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Building Strong Friendships in Adulthood

*Originally published on February 19, 2021*

One of the most frequent phrases I hear from people, typically a couple of years after they graduate college: “Making friends as an adult is so hard!” For a long time, I would have agreed with this statement. In fact, it wasn’t until maybe the past three years that I’ve really come into my own when it comes to building (and maintaining) new friendships.

‘Assigned’ Friendships

There is definitely a reason why we find difficulty cultivating new friendships in our adulthood. Something that was brought to my attention a couple of years back is the fact that–for most of our lives–we’re almost “assigned” friendships. A lot of our friendships came about due to proximity alone. When we first start kindergarten, we encounter classmates who inevitably become our friends. Let’s face it, it doesn’t take much for a couple of five-year-olds to develop a friendship. It can be as trivial as liking the same color or cartoons and all of a sudden you’re besties.

Secondary school and college basically do a lot of the heavy work when it comes to developing our early friendships. Sometimes they’re in our classes, other times they may be in the same extracurricular activity, or they play the same sport. And, unless you experience a lot of moving in your childhood, chances are you spend your entire adolescent life with these people. So, while no one necessarily told you to specifically seek out a certain person in your class, club, sports team, etc.– you already skipped the step of having to find that person. They were already brought to you.

We fast forward to adulthood. You’re done with high school and/or college and now you’re heading into “the real world”. But all of a sudden you no longer have those resources or sheer proximity to keep your friendships afloat. For a lot of us, it marks the first time we have to put in the effort ourselves to create new friendships while also trying to maintain the ones we already have.

Depending on your situation, you may have already transitioned from that mindset of befriending classmates to befriending co-workers. However, at times this may not be sustainable either, as life always brings about change. Next thing you know, you might repeat the same pattern that you did in school: Be close friends until one of us moves away or goes to a different school. With a coworker, the same fate could lie ahead and once one of you moves on from the company you may rarely hear from each other outside of occasional social media interactions.

Take Advantage of Resources

Yes, making friends as an adult requires more effort than it did as a child, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a miserable experience. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that it makes more sense for me to reach out and make the effort, rather than expecting things to just ‘happen’.

What I find now is that most people my age aren’t looking to just have casual friendships, but strong and meaningful bonds with one another. One of the things I set out to do was seek out people who share a common interest with me. And in this day in which we have resources like MeetUp, Eventbrite, and social media, it’s actually gotten a lot more simple to find people who may share those interests. Even during the time of COVID-19, people have opted to transfer their groups and activities into a virtual capacity.

Moving beyond simple casual interests, you could also look into groups that stand for something bigger than themselves like an activist group or volunteer organization. I find that bonds created around a common goal or purpose tend to run deeper.

Also, don’t underestimate the value of finding new friendships through your current ones! Sometimes having mutual connections is enough to begin with in order to build a new relationship. Some of my closest friendships are a direct result of my relationship with a colleague.

If you’re feeling up to the challenge, you can always create an activity group on your own and seek out people in your friend group that would be interested. And this would lead friends of friends of friends to join in as well.

Reaching Out

Another way to build friendships–or rekindle old ones–is to be willing to reach out to people. I can honestly say that the thought of randomly reaching out to someone for me used to be extremely intimidating. I kept wondering what the other person would think of me just dropping in to say hello, even if it was someone who I, at one point, had a great friendship with. There was a time in which a person would pop into my mind, even someone I hadn’t spoken to in months or years, and I would just shrug it off. I’d say to myself “Oh, that’s random. I wonder what they’re up to”. But then instead of acting on that thought, I would just continue with whatever I was doing.

These days, I take a different stance. When something like that happens, an old friend or acquaintance comes to mind, I almost immediately go ahead and reach out to them. I recognize this could just be me being dramatic, but I often think that God has put that person’s name in my head for a reason. I take it as a sign that–just maybe–that person needs someone to reach out to them for whatever reason. When I shifted my mindset to this, rather than thinking about being self-conscious, I found the results to be astounding.

Yes, sometimes when I reach out these people don’t bother replying. It’s unfortunate, but for a lot of people, they see someone of their past reaching out to them as a bad thing. It’s usually the thought: ‘This person wants something from me’ or ‘This person wants me to buy something’. Our past experiences make us much more likely to be suspicious about someone reaching out to us. So don’t take it too personally if you find some people don’t respond or get back to you. But then there are times that they do. And then there are times that they’re happy, sometimes even excited, to hear from me! We start catching up and essentially begin to rekindle the friendship.

Even if you still feel uneasy about doing something like that, you could start slow by engaging with people more. If your timeline or news feed is anything like mine, there are friends and acquaintances you keep up with my following but you don’t necessarily have any real conversations with them. Rather than just ‘liking’, try to engage more with their posts, especially if it is one that draws discussion. So while creating new friends is important, sometimes the new friendships that need to be cultivated are actually old ones!

Be Intentional and Organized

A few months ago, some friends and I decided that we would be intentional during the height of the pandemic and purposefully reach out to people on our phones we haven’t spoken to in a while. As a group, we decided we wanted to ‘be a light’ of sorts to people who may need a good conversation and possibly rekindle friendships along the way.

While it may not be your intention to reach out to a certain amount of people per day, it’s good to think about how we can work to keep our relationships strong. I think the biggest thing people worry about is not just creating new friendships, but figuring out how to maintain them and keep them from fading away.

Sometimes I go as far as putting reminders in my phone to shoot a text to someone or schedule a time to hang out. No, this doesn’t mean saying: “We should hang out soon”. Put a time and date on it! So instead it can be: “We should hang out soon. I’m available on [dates and times], what about you?” If you keep going back and forth about how ‘we should’ get together, ‘we should’ visit, or ‘we should’ do something, then you’re just reducing your chance of just going ahead and doing it.

Another part of this is understanding that, unfortunately, not all relationships are meant to last a lifetime. While you may try your best efforts to keep in touch and create opportunities for connection, sometimes a friendship runs its course and we have to allow ourselves to move on from that. This was a very hard pill to swallow for me, as I know a handful of people who I would love to keep the friendship that we used to have. However, I came to realize that we served a purpose in each other’s lives and that it’s hardly ever personal when a friendship fades naturally like this.

The Mirror Principle

People that are unaware of who they are and what they do will often damage relationships with others. Because of this, there is a certain level of self-awareness and self-honesty that has to be set in place before we can anticipate having long-lasting relationships with people. Building strong relationships also calls for us to develop a strong, positive self-image. Someone with a negative self-image will definitely keep themselves from being successful in any arena–relationships, careers, business, etc.

I’m sure a lot of people have experienced interacting with someone with a poor self-image. I recall one person whom I met in college who I expected to become friends with. But then I realized an unusual pattern with her current and past friendships. She threw out words like “crazy” or “fake” or “inconsiderate” to describe a lot of her former friends. What stood out to me the most is that most of these friends weren’t necessarily all in the same group or circle. Some she met in her hometown, others she met during her undergraduate years, and others she met through other mutual friends. It’s kind of funny how all of these people, in all different walks of life, were somehow ‘crazy’ or ‘weren’t good friends’. In fact, the only common denominator here was this girl. In the short amount of time we interacted, it became clear from my objective point of view that she was more than likely the problem in all of her friendships.

Author and leadership expert John Maxwell describes The Mirror Principle as understanding that we have to understand ourselves and take responsibility for who we are before we can ever have good, healthy relationships. This means that we have to acknowledge when we are wrong when we should apologize, and work to understand the root of our problematic problems.

Someone with a poor self-image doesn’t take the time to reflect on themselves and their actions; instead, it is much easier to push the blame on other people. Also, we have a tendency to feel more comfortable with people whose self-esteem level resembles our own. This means that someone with a low self-image may find someone with a higher self-image to be offputting, intimidating, arrogant, or inauthentic. They may find themselves feeling very insecure around high self-image people which, more often than not, is no fault of the person with a higher self-image.

To put it briefly, there’s no point in creating new friendships if we aren’t constantly improving and reevaluating ourselves. I hope that we can continue building and strengthening our friendships. Now, more than ever, I feel that people are in need of genuine connections.


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