(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)
Dr. Kenner: This is a question I received from Shelly. “Dear Dr. Kenner, I’m clueless as to how to form good friendships. I grew up in a cold home where no one ever hugged or was allowed to cry or even express feelings. Everything was bottled up and repressed. I was taught that this was a good thing. As an adult, I have very few friends and I have no idea how to act with others or how to make friends. I’m not nervous in social situations, but can never seem to make new friends or be able to get anyone to like me. I’ve taken classes to help me with this, but even though now I have brief encounters with people with no problem, I still cannot seem to make lasting friendships. Where do I start? Shelly.”
First, Shelly, I am very sorry to hear about your upbringing, because your parents put you at war with your own values, with your own emotions. Imagine when you’re feeling joyous you can’t express it. You have to go into that emotional straightjacket or you’re feeling real sad and you can’t even get the words out because you’ve been told it’s bad to feel sadness or it’s bad to cry or it’s bad to feel angry. Well, what if somebody does you an injustice? A sibling breaks your best toy, a toy you just got for your birthday as a kid. Why can’t you say, “I’m angry. Why did you do this?” especially if she did it deliberately. You know, you need to be able to breathe emotionally and so many of us were taught that you just keep things in, hold it in, it’s better if you don’t let your feelings out. Well, that’s true to an extent. It’s better if you don’t just vomit your emotions, so to speak, but you need a way to rationally get out your emotions and that’s definitely possible and I’ll talk about that in a little bit.
There are three top points that I want to make. You asked the question, “Where do you start?” Great question. The first point is you want to take stock of what you’re already doing that’s good. You want to credit yourself for discovering that you are repressed. Many people go through life and they don’t discover that or they don’t have the courage to face it. So credit yourself for your courage to want to break out of that emotional straightjacket and credit yourself for setting a goal of wanting to enjoy good friendships. And then credit yourself for the fact that you’ve taken some classes, so you know that it’s a learnable skill and that you’ve set a goal for forming long-lasting friendships and that you’ve had some success with brief encounters. Credit yourself – you want to see this as a continuum. You are moving toward your goal.
The second step is valuing yourself. Ask yourself, what is the benefit to me – to you – of having good friendships? Obviously there’s a wonderful mutuality that you can have these wonderful, positive interactions with someone who cares about you, you care about them, and you have fun together. I recently went paddle boarding, something I never pictured myself doing, with a friend. I went to the theater with a friend. I went to dancing classes with a friend. That’s a lot of fun. It adds a whole dimension to your life and of course if you build trust with one another, you can share on different levels with friendship. You need to know how to go gradually with that to trust a friend.
When you look at friendship yourself, notice what you say to yourself. You’ve had a long history of not having close friends. So you might say things along the following, which are going to be damaging to you. “No one really likes me. I’ll never be able to have friends. Nobody wants to hear what I have to say. I’m afraid to express any feelings. No one notices me. Everyone here is better than I am. I’m clueless.” If you have a lot of that stinking thinking – that’s the technical term for it – you want to be able to catch that thinking. Not beat yourself up for having that, but learn replacements for that. Instead of, “No one wants to hear what I have to say,” you want to flip that and say, “I would enjoy having some friends and I can learn some skills and I’m fully capable of having a good friend who might want to hear a lot of what I have to say.”
So take the pressure off yourself. You mentioned, “I need to get people to like me.” You don’t need to get anyone to like you. You want to see what you like in a potential friend, and that’s a very important shift in perspective. For example, “You know, I’m looking at Annie and she seems like someone I’d feel at home with. She has a warm smile. Or Jodie is playful and makes me laugh. I want to learn to be more liberated with feelings, as Jodie is.” You want to look at those wonderful benefits that draw you toward specific people.
The third point I want to make is friendship skills. As you already know, if you’ve taken some classes, these are learnable skills. And there is a very good book called The Loneliness Workbook, a guide to developing and maintaining lasting connections. The woman, Mary Ellen Copeland, has some very good skills and tips and advice and that, and you learn communication skills. We all learn them. I had to learn communication skills. I had to learn that sarcasm was not a good idea. Being judgmental – you don’t do this, you’re always doing this – is not a good idea. You probably had a lot of that in your family if you weren’t supposed to feel. Don’t feel. You want to learn assertiveness skills. You want to be able to express those emotions, as I mentioned earlier, in ways that don’t attack. You want to be able to say, “I feel angry. I feel hurt,” rather than, “You make me angry. You hurt me.” You also want very good listening skills. To listen to a friend and to track what they are saying with, “Oh, ah, um, I see,” and be able to enjoy their friendship and help them know that you’re tracking them.
I want to recommend, finally, one last book called The Friendship Fix. It’s a really fun book. Andrea Bonior, and she talks about looking at what types of people suit you. What are deal breakers in friendships? How do you make friends after school? Post high school or college, and why is friendship harder than dating and how do you take the first steps and how do you avoid getting trapped in a bad friendship? Four signs that you’re a good friend. These are some of the topics she covers.