Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the cofounder of Harley Therapy Platform (UK Online Therapists), for advice on the things we worry about in private.
Question: After the breakdown of a relationship I made the move to live closer to my family. Financially I didn’t have much choice as we shared a house and I couldn’t afford to pay rent and a mortgage, so two months before the pandemic I moved cities. I’ve found the contrast in my social life pre- and post-pandemic difficult to deal with.
Since moving I’ve struggled to make new friends. I’m in my early 30s, many of my older friends have started families during the pandemic and since I now live further away I often find them no longer making an effort to keep our friendship alive. So I often feel lonely. In truth I’m out of practice at making new friends and don’t feel confident enough to put myself out there. I find, too, that people often don’t seem interested in making new friends. Have you got any advice?
To start, don't try to deny how the changes in people's life situations have affected you. That could mean acknowledging that we might be bitter or feel left out. Let all of the negative feelings rise to the surface and acknowledge what they are, whether verbally or in writing. From that point on, it's about allowing a little bit of that bitterness to exist while not being steeped in it. Because sometimes we take comfort in our misery and end up believing that the world's changed and we don't fit in anymore. That's not ideal.
At some point we do want to move on from the grief. Any change of circumstance usually involves the loss of something and a gain of something else. The more we dwell on what's lacking, the more likely we are to have negative feelings. We can do that up to a point but then we should allow ourselves to transition along the grief cycle to a form of acceptance.
Beyond that, consider if maybe things have taken a turn for the better in different ways. For example, we have the chance to explore new friendships or new activities where we can meet friends. We still have the good memories we can hold on to – just because friendship evolves doesn't mean that we can't celebrate what it once was and hold on to a lot of the identity-shaping experiences that we've had together. It doesn't even mean that it's over necessarily. It's just evolving and taking new shapes. Either we can evolve with it or we can hark back to what it once was and wish that it could return.
When it comes to making new friends, I personally feel it's important to distinguish between collecting assets, like counting how many friends you have or how much time spent together, and the joy of friendship for its own sake, which means that you might have an array of relationships with different types of people. It's not necessarily about how many friends you have and how much time you spend together but more about the connections that you have with people. What I would say is that friendship is not like fishing, where you either catch or don't catch something. It takes a lot of time to evolve a friendship. And the more that we can enjoy that process, the less we become fixated on the actual prize of having a friend.
Ways to do that can be very, very simple. We do this in therapy: building up the skills within someone to form small connections with people. You might be waiting for a Tube, queuing up in a shop or even speaking with a telephone operator and making small talk. Practising enquiring about people, how they are, what they're doing, where they're from – all of those things are important introductions into making connections and may or may not lead to friendship. The more we can go into it without a fixed intention, the better. You might strike up some small talk and someone might be quite dismissive and that might hurt. But the more that you can do it, the more you smile and you're interested in people, the more likely it is that they are interested back.
Now, the other element of where or how to form friends is that the more we're exposed to someone, the more we get to know them, the more likely it is to see things that we can connect over. That's why hobbies and activities and clubs often are good grounds for meeting people, particularly if it's something physical. If you can go out for a runners' club, you're going to meet people week after week or whatever the frequency. The more that you open yourself up to the possibility of connecting with people, the more likely it is that a friendship can blossom.
As for your friends who are less willing or able to respond to you, it's a personal decision how important each friendship is to you and how far you wish to go to try and maintain or revive it. That's often a case of trying to be the person who reaches out or makes more of an effort to plan things, especially if the person who's moved on is preoccupied with something like kids or work. It might require goading them out to meet friends, in which case there's nothing wrong with you being the driver to it if you want to.
If that's what it takes to meet up with a person more, a lot of people are willing to do that. Other people feel that it should be more mutual and if the other person isn't going to hold them in mind enough to make a phone call or send messages, suggest meeting up or inviting them to birthday parties, then it's worth considering whether that friendship is worth investing more effort in or not.
It's absolutely fine if the answer is no because friendships do shift over time. We'd like to think that things will last forever but they don't in so many regards, and friendship is no exception. That can be sad and it's painful but like I said before, we've got the memories and we carry that friendship within us. The more that we can cherish those times together, rather than bemoan the lack of them currently, the more upbeat and primed for new relationships we will feel.