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How to approach friendships after months of social distancing

During this whole pandemic, technology has been a saving grace. It has allowed us to continue our education from home; purchase essentials when stores were closed, and discover cool hobbies to pass the time through a plethora of online classes.

Most importantly, technology has narrowed the void between our friends and family, that was created by social distancing protocols. We have adapted to virtual connection: checking in with elderly relatives over Facetime, cheering our besties up with memes or organizing group night-ins over Zoom. As a result, this experience has taught us not to take those who we love for granted. We don't necessarily have to spend lots of money to socialize and have fun; it's about having company and realizing we're not alone.

As rules are eased and life is slowly returning back to normality, it means we can soon go back to hanging out with friends and socializing at school. While the mental health impacts of in-person connections are hugely positive, you may find yourself feeling a mixture of emotions such as excitement, awkwardness and apprehension. Here, three friendship experts give their advice on how to navigate your relationship in this adjustment period.

Evaluate your friendships

"Coronavirus has given us a pause to evaluate and re-evaluate our friendships," Dr. Melanie Ross Mills, friendship expert and creator of Life Bonds brand, explains.  "We have had some time to pause and ponder in regards to what we want and need to move forward in connections with friends. We have also been able to look at the type of friend we are to others."

Ask yourself some thoughtful questions. What do I wish for more in my relationships and what do I wish for less of? Throughout these tough times, who have I made the most effort with and is there a particular reason for that? Who reached out to me and who did I barely hear from? Was there a friend I shared my worries and fears with and was there another who turned out to be the surface friend that I never connected with on a deeper level?

By reflecting on our answers, we can work out which people in our lives energize and care about us the most, while also acknowledging areas or improvement in certain relationships.

Let go of FOMO

Currently, we may feel like we no longer have a pulse on the friendship circle. We don't know who has been chatting more or getting closer in quarantine and so, as we transition back to socializing in person, our nerves may be heightened. 

Mills says, "My first tip is to let go of this feeling as if you have missed out. You haven't missed anything and you are free to reenter with confidence and a mindset that you are an asset to your friend group."  

Remember that you're not the only one feeling like this. Nicole Zangara, clinical social worker and author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, says: "This whole situation kind of reminds me of summers between the last and the first day of school, where you go from not seeing classmates and friends all the time to seeing them every day. Simply acknowledge that it may take time to get back to how things were before Covid-19, but that everyone is dealing with similar anxieties, unknown feelings and awkwardness.

Accept change

There are numerous reasons why the dynamics of our relationships could change post-lockdown. One friend might have been through a particularly challenging time lately, while another has decided to pursue a different friend group or interest after quarantine. "Take time to understand why they have changed," Mills suggests. "Is there anything on your end that you can do to better understand the change?"

If you're concerned about a friend who is distancing themselves or acting off, then Mills recommends sitting down with them and having a one-to-one chat. Ask them whether you have done something to offend them or whether there is a deeper reason as to why they don't want to hang out.

Spread a little sunshine

"Show up with the intention to help others feel good," Shasta Nelson, friendship expert, motivational speaker and founder of Girlfriendcircles.com, says, "Compliment your friends, make them laugh and demonstrate how much you appreciate them through personal gestures."

Although kindness is key to fostering better friendships, it's important not to go over the top. Many of us will know that friend, who frequently sends gushy texts like, "oh my God I love you sm, you're so amazing, ur literally the most beautiful person in the world." Of course, there's nothing wrong with being affectionate or complementary towards our friends, but when we overuse flattery, it can eventually lose all meaning and sincerity.

In order to make our friends feel truly valued, we have to express interest in their lives and the best way to do that is to ask questions. For example, rather than saying "How are you?" as a cursory greeting, ask your friend the question with an open mind and genuinely listen to their answer. If you like someone's outfit, tell them how great they look, but also ask them where they bought it. If your friend has some exciting news about a personal achievement, congratulate them and then ask some follow-up questions to find out more about what it entails.

How to help those who are grieving

Zangara's advice is to validate, validate, validate. "Everyone is going through a grieving and loss period due to the pandemic," she says. "Lots of us will have lost loved ones or acquired new family stresses. That's why it is so important that we keep up those connections."

Ask your friend what you can do to help. If they say they want space, then absolutely respect their wishes. Having said that, we still need to reach out and check in with them. 

Send a funny meme to make them smile, an inside joke that you both share or simply a text saying you're thinking about them. Additionally, even if they decline, keep inviting and including them in your friendship groups' plans. They'll come back when they feel ready to socialize.

Open up

Granted, friendships are all about the LOLs, but they're also about the feels. If we cannot share our worries or expose our true selves amongst friends, then there will always be a wall separating us. We shouldn't have to slap on a smile all the time and by facing up to that fact, by being open and honest about our emotions, we can support each other more effectively. On those bad days, tell your friends straight-up: "I'm feeling a little sad today." As well as being cathartic for ourselves, sharing how we feel can encourage others to open up.

Start fresh

If, prior to quarantine, you felt isolated at school, then now is the perfect opportunity to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It might seem scary, yet you need to realize that you have so many incredible qualities and that anyone would be lucky to be your friend. 

Mills recommends taking the following steps: "Ask some new people if you can sit with them at lunch. Form a study group with people you haven't spent time with previously. Set yourself a goal to talk to a new person every day."

Consistency is key

As Nelson points out, friendships aren't things that happen to us; rather, they are something to which we are 50% of the equation.

Prove that you are reliable by consistently reaching out and making plans with friends. No matter what you may think, there is always an opportunity on your end to influence what your friendship will blossom into. Just remember though, it is a two-way street. You cannot be the only one putting all the work and effort in, because that is not fair on you emotionally. Talk to your friends about how you're feeling; if nothing changes and they still don't appreciate you, that is their loss. Realize your self-worth. Cut out the negativity in your life and spend time with people who make you feel positive, confident and valued. You got this, girl!

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by Charlotte Bateman | 8/13/2020
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