Friendship is deeply important to our well-being. It provides mutual acceptance, warmth, and trust between people. It’s a refuge and a place where you can safely be yourself and connect with others. Friends share interests, personal stories, and humor and enjoy spending time together. However, making and keeping friends doesn’t always come naturally for adults with ADHD. Challenges like social anxiety and Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD), which are common among adults with ADHD, may make it difficult to form and maintain friendships.
Strategies to Build Strong Friendships
Bringing awareness to these obstacles and challenges is the first step in relieving some of the stress around interpersonal relationships. And practicing some practical communication skills means you will make progress over time, step by step. Let’s take a closer look at some proven strategies which will make it easier for adults with ADHD to enjoy close connections and strong friendships.
“I feel that a lot of times I genuinely do want to socialize and get to know people. But trauma and fear of rejection disables me from doing it. It’s hard to fight my brain to meet this goal.” – Gunther, age 28.
Friendship and the ADHD Brain
Fear is one of the most commonly reported obstacles to making friends for those with ADHD.
Do any of these statements sound familiar?
I will embarrass myself.
I will make a bad first impression.
People won’t like me right away.
I have to be perfect to be liked.
These core fears, so common to ADHD, can feel overpowering and debilitating. You may know you have nothing to fear and that these statements are not true, but your negative brain goes into overdrive and overwhelms the positive parts. Some amount of worry is natural and expected. But if left unchecked, this can lead to social anxiety which will require more care and often therapy to manage.
Did You Know? Some research shows that as much as ⅓ of adults with ADHD experience social anxiety.
Social anxiety is a fear that people will scrutinize you in either familiar or unfamiliar social situations, and this negative judgment will have harmful effects on you. These worries about humiliation and rejection are persistent and restrict your activities, interests, and relationships. Social anxiety interferes with making and keeping friends.
Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD)
RSD is a common co-existing condition with ADHD but not a formal diagnostic category. Rejection-sensitive dysphoria refers to intense feelings related to the belief that you’ve let other people down, embarrassed yourself, failed at something, or made a serious, unfixable mistake and, as a result, people pull back their support, love, or respect. RSD causes extreme emotional pain that plagues both children and adults– even when no actual rejection has taken place.
People with RSD struggle with letting go of past hurts and/or rejections and experience heightened emotional sensitivity. They may hold onto unkind words or actions directed towards them for months or years. You just can’t seem to shake off their comments and believe at some level that you deserve them.
Strategies for Making and Keeping Friends
There’s a saying I really like: “Be a friend to have a friend.” When you express caring toward someone and extend a hand in friendship, you will put yourself in a better position for friendships to blossom. Sure, you may need to “make the first move”, introduce yourself, and get the ball rolling, and this can be uncomfortable at first. With enough practice, you’ll get the hang of it, and I assure you, it will get easier.
Making friends depends on these 4 factors:
1. Resilience is key to making friends; being able to shift and be flexible.
2. Proximity provides easier access and spending time with others.
3. Seeing people repeatedly throughout a range of settings builds trust and enjoyment of each other’s company. Build up information about a person’s behavior, likes, and dislikes.
4. Having similar interests and being in the same spaces. Some examples are working, school gym, hobbies, and religious organizations.
It’s also important to remember that friendships come in different forms in what I see as a layered circle. Of course, it’s natural to have movement between these layers there’s as we become closer with some folks and less friendly with others.
The next time that you’re in a social environment, see if you can apply some of these strategies to build connections with peers:
1. Ask relevant questions and assess what’s happening by looking at people’s faces.
2. Be aware of physical proximity and volume. Place yourself appropriately near others, observe their volume, and do the same.
3. Join in a conversation after observing and listening to what’s going on. Participate in reflective statements that show you’re listening. Show genuine curiosity about others’ experiences and avoid judgments.
4. Lay off self-criticism. Turn down the volume on the internal negative voice that guesses what other people are saying about you because it’s often wrong; stay present and engaged with what’s happening NOW.
5. Practice makes progress This is particularly true with chit-chat. You don’t have to like this but you may need this skill at times. Practice in low-value/intensity situations: at the grocery store, at the dry cleaners, and at the library. “How are you today?” “Nice weather isn’t it?” ”Thanks for helping me.” Set a goal to engage in at least 1 brief exchange with someone each time you run an errand, go to the gym, or are at work.
Enjoy connecting with others and sharing what’s special and fun about you while receiving what’s interesting and compelling about others. This is a give and take, which will enrich your life in countless ways.
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