Why Do I Always Think Other People Have More Friends Than Me?
The Debrief: Culturally, popularity is a priority and it’s really hard not feel as though everyone is achieving their squad goals except you
I think the loneliest time in my life was my second year of university. I’d survived the first few terms, made some friends, been to lots of parties and naively believed that I was killing it. Then something shifted when we all moved into our new student houses, and I was pretty much by myself.
It might have been because I lived at the opposite end of town from my old friends from halls, in an ill-advised houseshare with my ex-boyfriend. It didn’t help that I’d taken on a part-time job with lots of evening shifts and was missing a lot of parties.
I certainly didn’t help myself by drinking too much to cheer myself up – there are all sorts of ways to win back old friends, but getting pissed and falling down their stairs and through their front doors isn’t one of them.
The worst part of this period was that I felt alone in a sea of pal posses. Everywhere I looked, I saw squad goals. I’d be lurking on the edge of a group at a club when 50 bffs would start dancing to ‘Summer Of ’69’, screaming ‘THESE ARE THE BEST DAYS OF OUR LIVES’ as I sobbed into my vodka red bull.
The nerds I lived with forged intimate relationships over Dungeons and Dragons tournaments that were played out in our sitting room, while I enjoyed an early night alone in my room with a packet of chocolate Hob Nobs. Even the ducks and geese on campus ran in cliques, confronting me in great, quacking gangs as I limply waved a book at them, shrieking like Tippi Hedren.
Culturally, popularity is a priority and it’s really hard not feel as though everyone is achieving their squad goals but you. In his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, psychologist and sociologist Matthew Lieberman explains that social rejection can feel ‘like a broken bone’.
He explains that we’re naturally highly social, but over time ‘we volunteer less, we entertain guests at home less, and we are getting married less’. The structures that help us to socialise are being eroded, and we haven’t replaced them with anything helpful.
Counsellor Mary Evans says, ‘I think a lot of good has come out of digital culture, but social networking does cause a lot of envy and unhappiness, especially among the younger people that I work with, who are in their teens and twenties.
‘I don’t think it’s damaging friendships, but it is reinforcing people’s negative perceptions of themselves. No matter how many great friends you might have, you will start to feel excluded if you’re endlessly looking at group shots and not seeing your own face among them.’
Mary is quick to explain that social networking can be positive too. ‘Being online can be a great way to build and develop relationships – but it also seems to create an enormous sense of dissatisfaction around the relationships people already have, because they assume the ones in other people’s photographs are better. It’s like having an addiction to online shopping – if you’re unhappy, you’re looking for newer, shinier things or people to fix you.’
Rashida, a 27-year-old trainee barrister agrees. ‘There’s nothing like spending Sunday with a hangover, looking at everyone else’s night out on Instagram and thinking, “Why wasn’t I invited there? Who are these mates of my mate? They look like they’re having much more fun than I am!” It’s not a standard night out FOMO, it’s a real fear that I’ve made a mistake making friends, I’m not popular enough and no-one really likes me.’
Elena* (not her real name), a 30-year-old digital consultant explains, ‘I work with a lot of brands on Instagram and I see all the tricks in action. Group shots get so many likes, and people are always trying to cram celebs together. Why get just Cara for your campaign when you can aim for a party shot where she’s standing next to Gigi, Rhianna and, I dunno, Ellen Bloody DeGeneres?!
‘There’s a chicken and egg thing at play: the A list #squadgoals picture is the literal money shot, but the more that celebs build their brands on them, the more the rest of us feel like having 25 beautiful bffs is the ultimate goal – because it’s far harder to attain than a dream job, or decent abs, or a designer bag.’
Elena explains that she’s no stranger to multiple friend envy, but she’s noticed it getting worse now that the squad is the ultimate fashion accessory. ‘Two of my very best mates came over the other night, and we were drinking wine and talking about how terrible our lives were, compared with Taylor Swift’s. The three of us were saying we felt friendless and pathetic – when I’ve known these girls since primary school and there’s no-one in the world I’d rather hang out with! It sounds so obvious, but we heard ourselves and made a vow to be better at appreciating what we have.’
But what should you do if you genuinely feel friendless and you couldn’t give a Meredith the cat-sized shit about Taylor and co? Mary says, ‘Making friends isn’t easy. It takes a lot of confidence. But the wonderful thing about doing it as an adult is that you’re going to be approaching people who are grown up enough to appreciate your efforts.
‘It isn’t like school any more, and if a potential friend freezes you out, they’re clearly still dealing with adolescent issues. Approach it like dating. Smile, be polite, be genuine and remember that interesting people are interested people. New friends aren’t waiting for you to wow them with your claims to coolness, but they’ll love you for caring about what they have to say.’
When I came out the other side of my own friend drought, I realised that quite a few of the people I’d envied were having a tough time too. I’d been very focused on myself – but I wasn’t alone in my loneliness. And my friendships improved when I worked on being more considerate and honest. I had to become less obsessed with what I thought everyone else had in order to see the good things that were in front of me.
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Picture: Lukasz Wierzbowski
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