The year I turned thirty was the year I realized I didn’t have friends. I was heading into a new decade of my life feeling strong about my career, my life accomplishments and my relationship with my partner. But when he asked me who I wanted to invite to my birthday party, my mouth opened and I let out a long trail of "ummms".
In my early twenties, I was a friend-making machine. I was the president of my 120-person sorority in college and spent very few hours of any day alone. When I moved to New York City after graduation, I joined sports teams and went to meetups and had something called friendship circles, with different groups of people to hang out with whenever I wanted a full social calendar.
But then something changed. A lot of my friends got married and had kids while I was still on the first-date trail. Some of my friends moved states away and our conversations grew stale and we rarely saw each other. I got laid-off from my full time job and started working for myself, out of my apartment, with no water cooler chit chat or happy hours to attend. Then, as a complete shock, my best friend of seven years abruptly told me that she no longer wanted to be friends anymore.
I felt sad and lonely as I entered my thirties and I placed a lot of the blame on myself. I didn’t feel like I'd invested time in nurturing friendships. I often cancelled plans on the weekends to do work. I forgot to respond to text messages for days. I could have shown more interest in my friends and their growing families rather than in finding someone to date. Instead, I spent a lot of my free time alone, sulking about the fact that I didn’t have someone to call a best friend and I didn’t have a guest list big enough to reserve more than a table for two on my birthday.
Christy Pennison, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Be Inspired Counseling & Consulting, says that making friends, particularly in this day and age, isn’t easy.
“With many people’s lives running at full speed and in different directions, it’s hard to slow down long enough to find and develop new friendships,” says Pennison. “We are more connected than ever on our devices or social media, but finding someone in real life to connect with can be a challenge.”
So how do we make new friends in 2020? Pennison says it starts with the word intention because friendships don’t just appear. We have to be intentional about making them happen.
As a gift to myself to prepare for a new decade both in age and in life, I turned to a friendship coach, hoping that professional advice would help me make more genuine connections.
I tried it: I hired a friendship coach
Before my session with the friendship coach, I got nervous that I'd be faced with wacky challenges that took me out of comfort zone and into a world of awkward interactions with people who wouldn’t give me the time of day. I figured she’d have me do things like go to a restaurant alone, sit at the bar and find a stranger who would have dinner with me, or worse, wear a t-shirt around town that said “Will you be my friend?” I almost canceled the call but realized that If I didn’t speak with a friendship coach, I might spend another year feeling down about not having many close relationships in my life. I decided to keep our appointment.
When Danielle Bayard, a friendship coach and author of “Give it a Rest: The Case for Tough-Love Friendships”, started to speak, I immediately confessed all of my friendship fears:
- Making friends at age 30 is hard.
- All my friends are married with kids.
- Feeling lonely is something I’m scared to admit to others.
Bayard was patient and listened to me vent. I told her I almost canceled our session out of pure shame. Most people, I thought, make friends without a strategy or game plan. Why didn’t this come naturally to me?
I was relieved when she told me I wasn’t alone.
“We are all going through it,” Bayard said. “Research tells us in our mid-twenties, friendship circles shrink significantly because our priorities shift.”
Bayard and I talked also about how those with different personalities can have their own unique set of struggles when it comes to making friends.
“Extroverts struggle to make friends because while they seem talkative, they might not go deep with people,” said Bayard. “Introverts struggle because their energy comes from being alone. Those with social anxiety struggle because they are in their head and second guess themselves.”
While people who know me would label me an extrovert, I silently deal with constant social anxiety, to the point where sometimes I end up in the bathroom having full blown panic attacks. That’s why making friends at parties can be extra tough and networking events have me clinging to my phone.
I felt ready to hear what Bayard had in store for me and was happy to know that there were only three challenges she wanted me to tackle over the next month to help me make friends. I wrote each challenge down and devoted at least one week to following through on them. Here’s what happened when I went out into the world with a game plan to meet new people and create long lasting relationships.
Challenge #1: Tap into your friends of friends network
The first challenge my friendship coach gave me didn’t require me to leave the house. I was happy about that because the idea of going to public places and making myself speak to strangers wasn’t something I was initially ready for.
The first thing Bayard advised me to do was take inventory of people I know and who they know.
Who are the people you sometimes see at the same parties and share mutual friends, but never have one-on-one conversations? Start there.
“Explore adjacent friends. Who are the people you sometimes see at the same parties and share mutual friends, but never have one-on-one conversations?” Bayard said. “Start there first. So many times we think making new friends is about starting from scratch, but sometimes it’s about going deeper with people you already know.”
I decided to find one adjacent friend and reach out to that person. But before I did, I asked Bayard for advice on what to say. She advised me to send that person a message on Instagram asking them to get coffee.
"When you offer, give people an out,” Bayard said. “Say something like: “If you want to grab coffee sometime let me know, if not that's cool, I'll see you at the next party.”
The first person I messaged was a yoga class buddy of a college friend of mine. We met a handful of times over the years and she casually always invited me to join them at a yoga class.
I did exactly what Bayard advised and messaged her on Instagram. I waited two days for a response (and grew nervous and anxious) and the person told me when she gets back from her vacation, she’d love to meet up. I felt relieved that this adjacent friend method felt easy and didn’t require much effort and decided to make a list of five additional people I could reach out to in the next month.
Challenge #2: Put down the phone and make conversation with people in public
After challenge one was completed, we moved to the second challenge, which did require me to leave the house.
Bayard recommended that I spend a week putting down my phone when I’m out in public.
When you’re on-the-go, in line, or at the register and you’re on the phone, there’s a lot of missed connection happening.
“When you’re on-the-go, in line, or at the register and you’re on the phone, there’s a lot of missed connection happening,” Bayard said. “Also, you see the same people every day (the barista at your coffee shop, etc.) and if you say hello every day or have a mini conversation, that’s a breeding ground for a relationship.”
This challenge, at first, seemed hard. Living in New York City, people usually avoid eye contact and conversation with strangers. But I decided that whenever I was out of my office, I would put the phone away, make eye contact with people and force myself to speak to them, even when I felt nervous.
The first day of the challenge, I found myself having two conversations with people in line for lunch or in my shared ride home. “How was your day?” “Good, you?” While many conversations ended there, it helped me ease into the art of making small talk with people around me.
By day three, I found myself in a twenty minute conversation with someone sitting next to me at a coffee shop. By the last day of that week, I found myself walking around the bookstore with a stranger, showing them my favorite books.
While this challenge didn’t end with a list of new friends (or to be honest, even one person’s contact information), it was proof that when we disconnect from scrolling on our phones, there are a lot of people around us to connect with.
“This challenge might not lead to you finding your bestie,” Bayard said.” But it’s a must. They are calling the millennial generation the loneliness generation. We need to let go of avoidant behavior and practice connecting with people.”
Challenge #3: Find a group and go three times
Fresh off a challenge where talking to strangers was the top item on my to-do list, the final challenge Bayard gave me felt less intimidating than it would have been weeks ago.
I was instructed to join a meetup group or a recurring group for a hobby or industry I was interested in. The catch? I had to go at least 2-3 times.
You have to see people over and over again, specifically weekly ... That’s how we build a relationship.
“A lot of time we think we’re going to join a meetup group and then we go and don’t find our new best friend, we quit,” Bayard said. “You have to see people over and over again, specifically weekly. That way, you can remember what you talked about the week before and bring it up again. That’s how we build a relationship.”
I decided to go to a weekly meetup group for people in New York City who are interested in digital marketing. I went by myself with the only goal of speaking to five people, I didn't even intend to make a friend. The second week I went back, my goal was to speak to those same five people again and speak to three new people. With each passing week, I built solid relationships with the people in the room. By week three, I had twelve new LinkedIn connections and five people’s phone number with the intention of reaching out to grab coffee.
While no one there screams “Jen’s forever best friend” Bayard reminded me it doesn’t work like that.
“It’s important to keep putting yourself out there, it takes time,” she said. “Don’t cut a person off because they aren’t 100 percent similar to you. Keep an open mind and be brave.”
Working with a friendship coach didn’t make me feel desperate or silly for being eager to make new friends. It made me feel empowered to fight the loneliness with those three challenges I’m still using months later. While I haven’t met anyone who I think will be a life-long friend, I have made meaningful connections with people I enjoy being with.
Plus, I’ve learned to put my phone down and speak to the people around me. Most of them respond back, first with surprise and then with joy, because let's face it, chances are they are feeling just as lonely as I am.
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