Ask The Therapist: “My friendships are very toxic and unfulfilling…I don’t have anywhere to meet new people and I am suffering from low self-esteem…”

In 2016, the number of people estimated to be suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety amounted to roughly 1.1 billion. Since then, numbers have likely continued to rise. Moreover, studies have also shown women especially on average are a) more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and b) less likely to talk about them. The taboo in Pakistan surrounding depression and anxiety disorders only serve to aggravate the individuals suffering even more. For the women who cannot seek out full time therapy, we’ve enlisted the help of a trained therapist. You sent us in your questions – here are the answers!

“I am a 22-year-old girl who feels her friendships are either very toxic or very unfulfilling – I may be at fault for it myself as well. I am a bit of an introvert, but it’s that phase of my life where I want to branch out and make more friends, go on trips, have brunches and just know I have some people to count on – be it guys or girls. At the moment, I only have 5 friends and they’re so busy in their lives and other huge friend groups that I get lonely often. Also, I don’t have anywhere to meet new people? I am terrible at small talk and just don’t know how to be there for people and have fun instead of having dreadful, depressing conversations. I feel like at this age people have already formed their “squad” and it’s difficult to make new friends. Even at my university I find it hard to navigate friendships with females, but also guys as well and get awkward around mutual friends’ guy friends. Even when I am hanging out with my closest friends, I sometimes get anxious that they don’t like me or maybe I’m not pretty enough to be their friend or they would rather be somewhere with someone else. Please tell me, am I just suffering from low self-esteem and/or social anxiety? Some advice would be appreciated!”

Shahrukh’s Response:

Dear Anon,

I imagine it must feel so overwhelming to carry that anxiety with you, even with your closest friends. What I’m also hearing is that there is such a strong desire to connect, and yet there’s a great deal of fear that comes with it. This paradoxical state is a mechanism that ties into social anxiety. Let’s look into this a little more.

Social Anxiety: Desire And Fear

When we talk about the definition of social anxiety, it is said to be the fear of social situations, and is centered around an embedded fear of judgement and rejection. As you stated before, while you want to connect with others, you also feel a great deal of anxiety and you question the intentions of those around you. So, what does that mean?  

The answer lies within you. Sometimes we tend to focus on the external world, and yet a lot of what’s happening has to do with one’s relationship with the self. What I learnt about social anxiety over the years is that oftentimes, we project our own fears and thoughts onto others. So, perhaps it’s not others that see us that way, but rather how we see ourselves. The question to ask yourself is: what is your relationship with yourself? How do you relate to the world around you?

Social Anxiety And A Pandemic

Anon, we’re living in an unprecedented time, where the world is in a state of divide, and our ability to connect with the world around us has changed drastically. Most of the interactions we have with others have shifted to the virtual world: Zoom meetings, social media, online chat rooms and so on. In general, it has become a lot more challenging to connect with or meet people. That being said, there are things that you can do during this time.

Connecting with current friends: I’m curious as to where the fear of judgement comes with your closest friends? I wonder what it would be like to confide in them about the fears that you’ve been having? It may sound odd, but you’d be surprised as to how comforting it can be to have that talk with someone close to us. Think about the friend(s) you feel the most comfortable with and have a one-on-one with them, and see how that feels, notice what’s coming up for you. If you feel a lot of judgement towards yourself, ask yourself: is this really what the other person is thinking, or is this just my fear talking? Remember, your fear is not your reality, it doesn’t have to be – you have that power. 

Connecting with old friends: Sometimes there are friends that we end up losing touch with. Not because of any concrete reason, but rather because life might have gotten in the way, and you just didn’t have time to reconnect. Remember, you did have a bond initially, who’s to say that it isn’t still there? All it takes is for one person to say: “Hey! I’ve been thinking about you recently. How are you?”. I know it can seem a little daunting sometimes, so do this at your own pace. 

Challenge Yourself: It can be so easy to stay within one’s comfort zone, believe me, I’ve been there and tend to gravitate back there every so often. Try setting a goal for the week, a challenge that will help you expand your zone of comfort. Whether it’s meeting an old friend, accepting a social invite and going out, or even if it’s just calling someone up. The more you do it, the less intimidating it will be overtime.

Explore your discomforts and fears: Fears, if left to their own devices and ignored, can become bigger overtime. When it comes to social anxiety, self-esteem and judgement, I would really recommend doing things to help explore those fears and learn ways to soothe them. Therapy is a great way to do this, or learning about the art of self-compassion and mindfulness. There are several individuals and authors such as Tara Brach and Kristen Neff, who have written several books on the subject. I would highly recommend their books, and Tara’s podcast.

Anon, I know it can be difficult to carry feelings of anxiety and loneliness. I really do feel for you, I know I’ve felt that way many, many times. You’re not alone there, I promise you. Just know that there are ways for you to reconnect, not just with others, but with yourself as well. I hope you found some of the answers you may have been looking for in this article. I wish you all the best in your journey towards healing and growth. Take care of yourself, and stay in your power!

The above article is written by Shahrukh Shahbaz Malik who is trained in humanistic integrative counselling at CPDD in the UK and currently has her own private practice in Karachi. The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They do not necessarily represent the views of Mashion, nor do they represent the complete picture of the topic at hand. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment.

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