The May-June 2016 issue of Scientific American Mind reported in an article on Friendships: The Remarkable Power of Our Closest Connections, among other things, that 50% of American adults now report they have zero close friends. (Down from two close friends reported in similar studies ten years ago.)
I can vouch for the plausibility of such a statistic from my own experience with clients and workshop participants; 1,000 friends on Facebook but no close friends. I’m teaching more and more these day about the suspicious correlation of the over-reliance on our digital technology for connectivity with friends and the erosion of genuine friendships.
In the meantime, here are five suggestions to help you develop new friendships and deepen the ones you have. May they be useful to you and yours.
1. Befriend yourself.
We are all so vulnerable to shaming attacks by our inner critic, especially if we are feeling lonely or rejected or isolated at all. [More and more research documents the serious blows to our sense of self-worth and lovability from feeling neglected or rejected on Facebook posts, but that’s another story for another time.]
A deeper sense of self-acceptance and self-appreciation creates an inner energy within you of okayness that transmits, unconsciously, to others that you are a safe and interesting person to be in relationship with. Like attracts like, and people will be drawn to relate to someone who believes in themselves and enjoys their own company.
[I know, I know; not so easy. See Getting in Touch with Your Inner Critic for one technique that could possibly help.]
2. Spend time with real people in real time, especially people who are kind and skillful in relating.
Our brains are wired to connect with real people in real time.
When our nervous system picks up signals of safety, openness, friendliness, receptivity in the eye contact, facial expressions, and tone-prosody of voice of another person, our own nervous system relaxes. And likewise, when we communicate interest, curiosity, openness about another person, we help create the sense of safety and relaxation in their nervous system as well. Both parties feel safe enough to explore experiences with each other, creating the conditions to learn, grow, and change from the relationship.
This may require a re-prioritization of what’s most important to us, and a willingness to invest time in cultivating real connections with real people. [And learning to set limits and boundaries with people who are not so kind or skillful. See Setting Limits and Boundaries for suggestions on how to set those limits.]
3. Stop any tendencies toward shaming-blaming of anybody anywhere.
Shaming-blaming triggers protective defensiveness and withdrawal. Offering a mindful empathy – of course, given what’s happened, you would feel and behave exactly the way you do; it makes perfect sense – keeps the relational field open so new meanings and understandings can emerge.
See Compassionate Communication for a very powerful tool to stop shaming-blaming and open up mindful empathy.
4. Strengthen your own theory of mind,
Theory of mind is a capacity to know that you are you and the other person is them, you have your feelings, thoughts, perspectives and they have theirs; you are not the same and that’s okay. We’re supposed to have this understanding by the time we are the age of four, but not everyone has done that. Cultivating mindful empathy is a key step in strengthening our capacities for theory of mind. Actually, my book Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being offers many tools and techniques to strengthen theory of mind.
5. Repair any ruptures in any friendships you have.
Mis-understandings between people occur all the time, especially when people lose sight of the theory of mind above and the validity of differences, even disagreements. Research suggests that even in good enough relationships, we spend 1/3 of our time actually relating, 1/3 of our time in rupture, and 1/3 of our time in repair. And that repair is the most important phase. We need to trust we and the person we are relating to have the skills and the willingness to repair any disconnection in the relationship; otherwise the relating tends to become superficial because we feel we can’t risk being honest for fear of disappointing/losing the other person.
In repair, we bring our mindful awareness and our empathy/understanding to the conversation, stating our own needs but also tuning into the legitimate needs of the other. And it’s truly useful to value the relationship over being right or wrong; repair the relating, not your position or opinion.
See Repairing a Rupture for suggestions on how to repair a rupture.
See my Ten Skills of Relational Intelligence for many more suggestions for creating and maintaining safe, meaningful, and rewarding relationships. And experience for yourself the power of our closest connections.