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Posted on Sep 28 2020 by Jo Lehmann

The psychological impact the ‘rule of six’ is having on friendships

This article was written by Lizzie Thompson and featured in Metro, and includes insights from our own psychotherapist Liz Ritchie.

As we hit the six-month coronavirus mark, there’s still plenty of restrictions in place. The ‘rule of six’ is perhaps the biggest one that is affecting our day-to-day lives at the moment. Having to choose just five other people to socialise with at a time can be difficult and stressful – especially when you’re part of a larger friendship group. Obviously, nobody wants to offend anyone or make it seem like there are favourites within a group – so there are all sorts of emotional issues the rule of six is conjuring up. There’s a deeper psychological impact it’s having on individuals, too, from childhood flashbacks of being left out in the playground to anxiety issues surrounding a fear of missing out (aka FOMO).

Here are some ways it’s likely to be having an impact…

Extroverts are suffering

Socialising is a basic human need and is crucial for a general sense of wellbeing. ‘By seeking to limit social interaction – either through tightening our social circle or social distancing – we’re likely to feel the effects on our mood,’ explains Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy. Naturally, some people will find this tricker than others.

Dr Elena adds: ‘Those who are naturally extroverted and feed off a lot of connection are likely to find this especially challenging.’ Extroverts thrive on attention and social situations. So, in the same way lockdown was challenging for extroverts, the rule of six will also be proving particularly hard.

Exclusion is inevitable

In larger friendship groups, it’s almost inevitable that people will be left out – which isn’t nice for the person being excluded or the people actively isolating them.

Dr Elena says: ‘For people with a big friendship group or those who like spreading their time across multiple groups, it’s likely to be hard. It also runs the risk of being divisive. No one likes to be left out – but in some groups, this is almost inevitable now.’ The result of this could be divisions within groups – with certain cliques forming.

She adds: ‘Certain friendship groups might become more cliquey and, as a result, some people could end up feeling isolated.  ‘It’s important to be mindful of how other people might be feeling and to communicate openly and clearly so no one feels like they’re being excluded for the wrong reasons.’ Less fun, more practicality Of course, it’s worth pointing out that the rule of six affects children, just like it affects adults. As a result, children might not be able to see their extended family or family friends.

This is something Rachel Beech is struggling with. She tells that, as a mum, she’s having to find new ways to meet up with friends who are fellow parents and worries about how the new rule will negatively impact her group.

Rachel says: ‘I am lucky to have five great mum friends that I met through my son’s school. Technically, we can still socialise under the rule of six but, as we all have children and partners, meeting together in each other’s homes is no longer an option. We used to have some great gatherings with all of the families together – 20 of us in total – but now we are meeting on rotation to make sure that children get to enjoy seeing their friends as well. ‘I worry that our friendship will be reduced to the practical things we do for each other, like helping out with the school run. Lots of the fun stuff, like kids parties or big family camping trips, have all had to stop.’

Painful childhood flashbacks

Business mentor and mindset coach Ruth Kudzi explains that if a person is already feeling emotionally vulnerable during this time, the new rules might make them feel like they are not wanted or a part of a group.

She says: ‘Even for those who are more emotionally stable, restricting the size of groups to six is fraught with emotions: we may leave people out due to practical reasons. However, due to the heightened emotions, we are all feeling and the stress we are under we may take it personally.  ‘It may well trigger people back to their school days when they felt excluded or left out of a group and could destroy some friendship groups.’

Problems surrounding FOMO

We often joke about FOMO, but the rule of six makes this usual lighthearted jesting a more serious issue.

Liz Ritchie, a psychotherapist at St Andrew’s Healthcare, says: ‘We all desire group interaction, therefore perceived exclusion can have damaging psychological impacts. For those left out this is likely to lead to the common FOMO phenomenon, which can evoke feelings of anxiety, loneliness and inadequacy.

‘It’s also likely to affect our physical health. As humans we intrinsically need physical contact to be nurtured and to feel safe and this is also likely to be compromised.

‘But these are unique times, and it’s vital that we all play a part in recognising which of our friends of family members may be struggling and feeling particularly lonely and including them in our own network.’