My Dad happened to say something the other day that struck a chord with me. He was talking about how nice it was when he recently met up with an old friend from college, and said he had not contacted him previously because he didn’t want to assume his friend wanted to keep in touch.
When he said it, I immediately felt how sad it was that he thought this. Then I realized that I implicitly think the exact same thing all the time. I am writing to you in order to figure out how to not still be thinking that in 25 years so that I don’t turn into my Dad.
I have a really hard time making and keeping friends. All my friendships are short lived and confusing. Most die as soon as we are no longer thrown together by external forces (e.g. sports teams or school). I seem to be capable of other kinds of relationships, like with my fiance or casual acquaintances at work. My parents raised me and my brother to be independent and self-reliant, so it shouldn’t surprise you that we are not a close knit family (though it doesn’t help that I live across the country from them). Happily, my relationship with my fiance is the most sane, easy and right thing that has ever happened to me. I don’t have trouble relying on him or asking for support, which is great because as it turns out I am not capable of being totally self-reliant.
I have been diagnosed with clinical depression, and after some bad episodes, I finally found a treatment that works for me. I finally have a floor beneath my feet. I *never* used to talk to anyone about my depression. In fact I still don’t, but its easier, now that I have a life, to avoid the topic. Yet, I still am that same person in my heart. I see the world differently than people who aren’t depressed. My depressive episodes are like a black hole in the timeline of my life. During that time I had no friends at all (I met my fiance afterwards) because I pushed the world away to sit in my room and cry it out. Before then, I was such a ball of frustration depression and anxiety that its no wonder I didn’t get close with anyone. Now I am 27 and I have my shit together. I take care of myself and found some confidence. But I have no friends, and no idea how to make them or keep them.
With my fiance I feel free, and always have from the start, to talk about depression and feelings etc because he knows how to handle it. With acquaintances, I don’t go anywhere near the topic of downward tilting feelings and I fulfill my end of the socially obligated small talk contract. I’m not shy with new folks because that comes fairly easy to me.
For any relationship between lover and acquaintance, I have no idea how to talk in a way that is at least honest enough to really be myself. I worry people will think I am a burden, a bore, too blunt or pessimistic. I am afraid of talking about myself, but will inevitably feel crummy if all we do is talk about the other person. I am afraid of relying on anyone for anything except someone with a binding agreement that they will be there through sickness and health. I am afraid of assuming people want to hear from me or hang out with me, so I almost never ask. Maybe afraid is too strong a word for all of this. I am not filled with anxiety (at least not the same anxiety of my black hole days), but there is definitely something holding me back.
I am lonely for friends, and am acutely embarrassed to admit that I have no one to ask to be a bridesmaid, let alone a maid of honor. Do you have a set of guidelines I could keep in mind when I’m casting about for things to say that won’t keep me up late at night for the shame? I want to be me, I want to be honest, but I don’t know where to stop and where to push ahead.
A bride, but never a bridesmaid
Thanks for the kind words and the book recommendation, I will certainly check it out.
I love reading how your family organized around a central virtue: Self-reliance! We will be self-reliant and raise our kids to be self-reliant! So you are self-reliant, and all the good things that come with that, but you get the dark side, too. It’s amazing (in a horrible kind of way) how depression and perfectionism work together inside our jerkbrains. Did you realize that in your letter you are kind of sort of apologizing a little bit for not being “capable” of perfectly self-reliance and happiness at all times, as if that is some kind of standard everyone is holding you to?
It’s also amazing (in that same horrible this-is-how-sausage-gets-made way) how consistently weddings bring out all the insecurities of everyone involved. It turns out that you don’t actually have to have bridesmaids. You can decide to bag that whole thing. But I agree that having friends close enough to be bridesmaids would be awesome, and I see why you want to get some of those.
Did you watch it? It’s both extremely comforting and extremely scary on a “yeah, but how do I DO that?” kind of way.
I have some good news for you: You can be a depressed, blunt, pessimistic person who has a hard time admitting vulnerability and asking for help and still have friends. You can be a great big crybaby needy geeky weirdo who is bad at small talk and still have friends. (Trust me on this). There is no rule that says that you have to achieve some kind of perfection (in your case, steely self-reliance where you prove that you don’t need anybody else and promise to be witty and fascinating at all times and never talk about yourself) before you are allowed to have love or friendship. There is nothing more alienating than perfection or the performance thereof.
You are doing a good thing for yourself by asking this question. The hard work you did to treat your depression has paid off, both in you opening yourself up to a romantic relationship where you feel safe to be vulnerable and in priming you to the place where you want to seek out friendship. Congratulations: You have leveled up on the hierarchy of needs!
There’s some nitty gritty stuff you can do to help yourself with this. About halfway down this post Commander Logic gives you a ton of advice for meeting people and breaking the ice with them.
I look at developing friendships a lot like I look at dating. All the basic Captain Awkward rules apply. They are just other humans, who don’t owe you their friendship or attention, but could potentially be fun to hang out with, given time and exposure.
Your People are everywhere….Your People may be students, townies, single, married with kids, older than you think, younger than you think, churchier, anarchistier, louder, shyer, teetotalers, luddites, technocrats, knitters, blue-collar, ravers, and so many other things that you wouldn’t expect from Your People. To find them, you need to go where people are doing something you love: craft fairs, poetry readings, special screenings, exhibitions, karaoke nights, lessons in anything, churches, block sales, concerts, author book signings, fan conventions, literally anything that you would go to for fun anyway. And then you introduce yourself. A LOT. Or at least as much as you feel you can personally manage, and then talk to ONE more person than that.
“Hi! I’m ______! How did you hear about this event?”
“Hi! I’m ________! I’m trying to get to know people around here; how long have you lived here?”
“Hi! I’m _________! I’m looking for the best coffee in the three block area. Do you know where I could find it?”
“I love [thing person is wearing]! Where did you get it?”
“I’m in [neighborhood] but I’m looking to move, what’s your favorite neighborhood? What do you love about it?”
Praise. Ask advice. People fucking love to give advice. Or be snarky, if that’s your flavor of interaction. If the conversation flows, you might be friends! If the conversation stalls, you might not be, and in an emergency you can Napoleon Dynamite it out of there, and that’s okay. The thing is, your first goal is not “to make friends.” No. Your goal is “meet a lot of people.” Then if someone asks you something like “Why do you want to know?” you can answer “Just trying to meet new people.” If you say, “Just trying to make friends,” then the pressure is on! They might be friend material! Oh noes! I don’t even know if I like you yet! You aren’t friends yet, but you ARE new people who have met. SUCCESS!
They don’t have to be your friends right away. Or ever! The entire extent of your relationship may be that one meeting, or maybe they’ll introduce you to someone who will become your friend. But you are in charge of who you maintain contact with.
And when you meet new people that you like, date them. You know, friend-date them. Until you either become friends or drift apart.
One thing that has worked out well for other letter writers is finding 1) a regular activity (like the sports teams you mention, where you’ve found friends before), 2) that you must do regularly with other people, 3) where you are a newbie and not in a position of having to be good at it right away, which automatically makes you vulnerable. Roller derby? Foreign language classes? Dungeons and Dragons?
Another suggestion is to ask your favorites among your fiance’s friends or family to lunch or the movies or to hear some music. Choose something VERY casual to do and invite them along (not something that requires you to clean the house and demonstrate cooking/hosting skills). You already know some of these people, right? Try to dance a little closer and see what happens.
Not everyone will want to be your friend. You won’t want everyone you meet to be your friend. When it happens, it will feel easy and good, like it did when you got to know your fiance.
If you’re not currently in therapy and can get access to it, I recommend you go back and talk about these worries. If you start feeling those “oh god what if they don’t really actually like me/I want it too much, therefore that means I can’t have it” feelings and pull away, your therapist can remind you that that’s your jerkbrain being a big jerk to you and it may not have anything to do with what these new friends feel about you. It takes so much work to reset your default to “People probably like me more than they don’t,” but I bet that IS the default of how other people feel about you in reality. For instance, I read your letter and thought “She sounds pretty neat.”