It’s likely your friendships have looked different over the past year. Maybe you connected more regularly with friends who live in other cities, or you saw your local friends, but only outside. You may have let go of friends who had conflicting ideas about how to manage the pandemic, or experienced heightened anxiety about the state of your friendships. Perhaps the isolation allowed you to recognize and prioritize friendships that truly matter.
For the past year, restrictions have guided what we could and could not do. Now, as vaccinations become more widely available in many U.S. states, it is up to us to decide how to approach socializing. And after a year of Zooms and phone calls, texting and keeping up on social media, questions about how to reintegrate will probably arise for many.
“Reestablishing norms in our friendships will be challenging and confusing and uncomfortable and that is just the reality of what this is,” says Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship expert. But, she says, the more you take intentional steps to reconnect, the more you will build up your confidence. And you might find that the consequences aren’t as drastic as you anticipate.
That takes commitment, according to Kirmayer — and not putting things off like phone calls or invites to grab a coffee. In the end, you will be able to validate the effort you put into working through social anxiety and recognize how difficult it can be to put yourself out there and be vulnerable, even in the best of times, she says.
Regardless of your situation, experts have advice on connecting with friends in ways that feel good to you and foster healthy relationships.
Experts say a key step to reintegrating socially is setting boundaries. After a year of staying six feet apart, figuring out how to come back together is going to rely on “different levels of comfort with space,” according to Amanda E. White, a counselor and founder of the Therapy For Women Center. Friends may have different boundaries about being inside, taking off masks or having people over.
Having boundaries in place will help protect you and your energy, according to White. And it can teach other people how you expect to be treated.
“A lot of people don’t set boundaries because they don’t want to feel guilty” about letting friends down, she says. But “you will probably feel guilty regardless.”
And while they may feel restrictive, boundaries can actually help strengthen a relationship. As White puts it: “We have a lot more trust in someone when we know that we can set a boundary with them and they can set a boundary with us.”
That could be your work life, your relationship or your friendships — and knowing that can then help you set boundaries for yourself, whether that’s limiting how much time you spend scrolling through friends’ Instagram feeds or realizing the kind of support you need from co-workers.
Your friends can’t read your mind, so you’ll need to make clear what your boundaries are in order for people to be able to observe and respect them. White suggests getting consent before checking in about boundaries: You can start with something as simple as, “Hey, can we talk about meeting up?”
“People often want to set boundaries in the moment because they don’t want to bring something up if it doesn’t happen,” she says. But when boundaries are set in the moment, people may become reactive.
Just as in a romantic relationship, it’s important to clearly state your boundaries, ask for clarification about how friends are feeling and explain where you are coming from. “We talk about the importance of communication and transparency in romantic relationships,” Kirmayer says. “We don’t have that same type of dialogue about the importance of communication for our friendships.”
One strategy that can help is “meta-communication,” or checking in about how the communication itself is going, according to Kirmayer. You can ask things like, “Are you finding our conversations helpful?” or “Are there things that we aren’t talking about that you’d like to be talking about?”
If you’ve been spending more time with your household this year, it’s natural to be nervous about having more time apart. But opening yourself back up to friends can help make those most intimate bonds stronger, according to experts.
Even the closest of couples benefit from having multiple people who serve different roles and bring different types of support to their lives, Kirmayer says: “Having friends can improve a relationship because we have a sounding board for working through conflict.”
Still, you may be dealing with how to integrate new people into agreed-upon boundaries. Jenny TeGrotenhuis, a licensed mental health counselor, suggests determining what your household’s “rubber-stamp statements” are. Rubber-stamp statements are boundaries that you are firm on — for example, which social situations you feel comfortable attending without wearing a mask — whereas preferences are decisions you are willing to be flexible about. Figure out where your preferences align with your friends’, and make plans that way.
Loneliness and disconnection are a real problem right now. But for some, restrictions have given them a welcome chance to turn down invitations and the space to let go of friendships that no longer serve them.
But without restrictions to fall back on as an excuse, honest but difficult conversations might be necessary, according to Kirmayer. This transition phase is an opportunity to confront friendship obligations that you may need to step back from.
Kirmayer stresses that friendships work best when they feel voluntary, “when it feels like a choice to connect, when it feels in line with our authentic needs and values, as opposed to a duty or obligation.”
Still, saying no to our friends can feel hard, because we often feel like we have to show up for them, no matter what. If saying no is uncomfortable for you, White suggests starting by saying, “Let me get back to you.” This way, you don’t even have to say no.
As White puts it: “You’re giving yourself time to pause and reflect, and you’re not just doing that knee-jerk yes.”
For friendships that have managed to strengthen over the past year, you may need to take extra steps to continue to commit to those bonds.
Our lives are busy and complicated, Kirmayer says. Although friendships are voluntary, they aren’t necessarily effortless or organic. It may have been easy to spontaneously FaceTime a close friend or pencil in a walk during lockdown, but as calendars fill back up, carving out dedicated time will help ensure that time together still happens.
We often assume that scheduling time isn’t necessary in close friendships, but it is a way to commit to spending time together and “communicates our willingness and desire to stay connected,” Kirmayer says.
She adds that we can also maintain and strengthen these friendships by expanding the scope of them and continuing to be open and vulnerable with those closest to us.
“The more areas of our lives and ourselves we share with friends, the closer we often feel,” she says. “As our worlds begin to open up, make an effort to invite a friend along for the ride: connect in new environments, introduce them to the other important people in your life and find ways to create new experiences and memories together.”