by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW

 What do bungee jumping, casual sex, and driving while texting all have in common?  They are risks that, for my money, are not worth the pay off. 

I once interviewed a fireman and asked him about the experience of fighting a fire. 

“We risk nothing for nothing, and everything for the important things,” he said. 

“What does that mean?”  I asked. 

“If the house is already totaled we don’t go inside risking roof collapse and injury or death to put it out, but rather contain it from a safe distance and let it burn out.  But if a child is trapped inside, we will risk our lives to save kids.”   

Unfortunately this analysis of risk and cost-benefit scrutiny is something that many people have some serious challenges practicing. 

As a result lots of folks engage in high-risk, low-reward behaviors while avoiding low-risk, high-reward behaviors.  

For a great example, let’s talk about socializing.  Making friends with new people can be an intimidating proposition.  In the back of many people’s mind plays this fear:  “What if they don’t like me?” 

Most of us have painful childhood memories of being left out, ridiculed or even hurt by others.  But now we are adults (thank goodness!) and have a much greater personal power and ability to shape our lives then we did as kids.  

You can respond to that old childhood fear “What if they don’t like me?” with this:  “Well, if they don’t like me they are not a good friendship candidate” (unless you are a masochist befriending a sadist).   It’s really quite simple.  Barring an attempt to make friends with a grumpy cannibal (which I do not recommend) there are very low risks from engaging in social outreach. 

Yet, the intensity of the fear of the pain of rejection keeps many people isolated. 

This is like avoiding the dentist for fear that from not going to the dentist in the past you might have cavities that need to be filled and that might hurt.  What happens?  Even if you don’t have cavities your oral hygiene is compromised and if you do have cavities they get bigger and more problematic from lack of treatment. 

In addition to negative internal dialogue, some people simply lack information about how to go about making friends.  For those folks I offer an easy three step skill-builder:

  1. Study people in your life at work, school or home who socialize effortlessly.  Get to know the rhythm and cadence and flow of conversation.  Think of it like a ball that is bounced back and forth.  Or as a menu of topics that you and your friend can choose from.  Or a dance.   TV is not good for this exercise because the dialogue on television is scripted and therefore not realistic.  There are no awkward pauses on TV and there are plenty in real life, especially when you are first learning how to engage in social outreach.  

  2. Identify three or so activities you enjoy such as going out for coffee, going for a walk, or watching a play.

  3. Invite your potential friend for a specific activity on a specific date.  The vague social proposal, “we should get together sometime” is usually met by an equally vague “yeah.”  Followed by….absolutely nothing.   Much better is something specific such as, “I hear Stickypop theatre is doing a new play by that Pulitzer-prize winning playwright.  It’s about Zen Buddhist terrorists working for Santa Claus.  Would you be interested in going with me on Sunday?”

If these suggestions seem very hard consider therapy to address underlying issues that may be getting in your way. 

Keep in mind that unless your name is Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie and people fall all over themselves to get to know you, making new friends requires effort.  Fortunately that effort involves just three simple ingredients:  a person you want to get to know, an idea of something to do, and the willingness to initiate a social activity. 

Happy friend-finding! 

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