bipolar parent

Top Tips for Keeping Friends Even with a Mental Illness

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

In my last post, “How to Make Friends During a Pandemic Even with a Mental Illness,” I gave you a few tips on how to do just that.

Briefly summarized, the post encourages you to develop connections online, talk to your neighbors, join a support group, and/or reconnect with old friends. Using these tips, you can make friends even while stuck at home during a pandemic.

But once you’ve made those friends, how do you keep them?

Ah, there’s the rub. Keeping friends after making them is a difficult proposition for anyone, but that’s especially hard for those of us with mental illnesses.

Here are 3 tips to keep the friendships you just made alive.

1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

When trying to nurture your friendships, communication is key.

I have personally lost both new and long-standing friendships because I didn’t communicate properly with them.

In the case of the new friendships, usually playdates made at the parks I attended with my young daughter, I’ve neglected to text the parents after boldly asking for their numbers and establishing an initial “here’s my number” text.

My mother always said, “If you want a letter, write a letter,” implying that I should reach out first to establish the relationship. Her advice is solid; I have rarely kept a parent friend without my texting them to set up playdates often.

Neglecting to communicate is the easiest way to lose a friend. And it’s especially important for those of us with mental illnesses, as we need to let them know when we’re suffering a down day or are self-isolating.

Regarding my long-standing friendship, she frequently invited me to parties at her apartment, but because I didn’t want to drive in the downtown section of a massive city, where she lived, I refused invite after invite without telling her the truth.

This was before GPS on phones (I owned a flip phone at the time), and I was terrified of getting lost, like I’d done frequently when going to her apartment, or God forbid, driving the wrong way on a one-way street again.

I made up excuse after excuse without telling her the truth, and eventually, the emailed invites stopped coming. I lost touch with that friend and everyone in our social circle (she was the hub of all our mutual friends), leaving me virtually friendless for a few years.

Communication is key. Don’t do what I did–don’t neglect to tell your friends when you have an issue.

Here’s a rule-of-thumb: for close friends whose friendships you want to maintain, you should text them at least once a week. For casual acquaintances, call them on their birthdays at the very least.

Frequent communication will help you maintain the friendship.

2. Avoid Self-Isolation like the Plague it Is

When we’re depressed, we tend to withdraw from all sorts of social obligations. We’re exhausted and sad, and we think that socializing with friends is too much effort.

Don’t think like this. It’s a trap, one that starts off a vicious cycle and may even worsen your depression.

Just like in tip #1, if you’re open about your mental illness, communicate with your friends that you’re going through a depressive episode and ask for their grace. If you’re currently cloistered, don’t tell them details but let them know you’re struggling with something that makes socializing difficult.

And then actually socialize as much as you can handle. Sometimes that means lunches with friends are shorter, or you limit yourself to talking to your online friends, but don’t neglect to nurture your friendships.

Let your friends know you’re thinking of them via a text, phone call, or whichever way you communicate best. If you isolate yourself, your friends will think you’ve dropped off the face of the earth, and will choose not to “bother” you.

Tell your friends you need them and socialize as much as you can. Social connections are important and can help improve depressive episodes, and if you leave your friends alone, they will leave you alone, as in the example of my long-standing friendship.

3. Resolve Conflicts as Soon as You Can

Even best friends fight, but a conflict can suck the joy out of a friendship faster than air escaping a balloon.

The problem in your relationships are never all one person’s fault. If you’re facing a conflict with your friend, it’s likely you played a part in the problem.

Don’t let your friendships die because you can’t be the bigger person. Apologize for your part in it first, even if you think you were wronged more seriously than they were.

Most of us shy away from conflict. Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), especially those of is with mental illnesses, tend to be sensitive to yelling and criticism, and break down quickly when presented with problems in the friendship.

Don’t avoid conflict. Avoiding the problem only makes it worse. Swallow your reservations and, like in tip #1, communicate with your friends.

And if you can’t figure out what your part in the conflict is, spend some time in self-reflection. Being honest with yourself and your friend will help you keep them.

If you’re managing conflict in your friend group, listen to each side without judging. Getting everyone’s perspective before declaring who’s at fault (usually everyone) is tremendously important.

When conflict breeds most of the time, the participants just want to be heard and believe very strongly that the other people involved aren’t listening to them.

Listen to your friends. Be an impartial judge and resolve conflict quickly. Doing so will not only help you keep your friendship intact, it’ll also teach you skills for maintaining that friendship and other ones in the future.

Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve enjoyed this primer on how to keep friends even with a mental illness.

I’ve lost countless friends because I didn’t follow these steps. Once I realized the problem was me, I chose to nurture my friendships–two of which are extremely rewarding to me.

I’ve communicated effectively, refused to self-isolate, and resolved conflict as soon as I could. With these tools in my arsenal, I’ve made several friendships that I hope will last a lifetime.

I wish you well in your journey.

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