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Being the Background Friend: What It Feels Like, and How to Overcome It

It might be more about your own anxiety than you realize.

by A.W. Geiger
December 25, 2019 | Love

When I was in high school, I had a group of friends that I would spend what seemed like all my time with. We'd have sleepovers, we'd hang out at the suburban shopping center at night, we would get snacks together after school. We'd laugh a lot. We'd talk about our crushes.

They were prettier than me, clever, cool – the trifecta I so wanted. Being with them gave me that fleeting, nervous teenage confidence I couldn't find anywhere else. For a while, I thought they were my best friends – it sounds like it, right? But something was always off.

I started to notice that these friends would already be together when I met them. They told jokes I didn't understand. I felt isolated, even when I was with them.

I grew up assuming I was the only person who felt this way. It wasn't until I saw a viral Twitter thread about the feeling – now dubbed "the background friend" – that I realized I was far from alone.

In reality, nearly half of Americans sometimes or always feel alone or left out, and one in five say they rarely or never feel close to people, according to a 2018 Cigna-Ipsos survey.

According to the survey, Gen Z – people ages 18 to 22 – is the loneliest generation. About two-thirds of American teens ages 13 to 17 say they feel a lot or some pressure to fit in socially, according to a Pew Research Center survey. And seven in 10 at least sometimes say they wish they had more friends.

With so many people feeling like loners, it makes sense that identifying as the "background friend" is more common than I thought.

First, let’s define “background friend”

The background friend is someone who doesn't seem to have a core group of friends. They might have a lot of friends, but no one smaller group they truly click with. They might not even have a best friend.

illustration of a bunch of young adults and one person in the middle, looking sad. Rewire PBS Love Background friend
Do you feel like you only get invited out of pity, or out of habit? A lot of people feel this way.

Someone who believes they're a background friend might feel more comfortable in one-on-one social situations and might feel alienated or left out of larger group gatherings.

"A background friend isn't close to anyone, but... is also friends with everyone," said Bria Jones, 26. "Because there is that barrier of being 'best friends,' they are often not the first pick to call or invite when something fun is happening."

Janelle Pfeifer, 27, said a background friend is the person who feels they get included out of convenience.

"It's just the person that is almost the tag-along, the person who happened to be there," said Pfeifer, who lives in Seattle. "There's no thought to whether they were there or not. It's the convenient friend."

Feeling like a floater isn’t limited to childhood

Growing up, Jones "hated that feeling of being left out."

"I can remember seeing my friends on Snapchat together and crying myself to sleep – but also feeling really lame for crying," she said. "Once I got older, that turned into distancing myself from people so that they could never hurt me."

Jones now sees that experience as a blessing. She said she understands now that a relationship is a two-way street and that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to friends.

Pfeifer felt like a background friend a lot in high school and college. She said there was a social disconnect she felt since coming back to the United States from England, where her father was stationed in her youth.

Even though she felt pressure to be invited places, it didn't feel right when she was.

"I remember this party I went to once – it was in the summer – that I was excited for," Pfeifer said. "There was a chance I was going to stay over. I knew this one girl, but a group of others stayed over.

"I remember thinking, 'Why am I here?' You want so badly to be in that group, even if you don't understand why."

For Mégane Simões, 25, feeling like a background friend came later on.

"I had a friend group in high school and college," said Simões, of Washington, D.C.  "When I was older, I lost that.

"I usually hang out one-on-one with people, and not as often in groups. And so, people hang out in groups and sometimes I think, 'Why am I not there?'"

Being a background friend can sometimes feel intangible, but there's one time it can smack you in the face: When you're not included in a group text.

"Where's my group chat?," Simōes said, laughing. "Someone will say, 'This was in the group chat…' And you're like, 'Oh, I'm not in it.'"

Sound familiar? You're not alone

Jones used to think she was the only one who felt like a background friend, too. But when a video she posted to TikTok about it hit one million views, she realized lots of people feel the same.

"A majority of the comments (on the video) are 'Wow, this is me,'" Jones said.

"Since the video has gone viral, I don't think it's necessarily a label, but more of a trait we all have on a spectrum."

Learning that most people are dealing with their own insecurities has helped Pfeifer overcome the feeling of being unimportant to her friends. It can be more a state of mind than a reality.

"Everyone's in the same boat with these things," Pfeifer said. "Everyone's dealing with the same thing."

How to get out of the background friend zone

Patience, authenticity and doing things you're interested in can help someone who feels like a floater friend break through.

For Pfeifer, feeling useful helped her overcome the stress of feeling like she was always in the background. In college, she channeled her love of photography into being a photographer at parties, which helped dull her nerves.

Moving to Seattle and finding a job she liked helped, too. Working in event planning and at a music venue has exposed her to a wide variety of people who she loves to be around. Finally feeling like she can be herself around other people, she no longer feels like a tagalong.

"One of my problems is how I saw myself," Pfeifer said. "Some of us girls grew up saying, 'I'm not like other girls.' But then that makes you bitter and it closes you off.

"Find the people you actually like, be kind, find your interests. That helped me."

For Simões, time was the answer.

"I think the only advice is to be patient," Simões said. "Friendships change, friendships come and go. That's not to say it won't come back. As long as you have relationships that stimulate you, there's no need to go out and change your life."

A.W. Geiger
A.W. Geiger is a journalist and writer who lives in her native Florida. You can contact her at [email protected] and find out more on her website.
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