The Guardian

I’m lonely, in my 30s, and find it very hard to make new friends

Annalisa Barbieri

I’m a man in a my mid-30s who feels pretty lonely. Since leaving university I’m no longer around new faces, and friends have drifted for various reasons (moved away, kids). My two closest friends live abroad and while I love them dearly, I miss the in-person aspect, especially since the pandemic. My partner and I occasionally do things, but we usually prefer to do different things. She likes hosting; I like to go out. She loves nature walks; I’m a city person. I work from home and my company organises social activities, but they’re in big groups and my biggest obstacle is social anxiety. The usual advice is to join a class or club, but those happen in group settings and as an introvert I find even small groups intimidating. If going outside my comfort zone yielded some connections I could say it would be worth the discomfort, but the older I get the less rewarding it is.

We are wired for real-life connection and I think the pandemic had a real impact on many. But loneliness can also come about in company, if we don’t feel seen or heard. I wonder if you feel particularly lonely now, and if your relationship is fulfilling?

I consulted BACP registered psychotherapist John-Paul Davies, who said: “To me, an introvert is someone who goes inwards to work things out while an extrovert tends to get their energy from other people.

So I don’t think that’s an obstacle to making friends. Perhaps the anxiety is more of a problem.”

Anxiety about how we come across – and worry that we won’t be liked – does seem to underpin most social interactions. I wonder how different we’d all feel if we could see what everyone else was thinking. Most likely, the same thing: more people feel like you than you may realise. But if your self-esteem is low, it’s hard to accept this.

And as Davies pointed out, selfesteem comes, in part, from knowing who we are and finding ourselves interesting, and this comes in part from having ourselves reflected back favourably by the people around us – which is why positive social interaction is so vital.

Davies’s advice was to “try to deepen existing relationships, the ones you already feel comfortable with, first”. I know your friends don’t live close but trying to enrich those connections may be a good initial step: via video chat, email or even letters. If you find video chats too intense, think about calling while you are doing something, maybe cooking?

We also thought that the building blocks for making friends may be closer than you think. You say your partner loves hosting: might that be an “in” to meet people in an environment you’re comfortable with? At home you can have lots of excuses to leave the room to regroup. Would work socials be more bearable if you set yourself a time limit of, say, 45 minutes?

I wonder also if, when you meet people, you could think not about whether they find you interesting, but if you find them interesting. This can shift the focus and may lessen your anxiety. Instead of trying to find things to say, ask questions. People tend to love talking about themselves.

It’s tempting to see every social situation as a way to make friends, but that’s unrealistic. Maybe if you think of these occasions as ways to make connections, even short ones, rather than lifelong friendships, that may help take the pressure off.

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