Not too long ago, I went through a messy breakup. One that left me feeling depressed and overwhelmingly lonely. Fortunately, however, after a month or so of sulking around, I decided to embrace the chance to rediscover my independence. I saw my friends and family every now and then, but I mostly spent time alone. I found solace in grocery shopping alone, in working out by myself, and in facing whatever problems came my way without anybody’s help. I was on a mission to reclaim my independence and prove to the world (or maybe myself) that I didn’t need anyone else.
I initially felt empowered by this new lifestyle, but I slowly dipped into another unhappy and lonely state. Why am I digressing? I wondered. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t because I missed my ex or craved being in another relationship: it was because I missed my friends and my family. I was in need of human connection. Upon making this important realization, I started prioritizing my relationships again; I rediscovered the importance of spending time with others. And I’m going to help you do the same.
Whether or not you like to admit it, the strength of your social network has a direct effect on your wellbeing. And if you play your cards right, it can bring you some awesome benefits, including reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation. Dr. Mark Benander, licensed mental health counselor and professor at Bay Path University, delves into these benefits below:
“One benefit is that we are reassured that we are not the only one with a particular problem. For example, a young mother with a baby who never seems to stop crying may find comfort in speaking with a friend or family member who has gone through this or in joining a support group for mothers with colicky babies. This reassures us that our experience is common and helps to normalize our perspective about things.
Another benefit is reduced feelings of isolation. People who are feeling lonely are more vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed with stress. Facing something together helps us feel stronger and more optimistic. Many of us are fortunate to have these connections with family or friends or coworkers, yet there may also be times when such a connection can be made with a professional counselor or therapist.
Another benefit involves social learning. When we connect with others, we are observers, watching how people do what they do. We learn by observing and imitating, eventually deciding for ourselves how our observations become translated into our own choices of action. Examples of this kind of learning range from learning how to tie a shoe all the way up to figuring out how to manage our budget, navigate our relationships, and cope with significant life events.”
Improving Social Connections
Now, there is one simple key to improving your social connections and reaping all of the benefits above: being a good friend. Benander likens this to taking care of a garden. “My own words and actions in a friendship require a similar level of care-taking,” he explains. “I’ll want to prune away unfiltered negativity or being overly reactive. I’ll want to water and fertilize efforts to create balance in all parts of the friendship. I’ll nurture patience and grace in myself, so that I am patient and graceful with my friend. There will be times when the weeds grow, and I’ll apologize to my friend for an unkind word, or forgetting to listen as carefully as I intend. You will notice here that as I become a better friend, I will likely be cultivating friendships that feel better to me. In this way, working on my own ability to become a good friend will help lead me to better social connections.”
In fewer words: water your friendships with love and care, and they’ll grow before your very eyes. Here are a few pointers for being that kind, dependable friend everybody wants and needs in life:
- Check in on them regularly. This might mean sending your friend a quick text each night, calling them after work, or having dinner with them every Monday.
- Show them your support. Be there for your friend during the good and the bad—celebrate their triumphs and help shoulder their pain.
- Understand and respect their boundaries. Every healthy relationship requires boundaries. Respect your friend’s limits: give them space to recharge; let them make their own decisions; and understand when your opinion or advice isn’t necessarily desired.