In 2017, separated from her inner circle by thousands of miles and a five-hour time difference while studying abroad in Ireland, Laura Hirsch grew anxious her friends were phasing her out of the friend group.
In the end, some friends did take a step back from their relationships with Hirsch — because they were overwhelmed with needing to be constantly available to her.
“A lot of them felt they had the responsibility to respond to me and take care of me, which is not what I wanted, and not who I am as a person,” Hirsch says.
The anxiety of suspecting a friend is upset with us is common, thanks in part to modern communication and how our brains work. The coronavirus pandemic — when friends were kept apart for so long and some friendships withered away — seems to have exacerbated the issue. “When we’re in the state of pandemic and existential crisis, it’s more likely that these kinds of thoughts can come up,” says Kat Vellos, a Bay Area-based connection coach, speaker and author. “If you don’t hear from somebody, you go, ‘Are they mad at me? Is something wrong?’ ”
The good news is not only is this feeling incredibly common, experts say, but it’s normal and can be fleeting. By getting to the root of why these fears arise, we can learn how to combat worries of rejection and confidently address our concerns with our friends.
The relationship has deviated from baseline
Every friendship has routines and regularities: the frequency of hangouts, the preferred medium for communication, the types of activities done together. When those patterns are disrupted — say, a week goes by and we haven’t heard from a friend who we usually speak with daily — an alarm fires in the brain, signaling a disconnect, says Amir Levine, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at Columbia University. “We don’t like those alarms,” Levine says. “They don’t feel good to us.”
Because we aren’t necessarily aware when our friendships have deviated from baseline, Levine says, all we’re left with is the unpleasant sensation that something is wrong. Before jumping to conclusions, parse through usual interactions with this friend. If they’re prone to canceling plans at the last minute or usually need a few calls before they pick up the phone, it’s likely a similar instance isn’t necessarily a departure from their usual behavior.
Certain actions are misinterpreted as rejection
When we lack clarity over the status of our friendships or are unsure of the intention behind our pal’s statements or actions, we project rejection onto that ambiguity, says Washington, D.C.-based friendship expert and psychologist Marisa Franco. “We tend to perceive rejection even when it’s not there,” she says.
This ambiguity is only amplified with technology, says Tampa-based friendship coach Daniell e Jackson. It’s difficult to interpret tone through text messages or to determine the reason for a delayed message, making it easier to assume the worst.
Freelance writer Elsa Cavazos knows her relationships are solid when her friends engage with her on social media. “My friends always like all my photos,” the 26-year-old says. Whenever she notices her pals aren’t as quick to like a post or suddenly cut down on emoji use in texts, a pit forms in her stomach. “I have some friends that are very dry texters, but they’re not dry in person,” she says. “If you send ‘K’ then I think you’re mad, but maybe to them sending ‘K’ is whatever. And I’ve had those [conversations] where people are like, ‘No I’m not mad, what are you talking about?’ ”
The actions themselves aren’t necessarily the issue, it’s our interpretations of their meanings. We can incorrectly cast meaning onto an unanswered text message and internalize it as a sign of a doomed friendship when, in reality, a friend could be overwhelmed with work, school or parenting, Levine says.
Sometimes the gesture we wrongly assume is rejection isn’t necessarily an action at all. “It’s easy for us to interpret noncommunication as the presence of upset feelings,” Vellos says. “It’s important for us to be aware that our interpretation is not the whole story, and we would be better served by doing the thing that feels uncomfortable, which is to reach out and invite a conversation about it.”
You have a different attachment style than your friends
From an early age, we develop certain patterns, behaviors and approaches to relationships, characterized by four different attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant and fearful-avoidant. Markers of secure attachment style are when people can easily trust and accept love and aren’t afraid of intimacy. Those with anxious attachment styles have a fear of abandonment and are acute at picking up threats to relationships, Levine says. A person with an avoidant attachment style wants more distance in their relationships. Fearful-avoidant contains a combination of both anxious and avoidant styles. A mismatch in attachment styles — while not a friendship dealbreaker — can lead a friend with anxious attachment, for example, to perceive their avoidant pal’s needing space as a rejection and take it personally.
No one attachment style is inherently better than the others, Levine says, but realizing we’re more sensitive when it comes to relationships can help determine if a rift is truly brewing or if each party has different needs. If we do realize we require a high level of closeness and validation from friends, prioritize those who readily give that attention, Levine advises: the ones who are always there, the ones who always text back.
The past is coloring the present
Past relationships can inform how we approach current ones. Since research shows social exclusion is a form of adolescent bullying, our negative childhood experiences can influence our current beliefs. “If we have experienced that in our youth,” Vellos says, “if we were the recipient of that social exclusion from mean girls in school, in adulthood it's easy for that same stimuli of she’s not talking to me — it could trigger that same fear.”
But we can also use history to our advantage to help explain why we’re concerned about the status of our friendships, Franco says. Reflecting on the past enables us to pinpoint the source of our fears and to feel confident knowing history doesn’t have to repeat itself.
When early-pandemic lockdowns separated friends indefinitely, Hirsch thought back to her isolating time in Ireland. Instead of reverting to old patterns of nonstop texting as a means of making up for lost face time, she pulled back from social media and reached out to friends directly who she thought could use a sympathetic ear.
Thinking that centers what we did to cause a friend to be mad at us ignores the fact that the issue could have nothing at all to do with us in the first place. Our companion who made an ambiguous comment or canceled plans could be overextended or dealing with a personal crisis they haven’t divulged. Jackson says to take a step back and depersonalize the issue at hand and show grace toward the friend — something 29-year-old bartender Hannah Eagle has recently taken to heart.
“Not everything can be about me,” Eagle says. Since childhood, they have often feared friends were upset with them; if they noticed a friend hadn’t reached out in a few days or a bud didn’t laugh at one of Eagle’s jokes, they suspected something was off. Removing themselves from the equation has helped dull the anxiety. “For the most part, I don’t think people are thinking about you as much as you’re thinking about them thinking about you,” Eagle says.
To negate any worries that we’ve done something to upset a friend, Levine says to “keep our side of the street clean” — to act inclusively and do everything in our power to be a good friend, whether that means answering texts in a timely fashion or regularly checking in.
Ultimately, the only way to ensure a friend isn’t mad is to ask. Jackson recommends using specifics: “I know we were supposed to meet up Thursday, and at the last minute you said you couldn’t come. Is everything Okay?” Grounding the inquiry with details and empathy ensures the friend won’t feel attacked and opens the door to a constructive conversation.
“I like to suggest exercising an attitude of curiosity before you develop this entire assumption and narrative and you go into it with that,” Jackson says, “because it might be something you weren’t aware of and it may bring you relief to find, oh my gosh, great, it’s not me.”