Why Your Friend Circle May Be Getting Smaller & Why That's OK
A few months ago, there was an underlying expectation to call or video-chat friends almost every night. These attempts to stay connected in otherwise isolating times were well-intentioned and helpful to many, but they could also be kind of exhausting (looking at you, introverts).
Instead of nurturing quality friendships, technology made it easy to interact with almost anyone. Ghosts of high schools past, third cousins—you name it, they were probably on Zoom.
We may be able to move around a little more freely these days, but as the pandemic goes on, you may be noticing your social circle begin to shrink. We reached out to psychologists to understand why that might be and what it tells us about this moment.
Reasons you may be feeling less social:
1. You don't have the emotional bandwidth.
Emotional and energetic bandwidth is lower during times of crisis, licensed clinical psychologist Ayanna Abrams, Psy.D., tells mbg. Six months into this pandemic, the stress, exhaustion, and unpredictability of this time have continued to drag on for many of us. That may explain why some people are choosing a less active social life now.
"Oftentimes when we are overwhelmed, it may not mean that we don't want to continue these relationships, but that we literally don't know how to while managing our stress levels," Abrams explains.
For some people, just getting through the day may feel a lot harder than it has in the past. "We are incinerating energy on things that we're not used to—worrying about safety, health, food supply, etc.," psychologist Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, says. "This leaves us less time for our friends."
On top of that, this virus is still very much real and untreatable. While in-person social interactions may be a bit safer than they were three months ago, they still present a risk.
2. You feel like your empathy is limited these days.
Comparative suffering is a concept that refers to when you minimize someone else's experience because you've suffered more or minimize your own experience because you know others are suffering more.
"The entire myth of comparative suffering comes from the belief that empathy is finite," author and researcher Brené Brown says in her podcast. "So, when you practice empathy with someone or even yourself, there's less to go around."
But as she says, this is a myth. In fact, she goes on to say, "When we practice empathy with ourselves and others, we create more empathy."
Of course, that can be hard to register in the midst of a crisis. "Talking on the phone, zooming, or FaceTiming may not feel like viable options if you don't think you have anything 'positive' to say," Abrams notes. But just keep in mind: Bottling your emotions may use up more energy than actually processing them.
3. Your priorities have changed.
"The pandemic has forced us to reexamine what's important," Neo explains. If you have kept friendships out of convenience, politeness, or simply because enough time has lapsed, you may now be realizing those friendships aren't a priority, she says. So this pandemic may have been the perfect excuse to distance yourself from those people.
People's boundaries around gathering in person may also simply be different, meaning some previously close friends may simply be spending less time together.
Additionally, people's values tend to be on display in times of crisis, so we may be learning more about what our friends believe and how they see the world. Sometimes that brings us closer; sometimes it makes us realize it's time to let the friendship go.
Is a shrinking social circle a bad thing?
Not necessarily. Changing circles usually speak to different needs across our lives. Some people may meet those needs in one phase but not the next, Abrams says. Priorities, values, and even something as simple as location and interests can also change.
It may sound harsh, but quality over quantity does matter in friendships. "Negative friendships increase your stress responses, elevate your blood pressure, increase depression levels, and they even affect how your immune system operates," Lydia Denworth, science journalist and author of the book Friendship, said during an mbg podcast episode.
And remember, just as you may want to distance from others, others may also want to distance from you. "People do get to choose, and if you feel left behind or left out, use that as an opportunity to talk about the relationship and what you notice," Abrams says. "You cannot force people to include you in their lives, but you can check to see if there's anything different that you can do to stay connected."
Overall, a shrinking social circle can happen naturally throughout life. If you feel satisfied with your smaller friend circle, it's nothing to be concerned about.
But if you are consciously completely isolating yourself, remember that prioritizing social time with people you care about is important to support both physical and mental health. Neo recommends setting a quota for how much socialization and how much alone time you need. Then make a plan to reach out to the people you want to, she says, and respect the time.
Finding people to confide in, laugh with, and share experiences with is more critical these days than ever.
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