by Kimberly McGrady, LCSW
& Jorge Enrique
Since we humans are social creatures, it is natural for many of us to want to connect with others and form close, enduring friendships. What makes a fulfilling friendship can vary from person to person. However, data suggests that most successful friendships meet the following criteria: shared experience, loyalty, mental connection and shared intentionality. 
Friendships can greatly increase the quality of our life, but at times they can also be hard to navigate and cause emotional pain. While wanting to make friends is often an intrinsic desire, we are also socialized to value our self-worth based on how many friends we have. This is just an idea that we have chosen to buy into and is not the truth. If you feel content being on your own or with only having one or two friends, then be okay with who you are in that respect.
However, if you long for friendships that never happen, do not consider your lack of friends as a result of some deficiency within you. There are many reasons that friendships do not last or do not form at all. These reasons may have little or nothing to do with who you are as a person.
Yet, if you take an honest look at your approach to friendships you may see something to improve upon to help solidify the connections you desire. As a mindcare provider based in Asheville, NC, Kimberly McGrady has found several approaches that are useful when cultivating a fulfilling and joyful long-term friendship with others:
Promote Communication: Friends have to be able to talk to each other and learn to talk through their issues when they arise. When you are open to healthy communication, you are setting the space for both parties to feel comfortable enough to speak about anything that comes up. While some conversations can seem harder than others, having reassurance that communication is welcome makes having these harder conversations easier and less uncomfortable.
TIP: Even if you don’t agree with your friend, you can use empathy to validate your friend’s feelings which can help your friend feel heard and understood and decrease the likelihood of things escalating into an argument.
Seek out New, Positive, JoyFul Experiences: Friendships can become stale and routine if no effort is put into creating new positive experiences. Have you ever thought something like this? “Ugh, I don’t want to call Peter back because he never wants to do anything but go on a walk.” Sure, you could accept Peter as your “go for a walk friend,” but engaging in new experiences creates opportunities for critical thinking, unexpected dialogue, deeper bonding and creates memories and history with someone, all of which is crucial to building a foundation and maintaining the desire to continue being friends.
Reciprocate and be a Giver: Recognize the thoughtful things that your friends do for you and respond in kind. If your friend always offers to pick up the tab, maybe the next one should be on you. When your friend remembers your birthday, make sure to remember theirs. Don’t let your friend initiate getting together all the time, make sure you dole out invitations to hang out as well. Listen for opportunities to lend a hand and give of yourself. When your friend says her computer is broken and she needs to print something, don’t say “I heard you could do that at the library”–invite her over to use your computer to print out what she needs.
Set Boundaries: Setting boundaries allow us to protect ourselves and those around us. By being honest about what you’re willing to tolerate from others, you can notice who respects your boundaries and who steps on them. When you set a boundary, it may take your friend a moment to adjust to the change, so if they misstep unintentionally once or twice, be patient with them and give them a little longer to show you that they can respect your needs. Of course, if they continuously and intentionally disrespect your boundary it may be time to disengage from the friendship…and that is perfectly okay to do.
Show Up Both Mentally and Physically: When you are with your friend be there mentally by engaging in active listening and response so that they know you are tuned in and care about what is going on in their life. Physically show up when your friend needs help putting their new Ikea bed together, when their partner just moved out and the emptiness is overwhelming, or to be part of the audience at their kid’s holiday play. Being physically present demonstrates that their friendship is a priority to you; they will notice and return in kind (hopefully 😊).
Don’t Throw in the Towel at the First Flaw: We all have flaws. Yes, you do too. We want to be loved despite our flaws. When cultivating a new friendship don’t be so quick to discard that new person at the first sign of imperfection or because they say something you don’t agree with. Be patient, and don’t rush to judgment. There is more to this person. Take the time to see the whole person, and look for opportunities to develop a deeper connection. One day you will laugh when you think you might have thrown away your best friend just because on your first coffee together they said they hated cats while you showed them pictures of Mr. Whiskerface and Snowball.
Your Friend is not a Dumping Ground: Yes, we all have problems, bad days, concerns and frustrations. Being able to talk to our friends about these things is important and part of the benefit of having a friend. However, don’t make your problems the main focus of every conversation. As much as your friend loves you, if the only contribution to the friendship is your unhappiness with the world it can make the relationship feel like it is only about you and it can push your friend away. Share your problems with your friends in balanced doses, but also seek out a psychotherapist to really unload on. That is what they are there for!
TIP: Taking time to listen to your friend’s struggles helps you get out of your own head for a bit and reinforces their belief that you are a friend worth keeping. Win Win!
There are many other factors that contribute to creating a fulfilling and meaningful friendship, but what is important for you to remember is that your self-worth is not determined by the number of friends that you have. Making and keeping friends can be challenging for a number of reasons including age, location, hobbies, personality type…the list goes on and on. But if making friends is important to you, don’t give up! There are many other people out there longing for friendship too. Be Strong. Be Brave. Be YOU and keep trying!!
Kimberly McGrady graduated with her Master of Social Work from Florida State University. She provides psychotherapy to individuals of all ages, families, and couples, designing and facilitating psycho-educational and support groups, conducting assessments, diagnosing mindcare disorders, providing suicide/safety planning, facilitating crisis intervention, creating relapse prevention plans and providing teletherapy. More at mindpathcare.com/staff/kimberly-mcgrady-lcsw.
Jorge Enrique is an entrepreneurial non-binary artist who is passionate about promoting mental health awareness and self healing through their writing, their art, and their plant-based business, Apotheckare.
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