“Our brains are wired for connection, but trauma rewires them for protection. That’s why healthy relationships are difficult for wounded people.” ~Unknown
If popular culture is anything to go by, everyone has the perfect gang to hang with in coffee shops, engaging in witty banter. Or a BFF who knows them better than anyone else and will be there through thick and thin. So, if friendships make you anxious and you find them hard to navigate, it’s easy to feel ashamed and think it’s just you.
I had problems with friendships for most of my life, and it often came up in my therapy sessions. But it wasn’t until I was on the other side of the therapist chair that I realized I was not the only one!
But it wasn’t always this way. In primary school, life seemed easy. I had one best friend whose friendship I never questioned. We had the odd squabble but lived in our own surreal world, loved each other unconditionally, and were as thick as thieves.
I found primary school a happy place, but my homelife was far from it. My parents had divorced because my dad was an alcoholic. My mum, an overwhelmed single parent, was unable to give me the attention and love I needed. This was when the seeds of my low self-worth were planted.
When I got to high school, those seeds grew and cracks started to appear. The first signs were never feeling settled with the friends I had. I’d make new friends easily, but it would not take long for me to feel restless, and I was always on the look-out for more and “better” friends. Better, at the time, meant the popular crowd, who seemed to be having more fun and getting attention from boys.
I now know that this restlessness came from craving more love and validation, as well as keeping intimacy at bay. I feared that if I stuck around long enough, they would get to know the real me, who I didn’t feel was worthy of their love.
So I moved from group to group, leaving perfectly nice friends behind and trying to bend myself into different crowds. Unfortunately, this type of behavior doesn’t go down well in high school, and I soon learned that popular does not always mean nice.
My new friends turned against me, but I couldn’t go back to the friends I’d rejected. I was bullied and alone and felt like a pariah. Ironically, my desperate need to be popular, derived from a craving for love, had inadvertently created the very hell I was trying to avoid and reinforced my unworthiness.
I’d made such a hash of friendships in high school that, by the time I got to college, I more or less gave up. While everyone else was having a ball (I presumed!) within the college social scene, I hid away in a relationship.
To me, the clarity of romantic love felt clearer compared to what seemed like the confusing world of platonic friendships. This did make life less stressful, but I felt increasingly isolated and depressed, looking in from the outside to a fun world that, deep down, I longed to be part of.
Later as a mum, and in need of a support network, I continued to crave connection and hankered after the perfect gang. But my experiences so far had only increased my anxiety about friendships, and if I met someone I would spiral into overthinking.
What did they think of me?
Why haven’t they replied to that text?
Is everyone hanging out without me?
What kind of version of me do they want?
I struggled to be myself and would easily be triggered by minor misunderstandings. I’d often feel rejected or let down, so I’d find another reason to push people away! Feeling like I was the only adult struggling with friendship, and without fully understanding why, I felt ashamed, which exacerbated my self-loathing.
Another way to describe my push-pull behavior was having an insecure attachment style. I pulled people toward me to help me feel loved but pushed them away because I didn’t feel worthy of it.
Low self-worth and insecure attachments go hand in hand, and we often associate it with romantic relationships. However, our attachment styles can impact our friendships too, and being aware of this is the first step to managing it.
It wasn’t until I started training to be a therapist and I learned about attachment and core beliefs that things started to make sense. I began to understand that we learn about ourselves and the world from early life (i.e., we’re not good enough, people will leave, our needs are not important), which shapes our perception and behavior later on.
I also learned that, from an evolutionary perspective, we are designed to crave the safety of other people, but negative childhood experiences will protect us by putting us on hyper alert for rejection.
After I formed these realizations, everything fell into place, and when I used the following tools to start working on my issues, my low self-worth and anxiety around friendships fell away.
Challenge your assumptions.
Most struggles with friendships stem from how we interpret situations. For example, we might think, “If my friend doesn’t text back, it must mean she is mad at me” or “If she cancels, it’s because she does not care.”
These thoughts can feel very real because our anxious brains are trying to protect us from rejection by preparing for it. However, our thoughts are rarely based on reality since we see through the prism of fear or low self-worth.
To start to challenge these thoughts and develop more helpful ways of thinking, note down your troubling thoughts in a journal and question them. Are you mind reading? Making assumptions? What other explanations do you have for someone’s behavior?
Be curious about your feelings and offer them compassion.
Problems with friendships are usually caused by deep fears and beliefs, formed in childhood, that we hold about ourselves and other people—such as a belief about being unlovable or not good enough, or fears of being alone and rejected.
The anxiety that manifests on the surface is an unhelpful attempt to prevent our worst fears from coming true. But just because you feel rejected by your friend doesn’t mean you have been rejected. These feelings are probably old wounds from childhood that haven’t healed.
To heal these wounds, acknowledge your feelings and tune into them in the body. Is there a tightness in your chest or a knot in your stomach? Be curious about where they come from and offer yourself what you need to feel safe now. For example, remind yourself that you cannot help feeling this way because you are trying to protect yourself. But you are now safe, loved, and worthy of being cared for.
Use mindfulness to manage overthinking.
If we experience low self-worth and it’s impacting on our friendships, it’s highly likely we’re caught up in overthinking. Not only will this impact on our mood, causing anxiety or depression, but we will get attached to the stories our minds are telling us and potentially create more rifts.
Mindfulness is a very effective skill that stops our thoughts from snowballing and also helps us recognize that thoughts are just thoughts (even the ones that feel real!). Mindfulness also helps us increase our awareness of our feelings in our bodies without being so consumed by them. For example, we can acknowledge that we feel rejected but take a step back and choose how to respond to ourselves with more compassion.
Know and accept your friendship style.
I can be loud and talkative, and I regularly deliver trainings to large groups of people. So it took me a while to realize that I am, in fact, an introvert who needs lots of time on her own and intimate friendships.
It’s very easy to assume that everyone has a gang of friends, and we can think there’s something wrong with us if we don’t. But, in fact, that’s only one friendship style, and there are many people who prefer the intimacy of one-on-one friendships.
I remembered in primary school, when at my most authentic, I never had a group of friends and naturally gravitated toward intense one-on-one friendships. Remembering this has given me permission to honor that part of myself. I no longer compare myself to people in cliques or crave to be like them, preferring to foster individual friendships with people I genuinely feel I can be myself with.
Build your self-worth.
If you like yourself and feel loveable, then other people’s actions are less important.
When I realized that low self-worth was at the root of my friendship insecurity, I made a conscious effort to start loving myself, and everything improved. Obviously, this is easier said than done, and my other Tiny Buddha post goes into detail about how I did that.
A few things that really helped were powerful self-worth meditations, offering myself validation, and living my life as if I was already good enough. Eventually, I felt more secure in friendships as well as more accepting of my friendship style. The bonus was that when I started to accept and love myself, I stopped thinking I had to be friends with everyone to feel good enough and attracted the right people to me.
About Rebecca Stambridge
Rebecca is a fully qualified therapist and experienced mindfulness teacher. She loves helping men and women feel good enough and less anxious in work and relationships through mindful self-compassion techniques. If overthinking your friendships is a problem for you and you want to learn how to break free, download her free “Break Free from Overthinking” guide. Or check out her website to work with her now.