The sense of belonging or social acceptance is critical to our sense of well-being. Early researchers such as Abraham Maslow cite belonging as one of our most basic needs, something that cannot be ignored and something that is critical to our growth and the fulfillment of a satisfying life.
Depression, despair, anxiety and anger can often find their roots in loneliness, lack of support and the fear of being alone. It is frustrating to not understand why things don’t just “click” socially for us when it seems to come so easily to some. Studies indicate that people without social ties are more apt to commit suicide than those with a supportive network in place.
In working with clients who feel very alone I realize that their inability to fit in or find a “tribe” is not that they have any inherent character flaws that interfere with friendship, in fact there is nothing obnoxious or “wrong” with them at all. Many are delightful, smart, fun people who just need some information on how social groups work.
There are many reasons you may not learn social or friendship skills. If you are from a dysfunctional family and spent your young life dancing around a dynamic you were trying to hide from the world it is likely you missed out on something. Children of alcoholics and other addictive patterns often fall in this category.
If you have had a depressed parent or extremely anxious parent you may not have been involved in much social activity as they lacked energy or had fears of letting you join in.
If you had a very dramatic or histrionic family your world may be colored with overreacting to everything or even a sense of boredom if things aren’t “hopping”. You may find yourself tempted to stir the pot or create drama in your social world, usually insuring that you will be shunned at some point.
There may also just be a simple reason as opposed to one with a dysfunctional flair that interferes with your ability to fit in. You may be an only child whose exposure to other children was limited, or you may have moved so often as a child that you gave up trying to make friendships as the repeated loss was too much. You may be a girl with all brothers or a tomboy who finds the workings of the girlfriend world to be extremely foreign and uncomfortable.
If you are deeply insecure and require the constant validation of a love interest to the exclusion of friends, you probably have issues stemming from a dysfunctional background. If you find yourself striving for constant attention, particularly from the significant others of your friends, you will most likely find yourself ostracized from the group. Also at some point you may find yourself exhausted as this does not tend to be a trend that can easily last a lifetime.
No matter what the reason, the feeling of not belonging or fitting in is painful and results in a plethora of negative emotions.
This is a quick checklist of the basic skills needed to start fitting in and making friends.
1. Make sure you are trying to fit in with the right crowd for you. If you are trying to fit in with the wrong crowd it will never work. Your choice of friends is critical to your growth, intellectual stimulation and support. Assess your current group and ask yourself if you share the same values, morals and interests.
2. Beware of the most welcoming or easiest crowd. A scenario I see often is where someone is drawn to a crowd that doesn’t fit because they themselves are “outsiders”. This group is usually quite easy to fit in with as they may share the commonality of anger and anti-establishment or anti-anything positive. They welcome newcomers with open arms in order to feel validated in their own antisocial existence.
3. Run from narcissists. Narcissists will often welcome you into a friendship, particularly if they sense you need friends and can be easily manipulated. These friendships are not rewarding and will not work over time. They are all about themselves and not about you. That can only sustain itself for a certain period before you will resent it. They will also make you feel crazy and that any problems in the friendship are your fault. This is time you will have wasted when you could have been making better friends.
4. Once you have chosen who you would like to be with, check yourself quick for the following traits:
- Smile, be open, make sure you aren’t scaring people off with a frown or angry look. Be approachable.
- Make sure you share equally in the workings of your group. For example, if you are invited to their homes for get togethers make sure you reciprocate in some way.
- Don’t complain. Complaining is uncomfortable, is often seen as a downer and usually a chronic complainer will eventually find themselves ostracized from a group.
- Don’t gossip or create drama. Drama is a huge no no. If you have a lot of it going on in your life share it with a therapist not your social circle. Respect clear boundaries such as not calling friends late at night with your latest incident. Don’t monopolize conversations with whatever incident or ongoing dilemma is in your life. They may appear interested at first but will tire of it soon. They will talk behind your back and sooner or later you will be left behind.
- Always offer help and support when a member of your group is in need. Whatever you can contribute, big or small, matters a lot in the big scheme of friendship.
- Refrain from flirting with or seeking sexual attention from the significant others of your friends.
- Be considerate of people’s time. Being chronically late for appointments or dinners with friends screams disrespect for their time and they will tire of you soon.
If you check yourself for all of the above and come up with a positive review of your behavior then you are on your way to happy friendships! If you read the above and feel that something is interfering with your overall ability to bond and enjoy friendships then you may need a deeper review. One of the dysfunctional dynamics may stand in your way, such as an attachment difficulty, trust issues or deep seated anger. Don’t despair, these can be resolved, they just take a bit longer. They do not have to stand in the way of a fulfilling life.