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Making friends when I have low self-esteem

Dear Alice,

Your advice to "Surround yourself with positive, healthy people" is good. But this is part of my insecurities. It seems that everyone will want to surround themselves with positive, healthy people; but if I'm not healthy mentally, why should people want to be around me? I fear I'm excluded because, even when I try to hide my insecurities, they still show and people don't want to be around a "downer." Any advice on this aspect?

Dear Reader,  

Building self-esteem through social support can certainly feel challenging if you’re concerned that people won’t want to befriend someone with low self-esteem. Many people face this dilemma, and some experience varying degrees of difficulty when trying to build relationships. However, dealing with mental health concerns doesn’t mean that others won’t want to be your friend. A good way to think about it is that relationships are reciprocal, meaning they’re dependent on both parties giving and receiving in the relationship. If you’re hoping to have a good friend in your life, it helps to be a good friend. In addition to getting to know others and being a good friend, taking some time to work on your self-esteem and self-acceptance may be helpful. You say you fear people won't want to be around a downer. Do you see yourself that way? If so, it might help to reflect on the source of those feelings (more on that in a bit). There are a number of approaches you can take to develop closer relationships and improve self-esteem. Read on for some strategies you might try. 

Focusing on being a good friend may help you develop strong relationships with others. A few key strategies and characteristics you can try may include:  

  • Being present. Use verbal or nonverbal cues to indicate that you’re engaged in the conversation with them. Some of these skills include making appropriate eye contact, having open body language, and responding appropriately to their comments.  
  • Sharing. Be willing to open yourself up and share your personal experiences. This can help deepen your connection with others.  
  • Being available. Try to make time to see your friends and speak with them between the times that you see each other in person.  
  • Showing kindness. This is a simple idea and is one of the backbones to any friendship. Being kind and compassionate to others shows that you care about them. 
  • Being trustworthy. Trust is key to all types of relationships. You can show you’re trustworthy by following through with commitments, showing up on time to events or meet-ups, and keeping your word.    
  • Calming your nerves. Building relationships with new people may be stressful for some. Mindfulness techniques can help reduce any anxiety you may experience about going to spend time with friends.  

Adapted from Mayo Clinic.  

If you're struggling with where or how to meet people, you could consider your passions and then find places or groups who are involved in these activities. For example, you could try volunteering for an organization or joining a cause that matters to you. What about initiating hang out time with co-workers or fellow students whose company you enjoy? You could also spend time reading or studying in areas where people generally congregate (porch, coffee shop, parks) in the hopes of meeting someone. Another option is to connect with others over hobbies you enjoy. What about a painting, dancing, pottery, or cooking class? If you’re looking for other ideas on where to meet people, you may check out Where to meet people over the summer in the Go Ask Alice! archives.  

You mentioned trying to hide insecurities. Could your efforts to hide your insecurities be interfering with your ability to connect with others? Many people who form authentic and meaningful connections with others possess a quality of curiosity and appreciation for other people's gifts and for their quirks. It’s also good to remember that few people are entirely free of insecurities. When a person is open about them (what they are, where they come from, how they feel), it could actually become a means of connection. Your feelings of insecurity, for example, may allow you to empathize with others who share an experience of struggling with self-esteem, as many people do.  

As you go through this process, it might be an opportunity to reflect on the source of your insecurities. Could they result from past experiences of rejection or experiences of stereotyping, discrimination, or bullying? Did you receive messages from loved ones about certain characteristics or traits? While they may not be easy to overcome, consciously working on your insecurities while leaving room to be present for another can help you connect and build relationships with others. If you find that you’d like to explore your insecurities and self-esteem further, talking with a mental health professional may be beneficial. They’ll likely be able to provide a space to help you process your feelings and thoughts. While the relationship with a mental health professional isn’t a friendship, it's a type of intimate human connection that may help you learn to build other close relationships.  

Though it may seem like a feedback loop at times, continuing to invest in yourself and your social relationships may help your real self truly shine! 

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Last updated May 28, 2021
Originally published Sep 16, 2010