WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has seemingly complicated everything about normal life, from how we work to how we socialize. In a time that can leave so many feeling isolated, some might wonder how to bridge new connections when the virus leaves your social life more lackluster than ever.
We asked licensed therapist and author Dr. Kathleen Smith what advice she has for making new connections when you might need them most.
Q: Why is it so much harder to make friends as an adult?
A: When we're younger, we have so many instant connections, whether that's in school with classmates, or through people family forces us to socialize with, Smith said. But what happens when we get older?
"You have more freedom. But with that comes a little bit of a challenge because you don't have that instant bridge or that instant connection with people," she said. "It takes more courage, it takes more vulnerability to say, 'Hey, I think you're an interesting person. Can we talk some more? You know, can we spend time together?' It's a learned skill, it's a muscle you have to build up."
Q: Making new friends can definitely take courage and putting yourself out there. Is this even a good time to try and make new friends or would it be better to wait?
A: Smith said there's no time like the present if you're feeling up to it. It might even help out if you're feeling lonely or overwhelmed and could use a listening ear.
"We're humans, we're social creatures," she said. "We need each other to survive and to thrive and so I think when we're anxious or stressed, the automatic instinct is to pull back and to disconnect. I think you have to push back against that because human connection is just such an important part of your mental health. Even if it takes a little bit more effort, I think most people find that they're in a better mood when they're talking to people and they're sharing what's going on with them."
Q: What are some good tips for how to make new friends during the pandemic?
A: It's best to start with shared interests, and this method of making virtual friends isn't a new concept, Smith said.
"Meeting people online who share interests isn't always the most natural thing," she said. "But I think if you start to Google or look on social media and say, 'What's an interest I have, that I want to connect with people about and that can be a starting point for a new friendship?' You'll realize that there are lots of people out there who are very enthusiastic about the same things as you."
If finding a new friend online seems intimidating, Smith has an alternative: try and use other friends you've already met to expand your social circle, much like people already do with dating.
"Ask some of your friends, 'Hey, do you know anybody that you've ever thought, them and I would really get along?'" Smith suggests.
She said you can even work together with friends to build a bigger, shared friend group.
"I think that you could offer to return the favor, to kind of set each other up platonically with each other's friends," Smith said. "That's a great way to meet more people and it's maybe a safer way and easier way than online."
If it's nerves that are slowing your roll on making new friends, Smith has some advice.
"I always remind people that it's incredibly flattering to hear someone say, 'Hey, I think you're a really interesting person, I want to talk to you more and get to know you,'" she said. "Lead with that vulnerability and try not to take it personally when some people aren't interested."
Q: Making new friends and even maintaining old relationships can be tricky given the current environment of social distancing. What happens if you make a new friend who wants to meet at a restaurant, but you're not comfortable? Or they invite you to visit their house when you would rather picnic in a park?
A: "I think it just goes back to leading with honesty. Be honest about what you can and cannot do," Smith said. "Some people might be anxious and they might not like it, but that's not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to be honest and to be yourself. And if you're doing that, then I think you'll attract the kind of friendships that can withstand those disagreements or that exhaustion that we're all experiencing right now."