One of my all-time favorite jokes is a John Mulaney bit from his his Netflix special Kid Gorgeous, in which he muses that his college days essentially felt like a game show called “Do My Friends Hate Me, or Do I Just Need to Go to Sleep?” After hearing it the first time, I was overcome with nervous laughter—the kind you feel deep in your bones when something rings so true, it’s scary. That’s because, like Mulaney, “Does my friend like me?” is a worry I often have after a hangout session. Even if my suspicion is completely unwarranted, I’m overcome with social anxiety about whether I said the wrong thing when they asked for advice, or if they wished they canceled plans instead of seeing the movie I picked, or if the reason we saw a movie period is because they prefer that to having a conversation with me. The reason I end up in this tightly wound ball of stress? Friendship imposter syndrome.
Rationally, I know the love my friends and I share is reciprocal, and my worries are nothing but deep-seated projections. But the self-awareness doesn’t shield me from spinning out with my insecurities—and experts say that makes sense. Just as imposter syndrome can impact our professional experiences, it can also show up in our relationships, especially when we’re not confident in our ability to show up fully for our friends, says anxiety and self-worth coach Amanda Huggins. So if you’re having an “off” day or week, you may start to worry your friend sees it as a flaw. You in turn internalize the worry and wonder, Does my friend like me?
“If we feel less than, or not good enough, or if the relationship has a really uneven power or energy structure, then this can all contribute to us feeling like we are an imposter in that relationship,” says women’s mentor Megan Dalla-Camina. “It can also happen when we don’t feel comfortable or safe to show up as our true selves in the friendship, and we feel like an imposter because we literally are showing up as one.”
Friendship imposter syndrome is also more likely to take shape if you experience anxiety and/or imposter syndrome in other areas of your life where you may feel like an outsider. “If a seed of self-doubt is planted, we often water it with our negative self-talk and then find evidence in all areas of our lives,” says psychotherapist Marissa Moore, LMHC.
But, keep in mind, these feelings can also arise due to previous traumas or heartbreaks. “A fear of abandonment, especially if that has happened to you in your past via friendships or family relationships or romantic relationships,” can lead to imposter-syndrome woes, says psychologist Andrea Bonior, PhD.
What to do when friendship imposter syndrome creeps in
Feel seen? Well, the pros all agree that invoking certain strategies protect you and your friendships from the anxiety-ridden self-doubt spiral. For one, try practicing daily mantras and mindfulness about the ways you are indisputably a great friend. “Marking those positive qualities and reflecting on them will help you to practice ownership of yourself—and build confidence in the fact that you are in fact, a stellar friend,” says Huggins. To remind yourself of this on the reg, write down your positive thoughts so you can reference them later. “Journaling is such a powerful tool and can help challenge some of the self-doubt and the negative thoughts that come with imposter syndrome,” says Moore.
Regardless of your coping method of choice, the most important thing to remember is that your anxious voice is “an unreliable observer,” psychologist Andrea Bonior says.
Other tips include using essential oils, meditation, and breath work, like an anxiety-calming exercise Dalla-Camina is into: “Counting a 16-part breath—4 counts inhale, 4 counts hold the breath in, 4 counts exhale, 4 counts hold the breath out—calms your nervous system and can help to clear your mind. Five minutes of this can work wonders,” she says.
Regardless of your coping method of choice, the most important thing to remember is that your anxious voice is “an unreliable observer,” Dr. Bonior says, suggesting to detach the anxious thoughts from the unquestionable truth. “Instead of thinking, ‘My friends probably hate me,’ say “I’m having the thought that my friends hate me.’ The more that you can begin to detach from your anxious voice and recognize it as separate from you, the better.”
Is it ever smart to bring this up to your friend?
A good friendship is based on communication and honesty, but how the heck do you tell your friend you’re worried they hate you without upsetting them? Furthermore, is there any value in telling them at all? Let’s say you got coffee with your BFF and something just felt, off, but you can’t tell whether it’s your friendship imposter syndrome acting up or you just couldn’t get a read of something bigger. Do you text your friend and ask, ‘Are we okay?’ or is that inviting more worry in? Apparently, it depends.
“Whenever we’re communicating with someone, it’s important to share our ‘why’ so that they have full context,” says Dalla-Camina. For instance, try something like, “Hey! I noticed that you’ve been distant lately, and I just wanted to check in, because I miss you, and I value our friendship.” Reaching out is fine (though she suggests phone calls over text, as feelings can get lost in emoji translation). “The key is simply to express your feelings, and create space for your friend to do the same.”
What that doesn’t mean, though, is constantly asking “Are you mad at me?” without having a specific issue in mind that’s worrying you. Doing this may irritate your friend or make them think you’re accusing them of acting angry, Dr. Bonior says. Instead, she says, use “I” statements when you decide to have a chat about your friendship: “I have been feeling concerned, like something’s up. I worry that I’ve said something that has been hurtful to you. Can we talk about it?”
When you have a talk, “clear, direct, honest communication is the way to go,” Moore says. Keep in mind that your feelings may not be “true,” so to speak, “but they are valid and worth speaking up about.” Chances are, Huggins assures, “your friend(s) will hear you out, and respond in kind.”
While you’re working on being good to yourself, check out these four sneaky ways you might be sabotaging your own happiness. Plus, here’s the one word to cut from your vocabulary to have more energy and get more done.
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