Finding Hope by Being Close to Others

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A real friend is the gift of a lifetime. It is special someone who is in your life in a significant way. Good friendship is a sacred two-sided connection with a person we have much in common with yet also respects differences with each other. A real friend knows our worst qualities and challenges us to forgive ourselves anyway. Or, as Toni Morrison said, someone who give us the total freedom to be ourselves. It is the greatest gift that we can receive and give in our lifetimes.

Never has it been more important than now to have someone who comforts us, tells us we’re not crazy, simply wants to spend time with us and gives us hope. Never has the magic of friendship worked more miracles.

 I remember when this whole ordeal started. Most of us were way too scared to even go out of our houses. We didn’t know what we were dealing with. And we feared contaminating each other. So, we saw less of each other in social settings and on holidays. I made a decision to call my best buddies once a week and ask about them. You wouldn’t believe what doing that meant to me and my closest pals. During and after the call I felt more relaxed and more normal. I momentarily didn’t even think about the pandemic. Our friendly chatter made the ordeal disappear and I had warmer feelings towards my friends, like I could count on them each week. We took turns calling each other. We talked about deep things we normally didn’t focus on—worry about losing our parents, our own mortality and whether we felt ready to die, who would take care of our children if we got sick—you know all that important stuff we rarely ever talked about. Of course, we didn’t forget to chat about shopping, hair appointments and the lack thereof. We laughed about the stupid things of life we waste time on. I felt this bliss in my body. I felt hopeful that my life would not be in vain. I even felt insanely grateful for these moments that we wouldn’t have been able to have without this plague. Who would have guessed there could be this much joy in silly little half-hour chit-chats? It’s the friendships that made it all work.

Such gifts don’t happen automatically. Finding and keeping good friends is not a piece of cake. Effort, good judgment, honest self-reflection, and courage are required to have good friends.

Why are close friends so hard to find?

If being close to others were such an easy thing to do, most of us would have scads of buddies. In fact, the most important human need is the need to attach. We are wired for connection. Most of us would choose to hang out with those dear to us even overeating and drinking. Studies show that infants would choose likenesses of their mothers, even if their mothers are abusive, to offerings of food and drink. So, it’s not from lack of desire that we don’t have close friends. Yet being close to others is the most difficult thing to do. Why is this?

In fact, the most important human need is the need to attach.So many of us have faulty patterns on how to make friends. We develop these patterns from childhood difficulties, and we internalize them in our own flawed adult judgment while affiliating with others. We may have had a pattern of making friends more easily in high school years without knowing ourselves well enough and how we did it. When things come too easily for us we may not know how to make them happen again or feel motivated to work to make them happen again on our own. We may develop a complacency for getting close to others and settle for whoever wanders into our life as a way of making friends. We may like what people can do for us rather than being with people just for the sake of being with them. We may be distracted by another’s success or attractiveness and be oblivious to how our apparently good looking friends are affecting us. Perhaps we wish to have our own success by living through others vicariously.

Although this may sound crazy, some of us are drawn towards people who actually hurt us. We waste a lot of our life trying to change or rescue others rather than focusing on what we need to actually care for ourselves. We have trouble letting go of troublesome people in our lives. We are not aware of  that by doing this, suffering is our way of unconsciously not getting close to others or admitting our low self-opinion. We prefer to focus on other people’s troubles as a distraction from our own inner fear that we may in fact not feel lovable. Our true inner fear is that we are undeserving of real love and that we will be abandoned once somebody knows us. Focusing on trouble outside ourself distracts us from these inner fears. All of these faulty patterns are discussed in the book Too Close For Comfort by Geraldine K. Piorkowski (Perseus Press, 1994). Most of us are not conscious of these unconscious patterns. Clearly if we were it would be a lot easier to change ourselves and have an easier time finding good friends.

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Let me give you an example of what I mean. Laura describes herself as a shy and sensitive person. She is easily hurt when others treat her coldly. On the surface Laura appears and acts like a warm, attractive and intelligent woman but she has a history of avoiding social gatherings and friendship possibilities when others are not completely accepting of her. She has no close friends. As others get to know her more in social gatherings she tends to run away and find excuses for going home early to the safety and loneliness of her home. She takes the “better safe than sorry” approach to life. Initially she might have felt well-received at gatherings but when she is surrounded by silence in social groups, she thinks that people are critical of her and believe bad things about her. She feels that there is something basically unlovable in herself that is hard to put into words that other people see and shun her. Clearly the more she runs from social gatherings her views of herself only get confirmed and others become less interested in her when she does the disappearing act. Her patterns are self-fulfilling—they actually bring about her rejection. Laura’s pattern of avoidance is called social anxiety, a common malady of today’s youth. Needless to say, her patterns of avoidance actually help create her worst fears. It is almost like she won’t let anybody truly care about her. Laura has a history of depression and got more down when she discussed these difficulties with me. She saw no way out them.

It was clear that Laura was quite hopeless and helpless in this way of making friends. So as her professional friend I told her something that knocked her socks off. I said, “You’ve done a good job of scoping out your problem behaviors. You’ve been at this a long time. Actually, what you’re telling me is quite hopeful.” I said there is no reason why she is stuck with such behaviors. Laura looked at me like I was crazy but was intrigued by my optimism. I told Laura that it is rare that people can actually spell out their unconscious difficulties as well as she could and that if we made some tweaks to her patterns together she would be off and running with some good friends.

I told her that her self-defeating behaviors actually served a higher purpose in her life for now—that avoiding people is just the thing to do when you lack inner resources for protecting yourself and don’t want to see the horrors of your growing up years. I congratulated her on her due diligence in keeping herself safe. The more she talked about her history it became clear what Laura was protecting herself from—her unrecognized, highly critical and unsupportive family environment. Her avoidance in social situations was actually her ally. I told her she did not have to hate her family to be a more social person as her life was now in her own hands. We worked together for some time and Laura developed and discovered many resources in herself that made her life safer and more socially competent. Laura now leaves my office each time with a sparkle in her eyes, a few good prospects for friends and a wish to find a real boyfriend. She has hope for her future.

Tools on how to make good friends

Let’s get down to business in how to make good friends. First of all, realize what you are getting into. It’s perfectly alright with me if you sincerely prefer not to be close to others. Not all of us are cut out for intimacy and living without friends is not a federal offense. You have every right to forgo the incredible benefits—good health, positive outlook on life, insurance plan against adversity and greater life meaning—if you decline to have good friends. But if you change your mind and decide to get close to others your work is really cut out for you.

Let’s say you’ve chosen the second option. Consider all of the following in your efforts:

  • Take complete ownership for your lack of friends. It’s not just bad luck, poor qualities in people you know, where you live in the country or that other people are not up to your standards. Afterall, you have chosen to be with the people you are with. It’s best to admit to yourself that you’ve either made bad choices or have avoided meeting people who could be your friends. You’re in control of your social life. The reality is that there are many people who might make very good friends to you. It’s likely that you’ve made unwise choices in people you call “friends.” Consider reading Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Vivek H. Murthy, M.D. (Harper Wave, 2020).
  • Realize you need to forgive yourself for not having good friends. You’ve had a lot of help in past relationships for your relational misfortunes that you may not be aware of. For example, if your parents neglected your emotional life or their emotional life when you were a child, you will likely be aloof with your adult peers today. If your parents were emotionally intrusive with you as a child you will likely be reticent with possible buddies in your adult life. The list of faulty parent/child patterns goes on over and over in your adult life. You’ve heard the saying, “The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world.” The way you are ruled today by such patterns however is yours to change if you are aware of such tendencies and are willing to make corrections to the patterns. It’s best to get professional help to disengage yourself from the faulty patterns and make some real friends.
  • Learn to make good friends over time. After all, you have to start somewhere. There are many good people who could make your life more social even when they are not ideal friends. Keep searching for people who have something to offer you as well as you can offer to them. Ask yourself, “Who in my life do I really respect?” and “Who would I be most scared of to ask to be my friend?” These are exactly the people you should warm up to. One of the best ways of “courting” friends is to introduce yourself to them, say something about yourself, see if they ask you any questions about yourself and ask them about themselves and consider asking them to go to coffee with you if their response to your questions is positive. People in 12 Step Programs are often good candidates for friends. Check out other people in your life who intrigue you and seem to be unlikely friends. Have the courage to take risks.
  • Take a personal inventory of yourself and own your good qualities. Write down these good qualities and carry them around with you. Read your list before you take risks to make friends. There are likely a lot more items you could put on your list than you realize. Use your new friends to find new strengths in yourself. People will tell you what you mean to them, often by non-verbal expressions. Be sure to express your non-verbal expressions to possible new friends. Eye contact, a friendly sincere smile and a warm handshake or hug will do the trick. Listen more and talk less.
  • Make a list of your prejudices towards others that may block your ever giving others a chance. Perhaps you can’t stand rich people, or people of color, or people from foreign countries, or white people or successful people. Realize these are your prejudices—they are judgments you make about other people while distancing from them, usually without evidence for why you are doing so. Personally, I’m not a big fan of arrogant, elitist, or suspicious people. We all have our prejudices, aimed at protecting ourselves, towards others. Be aware of your prejudices and consider throwing them away unless you have clear evidence that they are dangerous to you. You may be surprised to find a good friend among people who generally turn you off. Always stay clear of people who actually hurt you and show no remorse.
  • Be open to the possibility that many people would like to be your friend and vice-versa. If you sincerely try to make friends you may surprise yourself. You can go from famine to feast. The most likely reason that others will want to be your friend is they see you are making the effort to get close to them. Be sure to learn to say “No” to people when you need distance from them. You are not responsible for their feelings of rejection. Good luck in your efforts.
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John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St.   Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990).  He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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Last Updated on January 10, 2022

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