As a therapist, I’m always trying to get people to open up to their friends, or make new friends with whom they can be honest. We’re social beings, we need each other, and countless studies have shown that people with a strong network of friends tend to be happier.
We have a couple of things working against us in learning how to create this network and use it, though. Maybe you heard from your parents that you should keep your problems to yourself, and you’re not supposed to talk to “outsiders” about what’s happening in your family.
Or maybe your friends seem to only want to have fun and laugh, and their eyes glaze over if you start talking about your problems.
Maybe you’ve opened up before only to have well-meaning friends jump in with their obvious solutions to your problems, – as if you haven’t already thought of them.
Closing yourself off from people who genuinely want to be supportive can make you feel lonely and isolated. But sometimes we forget that opening up to others is actually a skill that we need to learn. Here are some tips:
1. Know Your Audience
Trust the right people. If you find yourself consistently disappointed in your friends’ reactions, ask yourself why you keep opening up to them. Could it be you’re hoping to draw them in, make yourself feel closer to them by letting them in on your deepest, darkest secrets? Are you testing the friendship? Maybe you’re subconsciously convincing yourself that opening up is a bad idea by trusting people who are going to disappoint you, thereby proving your hypothesis that opening up isn’t safe.
Whatever the reason, open up to people whom you really feel to be trustworthy. Don’t lay everything that’s going wrong in your life on a new group of people whom you’ve just met (unless it’s a group therapy session).
2. Timing is Everything
I probably don’t have to tell you that having a deep discussion or telling a friend what’s going on with you at a rave or a loud house party is a bad idea. Other bad times include: as your friend is walking out the door on the way to work; on the phone while you or your friend is at work; or when your friend is really tired and/or upset about something else.
3. Do It in Person, Not Over Text
Please, please, if you listen to nothing else, please believe me that you should not have any kind of emotional discussion over text. Texting is for “I’m going to be 5 minutes late,” or “I’m at the fountain in the quad.” It is NOT for “OMG I’m really falling apart….” kinds of talks.
For one thing, your friend is not going to be able to convey the support you’re looking for over texting, no matter how empathically they type. For another, really explaining confused and complex emotions is very difficult to do over text. It’s difficult to do in any kind of writing. Heck, it’s difficult when talking, so don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to communicate such things with a tiny keyboard and your thumbs.
4. Insert Some Positives
If you’re with a friend who accepts you unconditionally and loves you just as you are, great. They’ll probably be OK with a late night rant about how every single thing in your life sucks. When with everyone else, you can still be connected and receive support – but it’s a good idea to make sure you aren’t 100% negative in your sharing. Hardly any situation doesn’t have some light side, and hardly any stage of life is all dark. What blessings can you count? What are you grateful for? Be sure to balance your sharing with a few of these, and it will help you maintain your perspective, as well.
And even BFFs like to hear what’s going well, sometimes. A friend of mine quotes something she learned from another friend, “”You can unload anything you want, but if you don’t share both good and bad, then you have to start paying me by the hour.”
5. Be Clear About What You Want From Them
If your friends jump in with problem solving, and all you want is some sympathy, you have to tell them that. You can’t get huffy, stalk away and sulk (Well, you can, but it’s not productive and it annoys your friends). It’s perfectly OK to say, “I know I’m whining, but I just need to vent for a minute.” Most friends will be relieved that you’re not making the problem theirs, and will be happy to sympathize.
If you feel like your friends are getting tired of hearing all your problems, maybe it’s time to ask them. You could be projecting your own discomfort with opening up onto them, and assuming that they’re more uncomfortable than they actually are.
On the other hand, maybe they feel like you’re complaining a lot without attempting to change anything. Either way, it’s a good idea to check in with them. But, be prepared for the answer and try not to feel too hurt. It’s actually the sign of a strong friendship that they can give you feedback without you reacting defensively. A friendship like that can make both of you feel safer and more supported.
Image courtesy of: Andy Bernay-Roman