i miss having a best friend
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
dear mixed feelings,
I moved to a new city recently and have made a few friends. The thing is I'm not really close to any of them. It's been a few months and I’m feeling really lonely. Some of them are really great people but I miss having a best friend. Someone who I could talk to for hours and hours and who I text every day. I've been struggling with depression lately and this makes it worse. How can I find [and] create best-friend-worthy relationships? — eternal angst, they/them
dear eternal angst,
No one prepares us for the struggle of making friends as an adult. I moved a lot as a kid, which meant making new friends multiple times over. Did I have a humiliating first day at a new high school when I joined a table of girls at lunch who completely ignored my existence? Yes. But it felt inevitable that I would make friends due to the sheer fact that close proximity doubled my chances of making connections every day. It’s much harder when you’re out of school.
That comfort of inevitability vanished when I moved from New York to London five years ago. I went from living in the same city as my best friends from college to living in a new country where I had no friends outside of my partner, often feeling torn between missing my people in New York and embracing my new city.
Go easy on yourself, because building close friendships takes time. My first year in London was a lot of coffee dates with anyone I had a tangential connection to — friends of friends, acquaintances from college, colleagues I’d never met in person. Some of those people stuck around and some I never see any more. Over time, I started to feel like I had real friends I could take a weekend trip with or text chaotically about a personal problem, but it took a few years before I felt like I had close friends in London I could really rely on.
“a” for effort
Contrary to what you might see on TV, making friends requires a lot of effort, which is unfortunate for anyone like me who feels drained after a lot of socializing. It weirdly feels similar to dating, albeit with a little less societal pressure. There’s a lot to consider: deciding whether you get a good vibe from someone, asking for their number, drafting that first text message to see if they want to hang out. But before you get to that point, the biggest hurdle is simply meeting people you like. What made friendship feel easy when we were younger was the consistent time at school, friendship expert Shasta Nelson tells me. This is the same reason we tend to make friends at work — we regularly see our coworkers week after week.
“Any time we’re trying to make new friends, the number one question is: How can I see the same people over and over and over?” Nelson says. “Because that’s what builds familiarity and comfortableness and where we actually start the bonding.” That could mean joining some sort of group activity, like a running group or an improv class, where you’ll see the same people each week, or committing to making regular plans with people you want to be friends with. I went the second route when I moved to London and have learned to appreciate how much mental energy having set activities can save you. I started a casual book club with two friends last year and, as we’ve each invited new people, it’s been a great way to meet friends of friends and also have an excuse to get together once a month (whether we’ve actually read the book or not).
open yourself up (in more ways than one)
I don’t have a “best friend” and when I really think about it, I find the concept limiting. Why have one best friend when you can have multiple close friendships? Movies have a tendency to portray “best friendships” — especially those between two female-identifying characters — as two people who do absolutely everything together. They talk every day, they’re each other’s automatic plus-ones to events, they tell each other everything. They’re close; so close that they might dress similarly, text nonstop, maybe even finish each other’s sentences. This is not realistic for a lot of people and frankly, puts a lot of pressure on singular relationships to be everything and everything to you — to fill every need you could possibly have in a friend. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to unlearn the concept of “best friendship” and focus instead on building a community of close connections. Try not to let the expectation of finding a “best friend” close you off to other potential friendships.
That said, you will not make a close friend out of every person you initially click with. But I’ve found that a large part of shifting a new relationship from acquaintance, to friend, to close friend is simply signaling that you want to be closer. According to the theory of inferred attraction, people like people who they think like them. “If you want to get closer to people, it’s about showing affection toward them…making them feel accepted and loved,” psychologist and author Dr. Marisa G. Franco told mixed feelings “Because according to risk-regulation theory, when people decide how much to invest in a relationship they evaluate their likelihood of being rejected. If that likelihood is low, they’ll invest more into the relationship.” Now, this doesn’t have to be anything major. Telling someone you love their style or texting them after you hang out to say you had a great time can go a long way. Nelson describes this as positive emotions, meaning you both feel good after spending time together.
The final step toward deepening friendships that Nelson describes in her book, Frientimacy, revolves around vulnerable sharing. Each time you see someone, try to get to know them a little better, as well as sharing more about your own life. We bond with people when we feel like we know them and that we “get” each other, Nelson explains. Obviously don’t dump all your childhood traumas on them at once, but gradually fill them in on your life and talk about more serious topics when you feel comfortable. The “go first principle” Franco mentions, meaning you initiate interactions with friends, can also apply to vulnerable sharing. If you want to get closer to someone, sharing more about your personal life will encourage them to do the same.
Spending consistent time with someone, practicing vulnerable sharing, and walking away feeling positive emotions after hanging out, is the secret to bonding with anybody, says Nelson. Of course, all of this can be infinitely more difficult when your mental health isn’t at its best, but putting in the effort when you can is crucial. It’s important to take stock of where you’re at and what you think you can handle. Maybe that means trying to make plans with one person each week, or inviting a new friend over for a chill movie night instead of going out. It’s OK to not be the perfect picture of positivity, Nelson says, but our goal should always be to affirm our friends and let them know we’re interested in their lives. If you do need to cancel plans, try to let the other person know ahead of time and make it clear that you’re not canceling because you don’t want to see them. Without any context for why someone’s canceling, it’s easy for any of us to get insecure about the relationship.
It can be really lonely being on your own in a new city and feeling like you don’t have any friends to call on. While I wish it were a quicker process, I’m confident you’ll feel more secure in your friendships a year from now. The most satisfying part about living in a new city for a while is looking around at your life and knowing you made it all happen.