We’re social beings, and our web of relationships is important to our happiness. Supportive relationships help us survive life’s storms and celebrate its successes. Stressful and dissatisfying relationships—ones that leave us feeling angry, hurt or disappointed—contribute to our feelings of sadness and depression.

There’s an expression that really brings that point home: “A mother can only be as happy as her least happy child.” Our relationships with others affect our mood. Our kids, our partners, our co-workers, our parents, our siblings, heck, even our neighbours—they can all help us feel better. Or worse.

Let’s take a closer look at the “whos” in your life—how often you see them, what you do together, and what you like and don’t like about the relationships. We’ll start by drawing your social circle, and then we’ll complete an exercise we call Four Questions.

Acquaintance or friend?


People sometimes struggle with telling the difference between an acquaintance and a friend. Does it matter?

Yes. And not because of a judgy belief that only friends are important. We need both in our lives. We can practice new coping strategies and communication styles with acquaintances. And they can be a low-risk sounding board and source of advice.

You can tell the difference between acquaintances and friends by thinking about what you talk about and the way you communicate with each other. Have you ever talked with them about personal things? Asked them for advice? Had them come to you for help?

If the answers are no, they’re probably an acquaintance. Friendship requires vulnerability and intimacy—you know stuff about each other that an acquaintance just doesn’t. Open up to the right acquaintance, and you just might make a new friend.

Step 1: Time to draw


Person ready to draw on paper with pencil - Draw your social circle

Now let’s draw your social circle. Grab a pencil and a sheet of paper. Plain 8.5 by 11-inch (or 215.9 by 279.4-millimetre) paper is fine. Markers, coloured pencils and glitter are optional.

You don’t need to get fancy, but you’ll be referring to your circle for reminders of your relationships. You might even change your circle over time, as relationships grow, wane or are resuscitated.

Draw a small circle about an inch wide in the middle of your paper and write your name (or simply “me”) in it. Then draw another circle around that one, about an inch from it, and a third one around the second. (You can add more circles if you need to as you go along.) You’re drawing your social universe, and everything revolves around you.

Next, think of the names of the people who are important to you and jot them down in the circles around “you.” Those closest to you go in the first circle; more distant relationships go in the outer circles, depending on how close you consider the relationship to be.

Your friend, your mom’s friend, your husband, your wife, your kids, your hairdresser, your bartender, your work colleague, your therapist, your doctor—they all may have a place on your social circle.

Who did you see the most last week? Who drove you crazy? Put ’em both on the circle. (Or maybe they’re the same person!) You can include names from the past as well as the present.

Just because a relationship is close doesn’t mean it’s positive. Some of our closest relationships are our most stressful ones, and these are exactly the relationships we want to explore this week.

Another tip? Just because she’s your sister or your mom doesn’t mean she has to be in your inner circle. Moms and daughters and sisters (and dads and sons and brothers) are sometimes on the periphery of our lives or not in our lives at all, and no one (including you) should make you feel guilty about that. It might be just the way you like it. If it’s not, we’ll figure out if it’s something you’d like to change.

Some people will immediately jump to mind, and you’ll know exactly where to put them on your drawing. If you get stuck, take a look at your texts, your email inbox and your Facebook account for reminders. You can also answer these questions:

  • Who did you spend time with on the weekend?
  • Who do you work with?
  • Who aggravated you the most last week?
  • Which professionals do you see on a regular basis?

If someone who was close to you died, put them on your social circle as well—and don’t worry about getting it “right” if you aren’t sure where to put them. It can sometimes help to place them where you would if they were still alive.

Similarly, if you were close to someone in the past but aren’t now, you can decide whether you want to put that person in an inner or outer ring. This is your circle, and you get to decide where things go—there’s no right or wrong here.

Focus on documenting who is in your life, not on whether you can (or should) make changes to those relationships. Remember, one step at a time!

Are Facebook friends real friends?


There’s a paradox of the internet: so many friends, and at the same time no friends at all. Face-to-face friendships are rich, multidimensional experiences that are enhanced by being together in the same place, seeing body language, sharing good and bad experiences, and more.

Our verdict? Online friends are real. But they aren’t a replacement for face-to-face friends.

An online encounter doesn’t offer the same depth. It’s just too easy to control our virtual personas and turn off the computer when we’ve had enough. The investment and accountability just aren’t there if we’ve never breathed the same air in the same room.

By all means, build your online circle of friends, connections and followers, especially if face-to-face interactions are stressful or challenging for you. It is possible to experience genuine care and intimacy with people online, and they can be a great resource when you want to try out new communication styles or coping strategies. But there is a difference.

Our verdict? Online friends are real. But they aren’t a replacement for face-to-face friends. If you feel your circle has too few friends of the face-to-face variety, we can work on that together.

Step 2: Let’s play 4 questions


Couple sitting on bench, annoyed with each other - Draw your social circle

Putting everyone on the social circle is step 1. The next step is to choose a few of the most important relationships and explore them in more detail. Officially, this step is called “exploring the interpersonal inventory.” But it’s more fun to think of it as playing Four Questions.

Remember, these relationships don’t need to be the ones that make you feel good. In fact, it’s the stressful, hurtful and disappointing relationships that are often the most important to explore, because they’re the ones that are most likely connected to your depression.

Here are the four questions you’ll ask yourself about each of the most important relationships in your life right now:

How would I describe the relationship?

Review your relationship a little. Think of what you do together, how you communicate (face-to-face, by text, email or phone), how often you see each other and what you usually talk about (and don’t talk about).

How have things changed over time? How do you feel when you think about seeing that person? After you’ve seen them? Who initiates contact? How do encounters start? End?

What do I like about the relationship?

Think about what works and what you’d miss if you didn’t have that person in your life anymore. This can be hard to answer if your relationship is full of conflict or you’ve been really hurt or disappointed by the person. Try to remember what made you connect in the first place. Try imagining what others might say they like about the person, even if you can’t feel those things yourself.

What don’t I like about the relationship?

Think about when it makes you feel sad, hurt, angry or disappointed. If you can’t come up with anything you don’t like, pay attention. Nobody’s perfect, so why the imbalanced view? You won’t work on it now, but it’s something you may want to revisit later.

What would I like to be different about the relationship?

Think about what you’d change to make the relationship better for you and what you wish bothered you less, even if you can’t imagine anything will change.

If you try out this exercise and would like to share your experiences, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to leave a message in the Comments section below.

Front cover of Feeling Better - Draw your social circle

Cindy Goodman Stulberg, DCS, CPsych, and Ronald J. Frey, Ph.D., CPsych, are the authors of Feeling Better: Beat Depression and Improve Your Relationships with Interpersonal Psychotherapy and the directors of the Institute for Interpersonal Psychotherapy. Visit them online at http://interpersonalpsychotherapy.com.


Excerpted from the book Feeling Better. Copyright ©2018 by Cindy Goodman Stulberg and Ronald J. Frey. Printed with permission from New World Library—www.newworldlibrary.com.

image 1: Pixabay; image 2: Pixabay; image 3: Pixabay