Perhaps it has already happened to you.
In the first week or two of school, you quickly made a group out of the first few people you met. You all hung out between classes, went to dinner together, watched some movies in the dorm, checked out the welcoming dance in the Student Union, and drank too many beers on Saturday night. You compared notes about professors and classes; complained to each other about the food, the price of textbooks, and the dorm rules; helped each other find the obscure room in the engineering department where your English class got placed, went together to the school gym for the first time, and loaned each other quarters to do laundry.
For about a month, it seemed like you had a lot in common. For maybe even a semester, you thought these folks would be your friends for life. And then? . . . Then things began to fall apart. Although absolutely fine on the surface, the relationships didn’t have any depth. It turned out that once the newness settled, you didn’t really have much in common. What happened?
What happened is something that is absolutely normal. When people are in new surroundings and feeling a bit insecure, they turn to one another for support and reassurance. At that moment in time, we’re not looking for shared values or goals or good conversation. What we’re looking for is a fellow traveler. As long as the person isn’t aggressive, shares a taste in music or beer, and doesn’t scare the neighbors, it’s enough. Basic neediness only requires that people meet basic needs. When we’re together, we’re not alone.
But as soon as people start to feel comfortable, we also start to be comfortable enough to look around. Other people may seem more interesting than those in the original group. We find out that maybe our early buddies don’t want to spend as much time studying or don’t really share an interest in football. Often we feel both excited to meet people who share more of our personal interests but guilty that we kind of want out of the first friend group.
It’s not your fault. It’s not the fault of that first group of friends. It’s a natural evolution from falling into relationships based on neediness to choosing relationships based on shared ideals and interests. If you’re really lucky, some or even all of the first friends are able and eager to go to the next level as well. But most of the time, there are at least some people who can’t or won’t get beyond superficial palling around. It’s not that those original friends are bad or that you made bad choices. It’s that you – and they – have reached a new stage in your social development.
Getting To the Next Level: How To Find Lifelong Friends
The truth is you can just get along with almost anyone if you want to. Shallow relationships are good enough if you just want to party. Talking about nothing can be fine if all you want is to talk. At some point, though, shallow will feel exactly that – shallow. You will want to find people who “get” you; who will be there for you when you are feeling less than wonderful, and who will celebrate with you when good things happen in your life. True friends rarely just fall in your lap. Finding them takes some effort. If you find your first friend group unsatisfying, here are some things to consider:
1. By all means, be kind to those who have seen you through the first stage.
There’s no point in burning bridges with people you will undoubtedly see now and then. You don’t need to have a big fight or mega-drama to free yourself up to start developing other friendships. Just withdraw from the intense togetherness and start making room for other relationships. If someone confronts you about not spending enough time with them, it’s enough to tell them that you are getting involved in other activities. Invite them to come along if they want. Chances are they won’t. If they do, and genuinely get excited about what you’ve introduced them to, maybe there is more promise in the relationship than you thought.
2. Resist the temptation to hang out with people from your high school who are now attending the same college unless you really, really like them.
Yes, they are familiar. Yes, there is some comfort in sharing the same memories. But if you stay only in that circle, you close out the potential for new and enriching friendships.
3. Reach beyond the people who live next door or across the hall.
Now that you know how to get around campus, you probably know where people who share your interests hang out. Go there even if it’s raining, even if it’s a mile away, even if you don’t really feel like leaving your room.
4. Strike up some conversations with colleagues before and after class.
It’s often easiest to talk to people who are in the same major and who share the same passion for 13th century pottery shards or 20th century politics – whatever it is that you are studying because you love it. Ask them to go for coffee after class.
5. Join a club or organization or project that reflects your values — even if you’re not naturally a joiner.
People who like the same types of activities probably have other things in common with you as well.
6. Be willing to take the risk and initiate. Invite people to go with you to campus lectures, concerts, or games you want to attend. Those who accept your invitation are people who either like what you like or like you enough to want to spend time with you.
7. It’s a two-way street. Accept invitations and show up at events that stir you.
You’ll soon find that you are regularly bumping into the same people. This is the pool of folks you want to get to know.
8. People who go through something meaningful together often bond meaningfully.
If your school offers it, go on an alternative spring break that does service somewhere; take part in an outdoor adventure week; or challenge yourself in a ropes course.
Too scared to do any of this? Then it’s time to get some counseling to shore up your social skills. College can be a wonderful social as well as academic experience if you have the strength and skills to get into the social scene. But it can also be a very alienating experience for those too shy or anxious to take advantage of community opportunities. College is a perfect time to tackle your personal fears and to get practice in interacting more successfully with others. A college counselor will coach you in some practical skills and will give you the support you need to practice them.
Some people do fall right into a fantastic group of friends in the first few weeks of freshman year that sticks together right to graduation. But first friends aren’t necessarily the right friends. Lots of people go their separate ways, with or without some drama, after the first month, the first semester or the first year. The friends you will value and count on for a long time into the future are those you’ve chosen or re-chosen more thoughtfully and who connect with you in ways that really matter.