The first time I realised I had a hard time making friends was when I got kicked out of nursery aged three.
I blame David. Barely two months older than me and he was already showing early signs of puberty. He had one of those little rattails which were popular in the eighties among children with a future criminal record and parents who didn’t love them. I’m also pretty sure he had ‘mum’ tattooed on his chubby little shoulder.
On the afternoon of David’s third birthday, I decided to skip the usual celebratory circle. It felt wiser to stay in the utility closet at the back of the classroom where I’d been hiding since my mum started dropping me off at nursery a month earlier.
I was painfully shy you see. I spent most of my days hoping the other kids would forget about my existence and praying my bladder would hold out until 3.40pm home time. Meanwhile, the large opening at the bottom of the closet gave me enough of a window to see the comings and goings in the play shops and doctor surgeries outside.
Not being one for having his birthday party ruined by an anti-social brat like me, David yanked me out of the closet and pulled me into the circle. This really pleased the toddler crowd who were all cheering and smiling.
To my surprise, I felt awesome.
I clearly remember those blissful couple of seconds of feeling utterly connected and popular. That’s exactly how long it took me to realise they were laughing because my bladder had given up and I’d wet myself.
My nursery teacher gave up too. After months of trying to coax me into her classroom she sent me home in a pair of dry leggings and a note for my mum that she should keep me at home for a little while longer.
What does any of this have to do with making new friends after thirty? Very little, but my therapist suggested it’d help if I talked about it — so thanks for listening.
3, that’s the magic number
Yes, it is.
You don’t need to dig De La Soul or have a painfully timid past like me to recognise that our coping mechanisms for shyness become way more sophisticated by the time we’ve reached thirty.
Ironically, just when we’re most comfortable with ourselves, the number of actual opportunities to connect with others in a deep and meaningful dwindle — and often so does our actual desire to do so. Yet, while that desire to make new friends becomes less urgent, our need for intimacy often remains the same.
In my practice as an online life coach — and particularly as a gay life coach — this triangle of laziness, shyness and lack of practice comes up a lot. Certainly anecdotally, it seems the majority of us struggle with an increased sense of loneliness and social isolation once we’ve reach the big Three-Oh.
Aside from having to scroll further down those online booking forms to find your year of birth, there’s of course nothing inherently eerie about turning thirty. It’s just an interesting reference point from which you can look back on a hopefully wild and exciting ride marked by self-discovery, insecurities and undirected focus.
Nights out with Netflix and Tinder
Our thirties usually mark the point where career, relationship and sometimes kids all compete for our limited bandwidth — mostly at the expense of our social engagements. Aside from the office, the gym and the never ending stream of baby showers, opportunities for regular and spontaneous interaction with interesting strangers rapidly dwindle.
Luckily, at this point you’ve also become far more picky about whom you spend your precious time with.
As writer Marla Paul put it: ‘The bar is higher than when we were younger and were willing to meet almost anyone for a margarita’.
Yet ironically, it’s right at this point when we’re at our most competent and confident that we seem to find fewer and fewer people who actually give a damn about the amazing human beings we’ve turned into.
Plenty of research also points out that our openness to new experiences decreases as we get older. The fear of missing out or FOMO which ruled our teens and twenties decreases steadily, and so does our willingness to to embrace new adventures, people and ideas.
The lure of a comfy sofa, partner and Netflix is so strong that ‘no’ becomes the default response to many opportunities for social interactions, except maybe for the occasional naked stranger if you’re single.
Worse, many people tell themselves stories about how boring their life has become over the years. They become afraid that others will find out just how uneventful their life has become, which only perpetuates the cycle of isolation.
If this is you — don’t worry. I’ve listed thirteen reasons why you might be making it harder for yourself than necessary when it comes to creating new friendships.
#1: You don’t make time to play
Let’s start with an obvious one. Research shows that more than 75 per cent of university students spend at least six hours per week socialising.
Of course, spending that much time in close proximity to people who are only interested in playing beer pong, smoking weed and banging housemates is not advisable when you’re in your thirties. After all, you have a responsible job to hold down, a mortgage to put down and a boyfriend or girlfriend to go down. How could you possible have any time to be sociable?
Let me crash your pity-party here. You do have time. Life is a reflection of the choices you make and as Darren Hardy says ‘your biggest challenge is that you’ve been sleepwalking through your choices.’
If you’re feeling lonely or socially isolated, it’s mostly not because you’re boring and it’s certainly not because you’re unlikeable. It’s often simply a matter of re-prioritising your social life.
Start by consciously directing more time and energy into your social circle, even if it requires reducing the time you put into your work, gym or relationship. It’ll make you a more balanced, resilient and joyful person to be around.
And while six hours of socialising might be a tad on the high side, for many of you––myself included––it’s still a lot less than the amount of time we spend watching Netflix each week. And dare I mention Grindr or Tinder?
#2: You’re unwilling to make the first move
I get it. You don’t want to come across as desperate, needy or horny so you make up a story that it’s not quite the right time to invite your new Crossfit buddy for dinner, cinema or a beer.
But has it occurred to you that your new buddy might be feeling a little desperate and needy for connection too?
When you meet someone interesting but you fail to follow through, you simply lose a great opportunity to add this person to your life. It’s your loss of course, but in many ways it’s theirs too. They’re probably trying to get over the same friendship hurdle as you.
Help them by making a follow up plan to connect again before you say goodbye.
And if you’re naturally more introverted, stop repeating your same story that you’re simply too shy to go out and meet new people. Just because you happen to appreciate the joys of quiet doesn’t make you anti-social. You just happen to find more meaning in one-to-one conversation than in a large group.
#3: You don’t keep up the momentum
Frequency and regularity are vital for developing any type of relationship. The more you see someone, the more you’ll like them. It’s science.
The best way to unlock a friendship is through scheduled activities.
Whether it’s a weekly wall climbing session or the pub quiz every Thursday night at the Queen’s Arms — regular scheduled activities keep the momentum going and avoid any of the awkwardness sometimes associated with having to ask for a follow up. It also bypasses the flakiness that’s so typical of many people living in a large metropolis.
#4: You don’t schedule time for spontaneity
Spontaneous social matching and mixing becomes a little harder after college or university. We may bond and hang out with housemates and co-workers, especially early on in our careers, but once we can afford to live on our own or with a partner — often further away from our previous social hubs––that opportunity for spontaneity tails off.
In recent years it has also become socially unacceptable to call someone out of the blue, while arriving outside a friend’s flat unannounced turned into a total faux pas.
“Having gotten used to so many methods of communication that are available to us, we seem to have gravitated towards the least intrusive ones — messaging — because we know how it feels to be digitally prodded through a range of different channels. “ Daisy Buchanan
So why not come to an agreement with your inner circle that unplanned calls and visits are cool — indeed wanted — again, especially if you happen to live in close proximity?
Stop telling yourself your ambushing your people by calling them. And stop feeling ambushed when they call on you unannounced.
#5: You’re not leveraging your acquaintances
Yes it sucks eggs having to start from scratch. But even if it feels you currently have no friendships to speak of, you more than likely have at least a couple of acquaintances.
The best way to start growing your network is by building, expanding and nurturing that outer circle of casual connections. And if those ties remain pretty weak or you find little in common, at some point they may well the ones who introduce you to someone you totally hit it off with.
#6: You’re not leveraging your interests
In other words, get off the sofa and find opportunities to do the things you enjoy with other people who enjoy those same things. Even in less urban areas, there’s no shortage of MeetUp groups, arts and crafts organisations, volunteering groups, or political movements which allow you to mingle with others who share similar values and interests.
Regardless of your sexual persuasion, sports provide a great opportunity for men to bond with other men while letting their guard down and showing vulnerability in a way that still allows you to feel emasculated.
Plus, you’re doing things rather than sharing things, which is a great start if you’re not comfortable showing too much vulnerability too quickly.
#7: You’re caught up in the never ending catch-up trap
This often happens when you live in the big city or away from your main friends hub. You genuinely adore your friends and love spending time with them, but because you only meet or speak periodically, every conversation is dominated by past events or memories. Three G&Ts and a gourmet burger later, you’ve both run out of steam and there’s a train to catch. We must do this more often! Sure hun, how about November 2019?
Instead of meeting for a catch-up, why not go bowling, go-ape, go outdoors, go on holiday together, or bloody Pokemon Go? As long as you create a spontaneous, fun and meaningful experience that fires up and deepens your friendship again. It’ll give you something new to talk about too during your next catch-up.
#8: You refuse to turn down the sass
Frankness and tactful honesty are wonderful traits if you want to develop a close friendship. Unfortunately, many of us quickly turn it up a notch or two too high in the form form of relentless banter and bitchy sassiness.
Guuuuurl, I’m all in favour of you teasing the hell out of me, but we’re not in RuPaul’s library and you’re way too intense. I’d be more inclined to hang out with you once you drop that coat of armour and allow me the space to drop mine. And if you’re then still planning on roasting me, at least send me some nudes.
#9: You think it shouldn’t always be you taking the initiative
You’re wrong. In a perfect world you’d both be pulling your weight and put in exactly the same effort when it comes to keeping up a friendship. But for lots of different reasons most people aren’t actually that proactive, especially with the new season of Orange Is The New Black now available on Netflix.
So put your ego aside and actually take the lead in developing the friendship –certainly in the beginning. Be the confident one who suggest times, dates, activities and venues to hang out.
Remember the other person’s social skills may have become more than a little rusty too.
#10: You’re always looking to make bosom buddies
By always looking for a soulmate friend who takes care of most of our social and emotional needs, we end up putting too much pressure on too soon.
Not everyone needs to become our alter ego and there’s nothing wrong with having certain friends for certain situations — clubbing friends, football friends, playing bridge friends or indeed friends with benefits.
Perhaps outside of our usual social scenarios we don’t have much in common with them and that’s fine. They’re a great starting point for developing a more meaningful friendship. And even if there’s no fat chance of that ever happening, at least we can let our hair down around them and they may well be the ones to introduce us to a future bosom-buddy.
#11: You’re looking for that ‘close-knit’ circle of friends
Most people who fantasise about having one big happy group of friends probably have never experienced the realities of being part of one.
Because scratch the surface of most cliques and you’ll find a cesspit of resentment, unresolved conflict and unspoken truths which makes Jersey Shores look like Dawson’s Creek.
It’s difficult enough to expect more than five people to ever get past our ‘brother from another mother’-threshold. It’s pretty much statistically impossible that all five will get past each other’s threshold too.
#12: You’re expecting too much intimacy too soon
A friendship won’t develop unless you give yourself permission to let your guard down around others. For men in particular, this is often a challenge.
“Most men tend to look to others for what’s ‘allowed’ or acceptable; by being willing to open up, you’re showing them that a greater level of intimacy is not just ok, but welcomed.” — Harris O’Malley
So lead by example. Go as slow as you feel you need to. At your own pace start getting comfortable again with opening up to others in a way that feels natural to you. Your new friend probably needs it as much as you do and it will provide them with the encouragement to reciprocate.
#13: You invest your energy in the wrong friends
Author Jim Rohn once said you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. In other words — choose wisely.
Some of your friendships may be anything but healthy and enjoyable. Maybe they’re boring, fake, awkward, forced and/or generally toxic.
Do an audit of your current friendships and commit to only investing social bandwidth into those that are both healthy AND enjoyable. Then demote all your other friendships.
Is this friend generally lifting you towards the kind of life you want to lead? If the answer is yes — prioritise the friendship and reciprocate. If it is a clear no, then this relationship should be ruthlessly demoted.
And if you feel you currently have no healthy and enjoyable friendships to focus on, make a commitment that developing a wholesome circle of friends will become one of your priorities.
It might not get easier making friends once we hit our thirties. The endless opportunities for frequent and spontaneous interaction with beautiful strangers that characterised our youth and university years are gone and we find fewer excuses to let our guard down.
To avoid social isolation and loneliness, start reprioritising your social life. Make a commitment to let go of ego and shyness. Be proactive and be the one who keeps the momentum in the initial friendship phases.
And while our friend-making skills may have become a little rusty perhaps — there’s a big plus side. The people we do hang out with in our thirties are generally a wholesome, confident and increasingly self-aware bunch who — like you — are eager to share a sense of connection and community with people of similar values.
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