In the absence of clear "rules" or distinctions, many folks make assumptions about friendships informed by pop culture...which doesn't always portray friendship accurately. For example, movies and TV shows might lead us to think that we must have a singular “best” friend through life or that great friendships don’t involve much emotional labor—but neither could be further from the truth, according to friendship coach Danielle Bayard Jackson.
In a recent episode of her Friend Forward podcast and on TikTok, Jackson shared a few of the biggest misconceptions about friendship that she’s heard clients express. If you’re looking to make new friends or deepen existing connections, it’s in your best interest to drop these mindsets for good.
4 friendship misconceptions that could keep you from having fulfilling bonds
1. Thinking you can predict how a friend is going to act
Many of the friendship-sabotaging behaviors that Jackson sees in her clients are rooted in the misconceptions that they have the powers of fortune-telling or mind-reading. “For example, you need help with something, but you choose not to ask your friend [assuming they’ll be bothered by the ask]. You want to get together this weekend, but you don’t invite. You want to send a ‘You’re on my mind’ text, but you choose not to,” says Jackson. These are all cases where you’re “cutting yourself off from enjoying richer friendships because you believe you can predict how other people will respond to your outreach,” she says.
“When you believe you can predict how other people will respond to your outreach, you cut yourself off from enjoying richer friendships.” —Danielle Bayard Jackson, friendship coach
The problem is, research has shown time and time again that we’re both bad at predicting how we’ll feel in the future and how others will feel in response to our actions. With regard to friendship, specifically, we’ve actually been shown to underestimate how much people like us in the first few conversations and how much our friends will appreciate hearing from us.
In some cases, Jackson concedes that you might be able to make an educated guess as to how someone will respond to a message of yours. (For instance, you might assume that a close friend wouldn’t be interested in watching football with you if they’ve expressed that they don’t like sports.) But most of the time, our attempts at predicting what a friend will do or say are made in vein, she says. So, before you limit yourself from interacting with a friend based on a script you’ve created for them in your head, Jackson challenges you to pause and ask yourself, “What evidence do you have that this will be the outcome?”
2. Thinking you should continue a friendship because you “owe” it to them
Jackson calls this friendship misconception “emotional indentured servitude” because it involves putting effort into a friendship as a way of paying off a supposed debt without receiving any actual benefit in return for the work. “I find that people will actively labor in a friendship because that friend was there for them during a difficult time four years ago, or because they’ve been friends since the second grade and leaving would feel disloyal, or just because they feel like they have to, for one reason or another,” says Jackson.
But if you were to imagine reversing roles in this scenario, it’s easy to see why a friendship of this sort isn’t actually beneficial for the receiving friend: “If I told you that there was a friend in your life whom I just spoke with, and they shared that the main reason they’re your friend is because they feel like they have to be, how would you feel?” says Jackson. “You might be hurt, but you’d also probably be like, ‘Set me free, I don’t want to hold you up. I don’t want your pity.’”
Even if the friend never found out that you were just staying in the friendship because of some history-driven obligation, it still wouldn’t benefit you, either. The friendship may not be toxic or aversive, but its undercurrent of wishy-washy emotions certainly isn't health-supportive, either. In fact, research has shown that maintaining these mixed-bag relationships (involving both positive and negative feelings) can actually have a more detrimental impact on the body—raising blood pressure and stress levels—than engaging with people we outright dislike, whom we may be able to dismiss more readily.
3. Thinking that coasting in a friendship is the same thing as growing
Much like any healthy romantic relationship, any good platonic one requires reciprocal effort. To think otherwise sets you up for both disappointment and loneliness. When researchers followed groups of older adults over the course of five years who either thought friendship depended on personal effort or that it depended more so on factors outside a person’s control, the latter group was less likely to engage socially and, in turn, had greater levels of loneliness.
“You’re going to have to put in the time, plan ahead, and do some emotional lifting [in a friendship].” —Jackson
That’s not to say that a friendship needs to require so much work that it’s depleting to you, Jackson caveats. It’s just that thinking, 'If it were a good friendship, it would just flow naturally without effort' is a misconception, she says: “You’re going to have to put in the time, plan ahead, and do some emotional lifting, and you might even be physically or cognitively exhausted at times. But that’s the kind of intentional effort that actually grows a friendship.”
4. Thinking that it’s just too late for you to make new friends
One of the biggest friendship misconceptions is simply the idea that you’ve missed the moment, says Jackson. In actuality, it is never too late to make new friends.
If you think that everyone else around you has already found their crew and that’s that, take heart in this: Research shows that we replace half of our friends every seven years. Which is to say, we’re all constantly pruning our friendships—letting go of certain friends and making new ones—throughout life.
And that makes sense: You weren’t the exact same person with the same interests or talents or life circumstances, say, 10 years ago, so why should your friend group be exactly the same, either? “Yes, you might have certain friendships that have evolved to align with all the variations of yourself that have developed over several years, but it’s just not feasible for you to keep with you all of the people who knew the 1.0 version of you,” says Jackson.
What's more, believing the misconception that you should’ve already met all your friends by now can backfire, diminishing your chances of adding people to your circle. “Just imagine that you’re having a good time with someone you meet, and you’re like, ‘Wow, she’s really cool,’ but at the same time, you assume it won’t turn into anything because you’re past your friendship prime,” says Jackson. “You’ll then be less likely to pursue it or continue to initiate.” In that way, your mindset could serve to prevent you from giving a potential new friendship a fair shot.
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