Imagine this: you’re out of college and graduate school, you’ve found a career that you love, and a nice apartment or house in an expensive city that promises many cultural rewards and social opportunities.
Perhaps you have a partner, or are trying your hand at online dating, sifting through the seemingly endless pile of candidates. Perhaps you are married or have young children.
You spent much of your twenties making mistakes, staying too long in bad relationships, and moving around trying to find yourself and your place in the world. (Which is exactly what you were supposed to do in your twenties). As a result, you have arrived at your thirties a bit tougher, a good deal wiser and finally at ease with yourself and your life trajectory.
But you don’t have many close friends. The closest thing to “community” in your life is happy hour with your coworkers. You might feel like a failure, to have everything in your life going so well except for this. And you might be embarrassed to talk about it for fear of sounding pathetic, lonely, needy or unlikeable.
Maybe you don’t need to imagine this, because you’re living it.
We live in an age of increasing social alienation. For young professionals in hip urban environments such as the Bay Area, the norm is to juggle insanely busy schedules comprised of demanding jobs, social media accounts, dating or partnering with one (or more) people, self-care, hobbies and personal pursuits, reading, exercise, parenting, political involvement, travel, and ingesting culture whenever possible.
And because your peers are also the kind of people who value overly full lives, the lifestyle is constantly being reinforced through example, peer pressure, FOMO, and the feelings of self-importance that stem from being what I call “haggard-chic.”
I see hidden consequences of this in my practice: so many well-meaning, dynamic people with tons to offer to their social relationships, but with very few social relationships to thrive in. With everyone so busy, locked into their relationships and careers, and with few public communal spaces left, how are we supposed to make friends as adults?
Step One: Let Go of The College Dream
For many folks, college was a time when friendship came easily and naturally. Cloistered together with other like-minded folks, living and learning in unison, college and graduate school experiences seem designed to deliver social intimacy. Even for people in their thirties, college was the most recent time they can remember when they had the rich social networks they desire. If only I can somehow re-create an experience like that, they think.
This is an understandable but ultimately limiting fantasy. The reality is, forging intimate friendships with other adults in the contemporary U.S. is not a natural or easy process; perhaps it should be, but it’s not. We need to accept this.
In order to make friends, you need to set an intention, develop a new skill set and then do the work.
Step Two: Let Go of The Shame
Many people feel ashamed about not having more friends; feeling lonely or needing more social connection flies in the face of the image they have of themselves and the image they present to others as productive, busy, put-together, living the dream.
Because of this shame, no one really talks about it, which means it isn’t normalized and externalized as a societal problem. We take far too much responsibility and judge ourselves for something that isn’t our fault.
If you want to change your social life, you need to first stop blaming yourself. We live in a culture that is constantly eroding our capacity for and interest in intimate connection and community. You need to swim against the stream.
Step Three: Reframe What Counts as Friendship
Many folks still conceptualize friendship as the drawling coffee dates and dinner parties of our college and graduate school years. This means you may not be “counting” or valuing relationships in your life that you classify as something else – “colleagues” or “housemates”, for example.
These labels define our relationships to these people in formal, distant terms. No doubt, you may not be friends with all of your housemates or coworkers. But I’ll bet they are often the people you interact with the most: you share about your life, make each other laugh, use one another as supports, and have fun together. Another way of labeling this kind of relationship is “friendship”.
Indeed, most of our connections in adulthood form in the workplace or in a shared housing situation. It’s true that at work at home, boundaries need to be negotiated carefully. You may not want that much closeness with your housemates or coworkers. But if you already have it, why not call it what it is?
Step Four: Identify What You Love and Be Efficient
What are your hobbies, passions and interests? What is something you have been meaning to do for a while but have put off – a trip to a museum? A dance class? Volunteering?
You can think of these things as opportunities to make connections with like-minded people (it’s OK to have an ulterior motive!) while also enriching your life in other ways. Often what is most bonding initially is shared experience and interests; it provides a solid foundation for connection, from which something greater can grow.
By harnessing your existing interests and to-do list to forge friendships, you are being efficient at a time in your life when space and energy are limited.
Step Five: Find Community And Stick With It
Humans are hardwired to be intensely social beings: our physical health, mood, and overall sense of well-being are inextricably linked to the robustness of our social bonds. While deep, close friendships may be the end-game, consider that participation in a community could greatly alleviate your feelings of loneliness in ways you can’t imagine.
Communities are united by a common, greater purpose and are low-pressure, socially speaking: the relationships can be as deep as you want them to be. If you don’t click with someone, there is someone else right behind them. Regardless, repeated exposure to the same people breeds trust, familiarity and affection – and gives you the opportunity to learn more about people beyond your first few impressions.
The most important thing about participating in a community is commitment and time. In an age where our brains and nervous systems are being rewired to seek and expect instant gratification, having patience here is paramount. Meaningful interpersonal connections can be instant, or they can be built over time. If you expect that you can and should be able to make a best friend within minutes of meeting someone, you are closing yourself off to other possibilities.
So Where Can You Find Community?
This is where many people get stuck. Our culture and lifestyle don’t make it easy for us to find community. But it is out there, because you are not alone, and lots of other folks have done the legwork and are just waiting to hear from you! Here are some ideas and resources for you to consider:
If you have other ideas to share, feel free to comment below!
Step Six: Take Risks
This is where the skills of risk-taking and letting go become essential. If you're drawn to someone, suggest a coffee date or an activity that you'd both enjoy. It may feel corny and vulnerable, but people are much more open to this than you may think - they might be wanting to do the same thing, but are too scared!
If they politely decline, you may feel disappointed or embarrassed. That's fine, but don't dwell on it - it's just part of the process, and it isn't a reflection of you or your worth! You may need to make several attempts before one pans out. In that way, it's like dating, except that no one talks about or acknowledges it that way.
I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below!