Here’s a dirty little secret about adulthood: Making friends is hard, and many adults are probably lonelier than you think.
Last week, I wrote a story about National Bullying Prevention Month and to remember outsider kids, too, because social exclusion is its own form of torment. I got an email from a mom:
“I just read your article ‘For Bullying Prevention Month, Remember the Quiet Kids.’ It was like you were speaking directly to me. I have so many acquaintances but no ‘best friends’ that I just call or that I go out with. I find large social gatherings so awkward and am always tainted by that inner voice telling me I don’t belong. I try to ‘fake it ’til you make it’ but wonder when I will ‘make it.’ I am always the planner. The one who invites others and organizes gatherings and I am always wondering why no one ever invites me. Is there nothing going on or am I just not top of mind?”
We know that adult friendships are important. Loneliness can amplify mental and physical health issues. But nobody ever discusses how to make them! Who wants to admit to feeling alienated, to having a hard time meeting new people or to not knowing how to bridge the gap between friendly acquaintance and actual pal?
This isn’t like dating, where it’s clear (let’s hope) when you cross a line. There is no milestone, no ceremony. So we keep quiet and fumble our way through fuzzy connections until something sticks.
I think there’s a huge stigma around adult friendships because: We feel like we should already have tons of friends; nobody wants to put themselves out there and then get rejected and, plus, it’s hard to know when you’ve actually made an actual friend and not some fleeting pal of convenience whose kid is on your kid’s soccer team. There is no guidebook, people! What if you consider someone a legit friend but someone else thinks you’re a random person to chat with at baseball? Humiliating.
“I wonder, ‘Do they like me? Tolerate me? How do I know?!?’ often,” a different mom told me later.
Meanwhile, there isn’t an elementary school social-emotional curriculum to give us a roadmap. When it comes to adult friendships, you’re on your own. And if you’re truly on your own, well, you’re weird.
What about people on the outside looking in, like my letter-writer? Is she really missing out, or are we all just closeted lonely people, looking for a kindred spirit or seven?
I posted on social media on her behalf (anonymously, of course) and received some helpful replies from people who’ve been there. It seems:
- Parents (moms especially) do a lot of social engineering until it gets tiring, and some towns are worse for this than others; some sensitive souls might just be in an unsavory community filled with climbers.
- New England is insular. A lot of people grew up here and have known their friends since the dawn of time, and are leery of “outsiders” (as in, people they haven’t known since 1985).
- We’re all a little bit lonely but people never say so.
- Consumerism turns on the false belief that every grown adult should have a huge, thriving circle of supportive besties.
I sat on it a while, and here’s how I responded to the reader myself:
“I think many more people have been in your shoes than you might realize, at one time or another, but it’s just not talked about as much because as adults, friendship isn’t quite valued the same way that childhood connections are. We’re expected to be self-sufficient and in control, with fully formed social circles, and not vulnerable in this way.
“Making friends as an adult is truly weird and hard. Do you tend to try to meet people from your kids’ school, or from hobbies, or from shared interests? I wonder if joining some kind of group activity (admittedly hard during COVID-19) based around shared values and hobbies rather than circumstance would help.
“I also wonder if seeing people one-on-one would be better suited to your personality. Not everyone is wired for large group gatherings, and smaller gatherings might go a long way toward turning an acquaintance into an actual friend.
“Some people are just natural initiators though. I’m one of them and have learned not to take it personally (though sometimes I still do). It’s hard because I also am an introvert and value alone time, but I also love to plan and get antsy if my calendar looks too empty.
“Maybe you could conduct a little experiment and spend a week not reaching out to anyone at all. The result might surprise you. When you sit back and let life happen to you, sometimes it actually does. I force myself to do this sometimes, and it works. Give yourself some credit and remind yourself why you enjoy your own company and why others should, too. If you reframe yourself not as an outsider but as an undiscovered awesome person, that also might help. You’re not a loner; you’re unique. And worth hanging out with.
“I truly think that many people experience similar alienation but don’t voice it because it’s awkward to do so as a grown-up. You are really, truly, not alone.”
Can any of you relate? I want to hear about it. Kids aren’t the only ones who can feel the sting of exclusion, and it’s time we were more upfront about it.