Making Friends as an AdultIs Damn Hard. Here’s How to Make It a Little Easier
By Alana McConnell (she/her)
Illustration Yi Jong (she/they)
Making friends only gets harder the older you get, a slightly sad but undeniable reality. We’ve said goodbye to the days where you could plonk yourself next to a random kid in your kindergarten class, bonding over Hot Wheels cars and crayons. In highschool, though it was a little harder with all that added angst, there was still ample opportunity to make friends and expand social circles. With the semester finally here, many of us (myself included) might be wondering about whether we will be able to make new friends, especially with the added hurdles that are online classes. Wherever you are in life, whether you are fresh out of highschool, or a returning student about to embark on a post-graduate journey, this is for you.
As we go through life and mature, our inhibitions increase, as does our selfawareness. We risk getting stuck in unhelpful habits and comfort zones. I was promised multiple times before I started university that after I left highschool I would “find your tribe”. When I entered the university halls in Wellington, the pressure was immense to find my forever friends, but all I got were some drinking buddies who didn’t really ever know me.
When I transferred to Auckland in my final year of undergraduate study, I barely knew anybody on campus and entered large lecture theatres overwhelmed by the number of faces who already seemed set in their friendship circles. I saw people around me who I could imagine as a new friend, but I didn’t really know how to solidify anything. Once, I gathered up the courage to go up to a girl in my tutorial I thought seemed cool and we hit it off, becoming good friends. A success story! But sometimes things fall flat, and that’s the truth about friendship making - there is no foolproof way to find people in your life who you will truly connect with. You can’t Wikihow a step by step guide to securing four to seven best friends for life (something I admittedly did when I was a lonely 13 year old). Some people appear to have it all figured out, but we all have different methods, priorities, and values when it comes to building our social circles.
There are many factors that can be attributed to this “loneliness epidemic” of recent years. It’s become so bad that countries are now appointing Loneliness Ministers to tackle this complex issue. From the decline of organised religion, people pushing off marriage and children, social media, bad urban planning, and of course our ongoing pandemic, it’s not a huge surprise that a large number of people report high levels of loneliness. Conventional means of meeting our social needs have been pulled out from under us as we’re pushed into a world that is hostile to community and genuine connections.
We know that loneliness doesn’t require physical solitude, but an absence of connection, intimacy, or kinship. As the cliché goes, you can be surrounded by people but feel more lonely than if you were walking alone in a park, or reading a book on the beach. Someone may appear to have a large friendship group, but if they don't feel truly seen or heard by others, then loneliness can arise swiftly and silently. Loneliness can’t be solved by just any form of company, rather from very specific relationships. It’s important then to ask yourself what you are actually looking for in a friendship, so you can seek out and foster a type of relationship that is fulfilling for you personally. A friendship is defined as “a bond of mutual affection”, and we know that friendships have different layers and levels. You may have acquaintances that you see at work or at uni, friends you catch up with occasionally and talk about shared interests, close friends who would drive you to the hospital and who you can confide in, and best friends who you can trust wholeheartedly and be your full authentic self around. All of these types of friendships play important roles and bring different forms of value to one’s life.
On some level, we seek out social relationships for survival. The pain of loneliness acts like a stimulus to tell us that we are at risk or lacking something. Social rejection activates the same part of your brain as physical pain. If you are feeling anxious starting university or going to new classes with new people, that’s actually your brain attempting to help you. Of course it may not feel very helpful and can feel like a saboteur, but this desire to be accepted and to seek out belonging is a core trait of human survival.
With all that in mind, it’s vital to have realistic expectations. If you meet someone new and project expectations of becoming best friends instantly, you risk setting yourself up for disappointment. Friendships are not formulaic. They can be mysterious and nuanced. Just because someone may seem like the perfect friend from the get go, it doesn’t mean that it will develop into a connection.
The same can be said for dating. A study from the University of Kansas found that two people need to spend 90 hours together to become friends, or 200 hours to qualify as close friends.1 And though friendship is too complex to just be quantified through the amount of time spent together, it goes to show that deep bonds do take time to nurture and develop.
One of the best things you can do is to be fully present in the moment. By being present, you improve your ability to find common ground, to laugh, and to bond over shared experiences, and to truly connect. Be open, and by doing so, you give the other person space to be open and receptive to experiencing friendship with you. Every new relationship has to start from square one. When you are both feeling each other out and not really knowing what is going to happen, you need to be willing to put in time, effort, and vulnerability. Friendship is often overshadowed by the intensity of romantic relationships, but finding a true and lifelong friend can be just as magical and meaningful as finding a romantic connection.
When you are experiencing loneliness, by definition you feel alienated, and can often feel like something is wrong with you. If you attempt to reach out and make new friends and it doesn’t go to plan, it’s extremely tempting to sink into selfblame, the inner critic kicking in. Let’s say you notice that you haven’t been invited to a party or a gathering. You analyse your past behaviour, picking apart what you said or did, trying to find a reason for this rejection or this loneliness. This is where self-compassion must kick in, a practice that is at the core of what it means to be human. Be kind to yourself in this process of making friends, and also be aware that though it’s usually an unsaid act, many of us are in the same boat when it comes to making friends as an adult. It just takes a little bit of vulnerability to admit.
Genuine self-confidence means you can back yourself up, and when you appreciate the value you bring to others and to yourself, making friends will gradually become more natural. Though no one needs to be “perfect” before entering a relationship, actively working on personal development and nourishing your self-esteem goes hand in hand with creating meaningful connections. People are attracted to those who are selfassured and at peace with themselves. People are at the core of our existence, and our relationships are vital for our health and wellbeing. Though we can’t deny that as we grow older we will face more obstacles when it comes to making friendships, if we view it from a compassionate and realistic perspective while opening ourselves up to new opportunities, it’s not such an impossible task.