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 co-founder of Harley Therapy Platform (UK Online Therapists), for advice on the things we worry about in private.
Sometime in 2021 I decided it was finally time to move out of London. I’d been thinking about it for years but hadn’t had the opportunity until we were able to work from home and I took the plunge. Despite not knowing anyone there, I decided to move to a coastal town I fell in love with on a weekend trip with friends the year before and I really think it’s the best decision I’ve made in a while. The problem is I don’t know how to meet people. I love my friends but they are too far away to see very frequently and I’d like to establish some roots here. Despite feeling so many mental health benefits being here, I’m terrified of talking to new people.
How can I get over this mental barrier?
There are two potential routes to go down here, depending on how your social life developed before this move. If you've got a history of making connections and you have some solid friendships (which it sounds like you do), then it's quite likely that you're going to bring those same skills and form new friendships. The approach in this case would be to take your time and not set making friends as the goal. Do things that you enjoy, particularly group versions of activities, and incidentally you will make connections. So these should be things that are enjoyable or rewarding or push you in and of themselves. They can also be situations where you can start to form connections and groups often have that effect. Team-based sports or group choirs or even clubs of hobbies you enjoy – a lot more things are opening up to us now the restrictions have softened. So that would be my approach if someone is well versed in the art of people skills and friendship-making.
If you have had trouble forming friendships and view people with suspicion or mistrust, then the work needs to be a little more introspective. Whether it's through self-help books or journalling, or through more direct support like therapy, the goal is to try and unblock the barriers to forming trusting relationships. Often those barriers revolve around negative core beliefs that we have about ourselves and other people in the world. Things like: People will always let me down. I can't get close to people because it's too scary. The world's dangerous, people might take advantage of me. All these thoughts might have some truth for your experience but in order for us to make connections, whether romantic or platonic, we need to allow ourselves a more healthy, upbeat view of other people and the world that we live in. Often that involves very difficult skills like vulnerability and open communication, and much of that requires practice. So it's not easy but it's the starting point for connections.
You say you’re terrified of talking to other people. It’s unclear whether you are dealing with social nervousness or a proper diagnosis of social anxiety, which is where it negatively inhibits your day-to-day function. If it’s the latter and veers into not being able to leave the house or speak to someone at all, that is more along the lines of social anxiety and needs a more intense treatment with a professional. However if it is social nervousness, the starting point for overcoming it is recognising that it is very, very typical and happens to most people. It's in fact very unusual if someone doesn't feel apprehension in new situations. So start by being self-compassionate and understanding that it happens to everyone.
Then you want to work out what your goals are in advance. Do you really want to make lots of new connections or are you happy being more introverted, because that’s okay too. If your goal is to want to meet new people, then we've got to look at the technique of exposure, which is getting out there and doing the things that feel uncomfortable but we know will help us reach our goal. You could do that in a graded way, where you start small and then you progress based on different steps you’ve set for yourself, or you can do what we call 'eat the frog', where you launch yourself into a new situation and expose yourself to everything. Typically you realise that it wasn't as bad as it seemed, you just do it in one gulp and then it’s swallowed and that's it.
It's such a common thing, this being terrified of talking to new people. But if you can experiment with it by almost testing yourself and saying I'm doing this as a challenge, and you start off by speaking to someone in a shop or on public transport, you'll often find the results are very surprising. People who look very stern and unapproachable actually can be very friendly and warm, and you can find something to bond over in a very short space of time.
Also, remember that it’s harder to form friendships when you're older because often people have less capacity. The older they are, the more likely it is that they've got an established circle of friends, partner, family, work commitments and so on. So it's not flaws or awkward characteristics on your side that makes it harder to meet people. But finding commonalities makes it easier. It's not only the fact that you run with someone else that is going to be the bond, it might be that you can run together but also you value the same things. It's about being self-compassionate and exposing yourself by putting yourself in situations where your chances of meeting someone are greater. Good luck.