who shares some common interests with you and who holds values that are important to you. You feel comfortable having both small talk and emotionally vulnerable conversations with them, and you see your friend pretty regularly. However, life changes often disrupt the patterns of connections that we have with friends. Perhaps you developed a friendship with someone you met at a weekly club, but now you have a new shift at work that overlaps with your meeting time. Or maybe your friend has a new relationship or job opportunity that means that they are moving to a new city, state, or country. With your typical friendship routine disrupted, it can be easy to fall out of touch or lose some of the closeness you may have. Here are some things you can do to help maintain a friendship through the many changes that life can bring: 

Check-in: It may seem simple, but a text message or phone call once a week or once a month asking how your friend is doing can help to keep a friendship close despite changes. When we lose opportunities for organic connection, such as meeting at a weekly activity or living in the same town, it is important to keep communication consistent. Some people may prefer a scheduled time to talk together, which may look like you and your friend always calling each other when you drive home from work on Wednesdays, while others may prefer a less structured approach, with a goal of talking at least once every two weeks whenever you both have free time. It is important to find the approach that works best for you and your friend. It is also important to remember that there may be compromises, especially if you prefer a more flexible approach than your friend or vice versa. The most important part of checking in is not perfection but intention. Reaching out to see how your friend is doing and their efforts to check in on you both help to keep the friendship feeling strong even if you talk to and see each other much less. 

Making Time: Similar to checking in, making time entails a deliberate effort to include your friendship in your life, even as things become busy. This does not mean that you have to talk to your friend daily or always have to keep a running text conversation (although you can do this if you and your friend would like!). Instead, it means that when you agree to something with your friend, whether it is meeting for dinner or having a Zoom call, protect that time. Emergencies come up and flexibility is always important; however, keeping to the time that you plan to spend together or responding to messages as timely as possible will help to show that your friendship is still important even as life changes. If this is feeling hard to do, you can always discuss possible differences in expectations that you and your friend may have, so you can come to an agreement around how much time spent together or spent communicating works best for both of you. Just like checking in, it’s the effort to spend time together that helps to reinforce feelings of trust and care in your relationship.

It is common for friendships to change as life presents new challenges, the important thing is not whether or not your friendship stays the same but whether you can be flexible and caring toward one another as you adjust your friendship to whatever life may bring. An undercurrent of trust in one another can help to keep your relationship close even as your lives change. 

Whether you’ve just moved to a new place, started a new job, or even if you find yourself looking to create new and lasting friendships, the steps in this guide can help to provide a framework as you work toward creating new relationships. However, social anxiety, complex family relationships, and trauma can also complicate the process of making new friends. If you find yourself wanting new friendships but feel overwhelmed or anxious by the prospect of getting started, you may benefit from the support of a mental health clinician. Please reach out to me, Dr. Grace Waite, or any of the other providers at the Integrated Care Clinic who can help you to address your concerns, both past and present, which may be getting in the way of creating and keeping the relationships you want.

Horigian, V. E., Schmidt, R. D., & Feaster, D. J. (2021). Loneliness, mental health, and substance use among US young adults during COVID-19. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 53(1), 1-9

Campbell, K., Holderness, N., & Riggs, M. (2015). Friendship chemistry: An examination of underlying factors. The Social science journal, 52(2), 239-247.

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