Somebody told me, “You’ll have to go find activities and friends because they won’t find you.”
When my children were young, I had as many friends as I could handle. I was constantly seeking out play groups and activities for the kids, which threw me into contact with other parents. Because we had children the same ages and lived in the same neighborhoods, we became friends.
When my children were older and I entered the work force, I found friends among my co-workers. Some of us hit it off well enough to socialize after hours, and that satisfied my need for human interaction.
But after leaving my job to write full time, the social scenario changed dramatically. I no longer was a stay-at-home mom forced into friendships for the sake of the kids. I tried to keep up some of the work relationships for a while, but we didn’t have the common link of work holding us together.
I’m a natural introvert who recharges from time alone, happy to read, walk, write and spend time with family. But I recognize that friends enrich and expand our lives, giving us fresh perspectives and needed support. People are often our link to unexpected opportunities and broader horizons. I also have a lot more to talk to my husband about when I’ve been in contact with people during the day!
After I quit work, days spent alone were satisfying, but didn’t provide the socialization I needed for balance. What should I do, since my phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook? Nobody was calling to invite me to lunch or anywhere else, so I decided I needed to take the initiative.
A friend had advised me when I left the work force, “You’ll have to go find friends and activities, because they won’t find you.” Unfortunately this friend moved to Florida, so she wasn’t around to hang out with. But she was right. Nobody was seeking me out. It was up to me.
Although I’m an introvert I’m not shy, so I didn’t mind taking the initiative. What I didn’t realize was how hard it would be to make friends without the connections of children or work.
The Party and the Man Across the Street
My first attempt at enlarging my social connections was to throw a big neighborhood party. I invited 60 people, but only got responses from 25. I guessed at the amount of food, since some of the people who didn’t respond might show up. About 20 people ended up coming and they told me what a great time they had, so it was a decent party. But when they left, I didn’t see them again. This was two years ago, and not a single one ever reciprocated by inviting me to lunch or to their house.
A few months after the party, the man who lives across the street was in a serious accident. I took food over a couple of times, sent a get-well card and called to see if there was anything else I could do. Their sons received the food at the door and seemed to appreciate it, but their mother never mentioned it. I figured she was too busy worrying about her husband and keeping the household together, so didn’t think anything about it. When he recovered, they had a big party and didn’t invite me, which left me feeling a little sorry for myself.
At this point I decided it was time to look beyond my neighborhood for friends. Over the course of a few weeks, I invited several different women to lunch. Conversation flowed easily, we seemed to enjoy each other’s company, and parted with the agreement that we would meet again.
Why don’t you ever call me?
None of the women returned the invitation. I realize everybody is busy, but how often am I supposed to be the one issuing invitations? I asked one of the women about it, after inviting her to lunch three times in a row. “Why don’t you ever call me?” I said.
“I know I should,” she responded vaguely. “I’m just not one to take the initiative.”
I joined a Zumba class and a Bible study, and although I met some nice people, I didn’t socialize with any of the others outside of class. I had lost a bit of my confidence about taking the initiative, and nobody else seemed interested.
Seeking New Ideas
Since I had exhausted my ideas, I decided to google how to make friends. Doesn’t that sound pathetic when you think about it? Googling how to make friends? But with no children and no job to thrust me into contact with others, I felt isolated. Maybe information on the internet could show me what I was doing wrong.
A couple of articles recommended getting involved in new activities, but I had already tried that. One article emphasized being approachable with an inviting smile. I considered myself approachable, although sometimes people see us differently than we see ourselves. Maybe I wasn’t smiling enough?
Another bit of advice was don’t wait for others to make the first move. But I seemed to be making all the moves!
Then I stumbled upon two key things that might have been the real reason I wasn’t making friends: follow-up and vulnerability.
In his article, Why It’s So Hard to Make Friends and What to do About It, Paul Sanders addresses the importance of follow-up: “Great results don’t seem to appear at the first attempt. If you want a great social life, you can’t count on one single action step.”
My friend’s words, “You’ll have to find activities and friends because they won’t find you,” came back to me. Why had I thought that throwing one party, reaching out to a few neighbors or inviting some people to lunch would immediately result in lasting friendships? It was becoming clear that I needed to continue reaching out again and again.
That brought up the second stumbling block to friendship: vulnerability. Not only do we have to be vulnerable enough to share a little of ourselves with someone else. We need to be vulnerable enough to continue risking rejection when people don’t respond to our overtures.
Because I’m satisfied with my own company, it’s much easier to retreat when somebody doesn’t respond. To persist in pursuing a broader social life is not my nature.
Duncan Riach, Ph.D. talks about this in his Medium article, How I Rewired My Brain to Be Ultra-Social. He writes, “Even though it takes courage and persistence, I realized again how important it is to actively and consistently nurture social connections.”
After recognizing the value of socialization, Dr. Riach, a natural introvert, became intentional about inviting people for lunch every day of the week. At first it was difficult, but as time went on it grew easy, and now he has friends and connections from all over the world.
Although I had been inviting people out, I realized after reading his article that I hadn’t done nearly enough. I needed to be persistent and not take rejection personally.
An article in Psychological Bulletin says personal friendships and connections decrease throughout adulthood. But this doesn’t have to be the case. If we’re willing to push beyond our comfort zone, becoming more intentional and persistent, we can increase our social connections.
A willingness to be vulnerable doesn’t stop with inviting people out. Getting beyond a surface level to form deeper, lasting friendships, requires letting people get to know us as we really are. In his article, Authentic Connections: How to Build Intimate Relationships, George J. Ziogaspoints out that “most of us don’t do vulnerability well” because it leaves us open to criticism and rejection.
Vulnerability has always been hard for me. I guess I come by this naturally, because my mother doesn’t complain and has never cried easily. Conversations in our family revolved around humorous stories, sports and current events. I can understand why men prefer talking sports instead of emotions, because I’m much the same way. I generally enjoy life and don’t like to dwell on problems.
But we all have issues, and part of delving more deeply into relationships is allowing others to see our imperfections. Exposing vulnerability doesn’t mean we have to dig up some deep, dark emotion and discuss it until everybody is in tears. Just telling someone I need a friend is exposing vulnerability. Asking another person for advice without pretending I have all the answers is exposing vulnerability. So is being willing to admit that I’m socially uncomfortable in certain situations. Vulnerability allows other people to relate to us.
“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” C.S. Lewis
Armed with these new insights, I decided not to retreat to the easiest and most comfortable path, which would be to forget pursuing friendships when results are disappointing. I decided instead to be bolder and less sensitive about rejection. If someone doesn’t seem interested, there are a lot of other people in the world who desire friendship and connection.
After writing this article, I checked my voicemail and discovered a message from the friend I mentioned earlier; the one I had been vulnerable enough with to ask why she never called me back.
She wondered if I wanted to go to lunch. “Maybe we should get together at least once a month,” she said. “I really think we could be good friends.”
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