If you’re like me, your friendships might be fraught — filled with all kinds of emotions that no one really prepares you to deal with. Making friends is not easy, and keeping them is no picnic either, especially as life takes you in different directions from those you hold closest to your heart.
Putting aside all the “life changes” that might make friendships fall by the wayside — job changes, big moves, new relationships, starting families — the past few years have laid bare the grim reality that a lot of us are pretty f*cking lonely. So lonely, in fact, that the U.S. Surgeon General called loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection a public health crisis in May 2023.
Loneliness has far-reaching impacts not just on our emotional well-being but on our physical health, too. Thanks to social media, we’re more connected than ever to the people in our lives near and far, but plenty of us recount having no close friends at all. Without unloading decades of my own personal trauma on you, dear reader, I’ll just say that I’m one of those people. And yeah, it’s not a great feeling.
People have been sharing their stories of friendship anxiety on TikTok, admitting that they stress over whether or not their friends actually like them or fear that their friendships might not be equally reciprocated.
You might be going through this with mom friends, or work friends, or even the friends who have known you for decades. Your kid might be going through it, too. But what is friendship anxiety, really? Is it an actual, diagnosable condition? And how can you quiet those intrusive worries or help your little one do the same if they’re struggling? Psychotherapist Dr. Lee Phillips is here to help.
Friendship Anxiety vs. “Normal” Anxiety
Similar to social anxiety disorder (but not quite the same), friendship anxiety “is more focused on your relationships with friends, such as feeling insecure around them or having the fear/core belief your friends do not like you, and are judging and rejecting you,” says Phillips.
You might question or doubt the strength of your bonds, think they’re only including you out of obligation, and/or assume they are speaking badly about you behind your back — even if they haven’t given any indication that this is the case.
And while Phillips says it’s not a clinically recognized condition, these feelings can absolutely become all-encompassing and impact your overall well-being, just like any type of anxiety. It can also overlap with social anxiety, which he notes “is more focused on the fear of interacting with strangers, worrying they will know you are anxious or embarrassed by your body language (i.e., crossing your arms, looking away, blushing, and sweating). Both have to do with the fear of being judged.”
Friendship anxiety can be particularly tough because we’re taught to believe that we can be our true selves around our friends, so if we start second-guessing that notion, it’s easy to ruminate over these feelings, which Phillips says is a “classic symptom of anxiety.”
Curious about how common it is? If you experience anxiety in other areas of your life, Phillips says friendship anxiety could pop up at some point for you, too. Of course, “if you have friends who always judge or criticize you, this can undoubtedly cause friendship anxiety,” he adds. (FYI: Those are not your true friends, and you deserve better than them anyway.)
Maybe you struggled to make friends as a child, or maybe you experienced the deep pain of a betrayal or breakup that cracked the foundations of a friendship you thought you could rely on. Perhaps you were left out of plans and had to see your pals snapping selfies and hanging out without you from a small handheld screen. (This just happened to me, and I’m embarrassed by how much I cried over it.)
No matter the scenario, these mini heartbreaks can leave you feeling vulnerable and, frankly, deflated. I say all the time that even though I’ve been lucky in love (really lucky!), I’ve never been the same since losing my two best friends in college. I just assume now that no one wants to be my friend, that I’m not cool or fun or I’m “too much.” That’s friendship anxiety for ya, and it’s f*cking brutal.
And it goes without saying, but social media just serves to heighten and exacerbate these feelings, especially when it seems like everyone else has a ton of friends and you spend a lot of time alone. My husband is my best friend in the world, but sometimes I’d love to have a good girlfriend to have brunch with or go to a bougie workout class with, you know?
How To Cope
Phillips recommends trying something that will give those of us with anxiety more anxiety: talking to them directly. “Addressing it with them and telling them how it makes you feel may be a great idea,” he says. “Getting to the core and hearing each other can bring healing or clarification on both sides’ concerns. We often see only our perception of things, so hearing what your friends say is essential.”
If you notice that your kiddo is withdrawing socially or if they mention something about their friends, offering a listening ear — without immediately jumping into defensive mama bear mode — is a great place to start. “I would not challenge them necessarily on their beliefs, but providing them a safe space to talk can be helpful,” says Phillips. “Often, children simply need to be heard. If your kid wishes not to discuss it with you, I would respect their boundary.”
Whether for you or for your little one, discussing your concerns with a trusted therapist can also be extraordinarily helpful. Taking social media breaks whenever possible can help, too.
Lastly, know you’re not alone in whatever you’re feeling. I learned early how to be my own best friend, even though the pain of lost friendships still feels so raw and fresh. If you can relate, hit me up. Let’s have brunch. You know I’m free!