Ask A Therapist: Why Do I Struggle To Make Close Friends?

Photographed by Sungjae Cho
Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked a cognitive analytic therapist with over 30 years' clinical experience for advice on the things we worry about in private.
Question:
I really struggle when it comes to seeking out others' company – even though I know it's something that makes me feel better.
Every time I go to contact someone about getting together or with the view of just having a conversation over text, I think, 'Why would they want to talk to or spend time with me?' Or I think, 'If I get into a conversation/meet up situation with that person, I am 100% responsible for their happiness and them having a good time during it'. It's such a stressful situation to think about putting myself in, I often hold back and hide away from everyone, which just makes me feel depressed. I hate when I see girls hanging out with their girlfriends on weekends on Instagram. I always think, 'How did they manage to make and keep that coffee date without worrying about being trapped with each other, without feeling responsible for each other to have the very best possible time?' How do they find it so easy just to have someone over to hang out. Why can't I do that?
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My favourite social situation is a big group of people at a party (most people would have no idea I'm 'shy' – I can turn on my outgoingness very easily), where I can flit from person to person, being charming for a limited amount of time before moving on to the next person, and before that person has a chance to 'catch me out' as the 'bad' or 'boring' person that I really think I am. As a result, I have lots of 'friends' but I feel like I struggle in the VERY CLOSE FRIEND area.
Answer:
Conflicts and dilemmas. On the one hand you have social confidence, competency, you are high functioning and quite possibly have the admiration of others. On the other hand, you describe yourself as 'holding back', you are self-critical and fearful of the judgment by your peers if you do not meet what you perceive are their expectations of you.
As a psychotherapist, I wonder how has all this come about? Has your life seemed a struggle to get to this point? Did you grow up with a demanding parent (parents)? What is your place in the family with siblings and other significant people? Some demands are less obvious to us. We perform to please or cheer up a depressed parent, or if we are a miserable and not outgoing child at times, does that displease or disappoint those to whom we are attached?
Early relationships are especially important to how we view ourselves and feel in later life, and the clue seems to be in your word 'responsible'. If others appear happy in your company then you may feel reassured, in control, less anxious. You suggest you feel envious of those who don’t feel compelled to perform, and fearful perhaps of people who can just 'hang out' with each other without fear, demand or shame.
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You say you "hate when [you] see girls hanging out with their girlfriends" on Instagram. But consider how the relationships between these girls began. All friendships have beginnings and it is normal that many would have awkward and uncomfortable starts. Listening is a key skill, but it is important to be an observer as well as it is not all about what is spoken between you. Good friendships at their most rewarding will evolve and involve differences, disagreements and being accepted with all faults.

There is a middle road between being a charmer and a depressive

Why do you feel you may be 'bad' or 'boring'? Is there a sense that a part of you feels fragile and/or unhappy and that if others get even a hint of this you would be confirmed as that burdensome or miserable other? Someone you maybe would not like. A part of you is possibly terrified to give in to the 'shadow' side in case it is true. So you remain feeling in control, keeping others at a safe distance, massively reassuring them – and you – that there is no problem. I wonder what 'boring' really means to you? Does it mean not being exciting? Or covering the same old ground? You may feel anxious that no one would want to do any of this with you. You could ask a friend if they mind if you go over a 'boring' event or repeat something. A good friend will welcome your confiding in them and the possibility of a reciprocal opportunity with you.
There is a middle road between being a charmer and a depressive. How to discover it? If you gradually try to express some of your worries and emotions to people in all settings (so not just with friends) you will most likely find that, far from being seen as 'boring', people will share with you similar feelings and concerns of their own. Perhaps others will enjoy getting to know the side of you that you see as 'boring'. Maybe that will endear them to you.
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Also try short bursts of time 'being with' another. No pressure to fill the void – others may be quite happy with that. Try proximity without effort. Not all encounters have to be intense, one-on-one situations. Consider trips where there is an external stimulus or something to talk about besides yourselves, like going to the cinema or to an exhibition or a gig or new restaurant that you can judge together.
If you find yourself being 'charming', consider whether that is your own perception and whether your friend really shares that or feels silenced by it? Is it perhaps your anxiety speaking? Covering up your neediness and vulnerability and keeping others at bay? How do you feel if others out-charm you? Recognising it will allow you to review.
Although I think short-term focused therapy would help you to find that other to 'be with' with no expectation of performance and less risk, I am aware therapy can be expensive and daunting. See what the Instagrammers are doing and then do much less; nothing exciting, something very ordinary. Don't compare yourself to them. Perhaps to start you could choose a friend to take into your confidence.
Consider it.
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