How to make friends and develop a social life in 4 steps
Updated: Mar 22
It is all too easy to feel alone when we live with a mental illness. Judgemental thoughts can attack and undermine our confidence. Painful emotions can rob us of enjoyment and pleasure from conversations and activities. We can start to believe that we have no social skills to make new friends, or, that we have nothing of importance to offer to the people around us. Unfortunately, it is very common for us to believe all these thoughts and to stop talking with our friends, lose contact, and, ultimately, worsen our chances in recovery. We have plenty of evidence to show that social connection is a powerful tool in the recovery from mental illness. So here are four steps to make new friends and create a social life:
Step 1: Find people who could potentially be friends
There are two approaches in this step: develop better relationships from your current contacts, and, meet new people.
Develop Better Relationships with Current Connections While we might not feel as though we have friends, we often do have
contacts and acquaintances in our life that have the potential for friendship. Many people find it easier to transform existing connections into friendships than make new friendships from scratch. Here are some ideas of people who may be a good option to contact and create friendships with: Acquaintances are people who you recognise but know little about. These may be people you regularly run into at cafes, train stations, sporting events, etc. People who you work or study with who you get along with or have some conversations. Friends of people you've known, preferably friends who you've gotten along with in the past. They're usually people who have shown some interest in being your friend, but you didn't take up the offer. Old friends that you've lost contact with and that you would be able to get in touch again. Cousins or other family relationships that are around a similar age or share similar interests.
Meet New People through Activities, Events, Classes, etc. Sometimes getting more out of current contacts doesn't work or isn't suitable. In these cases, we need to meet entirely new people. The biggest and common barrier to this approach is usually access (i.e., where do I meet people?). Here are some ideas to help with access: Social events and online groups (e.g., Meetup, Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist, Gumtree, etc.) Classes (e.g., languages, martial arts, hobbies, art, mindfulness, development, business, exercise) Clubs or Organisations (e.g., interest groups: political, sports, social issues, etc.) Teams (e.g., soccer, AFL, tennis, gaming, rock climbing, debating, science etc.) Religion/Spirituality (e.g., Buddhist, catholic, atheist, Islamic, Hindu, etc.) Volunteering (e.g., choose a cause that you believe in and find a way to help that cause) Coaching (e.g., offering to teach/train people in something that you have expertise)
Step 2: Prepare for social interactions (Be Friend Ready!)
Now that you have identified situations with potential friends around, you need to start conversations and get to know them. It is essential that you remember the following point: You won't form a connection with everyone you interact with and usually not in the first few attempts! Roll with any of the punches that come your way and keep on going! When you chat with enough people, you will start to hone your social skills and likely find some people you like and get along well with them.
Not sure how to start a conversation? Current events are usually a good topic to raise if the usual "How was your weekend?" question doesn't seem to work. In order to know what to talk about, we often recommend picking up the popular newspaper in your area and take note of the headlines and current events. We use this information when talking with our potential friends when the usual questions fail, so some lines might be: "So, what do you think about the recent protests?", "I read about that new movie in the paper, have you seen it or heard about it?", etc. That said, only talk about current events that actually interest you! We want to find people who share some similar interests.
If you really struggle with this point, invest in some counselling to improve your skills, manage your anxiety, and learn other interpersonal skills that may be interrupting your attempts.
Step 3: Invite your potential friends to do something with you
Once you have made a connection with someone, it is important that you strike while the iron is hot! Many people struggle to turn potential friends into a real friend because they aim to play the "long game" (i.e., once I've chatted with them a few times, then I'll ask for their contact details, then once I've chatted more with them, then I'll ask them to an event, then once I've... etc.) This is not a good strategy as it tends to rely on us feeling comfortable before taking the next action and sends mixed messages to the potential friend (e.g., they may wonder whether you actually want to be friends or not!)
Instead, invite them to do something with you. This is the most important step in our experience. At the end of the day, you can meet lots of different people, they could even think you are an awesome person, but if you don't take the initiative to ask them to do something in the future it is unlikely that you'll form friendships. Those people will simply continue to be that person in the cafe who is nice to talk to while waiting for coffee. So, invite them to something outside of the situation that you met them (e.g., if it was a club acquaintance, invite them to something else that isn't club related). It is normal to feel hesitant to invite people out, it can feel scary, pushy, rushed, and awkward. While there is a risk of being rejected, you'll find yourself getting used to it pretty quickly - the more you do it the easier it will become.
If you're not sure how to ask someone to do something with you, ask for contact details, plan an event, or other issues, you can brainstorm with family or get help in counselling.
Step 4: Stay in touch, keep hanging out, and continue seeking new friends
This is probably the easiest step of them all but a lot of people overlook it. Once you've reached this step with someone, you need to keep on talking and keep on arranging times to meet up. The main issue that people encounter in this step is pride. Our minds may start to say something like this: "Why do I always need to be the one to arrange something? When will they do it? I'm putting way more in the relationship then they are! I'm not going to contact them until they arrange something with me." This may all be valid - but it doesn't help us develop and maintain a friendship. Instead, be assertive and talk to the person about these issues if they arise. If you struggle to do this, you might want to develop your assertive communication skills in counselling.
Mandy's name has been changed to protect her identity. She wanted to contribute to this article to help others who feel alone. Mandy lives with an ongoing mental illness and is actively recovering from both the illness and the effect it had on her life - particularly her social life. She focused on developing new friends through Meetup, an online social activity website where people connect online and meet in person for events, activities, and other interests.
Q: Why did you first attend a Meetup event?
A: Well, I first heard about Meetup a year ago. A guy came up to me while I was walking through the city and gave me his meetup event card. He asked me to come, but I didn't end up going to it. I only decided to go to a Meetup event when I was facing the prospect of being alone on New Year's Eve. I went online to see if there were any events being held on New Year's Eve and, as it turned out, there was one that seemed okay to me which I decided to attend.
Q: How did you get yourself to attend the event despite your anxiety?
A: I didn't want to be alone any more. As a result of my illness, I'd lost contact with my friendship groups and I just didn't have a social life. I decided that I'd had enough of feeling lonely. It was the right time in my life to start socialising again and to make friends. So, that was the motivation that got me to the meetup event. The prospect of being alone for another year outweighed my anxiety about meeting new people or going to a party by myself.
Q: How was your first Meetup event?
A: There was a lot of people at my first event and I was extremely nervous. That said, I was also excited by the prospect of making new friends and having a night out, but I was more nervous than excited. It was a weird and uncomfortable mix. I was feeling very afraid when I got there, so I started to talk to the people around me to overcome the fear. It was a liberating choice because I realised that many of us were in the same boat. As I talked to people, I learnt that they also wanted to make friends. We were all being nice to each other and were willing to be outgoing. It made it much easier to connect and make friends because we were all in the same boat.
Q: What have you learnt from going to Meetup events?
A: I learnt that making friends and getting to know people isn't as difficult as I had imagined! After I went to a couple of meetup events, my confidence gradually improved and I noticed that I was able to communicate with people much better than I had thought. I still go to Meetup events so that I can meet new people and make new friends. I'm now living a much better life because I'm active and I feel connected to a group of friends. I now have an active social life outside of Meetup and continue to go to events to make new friendships.