Why Do I Think All My Friends Hate Me At The Moment?

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe
How are you supposed to be a person in a world that increasingly makes no sense? Honestly, I don’t know but I keep asking myself this question. The mental gymnastics that 2020 has required of us have left our brains aching as they twist and contort in an attempt to adapt to new scenarios, rules and realities on a near hourly basis. Increasingly, I stop, sit on my balcony and realise that the chaos has begun to make more sense than the idea that there was ever any kind of order or certainty. 
Are our jobs still real if we work from home, never physically going to the office? Like the proverbial tree that falls in a forest when nobody is around, does the restaurant you used to eat in still exist if nobody can go there? And what happens to your friendships when you can’t actually see your friends?
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This last question has, unfortunately, become unilaterally relevant. There is, after all, only so much Zoom one person can take. All around me friendships are fraying. Some people are bruised because they were excluded from a group of six back when that was still allowed. Others are spinning out because a friend who is usually very quick to text them back hasn’t replied for over a week. A few are angry because they’ve misread a WhatsApp and decided, completely unreasonably, that everyone hates them. I do this too. I’ve never received more messages from the people I care about in my life, via Slack, email, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, voicemail and, yet, I regularly find myself sitting on the sofa and thinking “well, I guess nobody likes me.”

Are our jobs still real if we work from home, never physically going to the office? Like the proverbial tree that falls in a forest when nobody is around, does the restaurant you used to eat in still exist if nobody can go there? And what happens to your friendships when you can’t actually see your friends?

Consultant psychologist Heather Sequeira says that she has seen a huge increase in referrals for people seeking help for anxiety about their relationships with others. “People with pre-existing social anxiety have tended to see a worsening of their problems,” she explains, “and people who did not have social anxiety before are now reporting experiencing these issues.” 
Large scale international studies have confirmed that social anxiety is swelling in places where lockdowns are imposed, intensified in the pandemic petri dish of spending too much time alone. As we sit out the loose, long days in our own fragile bubbles, the friendships which used to be the framework of the external world beyond our own homes have come under strain. As Professor Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, noted at the end of the last lockdown "friendships decay when you don’t see people, and they decay quite fast." 
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This brutal aspect of human psychology is not something that anyone wants to acknowledge. It might never be personal, but it always feels like a rejection. We know deep down that the way other people act (especially right now) is always about them and is never actually a verdict on your fundamental likability and, yet, being left out, unread or on read always feels like social death by a thousand cuts. We read into the supposed meaning of other people’s behaviour even when it is quite obviously not there. 
Heather explains that this is to be expected because of how humans have evolved. “Over the past million years or so our brains have become excellent at navigating the dynamics of face to face communication,” she says. “In particular, we scan for social threats like rejection, disrespect, disappointment or anger and, at the same time, look out for social approval. This is because social threats used to mean physical danger to our life or eviction from our tribe while signs of social approval meant maintaining the safety of our tribe.” 
So, as our social lives have, out of necessity, become increasingly digital, the extent to which we depend on the non-verbal cues you get when you are actually in front of another person, interacting with them in real life has been revealed. “Our ability to pick up the tiny nuances of body language, facial expression and tone of voice remain paramount to our sense of safety even in communications today and we do all this naturally without even being aware of it,” Heather adds. 
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When real life interactions are removed, in a nutshell, our brains can go slightly haywire. “When replying to digital communication we lose access to most if not all of the cues we normally have,” Heather says, soothingly. “When we don’t have access to that information our nervous system’s default plays ‘better safe than sorry’, signals a ’threat’ and becomes hyper vigilant for signs of rejection, disrespect, disappointment or anger.” So, if you, too, have started to feel like nobody likes you, try take a step back and take a look at what’s actually going on. 

Our ability to pick up the tiny nuances of body language, facial expression and tone of voice remain paramount to our sense of safety. We do all this naturally without even being aware of it. When replying to digital communication we lose access to most if not all of these cues.

Heather Sequeira, CONSULTANT PSYCHOLOGIST
Heather notes that this problem is “most heightened” in and exacerbated by texting and messaging because delays in response can feel incredibly painful. “Our brains have evolved to be best at back and forth communication in real time,” she explains “so when we are left with a huge amount of uncertainty, something that as humans we are not generally good at tolerating, we see it as a threat.” You might feel like a text conversation is the same as a face to face conversation and expect the other person to read your message instantly and come back to you but, in reality, they might have put their phone down, gone to make coffee or received another more urgent message. You know this and, yet, it feels like torture because you’re programmed to expect speed in communication. 
This, Heather adds, also works the other way around. We start to feel anxious about the speed at which we reply to other people’s messages. I, for instance, like to keep a clear inbox so I try to read and reply to things quickly. A backlog of correspondence makes me feel guilty and I don’t like the feeling of starting every message I send with “sorry for the delay”. However, for another person, waiting and responding when they are free to do so in a focussed way might make them feel in control of their communication. This is all fairly simple and, yet, we have now created an entire culture of analysis around people’s response times. 
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“We worry about whether a speedy reply makes us look ’too keen’ and that the other person might disrespect our eagerness to respond,” Heather says. “We also obsess about crafting the ‘perfect’ response to text messages because we have added time to do so whereas in a face-to-face conversation we would have replied immediately. One word message replies also cause problems( e.g. OK). If someone responds just with one word we assume that they can’t be bothered or don’t think much of us.” This, however, is rarely the case. 
Modern life, particularly as we enter lockdown 2.0, has sucked us all into a never-ending virtual vortex. It’s like being stuck at a hen do that you can’t leave. At first you were having fun but, slowly, you’ve descended into a vicious cycle and started to question everything and everyone. You’ve become incredibly unsure not only of whether anyone actually wants you in the room but whether you want to be there at all. 
“The trouble,” Heather says ultimately, “is that the worry that people don’t like us can actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy”. We might lash out, clam up or start avoiding someone we fear has started to pull back from us and, in turn, trigger these feelings in them. This, Heather adds, is like “pouring petrol on a bonfire”. 
The odds are that, right now, the people in your life have their own struggles. We are all under pressure in one way or another. We are all navigating uncertainty. So, if you have found yourself defaulting to the idea that “everyone hates you” remember that. It is almost definitely not about you. Think about how you feel on the days that you can barely muster a text message or a call and simply say “hey, I’m thinking of you. I hope you’re OK. Let me know when you’re ready to talk.” Try to text less, talk on the phone if you can’t see people in real life and know that, one day, we will all be together again. 
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please get help from your GP or call Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text 86463.