The Friendship Doctor

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When anxiety gets in the way of friendship

Some people prefer to have only one or two close friends

QUESTION

Dear Irene,

I am a college sophomore and have had relatively few close friendships. I'm okay with not having a lot, but have always wanted at least one really close friend. Last year I roomed with a girl who has become a very good friend. It even looks like we might be able to room together next year, something we both look forward to. I think it's safe to say this is one of the closest friendships I've had.

My problem (unbeknownst to my friend) is that I'm pretty anxious about this friendship. This fits my personality, as I tend to get anxious and introspective about many, many things. I sometimes fear I am obsessive or too possessive, although this is only inside myself and is never outwardly detectable.

I prefer close one-on-one friendships and get anxious and insecure (jealousy?) over other friends she has. I'm afraid our relationship isn't as close as I think it is (and want it to be) and feel that her other relationships are an intrusion, which makes me unhappy. I realize I should simply accept things as they are, but sometimes I can't avoid feelings of intense discomfort when it comes to her mutual friends--as though I am being robbed of something (which I know is wrong).

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Recently, after experiencing such "jealousy", I suddenly had negative feelings about our relationship, as though my friend is someone I don't know. Obviously this worries me, although I strongly suspect (and hope) that this is simply another byproduct of my anxiety. The truth is, I love my friend very much and we have shared a lot together over the past year.

I realize I have a weakness that I will have to deal with throughout life,
but I'm really frustrated with how it affects my friendship. I would like to be able to accept her interactions with other people without struggling like this--the last thing I want is to be possessive like that, for either her sake or mine! And yet I want to reassure myself that we really are close friends. Do you have any advice as to how I can be less jealous/anxious about our friendship?


Signed,
Stacey

ANSWER

Dear Stacey,

When you feel so close to someone, it's natural that you would want those feelings to be reciprocated. But your anxiety over this friendship is excessive because it's so uncomfortable and troubling to you.

You haven't told me much about your roommate but many people, like you, prefer to have only one or two close friendships. Others enjoy juggling larger numbers of people, sometimes a mix of close and casual friendships. This is probably the case with your roommate but it doesn't in any way diminish the closeness she feels to you.

Perhaps you should talk to your friend and let her know that you tend to be an anxious person (She probably knows that about you already). Ask her to let you know if and when you are too clingy or possessive. Tell her you cherish your friendship and don't want to do anything that damages it or makes her feel uncomfortable. I suspect she'll be reassuring and let you know if anything is bothering her.

I suspect that this friendship isn't the only instance in which you feel anxious and uncomfortable. People become anxious to varying degrees based on their temperament (which is, in part, genetic) and it can be upsetting, and hinder their performance both academically and socially.

You sound very smart and insightful, and seem highly motivated to change. Given these factors, you probably would benefit from some short-term therapy (not psychoanalysis) to help you deal with your anxieties. I suspect that this will not only help you with your friendships but will carry over to other aspects of life. Since you are on a college campus, you can see whether the student health office offers some kind of screening and can provide short-term therapy like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

I recently wrote an article about anxiety for Science Careers and you may want to take a look like that article, too. I hope this helps.

My best,
Irene

You may also want to look at these related prior posts on The Friendship Blog:

Is it friendship anxiety….or depression? 

More than shy…could it be social anxiety? 

Dealing with a pattern of fractured friendships 

Wisdom from Whitney: Rx for being a less needy friend

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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