Does Everyone Have a Friendship Complex, or Just Me?
02.02.18

I

stumbled into 2018 with a freshly minted fear that I was doing things wrong — that the past year, during which I’d felt newly fulfilled, I’d been blinding myself to the reality that actually, I was not. This realization hit me like a sickness. I felt like someone had just delivered bad news, only that someone was my own anxiety, and I accepted it without question: Of course this is true, yes, I believe this, thank you.

The catalyst for my spiral was a reappraisal of my social life and the re-emergence of a latent, enduring belief that mine has never measured up. It only took a few days for the idea that I didn’t have enough friends in New York to take shape in my mind and solidify into a dense gray cloud that followed me everywhere. It was a familiar feeling — friendship insecurity has troubled me most of my life — but its persistence into adulthood felt ominous. How was I still here?

As kids, most of us learn to seek a sense of belonging through friendship. When we’re young, our social standing often serves as an analog for our mushy, unformed identities. In the most superficial sense, we are who we’re friends with. It’s a perilous framework, of course, leaving some kids comfortable and celebrated and others isolated and hurt. Yet even as we get older and become fully formed by experiences, layers and multitudes, we often cling to this elementary measure of self. I have yet to meet an adult who’s not somehow still dealing with whatever role they played in that exhausting high school dynamic.

Social insecurities seem to carry a disproportionate amount of shame as a result. The fear of friendlessness is deep-seated, codified into our malleable brains at too vulnerable an age to be easily dismantled. I feel fairly certain this is true, and yet, like the human-shaped pile of contradictions that I am, I still manage to believe everyone’s fine and definitely hanging out without me.

I did know that staying quiet about my sadness would do me no favors though. Within days of feeling my stormy little cloud, I started talking about it. I confided in my partner, my coworkers, my acquaintances. It felt oddly relieving to say it out loud: I wish I had more friends here.

One night, I stayed up until 2 a.m. tearfully admitting to my boyfriend that I was worried I was missing a chip. How was it possible that, after nearly two years in New York, I’d barely built a social network? That my two closest friends lived across the country and most of my friends from high school, college and beyond had managed to stay close while I drifted away like a feather in the wind? How can I be both hurt that people keep canceling on me but relieved by it too? How can I simultaneously want something and behave in direct opposition to that desire? Why, most importantly, hadn’t I figured this shit out by now?

It may have felt nice to say out loud, but my brain was overtaken by anxiety and circling a drain. In a bizarre twist of fate, I had a get-together the following evening with three women: two current colleagues and one former. It was a delight beyond belief, but it came together a little haphazardly — I’m not sure the four of us had ever spent time together as an isolated group. I posted a photo we took in the hall mirror that made us look like a ’90s dance troupe. “Me and my backup dancers,” I captioned it. The comments rolled in:

“Omg. this crew is on fireeeeee~ Alicia keys remix” (Ed note: Lol.)
“I aspire to have a girl gang this spectacular”
“I genuinely wish I loved my coworkers this much…I need a new job [crying emoji]”
“You ladies are goals.”
“The most iconic girl gang I’ve seen in awhile”

It’s true I love my coworkers a lot — more than most people, I would guess. But I immediately recognized the irony: I’d just spent the previous evening crying about feeling friendless! And here I was inadvertently making people think my social life was aspirational. It was almost laughably absurd.

The next day, I posted an Instagram Story telling people that, honestly, the four of us are not, in fact, a girl gang, that I actually don’t have a girl gang and even tend to loneliness. The responses came in echoing succession — more than I’ve ever received from a Story that didn’t pose a question. This made me feel so much better. We should all say this more. Thanks for acknowledging this; it’s so important in this day and age.

It’s no revelation that people crave authenticity, but I was surprised at how many were grateful to hear about loneliness in particular. I was even charmed by how admitting it ended up serving as an antidote unto itself. We live in a lonely time.

Similar conversations happened over the course of the month. If I thought revealing my friendship complex might register as a cry for help, I was wrong. Instead, it continually served as a conversational opener for my listener to share their own friendship complex — one I assumed, with little proof, they didn’t have.

Even more ironic? I had these conversations with friends, people I liked and enjoyed but who, for whatever reason I could muster — “we just work together,” “we just know each other through someone else,” “we just met” — I assumed didn’t consider me a “real” friend. As a newcomer to New York, I’ve made a habit of this kind of thinking, of considering myself the periphery to everyone else’s busy, friend-filled orbit. But the more I talked it out, the more I understood where ideas like that come from in all their varied, misshapen forms.

If childhood insecurities scar us into adulthood, modern media seems to only deepen those wounds. Every day on our social feeds, we watch as people publicly curate their lives, feeding a constant stream of invisible omissions which, while understandable, present a false reality. Movies and shows don’t help either, with their charming ensemble casts that meet twice a week — once for brunch, once for drinks. Who’s living like that? Add to all that the recent focus on female friendships in the mainstream which, although wonderful for many reasons, has also given what are complex, messy relationships a sort of invincible, performative sheen. Maybe some people really do have that perfect, evergreen kind of friendship, but I would guess it’s less common than we think.

Our urge to compare ourselves against peers might be impossible to avoid — social psychologists say it’s hard-wired into us — but after spending a month poking the friendship beast, I’ve realized just how toxic that instinct becomes in modern relationships. We’re comparing ourselves against an unbeatable fiction. This isn’t news though. What puzzles me: If we all know the game is rigged, why do we still get sad when the house wins?

To answer my earlier question, maybe I haven’t figured this shit out yet because friendship’s not a puzzle to solve. Maybe instead of wondering what’s wrong with me that I didn’t sashay my way into a large, tight-knit New York crew, I need to ask myself what friendship means to me, why it’s important in my life, what kinds of friend interactions I find most meaningful and how I might further seek those out. In accepting that I may never have a “crew,” in that actually my personality may not be suited for one, I’ve begun to realize how many friends I actually do have in New York.

The fact that this stormy little cloud of anxiety came on so suddenly should have been proof enough that it wasn’t organic. It did, however, prove productive. It showed me that I get to decide what is and isn’t fulfilling, and that I can leave the schoolyard bullshit behind with a little effort. It showed me that I can rewire my brain to see friendship as a part of my life that I care for and tend to for specific and personal reasons instead of a place where I need to “measure up.” In one final moment of irony, spending the month confiding in people about loneliness ended up making my January decidedly unlonely.

Collages by Emily Zirimis; photos by Maurice Hogenboom/Conde Nast, Arthur Elgort/Conde Nast/Contour, and Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images.

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