Friendship as an adult is complicated. No longer bonded by the confines of proximity (“You’re in my class? Let’s be friends!”), we’re now able to choose who and what we keep around. In theory, this should make for even richer, deeper, more prolific friendships. But in reality, more and more of us are finding that the playground of adulthood is surprisingly barren. Last month, we dove into why it’s not about the bestie, it’s about the soulie. This month, we’re talking how to find those like-minded souls.
Maybe you’re at the gym. Maybe you’re at work. Maybe you’re at a coffee shop, trying to squeeze in a few hours of writing before the weekend’s over.
And then you see her.
She’s laughing, chatting with the person next to her, seems to be engaged in her own world apart from the thumping of dumbells being dropped or the screeching cars in the street nearby.
And you wonder – could she be The One?
Or rather, one of The Ones?
Soulies, or soul-mate friends, are all around. The act of making friends as an adult isn’t hard per se, but challenging. Without the security of scheduling or proximity, making friends as a grown-up – not superficial friendships, but the the kinds of friends that lift you up – requires you to do one thing: be courageously vulnerable.
As Brené Brown says in her brilliant TED talks and books, vulnerability is courage. Vulnerability is the new strength. And in the case of friendship, vulnerability is the magnet that draws people together who are just the right fit at just the right time.
I find it interesting that I have made some of my most meaningful connections online. It started when I was 13, and after seeing Les Miserables, the speculation that I was wired differently than other teens was confirmed. I retreated to message boards and subsequently AIM, back before it was cool or even safe to meet people online, spending hours with other les misfits of all ages (mostly in the 16-30 set) talking not just theatre, but about all the things. Offline, I was the kid who pretended to like “normal” teenage stuff and struggled to keep up superficial conversations. Online, I was the person who didn’t think twice about being herself, and felt perfectly at home doing so. I told no one.
Years later, I found blogging (way before blogging was considered a “thing,” btw – what’s with me and not-socially-acceptable ways of meeting people?!). I met some incredible people through that blog; first online, then in person. Online, I was witty, punny, thought-filled. In my “real life,” I was the person who struggled between wanting to stand out and wanting to be accepted. Again, I told no one in my “real” life about my online friendships. It was like I was living a double life: in my “real life,” I was the person who struggled between wanting to stand out and wanting to be accepted. In my online life, I was just Me.
Friendship, just like any relationship, is a risk. Will they like me? Will I fit in? And while I think that certain aspects of adulthood make friend-finding more challenging, there is a self-awareness we have as adults that lends itself to some of the most important, fulfilling connections of our lives.
All worthwhile relationships are based in vulnerability. Unfortunately for us, we’re mostly taught that vulnerability is best used when it’s used selectively. Being “let in” by someone is seen as a rare victory, and the image of “walking around with your heart on your sleeve” that is commonly associated with vulnerability is taught to be dangerous. We’ll get hurt. We’ll be taken advantage of. We’ll be “found out.”
But in the process of hiding our heart, we’ll also shield ourselves from love.
I’m not saying to go and tell your life story and how you feel about each part of it to everyone you meet on the street. But no one can let you in if you don’t allow them the chance. If vulnerability seems like too harsh of a term for you (I understand), try easing into the idea by replacing the word with “honesty.” Being honest with who you are, at all times, means you’ll never be “found out” because who you are is right there on the table.
Pretending to be someone other than who you are means that you’re not really making friends – your alter-ego is. And in that case, we’re more likely to develop friendships that raise our blood pressure, make us feel anxious, and ultimately either make us withdraw or resign ourselves to defeat.
Basically, it comes down to this:
I’ve always had a knack for befriending the people I’ve looked up to in my immediate circle. The funniest girl in class. The most talented girl in the show. The star at the yoga studio. I felt pride in being let into their inner circle. They proved to be loyal friends, yet my sense of less-than-ness kept me silently, positively pleading for their love. Doing favors. Showering gifts. Pulling out all the love languages hoping I’d keep their affection.
I was okay with being second-best to them, their sidekick – and in some of the relationships, that’s where I actually thrived. But in others, I realize in retrospect, I was more happy being a second-best version of them because I feared being a first-best version of myself. I got myself so deep into these relationships that I feared being found out for who I “really was.” What if they don’t like me? What if I’m not funny enough, cool enough, smart enough, or worthwhile enough? A sense of conditional-ness permeated these relationships. And it was all on me.
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As I started to become more comfortable with vulnerability – nay, honesty – I noticed that my friendscape started to change. Slowly, these relationships started to do one of two things: fall away as we realized we didn’t have all that much in common, or grow closer because we realized how much we did.
Some other friend-making tips?
•Start small: Practice that unquestionable you-ness on people you encounter on your regular routine. It’s easy to be yourself when you’re with yourself, but with other people? That’s when the fear of judgement, rejection, or humiliation all come into the picture. Next time you’re out, say hello to the barista at your local coffee shop. Ask how the day was of the teenager who’s bagging your groceries. And then do something unexpected: react and respond. It doesn’t need to be a long conversation, but we are so used to asking how someone is doing out of habit that we rarely take the time to actually hear what the other person’s said. Say hello. Ask how someone is. Then respond not as a character, but as yourself.
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•Listen to the way you speak: When you’re talking t0 others, do you water down how you really feel? Do you share objective details only, or maybe only the opinions that make you seem a certain way?
•Join a class, club, organization, or setting where you can do what you love: Making friends as an adult has one huge advantage over making friends as a kid: values. When we’re young, we make friends based around what we can see: our location, our pre-established family friendships, our classes, our activities, etc. As adults, especially courageously vulnerable adults, we make friends based around our values. And whether we realize it or not, our activities and hobbies become a reflection of our unique values set instead of our age or demographic. When anyone asks me where to meet new people, I always tell them to find a fitness class they love and stick with it…because they love it. But if you’re not a class, club, or volunteer type person, simply put yourself in settings that allow you to express your values through doing/be-ing what you love. Kind of like the IRL-version of my Les Miz message boards. Show up at a coffee shop with a book or sketchpad, and see what happens.
I stopped my blog in 2010. At the time, I thought it was because my life was becoming too busy. But in reality, it was because my life was beginning to happen. I was no longer cloaking myself under the veil of the caretaker, the sidekick, or the second-best someone-else. And I was not relegating my personality to the written word, I was living it out loud. I still have friends I made during those times of message boards and AIM, and crazily enough, they’re now some of my oldest friends. Probably because that was our safe haven where we could just be who we were at our core – which is who we still are, really.
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Vulnerability does not have limits or end goals. It is an ongoing process, because our lives will always be shifting. We’ll always have new thoughts, new feelings, new fears, and new dreams growing and expanding inside us. And just as we think we have everything all figured out (including ourselves), in will come the next curve ball or some new nuance will be revealed that we never realized existed. Old friends will drift and new friends will come in, and some people who’ve been there all along will all the sudden seem brighter to us than they ever have before. Our friends will look different at different points in our lives, and that’s because we’ll be a little bit different too.
But if we’re our whole selves all the while, living for what makes US unique and makes US tick moment by moment, choice by choice, the right people will always find their way into our lives and our hearts. And if you devote yourself to being unquestionably the first-best version of you, I promise with all I’ve got that you will find The One. Or rather, all of The Ones.