Dear Kiki: How can I navigate changes in childhood friendships as an adult?

Dear Kiki,
Looking back at this past year, I can’t help but feel a sense of inadequacy. I am currently single and I haven’t progressed in my career. Instead, I am starting over in a completely different field. Meanwhile, everyone else in my close friend group are in stable relationships and are all in well-established positions. We were close as kids because we came from similar cultural backgrounds, and our parents have also become friends. Now, I feel like I am growing apart from them. How do I navigate these changes in childhood friendships as an adult?

– Growing Up and Apart

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Photo by Natasha Kasim on Unsplash

How To Navigate Adult Friendships

Dear Growing Up and Apart,

Your question brings back memories of my childhood. As a child of Taiwanese immigrant parents, I formed an unspeakable bond with my Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese friends who shared common experiences growing up. 

Our friendship felt effortless. I never needed to explain why I had an early curfew or couldn’t attend sleepovers. The cultural shorthand forged us even closer.

I was excited to see this type of friendship highlighted in the high school comedy-drama, Never Have I Ever. In Season Two, the main character, Devi Vishwakumar, meets Aneesa Suri, a new transfer student who is Indian like herself.

Unlike Devi’s other friends, Aneesa won the approval of her highly critical mother almost instantly.  Aneesa also skillfully bailed Devi out of trouble with a convincing lie only a daughter of a strict Indian immigrant mother would know to devise.

Three friends, two women and one man, stand in a subway station looking into one smartphone. They look astounded.
photo credit: Photo by Rendy Novantino on Unsplash

Because these strong bonds are cemented in cultural similarities, they are often irreplaceable in nature. There is such a deep level of trust and relatability that we expect these friends to really understand us.

So when you no longer feel connected to these close pals, it can feel extremely alienating.

This is one of the growing pains of knowing how to navigate adult friendships with a long history. As you overcome this major life transition and reestablish your sense of identity, your relationships are bound to change and evolve with you.

A morose looking young Asian boy leans on the back of a metal chair.
Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

Read more: Chris Naoki Lee gets real with adult friendships in Dinner Party

TUG-A-WAR BETWEEN SELF AND GROUP IDENTITY

We’re familiar with the many advantages of being part of culturally-similar social circles. You feel a strong sense of unity and belonging. Group identity often serves as a guiding post in our personal journeys of development. Over time we begin to adopt these group values as our own. It becomes an integral part of who we are.

When we no longer fit in the box of cultural expectations, it can feel like we are losing a piece of our identity. As a part of a Taiwanese community, I often have felt the pressure to conform and behave in a way that is expected. There is a constant tug-a-war between my own values and expectations and those of the group.

While these circles built on cultural ties can provide us with a safety net, group identity can sometimes conflict with our personal identity and limit our individuality.

This is especially true when you begin to compare yourself with your friends. When you are not following the same path as everything else, you might wonder if you are the problem and doubt your own decisions.

A group of recent university graduates laughing and walking.
Photo by Albert Vincent Wu on Unsplash

I assure you that this time of change is an opportunity to reset your priorities and your compass. It is helpful to acknowledge the differences in your current values and those you grew up with, as you redefine what it means for you to be successful and fulfilled.

RECONNECTING WITH YOUR CHILDHOOD FRIENDS

As you reflect on the changes you are going through, it might help to share your struggles with a few close friends within the group. Despite the differences you feel, there might be a few individuals who you know care and you can count on for support.

If you feel comfortable, initiate a conversation in a private setting.

It can feel awkward to bring up these sensitive topics, especially when it revolves around your relationship. In such an interconnected community of friends and family, bringing up problems and doubts in a friendship could lead to feelings of hurt and hostility if taken the wrong way.

The tendency might be to hold back and maintain harmony. Though, by doing so, you may close the door on a chance to deepen the connection and an invaluable support system.

The best way to approach such a conversation is to focus on your own experiences and feelings. It is daunting to be open and honest, but you are also giving them an opportunity to rise up to the occasion and be a true friend.

A turbaned brown Asian man is shopping for chips at a supermarket.
photo credit: Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Navigating friendships as adults requires a lot of effort and constant communication. These difficult dialogues are necessary in order for you to upgrade your childhood friends to adult best friend status.

BROADEN YOUR NETWORKS

If your attempt to rekindle your childhood friendships is not successful, it is okay to look for other sources of support. Your well-being should be a priority.

Given the recent changes, what you need right now might differ from a year ago, so be open to meeting others who can stimulate your personal growth and learning.

The thought of devoting more time outside your close network of friends might lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Loyalty is often hailed as a valued virtue in a friendship. In some cultural groups like the one you described, family and friends are closely intertwined.

Your lives become even more interconnected beyond just being classmates and playmates. You become a part of a large community.

Three people are sitting on a bench on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant.
Photo Credit: Shot by Cerqueira on Unsplash

However, just because you are making new connections does not mean you need to cut out your old friends completely. (Besides, it might be hard to dodge persistent questions from your parents and avoid them at big community dinners!) 

Characteristics of friends transform over time, but that does not mean that the history is lost and the memories are no longer cherished. We all have friends in our lives who we don’t talk to regularly, but we still consider them an important friend.

Accept that this might be a time where you do not have many commonalities in terms of life stages, but there might be an opportunity for you to reconnect one day.  

GROWING TOGETHER

Friendships are a major part of our lives and a strong predictor of happiness and well-being as we get older, but it takes work.

In Big Friendships, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman uncovers the real-life complexities and struggles of maintaining long-term, meaningful relationships throughout your adult lives.

They define “Big Friendships” as a strong and significant bond that requires investment, consistency and prioritization, in order to transcend life phases, geography and emotional shifts

Read more: Why don’t we prioritize friendships?

One of my earliest lessons about friendships came from Chinese school, another common experience that many of my childhood friends could relate to. I remember learning about one of the Chinese characters for “friend,” derived from the wings of a bird. 

Two birds are seen with their wings extended, flying through a cloudy blue sky.
Photo by Peter Kang on Unsplash

This was the perfect depiction of a true and “Big Friendship”: a side-by-side pair who lift each other up and help each other soar.

It’s been said many times, but it’s worth repeating again. Good friends do not have to share the same goals or perspectives. Knowing how to successfully navigate adult friendships is about staying the course and supporting each other during times of hardship without judgement.

Always here for you,

Kiki


Dear Kiki is Cold Tea Collective’s advice column and it is published in the last week of every month. To get advice from Kiki, submit your questions and comments here. Or, subscribe to our newsletter to get Kiki’s advice straight to your inbox on the last Sunday of every month.

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