by Tommy Carreras
When did it become so difficult to make good friends?
That question has been asked quite a lot over the last few years, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Months (or years) of lockdowns, social distancing, masked faces, and Zoom fatigue revealed and amplified what has been called an epidemic of loneliness that is running rampant through our modern world.
If you browse the self-improvement section at your local bookstore, you’ll find a plethora of best-selling book titles focused on how to make meaningful connections.
Friendship is challenging for everyone in our fast-paced, fully optimized, digitally-drowned world. But if you’re in recovery, it can be much, much harder.
Whether or not your story includes traumatic events, it probably includes clear relational pain. Not much hurts more than loneliness, betrayal, rejection, or abandonment. We’ve all experienced those kinds of relational pain at many points in our lives to some degree.
Either directly or indirectly, that pain has probably been a strong driver of whatever recurring behaviors show up for you. This is how Anna Lembke, MD describes the role of pain in addiction¹:
A pain-pleasure balance titled to the side of pain is what drives people to relapse even after sustained periods of abstinence. When our balance tilts to the pain side, we crave our drug just to feel normal (a level balance).
Dr. Lembke goes on to explain that it’s not just the absence of our drug or behavior of choice that tilts the balance toward pain. Strong negative emotions (especially ones connected to memories of past relational pain) can quickly trigger pain that demands relief.
Many scientists believe that our tendency toward being slow to trust was an evolutionary necessity. In a 2017 interview with The Atlantic, Dr. John Capiocco summed it up simply: “If I mistakenly detect someone as a friend when they’re a foe, that can cost me my life. Over evolution, we’ve been shaped to have this bias.”
All in all, relationships are dangerous. When we isolate, only show our “best face,” and stay slow to trust, it keeps us relatively safe from the pain of having our vulnerability exploited or tossed aside as unimportant. It’s a terrible paradox that keeps us all from having the courage to venture out to make new friends and move toward true intimacy and closeness.
But that’s a big problem because it may have been relationships that wounded you – but healthy relationships keep you in recovery.
Dr. Gabor Mate talks about this in his book, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress²:
Behind all our anger lies a deeply frustrated need for truly intimate contact. Healing both requires and implies regaining the vulnerability that made us shut down emotionally in the first place. We can permit ourselves to honor the universally reciprocal human need for connection and to challenge the ingrained belief that unconsciously burdens so many people with chronic illness: that we are not lovable. Seeking connection is a necessity for healing.
Your recovery depends on the kind of courageous vulnerability that will rewrite the wounds of your past and teach your heart to trust again.
Painful experiences may have broken your ability to trust, but that trust can also be repaired with experiences of safety, acceptance, and care.
Asking for help, inviting people into your everyday life or your home, and simply sharing how you’re really feeling or doing (particularly when you’re not doing well), are powerful tools that can help you accelerate your relationships and your healing.
But having close friends usually starts with being a close friend.
Don’t just wait for others to come through for you; remember: everyone else has some version of the same fears that you have! So take the bold first steps and pave the way for other people to join you.
Sebastian Junger talks a lot about how powerful our commitment to the good of others can be in reshaping a community in his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging³:
Adaptive behavior tends to be reinforced hormonally, emotionally, and culturally, and one who can see all three types of adaptation at work in people who act on behalf of others… The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good.
Here are some simple but powerful ways you can start being and making good friends right now:
1: Ask for help without apology.
That’s right, ask for help – don’t just wait for someone else to offer it. Asking for help requires humility and courage. It’s no small feat, and many of us avoid it like the plague. But that’s exactly why you have to lead the way!
Let the other person be the “hero.” It will prove that you don’t look down on people who need help because you’re one of them! You’re telling them that you will be there when they need it.
Just make sure you don’t apologize for needing help! Then it will feel like pity instead of friendship on both ends. No one wants that.
Be confident and make sure your tone communicates a subtle message: “Friends help each other gladly, and I consider you a friend.”
2: Banish the words “I’m fine” from your vocabulary.
There are no more worthless words than these in the English language. And it’s worse than that; “I’m fine” isn’t just worthless for your relationships. It’s damaging.
The words “I’m fine” carry a message in our culture that is basically an open secret: “I’m feeling something, but you’re not worth sharing it with.”
That may sound a bit harsh, but you can’t put up a brick wall in someone’s face and expect them to jump over it.
In her book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown says that accurately naming our emotions is the portal that connects us with other people⁴. When we don’t (or can’t) share how we’re really doing, we can’t be known.
3: Be ruthlessly committed to the “little things.”
We often wait for the “big” moments in life to build trust and connect deeply. And those highly charged moments are absolutely important opportunities that allow us to deepen our connections.
But research shows that trust is actually primarily built in the small, mundane moments – like a wall being built one brick at a time.
Use a calendar, reminders app, or an obscene amount of post-it notes to remember people’s “little” things.
- Remember their dog’s name.
- Ask how their kid’s baseball game went.
- Check in how an elderly parent has been feeling.
- See how the big meeting at work went.
Show intentional interest in someone’s life, and you’ll be building a friendship that is primed and ready for the “big” moments when they show up.
4: DON’T test them. DO tell them how to win.
We sabotage our friendships by testing them when we expect they might let us down. More than anything, it’s usually a sly way that we protect ourselves from the pain of being let down.
But testing your friends by waiting for them to check in and sending coded messages about the pain you’re hiding will likely end in a broken friendship, and that’s not good for anyone.
Instead, be courageously vulnerable and plainly ask for what you need from them. Here’s how it might sound:
- “I’ve been feeling really anxious lately, and I’d love to get it off my chest. Can I tell you about it?”
- “I’m really worried about how this thing at work will go; I don’t want to freeze up. Would you be willing to text me something funny or encouraging that day?”
For the price of some intentional vulnerability, you both get the gift of a closer, more resilient friendship.
Recovery is not about the strength of the person; instead, it’s all about the strength of their support system.
You deserve people who will celebrate you on your best days, pick you back up on your worst, and enjoy the ride next to you on all the rest.
So make some good friends. You’re worth it.
- Lembke, Anna. Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. Dutton Books, 2021.
- Maté Gabor. When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. Wiley, 2011.
- Junger, Sebastian. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Twelve, 2016.
- Brown, Brené. Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Random House, 2021.