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Guidelines for Keeping Your Friendships Strong

three friends on bikes

Like yourself. If you don't like yourself, don't feel that you have any value, or don't think others will like you, you will have a hard time reaching out to people who may become friends. Work on building your self-esteem by treating yourself well - eating healthy foods, getting plenty of exercise and rest, doing things that you enjoy - and by reminding yourself over and over that you are a very special and worthwhile person.

Activities: Go to the library and get a book to read on building self-esteem. Make a list of at least five things that you do well. Make a sign that says “I am a wonderful person.” Hang it in a place where you will see it often—like on your refrigerator door or on the mirror in your bathroom.

Have a variety of interests. Develop interests in different things—it will open opportunities for connection with others and make you more interesting person that others enjoy being with. Some interests include music, art, crafts, gardening, watching or participating in sports activities, or fixing cars.

Activity: Make a list of your interests. Hang it on your refrigerator or in another convenient place. It will act as a reminder when you are having a hard time thinking of things to do.

Enjoy spending time alone. If you don't enjoy spending time alone, you may feel desperate to have people around you all the time. This desperation can drive others away from you. You can learn to enjoy spending time alone by:

  • developing interests and hobbies that you can do by yourself
  • anticipating times you will be spending alone and arranging to do some special things for yourself during those times
  • changing your attitude about time alone so you enjoy spending a reasonable amount of time alone
  • addressing any fears you may have about being alone and doing everything you can to ensure you will be safe, such as locking doors and windows.

Many people have found that pets are a wonderful way to enjoy time alone and to help relieve the loneliness.

Activity: If you are uncomfortable when you are alone, set aside an hour of time when you can be alone. Make a plan of something enjoyable you can do during that time that focuses on you, like painting a picture, playing a musical instrument, journaling, or taking a walk (not watching television, working, or using the computer). Try to do this at least once a week. As you become comfortable with time alone, set aside longer periods of time alone for yourself.

Have plenty of friends. Work on having several friends so that someone is always available when you would like companionship or support. Expect to have many friends because you are worth it. Relying on only one or two people puts too much pressure on everyone. Some people like to have more friends than others, so the number is really up to your own sense of what you need, but a good goal for most people is to have five close friends.

Activity: Make a list of your friends with their phone numbers to keep at a convenient place for easy reference. If you don't feel that you have any friends right now, list your health care professionals and family members. Add friends to your list as you make them.

Take action to make new friends. To make new friends, you have to take action. You can do it as slowly or as quickly as you want, taking small steps or big steps. You can also work on improving your relationships with people already in your life by doing things like inviting them to your home to chat, share a meal, play a game, watch a video, or share some other activity, or by doing a favor for them when they are having a hard time.

Activity: Do something that puts you in contact with others. Go to an event in your community. Join a group.

Communicate openly. To communicate openly with another person, you need to have a feeling of trust with him or her. This develops gradually over time as you come to know the person better and your friendship becomes closer. Tell your friends what you need and want and ask them what they want and need from you. Tell them all important pieces of information, but do not share so much information about minute details that the other person gets bored. Watch the response you are getting from the person or people you are talking to so you can know if this is the right time to be sharing this information or the right subject for the person. You may need to change what you are saying and when you are saying it according to the response you observe. Avoid sharing details of traumatic events that might upset the other person.

Depending on what you are talking about, you may want to talk in a place that is private and where you won’t be interrupted, that is congenial and physically comfortable, and that is quiet with few distractions.

Activity: Think about something special that is going on in your life. Tell a friend or someone you know and like about it. Ask them to tell you about something special that is going on in their life.

Listen and share equally. Listen closely to what the other person is saying. Let the other person know you are paying close attention through eye contact, body language and occasional brief comments like, “I knew you could do it,” “That sounds like fun,” or “I bet you wish it had happened some other way.” Avoid thinking about what your response is going to be while the person is talking. If a person is sharing something intense and personal, give them your full attention. Don't share an “I can top that” story.

Avoid giving others advice unless they ask for it. Just listening is fine! In some cases, you can summarize what you hear them saying or ask clarifying questions, but it is never necessary to “fix the problem” for them. People often need to share the details of hard times or difficult experiences over and over again, until they have “gotten it out of their system” or figured out a way to take some action or solve the problem. You can be a really good friend by listening to the same story again and again, reassuring that it is OK to do this. Never make fun of what the other person thinks or feels. Avoid judging or criticizing the other person.

Sometimes it may be important to be realistic about how much time you can spend listening and let the other person know how much time you have. Be sure that you also have about equal time to share whatever it is you would like to share. Don't be embarrassed by emotions that come up for you or the other person while you are sharing.

Activity: Practice listening closely to someone who is telling you about a hard time they are having. Give them your full attention. Let them know you care by saying things like “I am sorry you are having such a hard time.”

Activity: Arrange to spend half an hour with a friend or someone you know, even a family member. Agree to share the time equally—one of you talks for the first fifteen minutes while the other listens—and then you change roles.

Take equal responsibility for the friendship. Both people in a friendship need to take responsibility for the friendship. For instance, you should be making plans for shared activities some of the time and your friend should be making these plans some of the time. If you are taking all of the responsibility for the friendship, talk to your friend about it and figure out a way to make the friendship more equal.

Activity: Contact someone who has recently invited you to an activity or done something special for you and return the favor. If you can't think of anyone who has invited you anywhere or done something special for you, do something nice for someone who is nice to you-like complimenting a store clerk who is bagging your groceries or thanking your mail delivery person for being so prompt.

Keep personal information confidential. As you feel more and more comfortable with the other person, you will find that you talk more and share more personal information. Have a mutual understanding that anything personal the two of you discuss is absolutely confidential and that you will not share personal information about each other with other people.

Activity: Write, “I will never share any personal information that another person shares with me.” Read it over and over to remind yourself.

Have a good time. Spend most of your time with your friends doing fun, interesting activities, together. Sometimes friendships get "bogged down" if all you ever do is talk about each others struggles. Go to a movie, walk on the beach, play ball, watch a fun video, work on an art project, cook a meal-whatever would be fun for both of you. Take turns suggesting and initiating these activities.

Activity: Call a friend, or someone you know who you hope will become a friend, and ask them to share a fun activity with you—like going to a movie, watching a video, or making supper together.

Stay in touch. Maintain regular contact with your friends and supporters, even when things are going well. Give them a call, send them a note or an e-mail. Always have a plan for your next meeting—whether it is tomorrow or next month. If you have to change it, do so, but always have a plan. If you can't end a visit by making a plan, make a plan to make a plan, such as "I'll call you Saturday to find a time we can get together." If something you want to share comes up in the meantime, you can arrange a get-together by phone or in person, but always have something planned.

You will find that regular, scheduled contact is the best way to assure that your friendship will remain strong. It means making a commitment to the friendship. Many people find it is helpful to plan ahead for times when they know they may feel lonely, like on the weekend, in the evening, or on holidays. Plan get-togethers for these hard times at least several days in advance and, especially around the holidays, even further ahead. It often is difficult to make last-minute plans for time together with friends.

Activity: Call a friend or someone you hope will become a friend and arrange to get together at a time when you know it might be hard for you to be alone.

Home visits. Good friends often spend time in each other’s homes. By making these times together special, you can enrich your friendships. You can make your friends feel welcome and comfortable in your home by focusing your full attention on your friends when they are in your home, having a clear, comfortable area for visiting, turning off the television and radio when you are talking or involved in an activity together, and asking other family members to be friendly and welcoming but not too intrusive. Confine pets that may overwhelm or frighten your friends.

Activity: Call and invite a friend or someone you hope will become a friend for a visit in your home.

Losing a friend. Everyone loses a friend from time to time because of things like moving, changes in life focus, relationship difficulties, or even death. This is difficult for everyone. Spend some time “being with” the sadness that you feel—as much time as you feel you need. Take time to cry, if that feels right to you. Then, spend time with other friends and do things that you enjoy. You even may want to begin making some new friends when you feel ready to do that. The sadness from losing a friend may never go away. You will adjust to it and your life will feel good again.

Activity: Talk about the loss of this special person with an understanding friend or someone you know well.

Establishing and Honoring Boundaries

Feelings inside of you (intuition) let you know who you do and don't want to be close to. Sometimes you may want to be close to a person but are confused by questions of boundaries. You may ask yourself questions like "Have I called too much this week?" "Have I stayed too long; should I leave now?" "Should I offer to help her with the children or would she be uncomfortable with that?" It's appropriate to ask yourself such questions.

Boundaries may differ from person to person. You may feel comfortable with some people calling you whenever they feel like it, but you may want to put some restriction around calls from other people. You may not want to go to certain kinds of activities with some friends but be happy to go to the same activity with others.

People commonly set limits or boundaries around things like:

  • the amount of time spent together and place to get together
  • the kind and frequency of shared activities
  • phone call time limits-time of day, frequency, and length
  • connection with family
  • amount of physical touch
  • topics of conversation

In all relationships, you have the right to define your own limits and boundaries so you feel comfortable and safe. Say "no" to anything you don't want. You have the right to ask for what you need, want, and deserve. Expect and insist that others respect your boundaries and, as a good friend, always respect their boundaries.

Activity: Make a list of boundaries that you have or think you would want to have in friendships.

Source: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; Adapted from "Making and Keeping Friends-A Self-Help Guide."
Public domain.