Cultivating Friendships

This fall certainly feels like a time of change. School is starting, with routines shifting around for both kids and parents. Covid numbers have been back on the rise, hurricane season is in full force and worldwide events have been pretty bleak. Understandably, many of us may be feeling a little on edge. We recently connected with licensed psychotherapist Shalini Lulla, MBA, MA, LCPC about how to keep things in perspective, build new relationships, strengthen existing ones, and leave behind those that are holding us back.

LOF: Many of us have kids heading back to school over the next few weeks if they haven’t already started. Or we are looking at the prospect of in-person office time again soon. Do you have any advice for how we might manage our expectations for this new season?

SL: What’s challenging right now is that we had some temporary good news over the summer about Covid rates dropping, only to head into the fall with the Delta variant causing a surge in Covid positive rates. It’s a bit of whiplash, and that can be understandably frustrating and disappointing. We may not be able to re-engage in our lives as we had hoped. It’s difficult to predict what the next six months will bring, so we all have the opportunity to cultivate flexibility and resilience.

I encourage everyone to focus on what they can control or have influence over, practice “rolling with the punches,” and to actively look for and appreciate what’s going well, or even just ‘okay’, in their lives. Numerous research studies have shown that practicing gratitude improves our feelings of well-being and resilience, and I consider this an important “tool” that I recommend to all my clients.

LOF: The pandemic has created a degree of social anxiety for many of us. For those suffering from some social anxieties, how might we help ourselves and/or our loved ones overcome this and re-engage with others as we re-enter schools and workplaces? 

SL: Even the most outgoing, social people among us have been impacted by the disruption of the pandemic. We’re out of practice in making casual conversation, engaging in activities with others, especially in big groups, and meeting new people. We may be feeling some pressure to resume where we left off in terms of social engagement, but I think there are a few things to remember.

First, having some anxiety about reengaging with others is completely natural and expected. I encourage everyone to be kind to themselves and refrain from self-judgment.

Second, I suggest gently easing back into making connections, recognizing that with the Delta variant, even that will be challenging. I recently suggested to a client to identify just one person at work to whom she could suggest grabbing coffee. Her coffee date went well, so next she’s planning to ask a small group to meet up for an after-work happy hour. The key to addressing social anxiety is through such progressive “exposures” where you start by doing something that’s just a little bit anxiety-provoking. When that interaction goes well, the associated anxiety decreases, and you can move onto doing something a bit more daunting, and so on.

Finally, challenge and reframe any unhelpful, and very likely untrue, thoughts you may have such as assuming others will judge you or don’t want to spend time with you. Instead, remind yourself that these thoughts are likely based on fear rather than fact, and encourage yourself to engage with others.

LOF: You’ve counseled many clients who have suffered a great degree of social disruption during the pandemic, within both casual and meaningful relationships. How has this influenced your views on the role friendships play with respect to our mental and emotional well-being?

SL: The social disruption brought on by the pandemic has really highlighted for me the importance of friendships on our mental and emotional health. Friends serve multiple purposes in our lives. They are the ones who celebrate our victories with us, as well as support us during difficult times. Friends are a sounding board in whom we confide. When we receive their empathy, we feel emotionally safe and seen. Friends also help us solves problems, so that we don’t feel alone with our challenges. We get to receive the benefit of their experiences and wisdom.

The pandemic dramatically impacted how we interact with our friends. The lack of in-person contact sidelined spontaneous conversations we used to have at work or at our kids’ sporting events, making it impossible to cultivate these casual friendships.  Researchers have found that engaging with this network of acquaintances can help us feel more connected and contributes to our sense of belonging.

But even more importantly, we’ve been prevented from getting together in person with closer friends as often, or at all, and we’ve had to lean on virtual contact. While virtual contact has served an important purpose, it’s definitely not the same as being able to sit down with someone in person and have dinner or enjoy an activity together.

Social contact is critical for our mental and emotional health in all the ways I described, and the lack of it has impacted us negatively. Not surprisingly, I’ve noticed this disruption to be especially difficult for my clients who live alone. Friends played a critical role in their lives even before the pandemic, and so the lack of contact has been especially challenging for them, leaving them feeling isolated and as one client described it, “in a funk.”

Despite the obstacles brought on by the pandemic, I encourage everyone to do what they can to engage with their friends and maintain those relationships.

LOF: Even before the pandemic, some relationships could be challenging. What are examples of ways people get in their own way when trying to form or sustain healthy friendships?  

SL: There are many ways people end up sabotaging the development of healthy, stable friendships. Some people worry about rejection, so they won’t initiate the conversations that could lead to those friendships. Others may have friends, but they don’t invest enough time and energy in nurturing the friendship and take it for granted—even the strongest friendships can fall apart when they are not nourished by both participants.  And sometimes people expect too much from their friends and are disappointed by them. Or conversely, they could be doing too much for their friends and then end up resenting them.

Another barrier to achieving closeness in a friendship is fear of opening up and being vulnerable with the friend. The intimacy that’s cultivated when we share personal aspects of ourselves can serve as a bond for the friendship. What’s important to the initiation of friendship is some type of commonality, such as life stage, environment (work, school, neighborhood), hobbies, interests, or values. What sustains a healthy, close friendship is mutual respect and support, mutual commitment to nurturing the friendship, alignment on expectations, and some degree of vulnerability.

LOF: There are times when people realize that a long-term or other relationship is or has become unhealthy for one or both participants in the relationship. What are some ways we can place boundaries on or leave those friendships that are becoming unsupportive or emotionally draining?

SL: Everyone disagrees with or is annoyed with a friend at some point in the relationship, so it’s often appropriate to give the friend the benefit of the doubt. No one is perfect. However, if a friend is consistently not affirming and supportive, then it’s time to reevaluate the relationship. If you feel that you can engage the friend in       a discussion and share your feelings and ask for what you need, then definitely do so.

Focus on communicating the negative feelings you experienced that resulted from their actions, rather than blaming or accusing, and then express what would improve the relationship. Give them a chance to respond and share their thoughts and feelings as well. On the other hand, if you’re worried the friend won’t be open to this type of feedback, it’s okay to create some distance by not reaching out to them or getting together as often, and letting the friendship fade. Just keep in mind that you may ultimately end up having to explain your feelings if your friend wants the relationship to continue.

In more extreme situations, it may be important to end the friendship clearly and definitively for the sake of your emotional health. Be honest about your feelings and let your friend know that the friendship is no longer working for you. It can also be helpful to seek support from a licensed therapist as you work through a challenging friendship situation.

LOF: Thank you for sharing your insights with us Shalini. I think others will find your perspective on navigating friendships during this challenging time very helpful. You share many useful tips on ways we can build or improve relationships, and as you note on your website, therapy can be a helpful resource for people interested in support as they navigate change or wish to live a happier, more meaningful life!

If you would like to learn more about Shalini and additional resources she recommends, visit her website.

One thought on “Cultivating Friendships

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  1. Great post, Julia. Helpful guidance during this ongoing pandemic. I heard recently that vaccination status is breaking up friendships. I hope over time broken friendships can be mended once all “the smoke clears.”

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