How friendships can lead to anxiety

May 14th 2021

If you have every wondered why best friends come and go and if it's 'you', this could help.


Years ago I moved out to Germany with a toddler, a newborn and a husband who wasn’t going to be around much.  The army community is incredible at supporting each other and very soon I found myself part of a quartet of ladies, all with Officer husbands, all enduring nappies and toddler tantrums and all without the support of family.  We became a very tight band and I felt confident that these were true friendships for life.

After 2 years together, one by one we went off to other postings, and before long, I had little more than Christmas card exchanges with 2 of the 3.  For a long time, this led to many a night of lying in bed wondering what I had done wrong; was I such a bad person that they didn’t want to maintain the friendships? Was I delusional at how deep I thought the friendships were?

Have you ever experienced that?

PS: Not a big reader? You can watch the video here

Another friend had a tendency to make every one feel like a new best friend and the relationship would become very intense very quickly.  But I observed how she would then change her mind (as she actually got to know them) and push that person away.  It was painful to watch!

Friendships can lead to a lot of anxiety – worrying about offending, worrying if someone has not returned calls, fear of rejection – the list could go on.

In response to my own experiences and those of clients, I developed a very simple model that has really helped me to reduce anxiety and it has been taken on board with clients too, especially teenagers.

So imagine an Egyptian pyramid...

At the top level of the pyramid are the tier 1 friends.  These are people that know you inside out and with whom you share a high level of trust.  An acid test for a tier 1 friend is whether you can call them up at 3am and they would be grabbing their car keys before even asking what help it was you needed.

Most people have 3 or less people at this level. (A word of caution – these may not be family members!)

Tier 2 friends are close friends but there is an element of your life that they are not part of.  It may be they are kept from knowing your past, or you’d never let them meet your parents!

Tier 3 friends tend to be more context specific – ie friend at work, or college/school.  The relationship is largely kept to within those boundaries.

And tier 4 – these are people who you know to pass the time of day but ‘acquaintances’ is a more appropriate term.

How to use the model

The biggest source of anxiety is assuming this is a one way system – it’s not!  This was the big realisation for me when my German quartet disbanded.  There was a ‘glue’ holding us together and when that glue was no longer there, the relationships naturally fell apart. This was not a reflection on any of us just that the glue had disappeared.

By taking a more objective view of friendships, you can start to feel comfortable with where someone is and therefore how important that relationship to you is in that moment.

This is a key element of using this model with teenagers.  They can become very anxious about how ‘someone’ may judge them.  However when we put that ‘someone’ on their model, it becomes obvious that that person is not important and by reflecting on how those who are important – ie the tier 1&2 people – judge them, their self esteem can escalate significantly.

How else can this model help me?

The model can really help in making decisions about where to invest your energy in relationships.  If someone is a work colleague (tier 3) and you enjoy their company, you may like to consider investing energy in moving them up to a tier 2.  Similarly you may recognise you are investing a lot of energy in someone but they are not moving up your pyramid.  Is that investment in energy showing you the return you want?

I encourage people to use the model (a copy of it available here) to pop all their friend’s names on and map out what it looks like.  There is no right or wrong way for the pyramid to look.  The point is to be able to make decisions that support your time and energy and reduce any feelings of anxiety.

Caroline Cavanagh is an anxiety specialist  and hypnotherapist in Salisbury, Wiltshire.  She is an author and public speaker and would love to talk to you if you would like to know more about her work

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