Why mixing friendship groups gives us the fear – especially now

The pandemic has been difficult for many reasons, but one of the defining factors of the last 20 months has been the restrictions placed on socialising in large groups, or – at times – the inability to socialise at all. 

While this has had a negative impact on lots of people’s relationships, social lives and mental health, others have been breathing a sigh of relief.

In fact, for some of us, the excuse to see people individually or in limited numbers has been an unexpected benefit of the pandemic. 

Why? Because of the anxiety that can come with mixing different friendship groups.

For many people, the thought of having their ‘work friends’ in the same room as their ‘uni friends’ and their ‘other uni friends that don’t know those uni friends’ is enough to bring them out in a cold sweat. 

I am one of those people. There is nothing worse than the thought of anxiously watching my slightly unhinged friend, that I know from festivals and gigs back-in-the-day, making erratic conversation with a colleague who I’m in the process of building up a slowly blossoming friendship with, in a social setting that I have organised – meaning that I am personally responsible for everyone’s evening, obviously. 

Social anxiety has increased during the pandemic

I am not alone. This is a facet of social anxiety – and it has been exacerbated by Covid. A study found that almost half (45%) of UK adults have enjoyed not having the pressure to socialise during lockdown and 40% felt anxious about socialising again after it was lifted. To add to this, almost a quarter said they had forgotten how to socialise all together. 

After almost two years without the option to mix friends, the fact that our social lives are opening back up – with the added bonus of the impending onslaught of Christmas nights out – is bound to feel overwhelming to some.

That’s particularly true if a social event involves being the organiser, or feeling pressure to bring people together for certain occasions. 

‘Feeling anxious about mixing friendship groups is normal’, Alex Mellor-Brook, co-founder of Select Personal Introductions, tells Metro.co.uk.

‘These groups of people are important and you obviously get on with them, but the common denominator between all of them is you.

‘They may all come from different backgrounds, have different beliefs – and if they met up independently would have nothing in common.

‘So, when you bring them together, you’re putting yourself under pressure to make sure things go smoothly.’ 

Different personas for different friends

This makes sense, but why are some people perfectly comfortable with introducing their Metafit mates to their pub quiz pals – while others couldn’t think of anything worse? What makes some people more anxious than others about different elements of their life coming together in one place?  

‘The more “people pleaser” tendencies that a person has, the higher their anxiety’, explains Sally Baker, senior therapist. ‘So, being seen as the fixer, or the one who feels responsible for everyone else having a good time, correlates with higher levels of stress as you watch your friends either mixing well together, or sitting huddled tightly in their original groups.’ 

As well as a fear of people not mingling or connecting, the reality is that many of us have slightly different personas that we draw on for different groups of people. So, some friends might have clearly defined expectations of how they expect us to be, which might be at odds with we you see ourselves – or how others see us. This is nothing to be ashamed of, according to Baker. 

‘One reason we like our friends is that we like who we are when we are with them,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘It’s perfectly natural to unconsciously behave slightly differently or accentuate different aspects of one’s personality with different friendship groups.

‘This can be most noticeable when with friends that were made during defining life experiences such as school friends, versus university friends, or NCT friends made if you have a baby.’ 

‘It’s not about being fake,’ she adds. ‘It’s a reflection of the many complex aspects to our personality.’ 

Mellor-Brookes agrees with this, adding: ‘From the type of jokes you tell to the topic of conversations, you act differently with different people. You may even turn a blind eye to certain comments they make based on your relationship with them compared to other sets of friends.’ 

Relationships change over time

Another factor is that, over the years we change as people – and certain friendships are bonded to different periods and aspects of your life. Evolving as a person can make maintaining certain relationships tricky – and bringing these different eras together can highlight how much you’ve changed, a fact you might not always want to acknowledge to certain friends. 

‘The more the friendship is based on nostalgia for a lost time like your clubbing years, for example, the less forgiving they can be on you metamorphosing into sobriety or career or post divorce,’ Baker says.

‘People change but sometimes friends want us to be who they knew us to be before.’

While having ‘in-jokes’ or reverting back to certain ways of being when with friends from certain eras of your life, is normal, bringing these different elements of your life together can be stressful. At least for the more socially anxious amongst us.

But, introverts can breathe a sigh of relief – we’ve got it on good authority that it’s OK not to mix friendship groups, and we shouldn’t feel the pressure to do so. 

‘There’s no rule that you have to merge your friendship groups or even meet more than one friend at a time,’ Baker explains. ‘Like some people are sequential monogamists, you can be a sequential friend. It’s OK to uphold your boundaries and keep everyone in their individual friendship bubbles.

‘Almost two years of restricted access to our friends has taught us that what we miss most is not ‘things’, but our tribe – even if your tribe is disparate groups who would have little in common.’

All I’ve got to say is, thank god for that – table for two, please.

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