I watch friendships form every day. I see the new kids slink through the halls and into the classrooms on their first day, both wanting to be invisible and also yearning for recognition and acceptance. Their first interactions with the other kids are often uncomfortable, but within the span of a week, most of the new students no longer stand out as different.
It’s easy to make friends in childhood. School provides both the structure and freedom needed for relationships to develop. Classes and lunch schedules allow for repeated exposure to the same people so that familiarity easily builds. The down time in the halls and the lunch room provides an easy opening for exploration and banter, often centered on the shared experience of school.
It’s not as easy to make friends as an adult.
Especially as an introverted one.
Introverts can easily underestimate the importance of friendships. After all, we don’t feel the same intense pull towards others that our more extroverted brethren experience. Our social groups are smaller, our interactions fewer. The need for time alone is often more pressing than the need for connection.
And yet, we need friends just as much as the gregarious. Loneliness and a lack of human connection has been associated with both lower mental and physical well-being. We introverted ones may treat friendships as a nicety, but they are really a necessity.
Introverts tend to be adept at maintaining already established friendships, especially with people that are understanding of their periodic need for hibernation. But when life circumstances remove those familiar relationships, introverts can stall in the quest to create – and build – new friendships.
So how can introverts make friends in adulthood?
Adult life doesn’t easily provide the nutrient-rich agar that friendships feed off of. We may encounter others sporadically or only with a task-oriented goal in mind. There are no teachers or counselors to intervene on our behalf, requesting that others extend a hand.
By the time we’re old enough to rent a car, we have become quite comfortable with the room within our own minds and, as independent beings, have the opportunity to curl up and stay there. This natural introversion can come across as cold or uncaring, leading to further isolation.
But with just a few tweaks and adjustments, even the most introverted can find and nurture new friendships.
Accept that you will be uncomfortable sometimes.
Like most introverts, I am comfortable in my own home. My own room. My own head.
But that’s not where potential friends reside. In order to meet people, you will have to leave your comfort zone. You will be in environments that may feel overwhelming. You will be asked to stretch beyond your unusual routine. Learn to distinguish between ordinary discomfort and your intuition telling you that something is amiss. Refuse to pander to the former and what was once unsettling will become easier to navigate.
1 – Seek out one-to-one or (very) small group interactions.
Play to your strengths. You likely find large groups of people draining and even isolating. While an extrovert may throw a party to meet new people, you’ll be better served by inviting an acquaintance to coffee.
Recognize the numerical tipping point where you go from. “I like this” to “This is too much” and strive to keep your social interactions within that limit. When you do find yourself in a big group, try to find or create a smaller, more intimate gathering within (or just beyond) the masses.
2 – Say yes.
I know your book is calling. I know that you crave the solitude of your bed after a crazy day. It’s easy to make excuses to those invites that find there way to you. To beg off those intrusions on your peace.
Make a promise to yourself to say “Yes” to a certain number of invitations every month. The gathering may not exactly be your cup of tea (again, you will be uncomfortable sometimes), but you’re opening the door to allowing someone in. And you never know, they just might become a friend.
3 – Plan for buffer zones.
If Maslow had written a hierarchy of needs for the introvert, alone time would certainly be on the lower rungs. In order to both maintain your sanity and to ensure that you’re at your best in social situations, plan for some down time both before and after any taxing interactions.
You may be surprised how minimal these need to be in order to be effective. Try wearing headphones to block out others on your daily commute or diving into a book for five minutes in the parking lot before you exit your car.
4 – Strive for repeated and frequent exposure.
Familiarity breeds friendships. You cannot make a friend in just one encounter. If you meet someone and they pique your interest, look for a way to see them again soon. If you’re trying to meet others, seek out environments where you encounter the same (manageable-sized) group on a frequent basis.
Repetition is especially important in the beginning of a friendship. You may need to have more contact than you usually prefer in the early stages in order to get the relationship off the ground.
5 – Practice extending invites.
I’m good about saying “Yes” to invites, but not as good at initiating them. And since I have a lot of introverted friends, we can easily go quite a long time without contact.
Look for opportunities to extend an invitation. Instead of falling to your default position of doing things alone, see if somebody wants to join. It may feel awkward at first to ask, but often that effort is needed to create the frequency of contact needed for friendship.
6 – Use technology wisely.
On the one hand, the internet and texting technology has been a boon for introverts. After all, we can now “talk” to others without ever leaving our home. On the other hand, it can easily provide an excuse to not have meaningful connections with others as we hide behind our screens.
Use technology as an assist, not an excuse. Send an invite through text. Find potential friends through an online interest group. And then put the phone down and talk to the person. In person.
7 – Find your niche.
If you find small talk awkward and annoying, you may find it easier to meet potential friends that already share an interest of yours.
Introverts often have passions and hobbies that are largely solo activities – writing, model-building, gaming, etc. Since you may not meet others simply by engaging in your interests, it will take some extra effort to find others that share your enthusiasm.
8 – Look outside your familiars.
When we’re in school, our friends largely mirror us. They tend to be of a similar age, background and social class. As adults, we are not limited by the factors that guide childhood friendships.
We find it easier to identify with and bond with those that are superficially like us, but sometimes the best friendships can be formed with apparent opposites.
9 – Identify and manage any social anxiety.
Introversion and social anxiety are no the same thing (the former deals with how you recharge your energy and the latter comes from a fear of “what ifs”), but they can go hand-in-hand.
Recognize if you have any signs of social anxiety that are making it more difficult for you to make friends. Anxiety can be managed and inaction often serves to only allow it to grow.
10 – Communicate your needs.
Your budding friends may not recognize you as an introvert or may be unfamiliar with the needs of the more introspective set. Be upfront with your need for alone time and be clear that it has nothing to do with your like – or dislike – of another.
People are going to respond much more favorably to an explanation of a need for solitude than to constant brush-offs or unanswered texts. Additionally, if you sometimes need a nudge to get you out of the house, let that be known as well.
11 – Maintain your intention.
As an introvert, you need your time alone. Yet you also need meaningful human connection. Once you determine how much you require of each in order to be happy and healthy, make maintaining that balance a priority.