I know how to talk to people, I’m reasonably smart and attractive, and yet I feel isolated a lot of the time. I knew how to make friends in college, but since graduating five years ago, I’ve yet to make a real friend. Is this normal?
Isolated in Illinois
Dear Isolated in Illinois,
Modern life can be a lonely place.
Most people are struggling with this, but LGBT people can feel especially isolated. It comes with the territory of being different. And you’ve always been different.
As a teenager, you never could fully join the exciting conversations and social rituals around opposite-sex attraction. You may have faked it, but you never were really a part of it.
While all your friends were crushing on the movie stars of the day, you silently longed for all the “wrong” ones. Even the nerdy heterosexual outcasts in your school belonged in a way you didn’t. Because they were straight, they really didn’t have to question if they were a member of the human race. At an unconscious level, many LGBT people don’t feel like a member of the human race. We can feel like a different species.
And while you may have already worked hard to accept your differences, at some level we all just want to fit in. This is wired into primates. So it isn’t surprising that we may struggle a little more with feelings of loneliness and isolation as grown-ups.
Like all worthwhile experiences, creating friendships takes work. There’s a myth that it should be easy, that it should just happen. In reality, building a network of friends requires the same kind of strategic activity that goes into finding a job or the love of your life.
What follows is my best tip on building your friendship network.
There is something magic about seeing the same group of people each week for months and years. Just the consistent proximity creates the safety that is needed to turn a stranger into a friend. This is why it is easier to make friends in college. Therefore, joining weekly groups is the number one best way to make a friend.
Do you know who has the best social network in any city? It’s people who attend 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. This makes sense: they are a group of people who meet frequently to try and be authentic, supportive, and remove a piece of the social mask.
Who else meets regularly? It’s the people in the LGBT sports league, the LGBT volunteer service organization, the LGBT spiritual or arts group, the LGBT MeetUp.com group. Google will lead you to them.
Yes, joining groups takes time and you are busy with work. But people who join groups tend to be people who can commit to people. And those are the people who make good friends.
It’s also a great way to find a committed partner. Personal disclosure moment: I found my husband and all my boyfriends before him through LGBT volunteer groups.
The Path From Acquaintance to Friend
You may know lots of people but still feel isolated. The secret sauce that turns acquaintances into friends is personal disclosure. There’s a limit to how far you can get with a person if you aren’t willing to reveal something that feels vulnerable about yourself.
Again, this can be a little more challenging for LGBT people. We’ve been trained since we were 6 years old to hide what we feel. What we liked wasn’t good. It was disgusting. Or so we were told.
So it takes practice. Begin revealing something only a little uncomfortable and see how that goes. If your acquaintance handles that well then you can test out the next level of disclosure.
Ultimately, the most powerful way to deepen a connection with someone is to dare to admit your friendly affection for them.
If you have butterflies in your stomach when talking about yourself, then you’ll know you are doing something right. There is no personal growth without butterflies.
Don’t think friends are all that important to happiness? According to Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse who wrote The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, one of the top regrets of dying people is “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
Too busy for friends? Another one of the top five regrets of the dying is “I wished I didn’t work so hard.”
Your relationships truly matter.