Maintaining Friendships When the World is Hard

Natalie Chen, LMFT 128940 on May 01, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

I don’t know about y’all, but it’s been super hard to manage friendships while the news is just always sort of devastatingly bad. Also, the fact that the capitalism machine still expects us to maintain the same level of productivity WHILE we take in hard news day in and day out is… absurd to say the least. So basically, we have to stay appropriately engaged in community and global news, remain the same amount of productive, AND be social? In this economy? It’s too much. It’s sort of a feat to make it through each day sometimes, much less be socially thriving.

For a lot of us, our baseline of anxiety and even our autonomic nervous system arousal is just higher than it used to be. We have less space for stuff we used to, and it’s super hard to know how social relationships fit in when we might just be trying to make it through the day.

Many of the folks I have talked to have shared similar thoughts particularly since the pandemic has started: It’s REALLY hard to maintain the same amount and degree of friendships as before the pandemic. Let’s break this down.

For most of us, the pandemic cost us a ton. Some more than others. For most of us, we probably had casual communication at least a few times a week — with the barista at our fave coffee shop (Hi, Lindsey!), with the cashier at the grocery store, with the person at the dog park, at the group hang at an acquaintance’s house, at our sibling’s birthday party, or at work with our colleagues. This largely ended as we knew it in March 2020. Even if we still had to work in-person, managing that intense of a change caused many people to go straight into survival mode. We’re talking elevated stress levels, fear, irritability, confusion, and having to re-learn how to function in a society that isn’t looking out for the most vulnerable. The loss there is already significant. I know with restrictions lifting some of this is returning, but for many of us it will never be the same.

Another piece for many people is that we’re DIFFERENT now than we were two years ago. Many of us have been impacted by facing global and community structures in ways we hadn’t before and it has left us different. It’s entirely possible we grew apart from friends during that time and the social interaction is no longer meaningful or fulfilling in the way it had been previously. Maybe you learned your buddy has very different beliefs than you do, and it’s exhausting navigating that situation now and isn’t providing the satisfaction you need. That isn’t selfish, it sounds very REAL and worth considering if that season of friendship may be over.

It takes a lot of effort to stay in contact with friends. Thankfully, we have technology to help us out for that casual connection, but it truly takes a lot of effort for many to match schedules, have social energy (I am speaking as a VERY strong introvert who talks to people professionally so I understand this has varying degrees for the individual), and navigate adult friendships WHILE navigating our own stressors, pressures, and other relationships like work and family.

WHAT do you do about it?

My suggestion, if it fits for you, is to identify just a handful of folks who are really lifegiving to you. Which people see you and accept you as-is, while also calling on you to be the true, vibrant version of yourself? We’re talking safety AND accountability — that’s love, y’all. That might be a future post in itself. Which people will have your back when you need to vent about how your coworker takes ALL the space talking about their WHATEVER in the Zoom meetings and have your back when you need to share about how it’s really hard to find any motivation to get through the day meaningfully? Who is the person who cares that FINALLY you found a person who can cut your bangs right but who also is invested in your personal growth as a human? Who are the people who we have co-created safety, accountability, and love with? These are the relationships to nurture.

If you’re one of the many who are experiencing what I like to call a “friend revolution” where maybe you are rebuilding after a loss of friendships, I know this may be a hard post to read. I see that and honor that. I also will remind you what my therapist (your grandtherapist) told me: We can hold loss, grief, gratitude, and opportunity at the same time. We can recognize the loss of friends, the grief of loneliness or longing for community that sees us, the gratitude that we no longer accept friendships that do not serve us, and the opportunity to rebuild in a meaningful way.

Boundary setting is also our best friend. We can learn what we have emotional/social space for and express this to our loved ones — maybe we really need to “podcast” (a term my loved ones and I use when one of us needs to monologue) and we ask our friend if they have some time in the next few days to hear us. Maybe we don’t have bandwidth to FaceTime with someone now, but we send them a text or photo and a future time we can connect meaningfully. This creates trust, connection, and healthy, beautiful interdependence without codependence or hyper-independence. In a time when we really may be experiencing heightened autonomic arousal/anxiety/etc., boundary setting BUT pursuing healthy, trusting, loving social relationships can be truly calming to our nervous systems (Hello, polyvagal theory!) and a lifeline to help us through the never-ending hardships all around us.

For some of us, if we find ourselves exhausted socially or not quite being seen or fulfilled, we may need to pare down the relationships we nurture to really focus on ones that are meaningful. One day, things will change and we can re-engage in the wider community relationships, but for many that day hasn’t yet come. For others, we have the opportunity to find people who can sit with us for the mundane and the deep.

Maintaining friendships when the world is hard is difficult. It’s also critical. Our community upholds us, and we uphold others as part of the community. We cannot thrive on our own — we were never meant to.

Natalie Chen is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Palo Alto, CA.

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