I am about to graduate from college and I have no true friends to show for it. I have always been an introverted person. I struggle to truly connect and maintain friendships. The college friend group that I thought would break that pattern is not passing the trial of COVID. This year, I spent New Year’s Eve completely alone for the first time in my life and it’s made me realize that I need a major change.
I am going through a very recent breakup with my long-distance boyfriend of several years. We both got job offers that will take us to opposite ends of the country after graduation. I know it was the right decision even though it hurts, but it’s especially tough to go through it alone.
About two years ago, I met a great group of girls at an event at our college. We were all new to the school, and I thought that I’d finally found a lasting group of friends. I’d always listen to them talk about their lives, but the first few times I tried to open up about real stuff, I’d get left unread in the group chat or brushed off in conversation. Then, the group fell apart during COVID. We had different opinions about what level of socializing was acceptable during the pandemic. I tried to rally them, but it got harder and harder to get the group together for even just a FaceTime call. Half of us wanted to go out like we used to, while the other half (myself included) didn’t think it was safe. Suddenly, our connection didn’t seem to have much substance beyond going out drinking together.
Like many, I was spending all my time alone last semester. Despite an abundance of caution, I had to quarantine after a positive COVID test in September. I was lucky to have an extremely mild case, and I let my friends know this when I texted them about it. However, I didn’t hear from most of them after that first day and then for several weeks after that. I know I said I was “fine,” but it still stung that no one thought to check up on me while I was isolated. I kept reminding myself that all friendships have their ups and downs, especially during a pandemic. Everyone else was going through tough times, too.
But then I spent New Year’s Eve mourning the end of my relationship while watching my friends have fun without me on social media. Despite reaching out to them in advance to try and get together, everyone had something else to do. I understand that I’m not the only person in my friends’ lives but I feel like I’m never a first choice. At the risk of sounding self-pitying, I had no one to talk to about the breakup and no plans to distract myself with. I never want to experience that again.
When things like this happen, I end up passive-aggressively leaving group chats or sending vague messages rather than growing up and talking about what I’m going through. I always fear being ignored when talking about the problems I’m facing. I do go to therapy and I know I have issues with vulnerability. My therapist also tells me I need new friends, and while that may be true, without these girls, I have no one at all.
It’s unlikely that I’ll meet anyone new in my last months of college. I’m trying to reach out to some other college acquaintances that I could spend time with, but it feels like slapping a Band-Aid over long-term loneliness. I’m mainly worried about what happens once I start my new job.
I’m moving to an entirely new city where I don’t know anyone, and I don’t know how to prevent this from happening again. A lot of older people in my life tell me to hold on to the friends I have because it only gets harder to meet new people as you age. I’m irrationally afraid that if I don’t find my best friends before 25, I’ll never have the fulfilling relationships I want. I know that being a better friend to others is within my control, and I am working on becoming a better person, but I just don’t know how to find my people.
Afraid to Be Friendless
Dear Afraid to Be Friendless,
First item on your New Year’s to-do list: Pack all of these people who say stuff like “Better do it when you’re young because it only gets harder when you’re older!” into a rocket ship and fire them straight into the sun.
But you’d better lure them onto that rocket ship immediately, because it’ll only get harder as you get older. Soon you’ll be much less persuasive, less charming, less interesting, and less attractive, plus you’ll have zero access to new friends (as you probably know, all Forever Friendships are forged while shotgunning canned beer with your slurring, stumbling peers in college). As time goes on, you’ll only grow lonelier and creepier and more desperate. Who will dare to listen to you or make out with you or come to your parties then? Youth is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get everything you need, so get in there and start grabbing shit before the clock ticks down! But don’t panic, are you starting to panic? My God, stop panicking, you’ll end up with nothing, nothing, NOTHING!
Older people say the stupidest things to young people — I mean they say the exact wrong things. They say stuff that’s custom-made to make you lose your doughnuts. So from this point forward, whenever you hear older people talking about everything getting worse and worse until you die, interrogate those words. Consider the source. Life is not a never-ending victory march, but it’s not a funeral dirge, either. And almost nothing in life is worse than feeling the way you do right now. For those of us who struggle with vulnerability and have trouble telling our friends the truth because we were taught to view our value through an overthinking overachiever’s lens, life between the ages of 21 and 29 is the absolute worst. It is harrrrrd.
When you believe, in your heart, that you can either be charming and delightful to know or you’re useless garbage and everyone knows it? That crushes your spirit. When you believe that the clock is ticking down, so you’d better figure out not just friendships but love and career and happiness very, very quickly or you’re screwed for the rest of your life? And then you show up for your entry-level job, and you discover that most entry-level jobs suck, but you’re supposed to pretend they don’t? There is nothing as bad as that feeling. In your 20s, it’s so easy to walk around feeling full of despair and panicked and all alone and blaming yourself for all of it.
So please start by refusing to blame yourself! Being young is incredibly hard.
I lived in a state of despair and loneliness and drunken confusion for many years. I wish I knew back then that I had plenty of time to just learn to enjoy my life, cultivate vulnerability, show up for people, and speak to them honestly. I wish I knew that sure, lots of people are disappointing, but when you show yourself, flaws and all, humbly, honestly, you start to attract really interesting, humble, honest people to you. Once you learn to trust yourself and enjoy who you are and enjoy your day, you also learn to forgive other people, trust them, and enjoy them. There are hiccups, always, but when your heart is open, new friends are LITERALLY EVERYWHERE.
I’m not saying it’s easy at your age to just turn on a dime and have tons of friends. What I’m saying is that your assumptions about real life and your current moment and your essential, lovable, flawed self are all very warped. Trust your therapist on that front! You need to show yourself, tell the truth without fear, and notice honesty and vulnerability in other people. You need to pry open your heart and trust who you are and love who you are, with all of your flaws. Celebrate whatever weird quirks, even seemingly unlikable ones, make you unique, and show those things to the people you trust. When you’re honest with others, you give them more room to be honest, to be flawed, to relax.
Some people don’t want that. Lots of people don’t want that. But trust me, those aren’t your people. And right now, it’s time to stop trying to be a person other people will like and time to start showing people your true self, even when your true self seems pointy and wretched and fucked up.
Now, it’s easy to say this stuff but harder to actually feel it. So how do you feel it? By figuring out how to simply ENJOY YOUR DAY. When you set out to enjoy your day (instead of setting out to Be Less Disappointing and Lonely, or to Solve All of Your Problems Right Now, While There’s Still Time!), you connect with what makes your heart sing. You value and honor yourself. And when you’re valuing and honoring yourself, guess what? You naturally put yourself in situations where you’re ready to value and honor brand-new friends.
You follow your interests wherever they lead. You believe in your interests, no matter how dumb or weird or pointless they sometimes seem. You trust that the people who share your interests do not reflect badly on you. You are not trying to be better than your interests. You are trying to enjoy yourself and honor who you are. This is also a very important time to exercise, if you can. You have way too many gigantic challenges on your plate not to make your body and mind feel as good as they possibly can while you tackle them.
Enjoying and supporting yourself right now is your path to human connection and joy. That path doesn’t dead-end at age 30. Hahahaha! Oh my God, no. It winds on and on and on and it only gets better and better, as long as you’re leading with your vulnerable, open heart. Will there be times you wish you’d been less vulnerable, protected yourself more? Sure. You’ll learn to keep your eyes wide open as you go. Will there be times when you enjoy something less and less and then you have to look for a new thing that you enjoy more? Sure. We all change over time. But if you cultivate a close relationship to yourself, and treat yourself with compassion instead of heaping yourself with shame, you will naturally grow into someone who has a lot of interests and AN UNHOLY BOATLOAD OF FRIENDS.
Friends are everywhere. Wise people make new friends constantly, at the age of 50, 70, 90. There is no time limit or friendship maximum. People show up and you let them in if it feels right. You say no if it doesn’t. You are not a beggar. You get to choose. You ask for what you want. You listen to what they need.
So don’t panic. Start here: Tell your existing friends, honestly and without blame, that you’ve been struggling. Don’t send a message to the whole group, though. Reach out to one person you trust the most (if it feels right) and ask them how they’ve been holding up and also confide that you’re having a hard time. I’m not saying this will yield wonderful results, but it’s good practice for how you’re going to move forward. If that feels completely wrong and you don’t really trust any of those friends, then notice that.
If you do reach out to one of them, don’t use their reply (or lack thereof) as an indicator of your value as a person, even though you’ll be tempted to do so. This is not personal, even though it seems personal. This group might just be a bad match for you. It happens all the time! Groups are strange and hard to understand and befriend! From this point forward, try not to conquer whole groups of people. Focus on one person who makes sense to you. If they’re in a group, fine, but resist the urge to encounter the group as an undifferentiated, unfriendly mob in your mind, and don’t take the statements or behaviors of one person and make the whole group responsible for it.
Try to put the disappointment of that particular group behind you. Do you know how many groups of friends I’ve left behind? Finally I had to admit that I’m not good with groups. It took me a solid decade to figure that out. Groups bring out some weird family-of-origin behaviors in me: I try to please everyone, entertain everyone, and then I get paranoid when one person is lukewarm, and I globalize it, assuming that the whole group hates my guts. This is the fucked-up mind of the youngest child in a disordered family! Don’t get me started on how social media triggers some of the same bad impulses, or we’ll be here all day, weeping into our hands together.
Over the years I’ve figured out that I have to communicate with individuals and build trust and connection with them one-on-one. If they have friends, that’s great, but I have to remember what I know and feel about specific individuals and not get confused by the wider group. It’s very easy for me to get confused, even now. It’s absurd! It’s just a baked-in part of my personality that I have to stay aware of and try to forgive myself for.
If you’re like that, too, try to forgive yourself. Mourn the loss of that group, and turn your focus toward figuring out how to enjoy your day and staying open to other people who show up along the way. Shift your thoughts away from stigmatizing yourself or problem-solving the future, and ground yourself in the possibilities of this one simple day. And when you feel yourself believing in your life and your potential, slowly try to open your heart to the wide universe of experiences and people who lie in front of you. So much deliciousness and delightfulness lies ahead! Yes, for you! For you, you, you! Trust that!
Notice how the possibility of joy always starts with vulnerability. Don’t try to think about the future when you’re feeling depressed or defensive. Consider the future only when your heart is wide open. And when it is? Meditate on what you love and enjoy the most. Make room for fragility and sadness and grief. Clear out some space for mystery, for your body’s weird urges, for fantasy, for art, for music, for a future that vastly outstrips the defeated truisms of older people who never really figured out how to feel free. You’re not going to be like that. You’re not on a rocket ship aimed straight at the sun. You’re on a path to freedom and deeply felt connection. You have all the time in the world, and a world full of friends to make. Believe it.
Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here.
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