The good news: as more and more Americans become vaccinated, we’ll likely feel comfortable seeing friends we haven’t seen for more than a year. The bad news? It might be weird.
Think about it. An entire year — one that feels like a lifetime or three — has passed. We’ve lived through the greatest collective trauma most of us ever have or (hopefully) ever will. And when we all got tired of Zoom, many of us did it with a very tightly edited quarantine pod. How do we just pick back up with people as we come out the other side? And what about the friends we’ve forged such bonds with? Is it kthxbye for them?
A lot of these thoughts are swirling through my mind now as I think about reconnecting with friends from the before times. For help navigating this strange new world, I reached out to Christy Pennison, licensed professional counselor and owner of Be Inspired Counseling & Consulting in Alexandria, Louisiana.
Before you pick up that text thread from last March, this is a good time to evaluate who you want to be part of your life now, Pennison said. Ask yourself, “were they healthy ones, were they ones that made you a better human being? Were they friendships that really added value to your life?” Really spend some time reflecting, she said, “before rushing right back in.”
“Before you choose to spend time and energy rekindling a friendship ... you can kind of evaluate which friendships are you missing in your life. It could be like ‘I really miss that person in my life, and I want to reconnect,’ and I think that's going to be a good gauge of where do you spend time and energy.”
Because friendships have seasons, Pennison said. “These are people that are coming into your life for different periods of time, but they may not be your forever friend. And so trying to distinguish between who's a season friend and who’s a forever friend will also give you clarity about, ‘do I want this person in the next season of my life.’ Because you get to choose your people and time is something that we don't have much of.”
Things may have changed, so be chill
When you’ve taken stock and know who you want to reconnect with, remember, Pennison said, “it's been a hard year, so people will have changed. We've all changed in some way over this past year.”
We've all changed in some way over this past year.
Keep in mind too, she said, “that this person may have experienced the year differently than I have. Some people have experienced great loss in their life and they're maybe just struggling to wake up each day and put a foot forward. Some people have really not seen a huge effect on their lives during this pandemic. So I think part of it is trying to be understanding of wherever that person's at.”
While it’s normal to have expectations of others (and ourselves), “if we can find a way to suspend expectations of that person while we're re-engaging in that friendship, that can go a long way,” she said. “That means to say, ‘I just want to reconnect and see where this goes, I don't expect us to be best friends tomorrow again, I don't expect us to go hang out every Friday night like we used to.’ Just kind of trying not to set any expectations on that relationship may take some of the pressure off.”
Gauge everyone's comfort level
Another element to navigate is varying comfort levels people may have with re-entry into the world. “I think this is where communication is really key,” Pennison said. Gauging what they’re comfortable doing is going to be really important, she said, “because somebody who has been mainly isolated through the whole pandemic may not be ready to go into a crowded music festival; they may not be comfortable going into a really busy restaurant, so I think part of it is like, ‘let's just have an honest conversation, what is everybody comfortable doing … here's a few ideas that I had,’ and asking for feedback.” This way everyone’s on the same page right from the start.
Be present and vulnerable
So what do you do when the moment arrives and there you are again in the flesh with your friend(s)? First, be in the moment, Pennison said.
“Just try to enjoy and be present in the moment with your friends. A lot of our friendships pick up where they left off, but sometimes we get in our head and think it's gonna be something different.” When she works with people with social anxiety, this wondering what to say or not can be debilitating, she said, “and it keeps them from interacting with people in their life.”
When in doubt, she said, “just be really interested in the other person.” Ask what’s new in their life, because “life is still going on, right, so maybe they got a new dog or maybe a new house or maybe they got engaged. People had babies. So I think I would try to focus on what makes us human, and ask questions about what has life looked like for them this past year. What hard things have happened — and be open to holding the space if there's been a hard thing that's happened.”
That in itself can be difficult, she acknowledged. “If you're with your friends and you sense that there are some things that they're not saying, and it's an appropriate time to talk about some of those things,” she said, “then I'll often encourage people if they're brave enough to be the one who leads the charge … to be the one that says, ‘hey, you know what, there were a few nights during this pandemic where I felt really alone, or I felt really scared,’ and just being the person that's brave enough to open that vulnerability door, often allows other people to come in and say ‘hey, you know, me too.’”
We've kind of been like Tom Hanks in Castaway ... We’ve just got to find our way off the island to reconnect with community.
Don't forget your quarantine crew
As we start re-introducing old friends into our lives, there won’t be as much time for the quarantine crews who’ve been through the trenches with us. We’ve formed deep connections with these friends, Pennison said. In many cases, they’ve become like our families. If you’re afraid of losing that, acknowledge that, she said.
“Sometimes because we get so close to people we think that they can just read our mind,” she said, “and so I think even in those friendships, it's good to have a check in and say, ‘hey, you know what, my time is getting a little bit stretched ... I just want you to know that even though our lives are changing, I really value that you've been my friend through all of this.’”
Give that friend permission to be honest, Pennison said, so they can tell you they miss you. Even set an intention to continue the relationship.
Where things can go south — whether in a friendship or romantic relationship — is when we try to guess what people need from us, she said. “An honest conversation goes a long way in checking in to make sure that things are all right.”
Get off the island
At the end of the day, even if it’s hard or tricky, this is what we need, Pennison said. “Coming out of this pandemic what I've seen as a mental health professional is that people need connection. They need to be able to be in a community; we all do.” Look at Tom Hanks in Castaway, who made a soccer ball into someone to talk to, she said. “We've kind of been like Tom Hanks in Castaway in some way,” she said. “We’ve just got to find our way off the island to reconnect with community.”