You feel like you can’t open up to anyone.
You know what absolutely breaks my heart on a regular basis? Getting to know incredible men and women, connecting over their worst and best experiences, learning about their dreams and their fears, their losses and their successes ... And then learning that they feel they cannot even share about these same experiences with their closest friends.
If you are the person who is always there for everyone else but it feels like no one is there for you, the person who intentionally keeps people at arm’s distance and your friends likely don’t have a clue you’re doing it, or the person who seemingly has hundreds of friends and is always with people but you wouldn’t know where to turn if you actually needed help, this is for you.
As a therapist, I have the privilege of being let into very intimate spaces with many people. (I love my job!) I truly feel that I get to see many people’s authentic beauty, which often comes from sharing what they perceive to be their ugliest parts or the experiences they could not possibly put words to. When people are real with me, when they take that brave step of vulnerably sharing something that takes courage, I almost always experience increased respect for and admiration of them.
The cynics might tell me, “Of course you have that response to vulnerability; you’re a therapist! That’s not how the rest of the world works. Vulnerability reveals people’s weaknesses. Most people would be disgusted or lose respect for me if I shared about parts of my life.” There might be an iota of truth to this because we should not be vulnerable with every person and in every situation — that is a recipe for getting hurt unnecessarily — but most people I work with are not anywhere near that risky end of the spectrum. Most people I work with struggle with knowing how to ever take a risk in relationships. Sometimes the first time they open up about some of their biggest experiences are in my office with me. Therapy can be a really wonderful way to safely enter the exploration of how to develop deeper, more trustworthy relationships, but I want to share a few principles to use when discerning when and how to do so in regular life.
I encourage you to mull over these truth bombs and evaluate how you can deepen your friendships, allow yourself to be known (and get to know others better), and ultimately create a beautiful, enriching support system of wonderful people in your life.
Steps to Creating Deeper Friendships
Identify your own guiding values
In identifying your own values that guide how you live, you’ll also likely identify traits that you want to look for in close friends. While it is incredibly valuable to have a diverse set of friends, as we can learn and grow so much from having friendships with people who tend to have different perceptions and means of problem-solving than us, if you are just starting out on this journey it is probably more helpful to connect with someone who functions more similarly to you. Are you someone who values being non-judgmental and living in the grey? Are you someone who values living with certain principles and appreciates direct feedback? Do you value reliability? Presence? Understanding of specific systems in society or a specific cultural background? By identifying the top values that influence your choices as well as who you are naturally drawn to, the people who are already in your life who you respect and want to get to know better might become more clear.
Be intentional in who you pursue.
Just because someone is easy to spend time with does not mean that they are necessarily the best candidates for opening up to. Sometimes someone is easy to talk to because all they do is talk about themselves and their problems; perhaps they will be receptive to your own sharing and be understanding and helpful in responding (see the step below), or maybe they lack self awareness, which is why they tend to dominate conversations. I say this with an emphasis especially for those who struggle with codependency – if you’re always the helper, it is more comfortable to listen and offer advice, and it will be absolutely positively uncomfortable for you to do the opposite. It might even be uncomfortable to pursue friendships with people who are more self aware or grounded. Do it anyway. Intentionally choose one or two people whom you respect and see shared values with. Express wanting to get to know them better and invite them to a meal or coffee one-on-one. Yes, building deeper friendships can feel like dating. Welcome to adult friendships!
Test the waters for trust. Take it slow.
One of the potentially most damaging moves you could make — especially if you tend to intentionally keep people at arm’s distance — would be to share something very personal right away with someone you’re just getting to know better. Why? Because it might confirm your worst fears about vulnerability. That if I share my deepest secrets, I’ll overwhelm and scare the other person off. In relationships, we have to build up trust and that takes time. I would never ask you to blindly share your most intimate experiences with a person. Take it slow. If you’re a very practical person, make a list from 1 to 10 with 1 being the least vulnerable tidbits about you (things you don’t care about sharing with others) and 10 being the absolutely most personal (that you are currently terrified to share.) Start off by sharing things about you that are a level 1 or 2. Next time, throw a level 3 or 4 in there. See how the person responds to you. Are they caring and understanding? Do they respond in a way that is ultimately supportive and non-shaming? If so, keep intentionally and gradually sharing more and more personal things about you each time you see them. If they respond in a manner that makes you feel like they don’t have your back, you know to end things here.
Reciprocate. Engage in getting to know the other person too.
It is so important to be mindful of your closest friendships being as mutual as possible — that each person is equally curious about, willing to listen to, and supportive of the other. If you’re someone who is more used to being the helper, this part will feel very natural and will help you feel less guilty about taking up time and space in the conversation (be mindful of trying to make the average time 50/50.) If you’re someone who is uncomfortable with the entire process of connecting more deeply, this part might need to be more intentional. Ask them how they are really doing. After sharing something that is currently challenging in your life, ask them if they have ever been through something similar. Ask them about the best and worst parts of their weeks. Show genuine interest in them too. This both ensures a healthy balance in the friendship and also allows you to connect with them further to continue assessing if you can share more personal experiences with them.
Identify clear needs and expectations when you share something big.
There will inevitably be a time in the friendship when you have developed enough trust to take the leap of sharing “a big thing” about you — yes, this will almost always feel like a literal leap, a risk, even when your friendship has proven itself to be decently solid. Maybe you want to share about a traumatic experience, your depression, your sexual orientation, serious doubts you have about yourself. It’s going to be scary; there’s no way around it. But something that can be helpful is sharing what type of a response you would like or what you need either before or after sharing. This might look something like, “There’s nothing that can make this situation better, but I would really love a listening ear” or “I’m really struggling with knowing what to do about this, and I really trust your opinion. Could you give me your feedback?” or “This is really painful and scary to share; what do you think of me now that you know?” Openly ask for validation. Openly ask for feedback. Openly ask for listening. So much of the hurt in these interactions occur when the recipient misjudges what type of response their friend needs. Most of us aren’t mind-readers, so please let us know in a straightforward manner. Also, “vulnerability hangover” is a real experience — many people feel anxious and question themselves after a big disclosure, so if this is you, know that this is a normal part of the process and will pass. Trust the process, especially if you have been gradually ramping up the trust and disclosures in your friendship.
Share your experience and kindly set boundaries if needed.
This step is especially helpful to focus on after you have shared something that feels “big” to you. You might do parts of this step the moments after sharing, or you might use it in follow up conversations. If you felt supported by your friend, tell them. Please give them positive feedback of feeling like you can trust them and appreciating their love. Let them know that this was a big deal and you’re grateful to have them in your life. Equally if not more important is to share your experience or to set boundaries if they did not respond in an ideal manner. Gently let them know if something they said hurt you or was frustrating. Try to use “I” statements to share your experience rather than directly blaming them, as this is less likely to activate defensiveness and more likely to open up a constructive conversation. It can also be helpful to share about what would be helpful for you in the future. Doing this all in a kind, unassuming manner that focuses on understanding one another is very helpful, especially if this is a friend you want to continue investing in. We are all human and will all make mistakes in our friendships and misread situations. People often show their character and trustworthiness in how they respond in confrontation. If your friend hears you out, is apologetic, and is curious about understanding further, you have a trustworthy person in front of you. If they are defensive, make you feel badly for bringing this up, or criticize you, this is a flag that this person might not be someone you want to keep going deeper with. A good friend will always respect your boundaries, even if they don’t fully understand them.
Continue to evaluate and set realistic expectations in your friendship.
Friendships and connections are all unique. If you feel yourself hitting a wall with someone or they show themselves to not be as trustworthy as you hoped in the previous steps, you might have reached your capacity for connection with that particular person at this particular time. As much as possible (assuming that they did not hurt you in an intentional or really damaging manner), try to be grateful for who they are in your life. Maybe your friendship grew in ways it wouldn’t have without your intentionality and risk, even if you do not want this person to be your ultimate confidante. Just because you hit a wall with one person does not mean that you will hit the same wall with the next person. If you do find yourself hitting similar walls with people, it might be worth exploring your relational patterns and choice of friends in therapy.
Engage in self-love and self-compassion.
We are so often quick to speak harshly about ourselves. How often do you think negative thoughts about yourself or draw negative conclusions about what others must think about you or what they would think about you if they knew X? Shame is such a common part of the human experience, especially for those who are naturally more sensitive, those who have trauma histories, or those who are used to focusing their attention and efforts on others rather than on themselves. We are so quick to think that we aren’t worth it — that we might not be worth the love and support of another. That if we opened up ourselves to another person, if we let someone truly know us, they would not like us. It’s so important for us to do our own work, especially when we are deepening friendships and practicing vulnerability. So often, this is when our negative self talk really flares up. What strengths do you have that you can connect to? What beliefs do you have about other people, about humanity, and about worth? Perhaps you can say “All people are worthy of being known and loved” or even just “I am a human. I have flaws like everyone else, but I also have strengths. I’m trying my best.” If so, meditate on the positives that you know to be true, especially after you have made bigger disclosures for the first time.
Therapy Can Help You Get to the Next Level of Healing
Relationships are complicated, and it is very easy to repeat unhelpful relational patterns and to continue telling yourself the same jaded narrative about the world, people, and yourself. Therapy is a great way to build insight and detangle patterns, messages, and beliefs that aren’t serving you. Therapy is an especially valuable resource for those with attachment wounds from their families of origin, significant relational loss, or histories of trauma. Participating in your own healing alongside engaging in new friendship dynamics can be a beautiful combination. Please contact me if you would like to explore what our work together could look like.