Loneliness and the danger of BFFs


There has been a lot of media coverage around loneliness recently and for good reason. In the 2016 Aotearoa State of the Nation’s Social Wellbeing survey, many respondents identified being lonely ‘all of the time’, ‘most of the time’ or ‘some of the time’ over previous four weeks. On a positive note, we can flip that, and report that nearly 64% of all respondents over the age of 15 reported no feeling of loneliness in the previous four weeks. Loneliness does seem to decrease with age, with nearly 17% of youngies (aged 15 to 24) reporting feelings of loneliness during the prior four weeks, compared with less than 10% of those aged 65 to 74 (although it was unsurprisingly higher for the 75+ age bracket).

I stated in my blog last year about the changing face of romantic partnerships and that society’s obsession with ‘finding the one’ had a lot to answer for. Think about fairy tales and Hollywood movies where a glorious picture is painted of marital bliss. There can be a fair bit of drama thrown but the living happily ever after was the standard outcome. Real life relationships tend to have the drama but so many end up anything but ‘happy ever after’ and I think it has a lot to do with unrealistic expectations.

A little side note on living ‘happily ever after’. In her book Conscious Uncoupling, Katherine Woodward Thomas states that fairy tales were invented in late 16th century Venice, which was post renaissance, and the first time that all classes were literate. A hopelessly romantic author called Giovanni Francesco Straparola wrote the first fairy tales, which gave (for the first time) the opportunity for the poor classes to escape ‘their lot’ and to imagine what it might be like to marry a prince! (Not that it would ever happen in real life, in fact it was illegal in the 1520s for a noble person to marry outside of their social group). The interesting thing is the statement ‘and they ALL lived happily ever after’. There was life expectancy of less than 40 years and 60% of people died before their 16th birthday, so to all be living happily was for many a very positive outcome.

I don’t think that these unrealistic expectations are limited only to romantic relationships. I think if you look at any teenage movie, the whole concept of BFF (best friend forever) is also a bit idealistic, and as the characters in the movies age through their 20’s and 30’s, these bestie friendships prevail. You know the sort, think the sitcom ‘Friends’ as the ultimate. A closely-knit bunch of friends, who can’t seem to do anything without each other, and who experience life’s ups and downs as a team, not an individual.

But how many of us actually have those individuals or groups of friends in our lives? Personally, I feel very blessed with the amazing people in my life, but many of my really special friends live outside of Auckland, and we don’t get to see each other that often. Of the wonderful friends who I have in close surrounds, there isn’t a group of us who do the ‘Friends’ stuff every weekend.

Maybe it’s an age thing. Certainly, when you think of besties in TV programs and movies (eg Thelma and Louise and Bridesmaids) the stars are in their 20’s and 30’s not 40’s and 50’s. But then, there is another group phenomenon which I think equally applies to the older generations and that’s family holidays away at the beach and….camping! Are you one of those lucky ones (some of you I know would certainly not call camping trips lucky) who is part of a bunch of families who take off to a wonderful NZ or Oz location around the same time every year (it’s usually around now)? I know this tradition can span decades. My brother has a great group of mates who all meet in tents and caravans at off the beaten track spots in the South Island, and they’ve been doing it for around 20 years.

Of course I can imagine, just like the seemingly perfect romantic partnerships, it’s not all going to be sunshine and happiness in these gatherings. But it must work in the main, otherwise, wouldn’t you just stop going?

So back to loneliness and the feeling that everyone else has besties or BFFs. To translate that into practical terms, someone who will come to the movies with you at last minute’s notice. Someone who you have a regular Sunday afternoon date of a walk and a drink afterwards. When I was regularly one on one coaching, a common theme that came up was feelings of isolation, in spite of being in a relationship. Entertaining and socializing was often ranked low in the tolerations matrix (email me if you would like a free copy of the tolerations matrix) and when I explored this with my clients further, they usually said something like they were too busy, or they simply never got around to it. Most times they were in relationships and they generally agreed that to rely on one person for the majority of their conversation and stimulation outside of the work environment was a bit unrealistic (especially if, as some of them did, your hubby prefers to tinker in his workshop every evening and weekend!).

Personally, I think many of us have lost the art of building and maintaining friendships. Some of us get resigned to the fact that now we are older, it’s harder to make new friends. Certainly, as we move out of our twenties and into our thirties and forties, juggling career and children can make investing the time trickier, but I think it’s really important that we make the time. Check out this sobering article from Psychology Today which lists a bunch of stats on the reduction of friends as you age. But I don’t think it has to be this way.

It reminds me of one of my favourite ever quotes from Richard Bach; ‘argue for your limitations and sure enough they’re yours’.

Here are my three key ideas on ensuring that you don’t have massive FOMO (fear of missing out) in the friends department;

1.  Change your expectation of BFFs and close-knit groups.

I think that in reality that functional BFF relationships are less common than you think. I use the word ‘functional’ because sometimes we can be drawn to exclusive bestie type arrangements because we are hankering for something from our past. Check out this interesting article where the author realized she was trying to recreate the intimacy with her bestie, that she had with her mum growing up (solo mum/only child). She realized that she was getting just a wee bit dramatic and jealous about her BFF and it wasn’t serving either of them. I did want to include the topic of drama in friendships, particularly dramatic dumping of friends (usually by text), but there is just soo much material on that, that I will save that for a separate blog – would love to hear your thoughts on this topic!

I also think that rather than a single friend or even group of friends (a la ‘Friends’) that we have a wonderfully complex and divergent set of interests and needs that are better fulfilled by a bunch of friends.

Check out this quote by Janna Koretz, a Boston based Clinical Psychologist;

 “We are all looking for a best friend—but that’s not really realistic as an adult. One friend doesn’t have to offer everything. I have a lot of friends I wouldn’t call if I was having a bad day, but I’d invite them to play. You can have one friend you love to talk about fashion with, someone else you go running with, another whom you call to help you get through a crisis. It can be fulfilling to have friendships on different levels.”

Certainly for me, I have my friend needs met by a wonderfully different bunch of individuals. Check out this blog from last year about home birthers in high heels or this brilliant advert from Scandinavia about how we don’t have to pop people in to ‘boxes’ any more. There is no reason that a tight group of friends can’t be diverse, but with our interesting almost subliminal attraction to ‘like’ people, it’s probably the exception rather than the norm. Having a bunch of different friends with different backgrounds is interesting!

And don’t believe that everyone else is having a better and more social time than you! I remember when I was single in my 30’s, one of the hardest times for me to deal with was holidays and long weekends, when everyone else took off with their boyfriends. Today is the Monday of Auckland anniversary weekend, and apart from bumping into a lovely friend at the harbour bridge lights viewing on Saturday night, I haven’t done one social thing. And don’t believe what you see in social media. This Youtube clip about the fake-ness of an ‘insta-life’ cuts a little close to the bone; I am so glad that social media wasn’t around when I truly worried that I wasn’t having as great a social life as others.

2.  Value being yourself and value your friends for who they are.

There have been times where I have had some friends who have been super critical of me and decisions I have made. There have also been times where I have been super critical of my friends and decisions they have made. Why do we have to judge those closest to us? We are all fallible and if we get all self righteous on this, then the friendship is likely to wane over time.  

I love my present friendships particularly because I don’t have to try to be any different to who I am, and nor do they to who they are. If you find that you can’t be totally yourself around them, then you are probably doing both parties a favour by letting the friendship lapse.

Likewise if we have high expectations on friends, for example, how often they ring you. Or if they don’t include you in every social invitation. I remember once feeling horrified when I unexpectedly discovered that two friends were socializing together, when it was usually the three of us who went out with each other. I mean I truly felt like I had been kicked in the guts. But the reality is, they had no obligation whatsoever to include me. Sometimes we are going to be left out of opportunities we would like to be involved in. Sometimes, we are going to want to catch up with one friend and not the other one who is usually invited too.

A healthy level of self-awareness helps here. I think a lot of my upset was due to my obsessive need to be liked in my earlier years and there were definitely some ego and identity triggers pulled too. Relying on external circumstances to feed this wasn’t healthy and I have learned to truly enjoy my alone time.

Friendships can change over time, as people grow and their circumstances change. It’s a good idea to come to terms with that too. Friends who you used to see weekly, you might now only see once or twice a year. Have you ever had the experience of a close friend moving into your town, only to find out that you see each other less than when you lived in separate cities? Trying to hold on to a friendship for nostalgic purposes usually ends in disappointment and frustration.  I don’t think there is any need to have a “D and M” (deep and meaningful) about it; simply naturally accepting that like the tides, friendships come and go will help with any upset.

And finally, honour yourself in your friendship. Accepting friends for who they are does not give them the right to treat you like shit. If you are constantly being let down by a friend, verbally abused or betrayed, then it’s probably time to let the friendship go. Narcissistic and sociopathic behaviour is not only limited to the realms of romance, work and family. Liking and accepting yourself goes along way to extracting yourself from toxic relationships (more on this will be discussed in the drama blog!).

3.  Don’t just sit around waiting for the phone to ring, the invite to come or the text/messenger to pop in.

Your friends have their own lives. Your friends are busy. Some of your friends are absolutely overwhelmed with the many things in their world and can hardly schedule in time with their own families. Don’t make it mean anything that the phone doesn’t ring. Don’t (within reason) do that tit for tat thing and think ‘well I rang her last time, it’s her turn this time’. This blog about why people don’t return calls is as relevant for personal relationships as it is for business relationships.

Do you have anyone who you could ring or text today to see if they wanted to go out to the movies tonight? I recently wondered this myself, then I realized that there are a bunch of people I could invite, even though I hadn’t ever done the ‘spontaneous ring’ with them before! Most of them, surprisingly, aren’t out every night, fending off multiple invites. Most would love a night out with a friend, but haven’t got the emotional energy or sometimes even the confidence to do so. It’s just an invite! But we so often find excuses to not ring or press send. Personally, I prefer to ring or send an individual message, but if you like the idea of posting an ‘anyone around’ invite on FB, then go for it!

How about making some new friends? One of the cool things about being a coach and being in some professional communities full of fabulous people is that I have met some wonderful new friends. But again it takes something. I have scheduled a number of ‘hey you seem interesting, would you be interested in having a coffee or walk some time?’ dates, some which haven’t led to anything, and others which have turned into solid friendships. If you don’t meet people through your work, then Meetups is an amazing source of gatherings to discover friendships.

And what about old friends? A couple of weeks back I spent fabulous time (separately) with two very dear friends who were in drama productions with me over 25 years ago. Even though we all live in the same city, we simply don’t see each other that often. And that’s ok! But, if you are feeling lonely, or simply would like some company, then give them a call.

And finally, keep an eye out for friends in need. It is so easy to get tied up in our own lives, that we don’t simply check in to see how someone is going, who is presently in a crisis. I have sadly had to resort to having a ‘check in to see if ok’ list on my tasks app, so I can remember to do so. It really helps me to take some action, even if I send a text saying ‘thinking of you’ from time to time. And likewise, if you are experiencing a crisis yourself, please don’t feel resistant to reaching out and asking your friends for help. Most people love (some even relish!) the opportunity to do so.

And as a final final health note; if this blog leaves you feeling paralysed with fear; that you couldn’t possibly reach out to friends or find new ones, then it’s important to seek out professional help, eg a therapist or coach (it is well worth the expense, and you will most likely get benefit even from one or two sessions). Or at the very least, upskill yourself with a recommended book or online research. It’s usually because of confidence or self-worth issues and remaining isolated is not going to help. Loneliness sucks, and if you are depressed or stuck, being in the company of others is so important. Connection to others is about the most amazing gift of being human.

Posted on February 19, 2018 .