Robin Marantz Henig’s piece on loneliness and the science of how loneliness affects the brain is sad and interesting and relevant to our interests, I think:
What is different about lonely people is how they interpret their interactions with friends and acquaintances. In the Ohio State study, lonely people tended to feel put upon and misunderstood. They were, the researchers wrote, “more likely to attribute problems in social relationships to others,” and to see themselves “as victims who are already giving as much as they can to their relationships.”
In other words, people grow lonely because of the gloomy stories they tell themselves. And, in a cruel twist, the loneliness itself can further distort their thinking, making them misread other people’s good intentions, which in turn causes them to withdraw to protect themselves from further rejection — and causes other people to keep them at arm’s length.
According to Guy Winch, a New York psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid, lonely people can become “overly defensive and come across to others as detached, aloof, or even hostile — which only pushes them further away.” Loneliness can create its own self-defeating behavior.
I see this pattern in letters and discussions we have here. “Try meeting more people!” we say. “I’ve TRIED that and it’s not WORKING” the struggling, lonely letter writer or commenter says. “Just, um, try harder!” we say.
I have also seen the self-fulfilling “negging” behavior in action, and I do have a strategy when I meet someone at an event and I say “Hi, nice to meet you” or “Are you enjoying the event?” and they say (true story) “You’re probably just saying that” or (true story) “I’m sure it’s nice but I can never meet people at these things. Not people who want to be my friend.” To be honest, responses like that make klaxons go off in my head, and I DON’T want to be around that person very much, and I DON’T want to be guilted into being friends with a stranger. A mean stranger. But recognizing that sometimes people blurt stuff out when they are feeling really awkward, and knowing that my own semi-public role as an awkward soul makes it more likely that they will blurt that stuff to me, I’ve begun a strategy of redirecting the conversation. “Wow, well, I can’t answer that, having just met you, but…”
- “…how did you find out about this event/know the hosts?”
- “…what would you rather be doing with your Tuesday night?”
- “…read/watch/eat anything good lately?”
Sometimes the answers are (true story) “I know the hosts because they are good people who take pity on people like me,” “Somewhere really quiet, like the morgue” and “No, but let me tell you about all the things that I’ve read that SUCK and all of the details of that suckiness” and then I do bail politely after three unsuccessful attempts, likely added to their list of “fake people who just can’t hang when things get too real,” or whatever. But sometimes I am able to draw the person out about something they are interested in that isn’t their own self-consciousness, and then they relax a bit, and then we have a pretty ok conversation. So if you hear the klaxons, but sense the person is really trying to connect, I humbly offer that as a way to get through the interaction.
I don’t know how to bypass the self-defeating patterns of a “lonely brain,” and it’s not exactly comforting to know that this is what could be happening. At least you’re not imagining it? Sadly, I also don’t know any possible solutions beyond “recognize the role that your own assumptions and fears might be playing in how you respond to interactions with other people, and see if you can’t find happier tapes to play for yourself and for others over time” (maybe with some professional help) and “just, um, keep trying to meet people, Buddy!” I can see why hearing that would be frustrating, especially when you are already making the effort and it feels like it’s going nowhere.
Do others have experience getting themselves out of this mindset? What changed/how did you change it? What other advice could we be offering lonely people who are frustrated with the usual channels for making friends?
258 thoughts on ““Guess I’ll Go Eat Worms”: Loneliness Link & Open Thread”
BEST TIMING, I have been trying to figure out why I feel so lonely lately and what I can do about it. Most people would probably be shocked to learn that I feel lonely, as I have plenty of friends and loving family. Yet, since my best friend/platonic life partner moved to LA I have felt really lonely a lot of the time. Part of it is accidental self-infliction– like this weekend I was tired and didn’t feel like going out on Friday night, had a lovely Saturday to myself reading and writing and playing my guitar and cooking, then Sunday found myself horribly lonely and with no one to hang out with because everyone was busy. Then I went for a walk in the park and ran into two good friends who are a couple but convinced myself I was intruding so didn’t say to talk to them long, then went home and cried because I’d seen so many happy couples and babies and I just want that for myself so badly.
Clearly I’m still working on it, but I have found the solution to loneliness for me has been counterintuitive– I actually need LESS friends. I’ve had a tendency to surround myself with people so that I always have social plans, but a lot of those friendships are kind of shallow and unfulfilling. I didn’t notice it until I had some really awful shit happen this year, and suddenly I just could not stand to be around anyone who I didn’t feel like wanted to be fully present if I needed to talk about that stuff– I didn’t even need or want to talk about it all the time, but there are people who when you bring up something serious will say “Oh shit, that’s awful, how is that making you feel?’ and others who will say “Oh shit that’s awful. . .” and just clearly desperately hope with all their being that you change the subject quickly, and I just can’t be around the second type anymore. And that means that, if I’m not going to be lonely I have to get better at actually opening myself up to other people. . .because the other side of this is that I have people who I can talk to about my real feelings with and be vulnerable, but I don’t do it. When I’m lonely I sit alone in my room and cry and don’t tell anyone about it, and that keeps me from getting comfort AND from developing the kinds of deep relationships that will keep me from getting lonely.
Would love to hear if any of you relate to this particular brand of loneliness or have advice!
Oh man, this was exactly my weekend. My roommate is out of town this week, and I felt like having some nice time for myself, which ended up turning into horrible loneliness, and I felt too self-conscious to make plans with friends at the last minute and ended up crying to my cat. One of my closest friends moved away about a year ago, and I’m still struggling with how much I’m willing to open up to local friends without feeling like a burden. I’m trying really hard to balance between A: “forcing myself to go out when I’m not in the mood and then having a terrible time” and B: “locking myself at home and having anxiety attacks by myself.” I need to learn to read the signs and get myself out and about before reaching point B.
I don’t have advice unfortunately, but sending you Jedi hugs from a fellow lonely person 🙂
Awww thanks for the jedi hugs, right back atcha 🙂 It’s good to know I’m not alone (GET IT) in this!
I relate to this so hard, particularly the accidental self-infliction. I have definitely noticed that when I don’t go out and see a particular group of people for a while, I start to assume that if I get back in touch, they won’t want me around.
This is especially ridiculous because the people in question are all warm, demonstrative, loving friends who make me feel valued and appreciated when I actually spend time with them. But too much time with my jerkbrain whispering in my ear, and doubt always creeps in.
The difference from the linked article is that I have enough self loathing that I never blame them for it; my jerkbrain feels the same way about me, after all.
Haha samesies, I was like ‘mmm nope this isn’t me, I’m pretty sure it’s always all my fault’. The two friends I ran into in the park were all like “Oh hey it’s great to see you, join us!” and I was like “Oh god they are trying to have a romantic day alone and I am RUINING it by stopping by briefly”. Siggggh.
I mean, it depends on the people & how long they’ve been together, but for many of us in established couples, it is a pure delight to have a 3rd friend around because we see each other all the time and have already said All The Things to each other!
Haha thanks– these two are the least clingy and making-you-feel-like-a-third-wheel couple ever, I think I was just in a weird mood that day and also it was the guy’s birthday so I thought maybe it was Special Birthday Plans.
Oh my goodness, please believe that a long-time couple might really enjoy having a third person around! If they say they are happy to see you, you should believe them!
Aww geez. I have a really solid social circle and I STILL have the nights of ‘everyone is busy and that means no one likes me’.
I sometimes have to remind myself that I NEED to go out on Friday or Saturday (even if I’m not really feeling it or don’t stay out long) to help circumvent the ‘Sunday Sads’.
Oh yeah, Sunday Sads are A Thing! The fact that I forgot about that really demonstrates how lonely-brain messes with you. It feels like you’re the only person in the world with nobody to hang out with (even though you turned down several invitations to hang out on different days) when you are actually just experiencing a phenomenon that everyone on earth experiences from time to time.
here’s a me too. Worse because Sundays are child with paternal parental unit day, and the timing of visits are odd, and the day is nearly always a total bust, with me aimless and sad.
Guys, I am so happy to know that the Sunday Sads are A Thing! I’m a sort of classic sociable introvert (I like hanging out and I have a good group of friends, but ultimately human contact drains me as opposed to energizes me) and this happens to me ALL THE TIME! It’s like Friday, I am usually exhausted from my stressful people-intensive job – unless someone physically guides me to the pub and puts a beer in my hand, I’m gonna be home playing videogames and going to bed early. Saturday is generally Chores and Recharging Day. By Sunday I’m usually ready for some human contact, but unless there are already specific plans in the works, I just end up sleeping in and then wandering around aimlessly trying to remember how to Friend.
I also have a super hard time differentiating between “I am legitimately tired and grumpy and would not be good company at the social event” and “I am too paralysed by anxiety to put on a bra and some make-up and get my arse out the door.” Sometimes I cancel plans and my dominant emotion is overwhelming relief, but then I second-guess myself and wonder if I’m just being lazy. Any tips for differentiating between healthy and unhealthy reclusive impulses, Awkward Army?
Totally a thing!! I can also have trouble differentiating between healthy and unhealthy reclusive impulses, but I tend to kind of ask myself “Do I not want to go because I am really stoked about the idea of drinking tea and reading my book, or because I’m thinking ‘ugh this is going to be awkward and boring and there won’t be any cute boys there and if there are none of them will think I’m pretty ugh I’m just gonna mainline TV episodes”. I find that to be pretty effective– it’s like, ‘is my ideal night staying in and having fun by myself, or is my ideal night going out and having an amazing time but I’m having trouble believing it will really be amazing?”
Couple of things that have worked for on the differentiating issue:
– Power through about half of the getting dressed part, and then take stock. Do I still not feel like going, or am I excited now that I’ve gotten started?
– Have about half a beer, and then take stock again. Do I really want to finish the rest of this beer on the couch with a book? Then I should do that. YMMV, of course – certainly if you don’t drink, this is probably not a good suggestion. That said, alcohol does mediate anxiety (science) and I find a small amount does that without going too far the other way.
– Set yourself up with an escape route. Give yourself mental permission to leave, and go to places near your place, or with your own transportation, or sufficient cab dollars, or whatever allows you to be free to go immediately. If you’re an hour into the evening and your realize you are tired and grumpy, it’s totally ok to leave! You’ll catch up with folks later.
Remember: If you are legitimately tired and grumpy at a social event, nobody is going to begrudge you a “I have had a long day, may I go into the quiet room/plotz onto the couch plz”. Mostly people are very good at letting their delight in seeing you(OH MY GOD IT HAS BEEN A MILLION YEARS) outweigh any grouchiness on your part and good hosts are(or should be) careful to make sure there’s some space for people with lower energy levels. For example, when I had a larger apartment and entertained more regularly last year with my roomates if it was anything partylike we usually had a “noisy hyper room” and a room that was generally used more as space for quiet conversations, doing work(if people were busy but wanted to socialize, it was not unsual for people to bring their homework with them and work on it, socialize, work on it some more, ad nauseam.
AHHHHH SAME HERE!
This happened to me JUST THIS WEEKEND. Where Saturday I was jazzing about glad to be alone in my house (all my housemates were gone for various reasons) and then Sunday came around and I was like “the hell do I do with myself now”
Thank you for letting me know I’m not alone, Awkward Army!
I love the idea of having a quiet area at a big, noisy social event.
I did the quiet area at a party thing recently! It was a party for someone I know well and who I knew wouldn’t get on my case about it, so I just set up on the couch with a beer and a book. At one point someone came over to tell me that he understood the social anxiety thing but that if I would just talk to people I would find out they’re as nervous as I am and why don’t I just go out to the terrace with him and try joining in on a conversation!…and I was like okay, person I don’t really know, you are kind of reading some weird things into my couchbookbeer, and also I don’t need social coaching from you? After I repeated that several times, he calmed down a little and we had a normal conversation, and then some other people came over and we talked to them, and it was normal and nice and no one else was bizarre about it. I think I’m going to try it again at the next party.
The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.
Yep, I was just about to say this.
One of the ways I combat the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul is to make plans with myself for that time–saving up a show or movie I really want to watch, doing my manicure, having a delicious dinner–so that I can’t wait to get to 5pm Sunday and don’t want to make plans with others. It’s really helped me realize that often I’m not actually lonely on Sunday night, but just at a loss for what to do.
I started doing Sunday High Tea with soft-boiled eggs and toast soldiers and berries and tea and something decadent from the bakery while watching a movie or show, then taking a walk, having a hot bath and going to bed early. It gives me something to look forward to without getting wound up when I have to get up early the next day.
I have a local farmer’s market on Sunday mornings. Add in the Sunday paper and brunch, and I’m good for being alone. Plus, being in a crowd, but still alone doesn’t trigger my ‘tired of people’ feeling.
I have something somewhat similar, but it’s probably weird and unusual enough that what works for me is unlikely to work for most people. I’ve found that shallow connections do usually make me lonelier. But that reading books makes me less lonely. I can actually fill social needs really well with good stories. I can only assume that the strong sense of connection with the characters in the stories somehow does it? I am very much an introvert though. Anyhow, I feel a lot less lonely if I limit my social time, have a small number of very close connections, and read good stories regularly. But I very much relate to the counterintuitive, what I need to do to fix my loneliness is be around people less.
It may be counterintuitive on the surface, but what you both are saying is that you need to improve the quality of your social interactions.
And since you mention books, I’ll draw the analogy. I have always been a very avid reader. Then I fell into a phase of not reading much (depression – but also lack of time) and when I read, it was mostly shallow books that were easy to pick up and which left me unsatisfied, so my brainweasels began convincing me that I ‘didn’t like reading much’ because reading was such an unsatisfactory experience.
Then I noticed the pattern and forced myself to reread some old favorites. Some of them needed a considerable investment in time and emotion, but I came away energised and loving them just as much as I always had (take that, depression!) So I got rid of a lot of books I didn’t like (some of which half-read or unread which glared at me from my to-read-shelf), and I ‘love reading’ as much as ever, and the overall chance of finding a book I’ll love when I reach for one on my shelf has improved greatly, simply because the meh ones are no longer getting the way.
I used to get a lot of my social needs on the internet – both the shallow kind (and the ‘not everybody hates me’ confirmations), but also long, deep conversations with close friends. In person is better if you can get it, but I, too, will take a good book that proves to the brainweasels how human interactions can/should work out over people who are nice but with whom I have little in common.
Holy crap. This comment is life-changing.
I’ve been struggling with reading for years now, even though it was an activity that used to take up 90% of my free time. It never occurred to me to think about books like this.
What both of you are saying makes sense to me! I go through a very similar thing– when I’m depressed or anxious, I feel like I can’t handle anything serious so instead of reading books I just re-watch TV shows until I feel braindead (this is still tough for me because sometimes watching a little TV is legitimately anxiety relieving and just fine, but when it goes on for hours it makes things way worse). Lately I’ve been asking for recommendations for books that are really good but not horrifying (why must so many novels by good authors involve graphic depictions of suicide and/or WWII??). My in-between solution is re-reading Harry Potter, which always makes me feel amazing (but then I get anxious that one day I’ll be tired of Harry Potter and I’ll have NOTHING TO DO, this is how jerky my jerkbrain can be). And I have indeed been using good novels as a way to keep myself busy and fulfilled instead of hanging out with people I can’t have serious conversations with, and it works really well.
If you love Harry Potter try some Tamora Pierce & some Diana Wynne Jones. They are both young adult authors who write fun interesting fantasy plots that do not involve ‘horrible upsetting bloodshed’ parts so I really like re-reading them.
Right, except it wasn’t really about getting more good connections. It was about decreasing shallow connections and increasing reading as needed. It turns out that shallow social interactions are effectively negative social for me. They make me feel lonely. And if I have enough of them, it’s very hard to combat. Deep connections are good, so I maintain some of those. And books are good, so I have those. But I don’t actually need any good social connections with humans if I have a good, steady stream of the right kinds of stories. All I really need is either good social or books and not having bad social. So, cutting out the bad social interactions was the biggest thing that helped my loneliness. Although, there were some tough times in my life before I knew this and when I also didn’t really have time for recreational reading. I figured it out by realizing I wasn’t lonely during the times I didn’t really interact with people, but did read a lot. And I was lonely during the times when I had a wider, shallow social group with a small group of good close friends, but no time to read. So, if I’m lonely, one of the worst things I can do is go to a party. I go to parties when I’m good on social and can handle them.
I’m with you on the shallow contact thing. I get so drained by small talk. We moved to a place where I don’t know many people and we have a one year old so the vaaaast majority of my contact with other people is the most shallow small talk you can imagine. Either it’s the “what do you do/where are you from” sort, or the commiserating over kid-related troubles sort. It’s just awful.
I know that small talk is a starting point that can lead to deeper relationships (not always, obviously) but it’s so hard to want to get through the small talk phase. Ugh.
@boutet – YES. One year old check, place where I know basically nobody check, small talk is like fingernails on chalkboard check. Add “love WeeLime, but so so so tired of being a parent”.
/jedi fistbump of solidarity
You could be right. There was a study which found that watching reruns of favorite TV shows activated the same parts of the brain that friendship does. That’s not a conclusive statement, but it seems possible that other familiar characters or characters that we get to know can be similarly stimulating.
Ha, this WAS me, back in February. I was going through a really tough time, and the one person I really WANTED to talk to about it had moved away and was super busy and unlikely to actually answer her phone. Plus, I can recall a specific weekend that went exactly like what you just described, right down to the crying because I do not have a partner or a baby.
And what changed is exactly what you said should change–I spent more time with fewer people. But the biggest thing that helped was, FASCINATINGLY, after my stuff had kind of gotten better, one of my other friends went through a thing. And she was very open about how awful it was, and I tried hard to spend as much time with her as I could while she was dealing with it. And when it had gotten somewhat better, I realized that, shocker, being there for someone ELSE made ME feel less lonely. We now hang out a lot! And I now feel like, if I ever have a reprise of what happened in February, I could call on her in a second to be there for me, and she totally would.
Obviously there are caveats to this–like, not everybody reciprocates emotional support, and also it’s really really hard to support someone else when you are STILL going through hard things (I, luckily, had come out of most of my stuff by the time my friend was suffering). But basically what I would say is, if you feel like you don’t have a lot of close friends, keep an eye out for any of your more casual friends who might be having a hard time. Helping them out can also help you out.
Exact same thing happened to me! The friends who I leaned on in that time have started to lean on me more too, and that’s been very fulfilling and made me feel less lonely– I think it’s that my vulnerability made them feel more comfortable being vulnerable with me and that’s made us closer. And it drew me closer to other more acquaintance-like friends who I had never given much thought to in terms of becoming closer, but their reactions to hearing what I was going through (or, just happening to be there when I was hit by bad news and had no choice but to be vulnerable) compared to some other people who I was spending way more time with helped me prioritize and deepen new friendships.
. . .this may not be practical advice for a lot of other people, as it kind of boils down to “find out your ex-boyfriend committed suicide while in a room full of acquaintances, and your loneliness will be cured!”
I have a similar problem, but it’s a little different. I’ve never been good at making a lot of friends, but I have like three or four good friends. Sometimes, they’re all busy when I want to hang out, and then I feel so bad and pathetic and wonder why I don’t have more friends. I’m trying to use that alone time more productively (I’ve started doing hand lettering), but I still feel self conscious about it.
This reminds me of a parable I read somewhere, where people were sent to heaven or hell according to the usual rules, but were free to move if they wanted. People would stay stuck in hell because moving would be admitting the legitimacy of the initial sorting. This reaction to loneliness sounds a lot like that: people would rather continue being lonely than admit they had anything to do with being lonely before.
I have (mostly under control now) GAD and one therapy thing that worked for me is thinking of my anxiety as an anxious friend. I named her Tina and then expanded on the theory so my jerk brain is Gretchen (After the Mean Girls character) and the “real” me is Catie so then I can talk to Tina and Gretchen and often figure out what is actually going on.
Tina “I feel really lame and stupid and like none of my friends actually care about me.”
Gretchen “You are lame and it would make sense if no one liked you because you’re pretty annoying. You’re annoying yourself right now. Also your apartment is a mess, you paid your credit card late because you’re not responsible enough, you can’t be trusted to feed yourself well, you’ll never get a good job and will be stuck with this terrible boss forever. What did I miss? Oh, your boyfriend doesn’t really love you. I don’t know why he’s here. He’ll probably leave you soon.”
Catie “Wow… that’s a lot of stuff that is mostly not true. I know my friends like me, so why would I think they were avoiding me?”
Tina “No one has texted me in days and my Facebook is boring and everyone is away this weekend and I know Jane is having drinks with Annie but she didn’t invite me.”
Gretchen “It’s probably because you said that dumb thing once to Jane and she still thinks you’re weird. Also I’m pretty sure that Annie doesn’t like you. You talk too much so probably no one wants to invite you because they know it’ll just be all about you.”
Catie “You haven’t texted anyone, or posted anything on Facebook and you saw Jane last week without Annie. No one is obliged to invite you to everything. If Annie set up the drinks she might want to see Jane solo.”
Tina “Yeah, but… ugh. I’m going to drink half a bottle of red wine and watch Brooklyn 99.”
Gretchen “That’s so lame. It’s a Saturday night. You should be out hanging out with people, not watching TV and drinking by yourself.”
Catie “No, I like that plan. That show is hilarious and some Gina in my night would definitely improve my mood. First, though, I think I’m going to text a few people and see if anyone’s around for brunch tomorrow or that free movie thing that’s on Tuesday.”
It’s not “talking to yourself”, it’s listening to yourself. That’s not crazy. I know because a paid trained professional told me it’s okay.
My mother says talking to yourself is the only way to be **100% sure** you’re speaking to someone as intelligent as you are.
So IMO, your method is perfectly sensible.
The only time “talking to yourself” is a problem is when you start losing the arguments.
That is brilliant and you are brilliant.
Thanks! I can’t take full credit. The “anxious friend” thing is a fairly common therapy tool (or so I’ve heard). I just expanded it to recognize the role my inner mean girl plays in escalating my anxiety. But I’m definitely going to be keeping that compliment on hand. “Shut up, Gretchen. KL said I’m brilliant.” 😉
Yeah! So there, Gretchen!
KL and Boadicea both think you’re brilliant! =)
I am in favor of this! Definitely gonna have to bring this in mind. I’ve adopted the Fluent Self’s idea of “Monsters” who just want to protect you but they do it by stuckifying you, which isn’t actually helpful.
I still haven’t decided which metaphor works best for me, but I’m gonna try this one on for size.
So here’s a third vote for “Catie is awesome therefore shut up Gretchen.”
Epiphyta also thinks you’re brilliant! Button it, Gretchen. 😉
This is brilliant! I say that, and I haven’t even seen Mean Girls. I do something similar, myself. I had a tendency to separate/anthropomorphize my facets anyway, and then my therapist encouraged it as I guess from your closing line yours did. It is amazingly helpful, and I do it out loud a lot — particularly when I’m alone in the car. Out loud is magic. Saying kind things to yourself out loud really soaks in, and it’s hard, at least for me, to actually say out loud the over-the-top bad stuff my Jerkbrain suggests.
I’ve found when I force JerkBrain to speak out loud, SlightlyMoreRationalMe tends to just start laughing. It’s one thing to think “OMG I’m a miserable failure and everyone thinks I’m boring” – but hearing it out loud? Out of my own mouth? It helps me feel/hear the absurdity. Basically, JerkBrain thrives on silence and darkness, so I do my best to banish her with talking and light.
Yes! I definitely think that’s part of it. I think often Jerkbrain (aka Gretchen) doesn’t communicate clearly internally so it’s just a mess of “failure loser lazy bad unproductive… blah blah blah” but when you say it out loud in full sentences you can’t help but recognize that it’s wrong. Or at least mostly wrong. Sometimes I am lazy and unproductive, but often I am active and efficient. Take that, Gretchen!
My roommate is a huge fan of the Persona RPG series, and I really like watching them, so we’ve started imagining our jerkbrains as our Shadows, which means that it’s basically a gold-eyed version of us who says all the BAD things and blows them out of proportions. And then we mentally bust out our Personas on them, because sometimes getting blasted in the face by a cat in samurai armor is just the rebuttal the debate needs at that point. 🙂
YES, omg. That’s why sometimes I like to tell my partner these things too, to hear them out loud. “I’m thinking stuff that I don’t think is true, and I’m having a hard time getting it out of my mind..” “Like what?” “Like, InstructorX cancelled today’s class, and what if it’s because actually they don’t want to see me and are trying to avoid me?” *giant side-eye*
My therapist is helpful with this too, because I will vocalize some deeply held anxiety that I am terrified to say out loud because I think it’s actually true (sample: because my friends and I tried ecstasy a few times in college we have done irreparable damage to our brains and will never ever have a chance at being mentally healthy), and she will straight up crack up. But I love the idea of doing it myself in my head!
This is… something I’ve been doing lately, and it’s actually become a problem. When I’m feeling really anxious, saying the stuff I’m thinking out loud (“I hate myself,” “I’m a f*ing idiot,” and some much, much nastier ones that I had no idea were bouncing around in my skull) helps me verbally respond “don’t be silly, I know that’s not true” but it doesn’t weaken the thought processes—it might be reinforcing them, because it’s definitely only gotten worse. And the end result is that I still walk around muttering “I hate myself,” which is embarrassing and unbalancing in itself.
I’ve always had an unfortunate tendency to talk to myself out loud, so maybe that’s part of the issue. And I really need to find a therapist, so that’s another thing….
I’m sorry, it’s so hard to have those kinds of thoughts and not be able to get away from them. I’m glad you’re looking for a therapist, it helped me a lot. Would it help to try and establish a “because”? Sometimes I try and make it more specific so it’s not an overarching truth but more of a transitional experience. “Today I feel like I hate myself because I didn’t complete that task and I often don’t complete tasks.” Mindfulness exercises also helped me a lot, but they’re not for everyone.
I have no training and don’t know your whole situation so I hope some of this is helpful and not inappropriate. Good luck finding a therapist!
I’ve been reading a book on ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) recently and it suggests singing the thoughts to yourself, the idea being it takes the sting out of them. Just make up a tune. Might be worth trying? (Back to lurking now…)
I’ve been thinking a lot about this comment and I wanted to come back to you because I think my answer below is a little off base. It sounds like I’m saying some basic self-care techniques will help you get better, but that’s rarely true. The techniques below work for me now because I spent three years in therapy and almost a year medicated. I reached out for help and I found it.
Everyone’s path to health is different so if this doesn’t work to you or it makes you feel worse, please don’t think you’re failing somehow. Not every approach is right for everyone and that’s why getting some good help and trying a range of different approaches is vital.
I can’t know what you’re going through, but if you are drowning know that most people don’t drag themselves to safety. Tell someone you’re drowning and ask them to help you. Reach for whatever resources are available to you and grab hold.
On a more practical note, there is a Captain Awkward article about finding low-cost mental health care in the US and Canada so if you’re in those areas maybe look it up as a starting place?
Thanks! The “anxious friend” one was from a former therapist, and then I expanded it, partly because of CA’s description of the Jerkbrain and realizing how it relates to my anxiety. It actually started when I was joking to my friend about how “It was more like I have my anxious friend Tina, who’s being bullied by this mean girl who’s just constantly negative and then I’m in the middle trying to get through a day.” It has helped me so much just to put into perspective what’s going on inside my head.
That sounds so much like what I did in schema therapy! Without specifics, I have a Vulnerable Child, an Angry Child, a Demanding Parent, and a Responsible Adult (there’s others but those are my primaries). Each ‘persona’ is me in different ways, and my Responsible Adult is me at my best. In schema therapy each persona had it’s own chair and I would talk to and from each perspective and work through issues/situations – I would physically move from chair to chair as the discussion/therapy progressed (the therapist would guide the process and redirect when things became unhelpful).
I had to leave the program for various reasons and really need to get off my butt and get back in to it.
But that feeling of different people on your head with your sane person in the middle sorting it all out – I know exactly how that feels 🙂
one of my anxiety manifestations is an inability to calm down enough to complete simple things that I’m multitasking, like making coffee and packing my kid’s lunch. Talking out loud at my self REALLY helps. “[Name], put that spoon down, and go turn on the kettle. When the kettle is on, pick up the lunch bag and lay it out on the counter….”
I never thought about naming my jerkbrain and my anxious brain, though. Hmmmmm.
OMG YOU KNOW GRETCHEN????? Thank you for that post. It had me laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my face. Your inner voices are my inner voices. Uncanny.
I have this wonderful feeling of community because it seems like everyone has similar voices and now all the voices are named Tina and Gretchen. Those were always their names, just not everyone knew that before. (Also I had a really bad morning and then logged on here this afternoon and everyone is so great… it’s really improved my day!)
Are you ever just like, “Shut up Gretchen you’re an asshole”? Because I absolutely do that to myself. I have not named my JerkBrain but sometimes when I get on the self-pity everybody-hates-me train I’m just like, SHUT UP BRAIN YOU ARE A DBAG AND ALSO FULL OF LIES.
Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
That’s totally how I dealt with my jerkbrain as a teenager. “You are a horrible person and no one likes you and-” “NOPE NOPE NOPE I refuse to have this train of thought because it sucks and is completely unhelpful DISENGAGING BRAIN NOW”. Sadly it doesn’t work quite as well as it used to/jerkbrain has found holes in my defenses.
I find I have to let my jerkbrain have its say and then deal with the outcome. If I interrupt it then it will just keep going whenever it gets a moment, but if I actually listen to what it says then I can combat those thoughts more effectively. YMMV though.
And I really agree with everyone who said that saying the jerkbrain thoughts aloud really helps. I’ve found that with enough practice even thinking about telling someone else about the jerkbrain thoughts helps my rational brain step in and spot the unhelpful thinking patterns.
*nods* That makes sense! Thinking about it, for me it was less about “shut up the jerkbrain” but more as… I had to treat certain things as axiomatic and not allowed to be questioned (things like “you are a worthwhile human being, you deserve to have friends, you are doing what you can with what you have”). Any jerkbrain train of thought that went down the route of attacking one of these things was just – I couldn’t let myself even consider it because considering it meant allowing that such a thing might be valid and that my worth as a person was somehow up for mental debate – even if I “won” the argument I’d end up with a major crack in my self-esteem. Then as I got used to shutting down certain trains of thought hard I did it with more things.
Will have to think about saying the jerkbrain thoughts out loud! I have successfully defanged some Humiliating Childhood Memories by laughing about them with other people (in an “I can’t believe this still bothers me” way) – the memory of talking about it in a pleasant way kind of overwrites the memory itself. I do have some verbal tics related to reinforcing and warding off jerkbrain attacks that saying other jerkbrain thoughts out loud might end up tying into, though. *ponders*
I think I’ll have to try this! Like Kaz said, I’ve spent the last couple of years Not Questioning a lot of things (to put it in terms of a metaphor that helped me, I had enough mental strength/energy to fortify my mind-castle and weather a siege, but not enough to go out and fight). Now that things are a little better for me, I’ll have to think about actually confronting the jerkbrain, especially since it’s worked for some of you.
I like to invoke a bland, emotionless summarizer, like the voiceover in a documentary.
“Oh my god, how could you buy that fancy olive oil, you’re going to go bankrupt and –”
[plummy narrator] “Sometimes, she feels anxious about money.”
I love this so much. Wait till my inner Cthulhu gets a dose of Plummy Narrator! IN A WORLD WHERE PEREGRIN8 WAS ACTUALLY GETTING BY JUST FINE…
Haha – I like this a lot! I’m going to implement it when I get overwhelmed choosing dip for a party. (True story: “I have six dips because I don’t know what people like. Is that enough?”)
NEED TO ADOPT THIS. I used to have an intrusive narrator who would be like “And this is what your life sounds like if it were a shitty novel” which didn’t make me very happy but DID interrupt good moments. If I coopt this voice to interrupt my JerkBrain it will work SO MUCH BETTER.
Sometimes. I often tell Tina and/or Gretchen to stop being such a whiny little b*tch… It can help snap me out of a particularly negative pattern of thinking. I find it most effective when I’m in the “Why aren’t my friends psychic?” loop of “I feel sad and my friends should know I’m sad and they haven’t called me therefore they don’t really care about me.” Then it can be helpful to mentally slap myself and say “Stop whining! You know for a fact that any of your friends would drop everything to come and help you so stop whining and do something about how you feel.”
That said, the original purpose of the therapy exercise was to practice kindness to yourself so I also try to recognize when I need a mental slap and when I need a mental cup of tea and hug.
I’m really loving naming my anxious brain Tina. In my head she resembles a nervous and sorrowful whippet.
Haha…It took me a while to pick a name. My therapist was like “You don’t really HAVE to name your anxiety for the exercise.” because I think she thought I was too hung up on the name, but, hello, I named every car I have owned, my bicycle, my grocery cart and my boyfriend’s GPS. I knew when I hit on Tina that I had the right fit. It’s given me this weird affection for my anxiety. I’m a lot better now so I might go a week or two without a major episode and then it will hit at work or something but now I think “Oh, hey Tina, haven’t seen you in a while! What’s up?” It makes me feel cool and collected even though I’m actually freaking out because someone trusted me to pick dip for the party.
Also I love the whippet image. It’s so perfect.
Mine is a sheltie named Mollie. She wibbles like it’s her job- which, apparently it is!
It’s really nice to know that other people go through this. I’m not a going out kind of person; I get really anxious in crowded places or around people I don’t know. But I feel so much pressure to be out and doing exciting things on the weekends, even though that’s not me.
I’ve gone through “lonely brain” times, and I think the biggest thing that helps is reminding/forcing myself to take people at face value. Coworkers invite me to lunch? That means coworkers want to eat lunch with me today (it doesn’t mean coworkers think I’m a pathetic weirdo who can’t find her own lunch, it doesn’t mean coworkers are inviting me on a ‘pity date,’ it doesn’t mean coworkers secretly hated me all those other times coworkers went to lunch without me, etc.). My options are (a) go to lunch if I want to go to lunch and be polite/friendly/whatever; or (b) decline lunch because I don’t want to go to lunch. There is no (c) decline lunch because I want coworkers to insist that I really must go so they can confirm for me that they actually like me and don’t think I’m weird, then assume when they take my decline at face value that “okay, maybe next time” is really code for “we hate you and want you to DIAF, you awkward weirdo.”
Basically, my brain can think whatever it wants, but I try (as much as humanly possible) to make sure my actions are dictated by whatever is actually happening on the surface directly in front of me (as opposed to letting JerkBrain logic do the interpreting). I find it usually gets me into a positive feedback loop – I go to lunch, and I have an okay time, and then since I was okay and everyone else had an okay time too we all go for coffee, and then coffee turns out to be just peachy, so eventually I concede to try happy hour, and before you know it, I have some work-friends who are nice and I don’t feel like the awkward Goth kid sitting in the corner glaring at all of the shiny popular kids from behind her Sylvia Plath and her black coffee anymore.
The idea of taking people at face value is incredibly helpful. Thank you for sharing. That mindset has been very helpful to me in meetup and community event situations, where I often encounter acquaintances. I’m just curious how you would recommend applying this same principle to situations where you want to take the social initiative. I’ve had positive face value cues that imply people don’t hate talking to me, but Jerkbrain always gets in the way of actually initiating anything. I can accept invitations, but I’m not the greatest at extending them.
I try to keep invitations low-stakes, and also consistent with past interactions. So, to continue with the work example, if Suzy’s invited me for coffee twice before, my first foray into “initiating plans with Suzy” will be “hey, Suzy, how about a coffee break?” Since it’s something we’ve already done, there’s a higher probability of a yes from Suzy, and if Suzy says “no, maybe tomorrow,” it’s easier for me to take her at face value because it’s a thing we’ve already done together a few times, so I know that Suzy is, in general, down for coffee. The other thing I’ll try is expanding the circle – so if, for example, Suzy invites me for coffee, and I’ve also occasionally gone for coffee with Marcus separately, I’ll say “hey Suzy, what if we ask Marcus to join us?” Suzy says sure, and we invite Marcus together, thus making inviting Marcus to join us a team effort and not as much a me-by-myself-out-on-this-here-ledge thing, which makes it easier for me to accept Marcus’ response at face value, since he’s responding to both of us and not just me. (Basically, LonelyJerkBrain has a harder time tricking me into thinking Marcus hates both me AND Suzy when he says “not today, thanks,” because I know Suzy’s cool and Marcus probably doesn’t hate her.)
Gosh, does this speak to me. I’ve always self-described as “shy”–but under the right circumstances, I’m not! This is something I’ve started learning about myself only lately. It’s taken a bit of mental maneuvering to recognize and accept myself as someone who can be outgoing, who has qualities others might find attractive. It’s an ongoing process, especially when some of my self concept is bound up in the idea of being shy.
Sadly enough, my recent bout of introspection has led me to realize that in the past, I’ve self-described as “shy” or “lonely” in hopes that it might actually recommend me to people. “This person looks kind. If I tell them all about how I have trouble making friends, maybe they’ll adopt into their group!” Of course, as you point out, disclosures of this sort usually have the opposite effect.
At the end of the day, I know my social issues are mine alone. One way I’m trying to combat them is by sharing more things online–like this post! Writing this post is something I never would have imagined doing, even just a few months ago! By sharing more of my life online, I’m hoping to reinforce the idea that my words and thoughts have meaning, and that they’re worth listening to. That I matter, and *should* speak up. That I have a lot to offer.
Yes – me too. I’ve been catching myself in situations where I would usually just nod and pass on (like this one!) and instead, posting a comment. My old default was ‘don’t say anything unless absolutely certain’, and I’m trying to get more towards ‘say something – as long as it’s kind and polite’. There’s a real stumbling block that I need to convince myself that what I have to say is just as valid and worthwhile as what others have to say. Recognising this has, at the very least, helped me to start tackling it. And believing that there’s something of value in making a little connection through posting – above and beyond what’s actually being said.
And these online communications do give me a little fillip of a sense of connection that really seems to help interrupt the loneliness spiral. Sharing online can be scary – but it feels like a more controllable way of making connections when face to face interaction seems too daunting or draining.
Supportive goodness in favour of speaking up!
I felt shy and lonely as a child/teenager, and it took me years to change it. By the time I met Spouse, I knew I had made progress, but it was still a shock to be told that Spouse’s first impression of me was outgoing, confident and popular (!?! still don’t get that!)
It is possible to become less shy, if that’s something you want, and I think the biggest factor in my personal progress was a sort of success-spiral, where I did something tiny that succeeded, then something a little bigger, then something in a different aspect of my life, keeping the snowball going until all anyone could see was a flurry of snow going down the hill, and none of them realised how I’d started it off by painstakingly putting one snowflake on top of another at the top of the slope.
If a lurker can jump in – as much as I find your comments, Captain, to be very helpful and thoughtful, I’m not a big fan of that article, because it makes no attempt to situate loneliness socially, or to talk about the causes of loneliness-brain. It actually seems really blame-y to me, like “oh, you’re only lonely because you’re a negative nelly!” (I’m also a little uncertain of the actual science behind the article, but I’m not really qualified to evaluate it.
On the one hand, of course, if you are lonely, the only way to stop being lonely is to make an effort – there’s no point in listing all the really-existing causes of loneliness while you just sit there sadly in your chair.
On the other, I read this article and I find myself wondering about people who are lonely because they’re, for example, a student of color in a structurally racist program; or an immigrant in an immigrant-unfriendly setting; or a closeted queer person; or someone forced by economic circumstance to live in a deeply uncongenial or even dangerous place; or someone who is suffering from some other form of discrimination – age discrimination, say. Or someone who experiences something routine yet traumatic – contemptuous treatment in a low-status job, maybe – and becomes isolated through emotional exhaustion.
I am uncomfortable with the way this article postulates that loneliness is “all in your head” – that someone whose partner has died, or who is staying in a loveless marriage out of [social or emotional or economic problems; closetedness; etc] is lonely because they don’t think positively about the world. I am uncomfortable with the way it seems to pin the predominant cause of loneliness right back on the lonely person’s failure – other people “don’t want you around” because you aren’t happy and open. It just feels weirdly Panglossian/whatever-is-is-right.
I also found myself thinking of people who have “lonely brain” because because lonely brain was a former survival strategy. (I’d say that although I have, if anything, a positive surplus of friends, I definitely spent a lot of time in young adulthood with a leftover lonely brain, and that was because I went through a great deal of abuse and abandonment when I was pretty young, and “other people will hurt you because they think it’s fun and no one will help, better keep your head well down” was in fact an extremely plausible and effective way of being in the world.) While getting rid of lonely brain does, in that case, take learning to think positively about people, it’s also, IME, kind of a long slog about self-compassion. For me, actually, self-compassion was what I had to learn to be able to stop being lonely – expecting people to hate and hurt me was about believing that I was worthless and didn’t deserve anything else. More, when I mean one of those “oh, if only I were at the morgue instead of at this party” types, I usually get the feeling that what they need is to forgive themselves a little bit for whatever is eating them. (And actually “oh, well, if only I were at the morgue” is disturbing not so much because it’s about loneliness but because it’s about “I am not able to discern and follow very ordinary social norms around conversations with strangers” – I meet lonely people in some of the volunteer work that I do, and social inappropriateness is something separate. The person who will tell you that they’d rather be at the morgue is in bad shape and worth steering toward help and resources, but you don’t want to give them your phone number or invite them to your next potluck, because they have a lot of personal work to do before that’s going to be anything but a mess.)
I had a similar kind of thought: Is this correlation, or causation? If you have a bad run where lots of people treat you poorly, it makes sense that you’d both be lonely and have some trouble trusting new people.
Thank you for this. A bunch of people in my life did a quick fade as soon as I became disabled. I wasn’t imagining that.
I also held on to a few friends and gained new ones. I learned who I could count on and who I seriously could not. Lots of family members were among the latter. So yeah, that fact often upsets me, and I don’t think it’s my “framing” of it.
And I think when someone really can’t go out — whether for physical or economic or social reasons — they’re likely to be more lonely than someone who can. That’s not their fault, and it’s not their brain’s fault, and “framing” isn’t going to magically make them have more friends. The internet has helped immensely with this; but, of course, you have to be able to afford an internet connection and something to connect to it.
Then there was when I was lonely as a child because no one at school wanted to be my friend, and any time I tried to be friendly, they said nasty things to me. My teacher was mean to me too. I learned to avoid people for my own self-protection. I unlearned that, but maybe too much, because I ended up trusting people I should not have.
Thank you, Lark and lliira1. The concept of being isolated/lonely due to emotional exhaustion due to (various) circumstances is something I’ve been struggling with. I deal with the survival-strategy lonely brain as the tail end of years of abuse/bullying/nasty stuff that messed with my self-perception, and poverty means I can’t afford much in going out or tech-y stuff others take for granted these days (cellphone, Netflix, etc.). I understand enough social cues to not blurt out inappropriate things and keep the mood light and friendly, but after basic small talk there isn’t much left for me to say. I often feel like I’m trying to tap dance in quicksand to get around how a lot of conversations on otherwise normal things link in my mind to things that could be “revealed” about me like being poor, having no support network, or general wonderment at other people’s abilities to socialize/be close to people successfully (“what’s it like?”), another thing that seems taken for granted on the surface. It’s easier in those instances to either keep quiet and let others do all the talking, or keep to myself altogether for fear of personal embarrassment/making others uncomfortable. Loneliness hurts, but I find that feeling so ashamed of myself that I need to hide from society hurts much more.
“On the other, I read this article and I find myself wondering about people who are lonely because they’re, for example, a student of color in a structurally racist program; or an immigrant in an immigrant-unfriendly setting; or a closeted queer person; or someone forced by economic circumstance to live in a deeply uncongenial or even dangerous place; or someone who is suffering from some other form of discrimination – age discrimination, say.”
Thank you for bringing this up, Lark.
I am in graduate school. There are many things I like about it. One of the things I don’t is that our department rewards displays of strength and discourages expressions of vulnerability. Because students don’t talk about their struggles with each other, vulnerability feels like a dirty secret. And it’s worse for women, people of color, first-generation college attendees, and/or poor people, who face extra pressure to prove that [Suspect Class] can handle the work, while having even fewer safe, understanding people to talk to than their affluent, white male peers with supportive spouses have.
I find it hard to shift from poker-faced self-protection mode, which will be necessary for navigating work for a while yet, into something that resembles functional social interaction, where I’m neither turtled up nor overcompensating by being ALL THE VULNERABLE.
Is that the case for anyone else? And has anything made that shift easier for you?
The thing that has saved me (in a similar setting to what you describe) is being vulnerable at work with certain people. Reach out to the other [Suspect Class]ers and say “Hey, so, that thing that happened? That totally blew and it wasn’t just me, right?” The first time I did that, I was sitting with two same-level, fellow [Suspect Class]ers at lunch and we were all dancing around how Dude In Charge was terrible and doing the whole “oh, it’s just how it is, blah blah blah let’s be tough some more now, yes?” And I was like “Hey, so, is it just me, or does Dude In Charge suck both as a Dude and at In Charge-ing?” And the outpouring of “OMG YES THE DUDE IS SO BAD AT IN CHARGE-ING!” – it was like everyone had been holding their breath and we all simultaneously exhaled at once. We were all in the same boat, and we all knew it, and naming it amongst ourselves both bonded us and made the situation generally more bearable. Having a pocket of people you can trust to commiserate with can make a huge difference, and there’s a lot of power in being the person to bring people together to say “Hey, so, Affluent White Dudes, amirite?”
May I offer you a fist-bump of awesomeness for going first and making it possible for other people to be vulnerable, too? You sound like a good colleague. 🙂
I’m a PhD student who’s been forced to admit to vulnerability as I’m disabled and my disability has had a massive impact on my ability to get work done – I’m almost five years into a degree that’s supposed to take three and a half, sob – and it’s kind of hard to hide the fact that you are really not progressing according to schedule. Admitting to that was pretty terrifying at first and I… still kind of live in fear of people grabbing me in the corridors and going “WHY ARE YOU NOT DONE YET?!”, hi anxious Tina… but I’ve experienced hardly any backlash at all and everyone’s been really good about it. So I think sometimes the fear of “what will happen if I talk about this” gets exaggerated and if someone actually brings it up people are just glad someone’s finally broken the silence on the matter and that they can talk about this.
That said, I think I really lucked out with my department and my supervisor, even considering the fact that I suspected this might be a problem going in and therefore looked for a very supportive, non-competitive environment. My supervisor especially has been utterly fantastic – like, there have been days when I have felt so terrible about not being able to get my shit together that if he had given me just a hint of “I don’t think you can do this” I would have dropped out, but he’s never been anything but incredibly good about it and has always had my back 100%. I don’t imagine this would have gone nearly as well if I’d stayed at the university where I did my Master’s, which was much more competitive and less flexible. So I don’t want to act like the fear of What Will Happen If I Talk About This is all in your head and it’ll be totally fine if you admit to vulnerability… just that I think it can definitely get exaggerated sometimes.
This. It’s always more complicated and more nuanced.
I totally second your assessment of the article and the study. I really irked me that is seem to be saying, we’ll you’re lonely because you’re unpleasant because you’re lonely (circle of doom!) And I agree with the author of the article that telling us to just “change our thinking” seems glib. But I struggled with that in therapy. How the heck to other people (or as my jerkbrain calls them “normal people”) just change their line of thinking? I feel like it’s akin to all that just think positive advice that doesn’t actually help people with depression. I found I only got more frustrated and felt worse when I was being told to change my “negative self talk.” Because I can’t control my brain like that.
When I first started therapy for social anxiety my therapist tried to tell me that it was mostly my negative self talk (ie jerkbrain) imagining that people were having negative thoughts about me. Then I told her about all the real, tangible bad stuff I’d had happen in my friendships in the previous few years and she changed her mind. Unfortunately for me, I had very negative experiences with friends that justified (to an extent) my anxiety and hesitation. As she put it, I’d had really bad luck with friends. So now I was supposed to somehow be over it and trust people again.
I also agree/second the part about the people Captain has run into. Those comments probably don’t come from loneliness alone. In fact, I try really hard NOT to be negative at least with people I don’t know for fear my negativity will turn them away. Even if it’s only a little bit of negativity bleeding through. I’m terrified that they’ll be “on to me” in my horrid negativeness.
Lark, I like your way of putting it in terms of self compassion. It’s not as off putting as the researcher mentioned in the article.
Not to mention, it’s not actually helpful to tell people with social anxiety, depression, or related issues that they actually *are* as unpleasant as they think they are and that’s why nobody likes them, even (or perhaps especially) if you frame it as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like, I totally get what the article is trying to say — it’s trying to give us hope by saying that we can *fix* this — but what it *sounds* like it’s saying (at least, to anyone with a strong JerkBrain) is “If you’re lonely, there is something wrong with you. Here’s what it is and why it’s actually your fault.” I had to fight down a knee-jerk reaction of shame when I first read the excerpt.
Dear me, your therapist doesn’t sound very bright. A lot of people like negativity though, because they feel negative too. I guess I try and test out others’ negativity or cynicism with lots of bright and self-deprecating, but essentially bitter, humour. Those who just find it funny will laugh, but others might respond by sharing their negative thoughts, and we’ll have a lovely bonding session. If nobody smiles, I give up and mentally write those people off as having nothing in common with me. I’ll be perfectly nice to them, and can often like and respect them a lot, but if we don’t have certain essential things in common we’ll never be friends.
Er… so what I appear to be saying is that I audition people to be friends with me, not the other way around. And if that means I end up with a very small group of friends, that is absolutely fine. I can enjoy socialising with others, but they are not my friends and so I don’t feel in need of their approval, or any trust towards them.
Yeah, I have problems with this too. And I had problems with this as a social work student who also has a mental health diagnosis and some knowledge about how disability works, to the point that I had to actually bite my tongue to keep from screaming at a fellow student who was complaining about her “noncompliant” lonely lesbian client who just didn’t follow through on social plans and was depressed because she didn’t have friends let alone a girlfriend.
Classmate mentioned somewhere in the discussion that the lonely lesbian client had a fibromyalgia diagnosis. GEE YOU THINK THAT MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH NOT GOING OUT AND MEETING PEOPLE IN THE EVENINGS, JUST MAYBE???
Sometimes my cohort upset me very much. That was one of those times.
Wow…yeah, I can’t imagine why someone with fibromyalgia doesn’t just run out and do *all* the social things. It seems like a therapist’s role there would be to help her problem-solve a little bit, rather than just writing her off as noncompliant. Okay, you didn’t go do the thing because you’re tired and you hurt…are there better times to go do social things? Or smaller doses of social things that won’t eat up too many spoons? Or advance planning you can do to save energy or be less likely to be in pain?
I kind of wish your classmate’s lonely lesbian clien were posting here, because I want to give her Jedi hugs. (Jedi hugs for you too, of course.)
To your cohort: “Wow. Just Wow.”
Thank you for getting why she might have been not going out and meeting people!
A little backstory, I have fibromyalgia and it can be isolating.
For a year and 3 months I was living in a rural area (30 miles to a decent restaurant. Deer and black bears in the yard. Picture RURAL).
That was isolating all by itself, thank the verse for internet. I was also living in a place with no economy, so no job. I was in a place that was a perfect storm of lonely. Even though some of my friends would make the 60 mile round trip to see me, it wasn’t often. I often didn’t have the energy for the drive to town.
Now I live in town again and I have a part time job and I can make time for my friends. YAY
However, I still don’t make evening plans. Every case of fibro is different and in my case my best hours are between 10am-4pm. I can do things outside of those hours, if I am having a good day. The days when I work an 8 hour day, I go right home and rest. I know that 8 hours isn’t much to many people but to me it is like running a marathon.
If his lonely client with fibro wasn’t going out in the evening it might be because she is too fatigued and in too much pain.
Sorry if this is babble-y, I have some fibro fog going on right now. Witty and concise aren’t going to be my specialties today.
Wow, that sounds like where I grew up, right down to the deer and the bear in the yard. (My general explanation of how rural it was includes things like, “The nearest mall was actually in another state.” and “I couldn’t swear that there are more cows than people, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”)
I’m still trying to figure out what my best hours are, fibro-wise. I come home from work and feel like I’ve been hit by a bus. Sometimes I get a second wind, other times not so much.
Hmm. Something that helped me…
So someone upthread mentioned the whole “but what if people actually do pretend to like you and then talk shit behind your back?” thing, and I can definitely sympathise with that because I had that experience myself. Especially because I’m autistic and… yeah, unpleasant experiences with screwing up socially missing apparently-obvious social signals ahoy. So for me, I can’t treat the idea of “what if I’m being annoying but everyone is too polite to tell me to go away” as some kind of irrational thing that would never actually happen; sure, it helps to remind myself that I’m probably exaggerating the likelihood of this, but the underlying possibility is there and has to be acknowledged.
Instead, I think of that line of inquiry as something like the mental equivalent of an auto-immune disorder. Although that sort of anxiety/negative self-talk is founded in self-protection, it’s gotten majorly out of hand and has done serious amounts of damage to me and my ability to function. More damage, in fact, than just doing without it entirely probably would have! Cost-benefit analysis: constantly agonising over whether these people actually liked me or whether they were just being polite is far more expensive in terms of energy, time and mental health than just going with it and dealing with any fallout from being wrong as it happens (especially because even when pouring loads of energy into analysing every single interaction I’m still liable to miss the warning signs because, y’know, autistic! I’m not very good at this!).
Also: it is not reasonable to expect me to shoulder the entire burden of making an interaction pleasant and non-awkward for everyone involved, to the point of trying to turn myself into a completely different person. I’m me, and that me happens to sometimes be awkward and sometimes miss “really obvious” social things and take things literally that weren’t meant to be and talk in circles around a thing or too long about a subject no one else is interested in. Maybe these things aren’t always pleasant for the listener, but trying to change them is a recipe for mental health meltdown so they’re cost-of-admission for interacting with me. If people cannot deal with that it is on them to extricate themselves/use their words instead of stewing in silent resentment.
Which is not to say I’m perfect about this, but I find it really helpful to remind themselves of these things when I’m spiralling into anxiety about “aaah what if everyone hates me”.
Sorry, this ended up in the wrong place – it was meant to be a comment, not a reply. /o\
I really like your analogy, thanks so much for this comment.
Thanks for this comment. I have to admit, even as a WOC myself, I read the initial article and sort of dejectedly agreed with it like, “Yeah, I know, I’d have more friends if I stopped pushing people away.” But your comment reminded me that I have indeed met many, many racist people in my life and that most of my failed friendships have been because I just couldn’t handle their racism anymore.
Jedi hugs. I hear you. While I am white, substitute “ableism” and “fat-shaming” and that explains why I lost a lot of friends and a lot of trust in the dialed-back friendships that I did keep.
Yup, thanks for articulating this. I think the article does a good job of tackling the way we self-sabotage and set up situations that doom others around us to failure, but it certainly fails to address the way there systematic aspects of society–or any social group–that work to isolate and disempower particular people. It’s like a less-overt, more insidious country club mentality. In a country club, you have to be the “right sort of person” (i.e. wealthy and white) to have membership. Pretty much all sub-cultures within a society have a “right sort of person” built into their expectations, even if it’s never openly stated or acknowledged as so. If you don’t fit that mold, you’re pretty much guaranteed to end up isolated and lonely.
Yeah, it’s definitely useful to think about “what can I do to not shoot myself in the foot?” And I’ve made a bunch of changes to how I conduct myself at social mingling kind of places with this in mind. But if you’re doing that stuff, you might still be lonely or feel like an outsider because you’re actually being ostracized, whether it’s by accident or on purpose.
I’ve definitely noticed that my gender expression and career choices mean that I should avoid certain circles because I’m unlikely to “do well” socially there. And by that I just mean unlikely to meet many new acquaintances and friends. I don’t think that’s my fault or me being difficult.
Yes! This is especially the case when you have grown up in social structures that are *designed* to make you feel lonely. The most incredible thing for me was learning that I was lonely because I was essentially trained as a child to feel that way (tl:dr grew up in a cult full of creepy old dudes who exploited everybody esp. children and women). When I learned that my lonely thoughts (such as examples in the article) came from that training, it was a lot easier for me to work around them and this become less lonely.
That sounds like a distressing way to grow up and I am sorry.
It felt less like that and more like a sort of “lonliness is a feedback loop”, which is very much something i’ve observed in my own life-you start getting lonely, and you’re more likely to push people away or just want to be away from people, and get lonlier, and push people away more”, and all that jazz.
I kind of got that too. It reminds me of the articles that are all “Happy people live longer! If you’re being sad, you’re shaving years off your life! Stop being sad immediately!”
And it’s like…yeah, I’ll get right on that.
Also, IDK, I generally blame myself for my social issues. I don’t think people suck and it’s totally unfair that they don’t like me; I just think I’m not very likeable.
I don’t know you in the least. But I know we have at least one thing in common: reading CA comments. And that might be enough for more conversation, and finding more things in common, and more conversation and more in common. I don’t want to be glib — but I would like to gently suggest that if you think people don’t like, you might be hanging out with the wrong people. I’m currently in the midst of leaving a social group I suspect no longer likes me and looking for new people to be social with, and it’s hard and painful some days. And other days, I have really good conversations and nice meals with friends, and I have a little more hope that there are awesome people out there who really will like me, no matter how thorny.
Agree! I had a lot of both going on growing up, and it’s been a lot of work to untangle them. Some people in high school really did intentionally ostracize or bully me, but then others left me alone quite possibly because they were nice people who were respecting my extremely obvious if unintentional signals that I wanted to be left alone!
But when I first realized that part of it was coming from me rather than them, it was pretty traumatic — did I just make up all the bullying? Was it all just me and my depression-brain and I could have had friends if I weren’t all broken? No, it really wasn’t all in my head, and being able to piece together at least some examples of each situation in retrospect makes it easier for me to avoid pushing people away automatically because I can tell myself that I know what it looks like when people don’t like me and this isn’t it. I still fall into that pattern, and making friends is hard in general for most people, and there’s always the Sunday Sads discussed elsewhere, but for me just identifying that I was doing the thing made it much easier to stop doing it.
I think we can all agree that it can be more complicated than the article went into and that changing your thinking is easier said than done. However, my take-away was that you have to want to actually change things and be willing to put forth the effort, even if it seems impossible. No one and nothing can help someone who does not want to help him/herself because no one can make you change (just as you cannot make someone else change, as everyone who reads CA knows).
For example, I am a healthcare provider. The one patient I am thinking of is experiencing emotional difficulties due to relationship issues that are directly contributing to his physical ailments. He often unloads these problems onto me in detail with such expectation that I have had to remind him several times that I am not a trained counselor/therapist. He has said repeatedly that he has “no control” over the situations. One time, he actually blamed me for a part of it (“well, you know doc, if you hadn’t done X, Y wouldn’t have happened…” when I had never done X nor did X actually have anything to do with Y)! At that point, I finally realized that, right now, he blames everyone but himself for the issues – so much so that he cannot even admit to himself that he may be contributing at least a little to them. Until he takes some responsibility for his life and attendant issues, there is very little to nothing I can do to help him – I just do my best to treat his physical symptoms and encourage him to continue seeing his actual therapist.
I am in no way saying or implying that he wanted this to happen, that he brought it on himself, deserves it, etc. But he is not willing to change things or even think about changing things. He keeps saying “it’s too hard! I don’t have the time! Why am I the one who has to do everything?” Regardless of whether these things are true or not, until he decides that he really wants to change his story, his story will continue to be about how he is the “victim of other people’s bad choices” (his words, not mine) and how much pain he is in.
However, as you pointed out, sometimes there are things out of your control that are contributing. In this patient’s case, he runs his own business so his financial worries are significant and difficult. He could go work for someone else so that he could work fewer hours and have more consistent pay, but he would make much less – and with child support and other obligations, it may not be enough to fit his needs.
In the end though, we all have to make our own choices, including the story we tell ourselves. It’s not easy, it’s often not fair… but as my life coach always said, “it’s not what happens to me, it’s how I handle it.”
Yeah, I really agree. I honestly think that anybody who tells you “try harder” is not trying to help you; they’re merely trying to make themselves feel good about giving you advice. Trying harder simply doesn’t work, ever: you have to try differently, not harder.
Thank you for posting this. I’ve been feeling the same way about the article and I couldn’t find the words, but you said it perfectly.
For me, what helps a lot when I’m in that cycle is to read or watch something– something I enjoy, whether it’s with other people or not. Visual media works well, especially video games since it gives me something to do with my hands, but anything with a story is wonderful, and so is anything where I might learn something. It helps break the cycle of “sit there feeling lonely, think about loneliness, become too sad to be pleasant company, don’t talk to anyone, feel more lonely, blame myself for being lonely and fall into a depression spiral.” The reason I go for stories is that I can get some sort of emotional connection with the characters, making me feel less lonely without putting pressure on me to “perform” socially, if that makes sense.
Plus, the more stories I consume, blogs I read, and stuff I do in general, the more things I have to talk about (things that are not my own Sads), and the easier it is for me to make interesting conversation when I do find someone to talk to.
I do this too! I’ve never really actively thought about it before.
I also purposely find a new place to hang out and talk with people online about a mutual interest when I’m not spending enough time with friends or coworkers chatting in person. That way I’m still engaging socially in one form or another.
I find that when I’m interacting with others in a setting where I feel competent I am not bothered by my “lonely brain” as much. This can mean taking someone new to town to my favorite gelato place. Or participating in the beginner lesson at the ceili, when if I wanted to push myself I could probably join the advanced dancers. Performing a task with competence gives me something to build my sense of worth on independent of whether the new people I’m interacting with like me; I feel secure and don’t “need” to be defensive. Reading the quote about lonely people seeing themselves as victims I think in part that I’ve internalized an agent / victim dichotomy and putting myself in the active role shuts down my ability to see myself as a victim.
My advice is to do something you feel confident in. Sometimes my response to that advice is “I’m not confident in anything.” So then find an activity and do it a bit, maybe 3-4 times. My goal in starting an activity isn’t to meet people, its to become comfortable in the space and comfortable in the activity. Learning new things is hard, so is meeting people (for me), I don’t have to do both at once.
Where are you from where they have ceilis?! I’ve always wanted to go to one of those…
I sometimes feel lonely and each times, i become lazy and doesn’t want to leave my house. So each time, i know that i had to go walking. Because walking will makeme forget my lonelyness.
So i think that if you feel lonely, doing something which you will make happy is a good thing. For me, it is walking so you have to find you thing which makes you happy.
After, i think too that for making friend, you have to accept that you are not perfect. So the talking won’t be smooth.
Another thing helping is to smile too. I think that happy people are a lot easyer to talk that unhappy people. But it’s something that i think, i can be wrong.
After, i think that going often somewhere can help making friend. You will see offten the same people and after that, you can in looking in their eyes said something as the weather is good or the weather is not good. If he/she doesn’t want to speak with you, you will know quickly but you can meet friends.
I’ve found a wonderful group of outgoing introverts who I spend most of my social time with these days. But I’ve had plenty of ‘lonely’ days in the past.
One thing that tends to help me when the jerk brain takes over is to let someone else do the talking. Most people really like to talk about themselves or whatever they are passionate about. If you can learn to be an ‘active’ listener it can go pretty far in the ‘help meeting people’ direction. Plus it stops me from actually verbally spewing the weirdly negative thoughts I’m wallowing in.
Another tactic I use is to offer people help. Offer to DD for the night, or buy them an ice cream cone some time, show up to help them move, or pick them up at the airport. Anyone who picks you up from the airport is an automatic friend 😉 It helps break the lonely cycle and me get out of the house talking to people. It’s also can be the one small positive thing that makes you feel a little happier.
Picking someone up on the way to the movies has been my go-to when I’m trying to make a new friends. It’s a favor that creates more goodwill, and it’s there’s a lot more time for conversation during the transport/parking. And it eliminates the social awkwardness of showing up all alone, that dreaded five minutes of ‘what if no one else is coming?’. And it’s always surprising how comfortable I can be having a conversation in the car with someone. Maybe it is the lack of pressure to make eye contact?
Does anyone have any tips on how to differentiate between “your hatred of the world and all things in it make you act like bad company” and deliberate ostracization/exclusion/social bullying?
I found out in 10th grade that almost all the people I thought were my friends in fact hated me, (all hail public LJs) (for no particular reason?), which added a few layers of risk onto trying to reach out along with doing a number on my sense of self-worth.
If you’re lucky, your family will say it. I had several friends who was like that and my mother always knew it.
But i can’t help but notice that it’s people who uses you for looking better, sadly….So look if people jocks often on you, if what you said to the is often know by other people… I can’t help more sorry.
I really hope that you have better frieds now.
I do! it involved moving cross country twice, but I’m very pleased with the family-of-choice I ended up with. (Therapy and drugs helped do away with some of the gloom.)
In my experience, the biggest differentiation is the way people actually act (or what they actually say) versus what kind of words or actions you ASCRIBE to them. Bullies will act like bullies. They’ll belittle you, give you backhanded compliments, and deliberately poke at your vulnerable spots. They’ll say or do nasty things and then try and write it off as a joke, etc. They will behave poorly.
Whereas, when you’re being self-defeating, you will ascribe actions to people that you don’t have any real evidence for. “They didn’t talk to me because they think I’m an awkward ugly nerd and they hate me!” Do you know FOR SURE that that’s why this person didn’t talk to you? Do you have a signed affidavit from Their Brain saying, “Yes, this is what I thought and that is why I didn’t say hi”?
If the answer is no, but you assume that they hate you anyway, and then behave toward them in accordance with that assumption, your hatred of the world just might be making you act like bad company.
An important skill to develop is also to observe how your friends speak about mutual friends when those friends aren’t around. If Friend A is all sugar smiles and “Oh hi, how are you!” when Friend B is around, but turns into “God, I can’t STAND that person!” as soon as Friend B leaves, it is a safe bet that they will do the same to you. Good people who are worth opening up to won’t trash talk other people in their social circle, because they will actually like the other people in their social circle.
This one took me forever to get. My reaction used to be, “I need to make sure I’m perfect so they don’t talk shit about me like they do with Other Person.” Bleh. Now it’s more just something I keep in mind, that if they say mean stuff about other people behind their backs, they WILL do that to me too; and I don’t pay them as much mind.
The parent comment on this and Lark’s are something I think about too. I wish a lot of articles would at least acknowledge that there are systematic causes for loneliness, depression, etc. and that it’s not just all in your head and if you think happy thoughts you’ll be just fine. I wish there were a good way to differentiate between internal vs. external causes because they both exist.
I was picked on some as a kid and then as a teen ended up developing a more tough persona to protect myself, but by the time I got to my 20s I had really outgrown the need for it, but didn’t know how to stop it. I’ve also had wholesale rejection from peer groups and this makes me hesitant to try to make friends or even just talk to strangers in a social setting because I worry about it happening again. I’d really like to come up with a way where I can acknowledge past bad experiences as being legitimate but also be able to let them go so that they don’t poison all of my future actions.
Thanks for the good article, Captain. I find this part very interesting:
>In the Ohio State study, lonely people tended to feel put upon and misunderstood. They were, the researchers wrote, “more likely to attribute problems in social relationships to others,” and to see themselves “as victims who are already giving as much as they can to their relationships.”
My own loneliness may be different because it’s mixed in with depression and low self-worth, but although I do feel frequently misunderstood, I’m more likely to attribute problems in social relationships to myself. Even when others try to tell me that I’m a good person, or that I’m taking on too much responsibility for a situation, I can’t bring myself to accept that. I mean, I recognize that other people influence a situation as well, but I dwell endlessly on (and hate myself for) my own actions and mistakes.
Also, although I certainly have the negative self-talk that both Cap and the article talked about, I’ve learned to avoid expressing negative feelings as much as possible. That makes social events go more smoothly and it reduces the pain I cause to those around me, but it also exacerbates the loneliness because when I’m feeling down I can’t talk to anyone about it, and it adds to my self-perception of being a toxic person who needs to keep myself repressed at all times to protect others from my bad habits/behaviors/thoughts.
I’d like to share my story, in case it helps anyone who feels this way. I was The Loner in my elementary and middle school (really. It’s on at least five of my report cards). I had completely given up trying to make friends by the time I was 8.
My loneliness problem started with a move between states when I was 6 and a half. My mother managed to get me a place in a magnet school in San Francisco, our new city, because the education at this particular school was superior to the one my cousins attended. She had underestimated the shock that a kid used to suburban playfields-with-climbing structures would go through, though. There was only a blacktop, and the kids played games I’d never seen before – like jump-rope. The first week, at recess, the teacher organized a game of kickball for all the first graders… and promptly made fun of me when I said I’d never played before and didn’t know the rules. Sometime near the end of the week, two older kids beat me up. I don’t actually remember this – I have only their notes of apology to go on – but I’m sure it added to the distrust I felt of other children.
Despite the notes of apology, my mother promptly removed me from the school and found a new one. Unfortunately, at the second school, the children mostly spoke Mandarin on the playground, though they spoke English in the classroom. My academics became an issue, too – I was too far ahead, so I was sent to the second grade for math, reading, spelling and grammar. Being out of the classroom half the day and unable to connect on the playground isolated me. Combined with the distrust I already felt of the other children, I withdrew. My mother and grandmother took the time to teach me to jump rope, but it was really too late. I didn’t even try.
Over the summer, we moved again, to the suburbs. I would once again go to a school with playground equipment and a ball field. Unfortunately, I was now thoroughly lonely and isolated. I had no idea how to connect with other children. The first day, I cried. Well, I probably thought I was going to get beat up again. My teacher, thinking she was shoring me up, told me I didn’t want to the other kids to see me crying and think me a baby. I stopped crying, but I trusted my classmates even less. It didn’t help that I was a year younger than my classmates, and smaller than my age anyway. My classmates scared me. I stayed isolated the entire year.
As luck would have it, the following year I was placed in a classroom with a pair of siblings I knew from after-school daycare. I got along with the girl tolerably well, but she was nearly 3 years older than I, having been red-shirted due to a fall birthday and then held back a year. She didn’t really want to hang out with a quiet, isolated 8 year old at school, even if we played well enough together at daycare. On the days she sent me packing, I would sit in the field alone.
Mid-October, the teacher decided I was really not mature enough or big enough to handle fourth grade. Between my psychologist, the teacher and my parents, the decision was made to move me back to the third grade with my age-mates. The third grade teacher announced me to my classmates as someone who, “has already done third grade, so she can help you with your classwork.” Unsurprisingly, no one asked for my help. In another complete non-surprise, I was unable to connect with any of my new classmates.
In retrospect, none of the students truly harmed me. Well, maybe the ones who beat me up that first week in SF. But everyone else – I was the one shutting them out, and I couldn’t even see it. I thought something was wrong with *them*, not that I was rejecting their overtures at friendship out of fear. I can clearly remember several girls, throughout elementary and middle school, really trying to be friendly. At the time, I saw it as a way to make me more vulnerable. My mindset was something along the lines of: “what, you think no one pretended to be my friend before?” The thing is, those people probably weren’t pretending. It’s just that at the first sign of anything – whispers, or people looking at me, say – I would run, literally run, away. This does not make people want to be your friend.
It was high school before things changed for me. I had been in girl scouts since I was 6, through all that moving, and I had been in the same troop from third grade (the second time!) on. When I started high school, I was, for the first time, at the same school as a girl from my scout troop. Suddenly I knew one other person, someone whose house I had visited and could connect with outside of academics. It helped that even within academics, we worked well together. She introduced me to more new people, who added more people… my circle of people-I-can-trust grew. Once I had one person I could rely on, I was able to open up more to others, including the teenage boy who eventually became my husband.
In college, I managed to make acquaintances and get along with people reasonably well. Roommates were a bad idea, but once I moved in with my boyfriend, things got easier. Knowing that even one person was completely trustworthy and had my back really made a difference. The trick was letting anyone get close enough to figure out if they were that one person.
Wow, I want to give you jedi hugs. My story was somewhat similar, with multiple moves (almost annual), and me withdrawing for fear of being rejected. I knew it was embarassing to admit to not having friends, but I had no friends until highschool, when it started getting better.
As I commended below, though, I don’t really know how to like other people, though I am lucky enough to have a small number of people in my life whom I do really like (and who like me).
Childhood loneliness can do a number on a person. My main goal for my child is to try to keep her going to the same school as her neighbours (unless of course she ends up having serious social problems with them).
The article is bull. I am horribly lonely. I shoot pool with friends once a week. I go to church every week. I go out to a party every month. I am active in two local communities. I have hundreds of friends that don’t have time for me. I have five really close friends that don’t have time for me. My social calendar is an endless round of we should get togethers and cancellations. I bust my ass to have friends. I have friends and I am horribly lonely. Being outgoing and the life of the party doesn’t do you any good when it comes time to invite people to the good parties if you don’t have ‘sexy’.
A friend is all nervous because she’s got people coming over for a hot tub party. So she calls me to calm down. She doesn’t call me to invite me to the party. She calls me to calm down! She calls me to calm down! Next time I hear from her is two months later. A coworker of hers has gone into the hospital with surprise terminal cancer and she is freaking out. I talk her down for an hour and forty minutes and at the end she says. “I could have called Nick but we have a date tonight and I didn’t want to mess it up.”
I’m social valium and they want me to take the blame for being lonely?
From the article:
“According to Guy Winch, a New York psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid, lonely people can become “overly defensive and come across to others as detached, aloof, or even hostile — which only pushes them further away.” Loneliness can create its own self-defeating behavior.”
*rereads above comment*
If you can get that from what I said you need a cranial rectal extraction.
“In the Ohio State study, lonely people tended to feel put upon and misunderstood. They were, the researchers wrote, ‘more likely to attribute problems in social relationships to others,’ and to see themselves ‘as victims who are already giving as much as they can to their relationships.'”
Maybe I should have quoted that bit instead.
Peter, you are exhibiting/describing the exact behavior the researchers are describing – seeing yourself as a giver, as being taken advantage of, as being the victim. I can’t speak for the accuracy of the study, or for any of your supposed friends, but I had a negative reaction to what you wrote about your friendships. It doesn’t sound like that one friend treats you very well, but the way you described your life didn’t make me want to be your friend, or even inquire more about the situation. What the research (or description of) isn’t digging into, which commenter “Lark” outlined so beautifully, is that it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Which came first, feeling lonely, or being undervalued and being angry for being undervalued?
That said, Anothermous, stop picking on Peter.
Peter, the writer of the piece is a fellow lonely person who is writing about research into the topic, not blaming anybody. Do you think there is anything you could do to make things better in your friendships? What do you think would help? I ask sincerely, because I get a lot of letters that read like your comment, and telling people “get some therapy” and “try meeting more people” (while the only things I know actually might work) often just makes people feel worse. What could we tell them?
I am not talking about ‘feeling alone’. I am talking about sleeping by myself for the last 27 years. I am talking about going to the movies by myself for the last 20 years. I am talking about eating out by myself for the last 20 years. I am talking about watching friends and family fall in love, get married, have kids, breakups, divorces, graduations, grandchildren and I have a stack of books and a series of cats. I am not talking about feeling alone. I have been doing my best to make connections with people and it never works and I don’t know why. But I do know it doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m thinking.
Peter, I’m so sorry that’s been your experience.
No one, not even those performing the studies, say loneliness is because of negative thinking. They are saying that over time, lonely people have and display more negative thoughts, and that inhibits them when they try to make friends. Loneliness like you’ve experienced ==> affects thoughts ==> affects behaviors (and health, in a toxic way) ==> makes it harder to get out of the rut. They’re talking about observed patterns of thinking and behavior, not blame.
What helped me about 15 years ago was ’embrace the suck’ (military term). Stop trying to fix it. Fill the alone time with things that I actually wanted to do that I could do by myself. I studied things. Learning is fun for me. I learned the bass, I learned the harp, I learned to whistle, I learned contact juggling, I guess I made learning a hobby. Right now I’m studying permaculture and wind energy. When I go out with friends I don’t get fixated on what I want from the interaction. If I get to participate in the conversations that’s great but if I just end up people watching that’s okay too. When I try to surprise a friend with something cool I make sure I don’t invest too much in their reaction in case the surprise doesn’t get the reaction I wanted.
I did another comment with some suggestions but the trollseive seems to have eaten it. I don’t know why.
Hi. I’m someone who empathises an awful lot with Peter, and I have a question, if you have the time and inclination to answer:
” the way you described your life didn’t make me want to be your friend, or even inquire more about the situation.”
What was it about his original comment that put you off? I can see some of his later comments potentially making people wary, but his original comment, to paraphrase, was “I’m lonely, and I feel like all the people I know exclude me and take advantage of me”
This bothers me a hell of a lot, because I try and hide my lonely, friendless life from people I meet becasue I’m ashamed of it. I feel I’ll be judged.
I don’t think you’re judging him for the fact he’s lonely, but I genuinly do not understand what else he said that might be off putting. I think I’m missing something important. Could you help me out by elaborating?
Hi. I’m someone who empathises an awful lot with Peter, and I have a question, if you have the time and inclination to answer:
” the way you described your life didn’t make me want to be your friend, or even inquire more about the situation.”
What was it about his original comment that put you off? I can see some of his later comments potentially making people wary, but his original comment, to paraphrase, was “I’m lonely, and I feel like all the people I know exclude me and take advantage of me”
This bothers me a hell of a lot, because I try and hide my lonely, friendless life from people I meet becasue I’m ashamed of it. I feel I’ll be judged.
I don’t think you’re judging him for the fact he’s lonely, but I genuinly do not understand what else he said that might be off putting. I think I’m missing something important. Could you help me out by elaborating?
I’m not judging Peter for being lonely, or even for being upset about it, and the post invites people to share their experiences. But, since you asked, half of Peter’s post sounded like a classic NiceGuy(tm) rant. “My female friend calls me to talk or for help fixing things, but goes on dates with other people.” It’s not just loneliness, it’s anger at a friend for having other friends that gives off an Eep, Nope vibe to me.
(Purposefully replying to the wrong post, because for some reason wordpress won’t let me reply to the right one. Although I did manage to spectacularly double post whilst simultaneously failing to log in properly earlier, so it may well be all my fault)
“Peter’s post sounded like a classic NiceGuy(tm) rant. “My female friend calls me to talk or for help fixing things, but goes on dates with other people.””
Thanks for elaborating. I didn’t get that feeling when I read his post, but on second reading I can definitely see what you mean. I suppose my feeling of “Oh god, he sounds just like me!” led me to give him the most generous possible interpretation.
As to your question, what do us lonely people think would help, well, given all the things I’ve tried have failed, I’m singularly unqualified to answer. However, I do want to offer one reason why “try meeting people” makes me feel worse.
From the outside looking in, it might seem ridiculous for me to resist going out and meeting people. It certainly appears to be a zero risk wager. I’m lonely right now. Why not go out to a bar? I might make a friend, and even if I don’t meet anyone, well, I’m still no lonelier, right?
And true, I wouldn’t be any lonelier. I would be upset though. Even more upset than I am right now. Because yet again, my feelings of being worthless and unlikeable would have been re-enforced.
I started a new job six months back. I promised myself it’d be different this time. I’d make friends this time. Now that I’ve completely failed to make a single friend at work, I feel even worse, even more depressed, even more lonely. The unspeakably sad truth is that if I’d not made any kind of effort, I’d feel better now. I wouldn’t feel good, but I wouldn’t feel as bad as I do, becasue I wouldn’t have been rejected.
I can only speak for myself, but I know what would help me. Some positive re-enforcement. One person, just one, in all the world, asking ME, explicitly, to do something with them because they wanted to do that thing with me. That would would help. I don’t think that’s happened to me for around eight years now.
Which makes me all sad.
I don’t know how to get that for you, I’m sorry. I hope you can find a Meetup group, a class, an activity where you find someone sympatico.
“‘My female friend calls me to talk or for help fixing things, but goes on dates with other people.’ It’s not just loneliness, it’s anger at a friend for having other friends that gives off an Eep, Nope vibe to me.”
That’s not the vibe I got. The vibe I got was “My friend asks me to put time and effort into fixing something for a party I’m not even invited to!” and “Oh, you can’t ruin Nick’s day but you can ruin mine?”
That first one is painful. Not being invited to a party by a friend is already painful, but not being invited and then being asked to help out is like rubbing salt in the wounds. I mean, sure, Friend can invite or not invite anyone she wants, but there is something to be said for sparing people’s feelings, too. I remember sitting there nodding and smiling pleasantly while a recent friend told me all about the party she threw for her husband and showing me pictures when I hadn’t been invited. True, we hadn’t know each other for that long, and I hadn’t interacted that much with her husband. I understand why I wasn’t invited (or rather, why I presume I wasn’t invited, since I didn’t ask). But showing me all the fun I wasn’t included in just seemed kind of tacky. Same for Peter’s situation. If you don’t invite someone, don’t rub their nose in the fun they aren’t having.
The second situation doesn’t raise either red or green flags to me. Friend and Nick might not be at the stage where they have enough connection to ask for that kind of support. Stating things as “I didn’t want to make things awkward for somebody else” isn’t the most sensitive way to frame it. “I could ask Nick, but we don’t know each other that well and you have been in my life for so much longer” might have been better. Or just, not bring up Nick at all bc he’s sort of irrelevant to the situation.
I think I have Eep, Nope vibes from Friend now. If Peter’s reports truly represent how she is, I think she’s an insensitive clod who I would want to establish some distance from. YMMV
I want to apologize to Peter if I read something into his comments that weren’t there. The gendered nature of it, and the complaint specifically about the date raised some hackles that are pretty well primed to be raised.
@druarer, since I don’t totally understand the commenting system:
I didn’t get a “Nice Guy TM” vibe from Peter so much as a “this person is going to be emotionally exhausting to hang out with.” When I’m looking for a new friend, I’m looking for someone who is fun to hang out with and who will give me back approximately the same amount of energy that I put into the relationship. At this stage, I don’t know you, I don’t love you, I don’t feel any duty or obligation to you or your loneliness. To put it bluntly, you have to bring something to the table the first time I meet you if I’m going to put in the effort to hang out again. People who are very negative and bitter are only fun to hang out with if you share the same, very specific dark brand of humor and find being negative and bitter entertaining. I know this is an open thread to talk about loneliness, but if my first interaction with someone consisted of them saying “my life is terrible and it’s everyone else’s fault,” then why would I expect the next interaction to be more positive?
This… does not seem to me like a constructive way to respond to another person’s pain.
PeterG, I read a quote on tumblr recently that I think applies to your situation: “That’s the problem with putting others first; you’ve taught them you come second.” It sounds like your friends aren’t used to thinking of you as having needs, perhaps because you spend all your time attending to theirs. My suggestion, especially with Hot Tub Friend, would be to start setting boundaries. Don’t let her use you as an emotional dumping-ground anymore. I get why you’re doing this — you want to “earn” her attention and friendship by being the bestest, most understanding person evar — but that’s not how human relationships work, I’m afraid. Either Hot Tub Friend wants to be your friend, or she doesn’t; you can’t make her change her mind on that front. That said, it’s possible (even likely) that she’s just being thoughtless and not deliberately neglectful, and if you talk to her about the fact that she only calls you when she needs emotional support, she’ll start making more of an effort to make your friendship a two-way street. If she doesn’t, she’s not your friend, and you should put your energy towards other people. It is okay to do that. You don’t actually have to put up with crappy friends forever because of Loyalty and Steadfastness or whatever other crap; you get to decide whom you want to be friends with, even if that means that someone who used to make the cut… doesn’t anymore. Just like breaking up with a significant other is always okay for any reason, breaking up with a friend is also okay, even if it’s for a reason like “I’m just not feeling a connection anymore.” If your five close friends don’t have time for you… well, maybe you should take some of the time you have reserved for them and start spending it on other people. Maybe they’ll come around, maybe they won’t; either way, you’ll be putting in yourself in a position to find more reciprocity in your close friendships.
(I tried to say what the Cap’n would. How’d I do?)
I have friends I don’t see much (and friends I do not see at all), but when we _do_ connect, we’ve got a good connection. I have one friend who has very little time in their life other than for silly commute work/far-away parents/long distance partner, so they won’t just meet up casually most of the time; but they explained *why* they did not want to see me, and when we *do* meet, we get along well, but we have little time to bond. (And that’s ok.)
People who only contact you when they need help – or people who only contact you when they can help you (I have an ex-friend like that) are not, in my book, ‘friends’ anymore than people you casually meet now and again for coffee, films and chats, but there are many grades between ‘casual acquaintance’ and ‘really close friend’ (can come to my house at any time of day or night, even if I’m going out, and I to theirs).
The main thing here is reciprocity – sometimes it’s fine to just hang out and chat with people (or see a film/go to a bar, whatever); sometimes you want deep, soul-searching conversations, but when one party has radically different expectations than the other – you want a half-hour chat, they want a new best friend – or if they *act* like it, you usually don’t have a friendship of any sort.
And I feel with anyone who looks around puzzled and wonders what they’re doing wrong, which memo they missed out on, coming into a new environment and watching everybody else make friends with each other. It helped to realise that a super-outgoing, friends-with-everybody, making-friends-within-minutes person didn’t actually have more close friends than I did (I had a couple of friends and next to no circle of acquaintances). It helped – though I didn’t always realise it at the time – that people wanted to get to know me at university (though I cringe how much lifestuff I dumped on one person who did reach out – totally inappropriate. We weren’t close friends yet!). etc etc. And I still find it difficult to ‘make friends’, though I have a great circle of friends and a fantastic partner. I don’t know how I would advise my younger self (never mind anyone else) – but friendships happen in the space of having things in common, reaching out to others, being open to invitations, acting appropriately (which sometimes means setting boundaries for you or them).
I totally don’t want to blame anyone – we do the best we can – but I know that my social interactions didn’t just happen to me; I took part in them. That doesn’t mean that the bullies in my class weren’t bullies, but it only occurred to me as an adult that half the class probably did not take much notice of me because I wasn’t much on their radar, and rather than being my enemies, they probably didn’t care. Which doesn’t make it any less hurtful that they didn’t reach out, but it makes them less evil than I experienced them. And ditto with university and workplaces and other social gatherings.
This was my thought too. If they never have time for you, why make the effort to do so for them? Friendships need reciprocity. If people continually treat you poorly, stop hanging out with them. This can be daunting, I know, especially if the majority of your friendships are like that. Mine were and I did this and it was scary and awful for a while, but now I have friends who actually like me instead of me chasing after scraps of other people’s affection.
I have done this – not quite so blatantly as your party hostess friend – but I have called up friends and spent hours going over the problems in my life, without giving very much in return. I tended to do this to the people I thought of as confident, invulnerable – the people who wouldn’t need to pour out their heart to me, or be involved in my life, because they were so strong and had so many other friends they could call on. Invariably they were men and I was taking advantage of their unwillingness to be ungracious. Stopped doing that a while back, but I feel bad about my semi-deliberate obliviousness.
Sometimes I have been that person for somebody else. In the end I’ve forced myself into the conversation, and talked for what seemed like ages about my problems and fears. Either our friendship has been recalibrated, with more give and take, or they have revealed themselves to be uninterested in me, and I’ve stopped responding to them. If someone doesn’t treat you like a friend, you don’t have to waste your time on them.
Yeah, the next time she got a hold of me to offer me a carrot some day I told her what she could do with her carrot.
Peter, could you please reread the comment you were replying to, then reread your own comment? Do you notice anything different about the two comments?
Do I notice anything different? Nope, not really.
Peter, have you ever seen a therapist or considered getting a therapist?
Because whatever the origin of this situation, your increasing bitterness about it is likely to make it worse. I think you could benefit a lot from working with a professional who has the skills to tell you honestly how they experience building a relationship with you, and who is very unlikely to fall into a “helpee”/taking role with you. I do wonder whether you are presently in a cycle of trying to “prove” yourself to people by being the most helpfullest and not asking for what you need, people take you at your word, you grow increasingly bitter at the inequity of the relationship and end up erupting/withdrawing.
If your response is “I already tried that”/”I don’t need to PAY someone to be my friend” – well, you know what’s best for you, but that second one is not what therapy is. It’s paying an expert to be an impartial, skilled listener who can help you unpack some stuff. And I think you need some help.
::nod:: Sounds like the recent discussion here about the helper/helpee relationship style and why it’s so unbalanced and can get so toxic. Peter, have you read that discussion? It could be helpful in terms of re-setting some boundaries with people.
Also, that bitterness and resentment — that comes through when you talk to people, when you interact with them, whether you mean it to or not. A lot of people who are stuck in this mindset, IME, really resist that but it is true (and the science seems to be there at least as far as neurotypical brains go).
Your simple faith in therapy is touching. I’ve been seeing a therapist for quite a while.
(responding here because nested comments only go so far)
Peter, instead of your response to Ethyl, which comes across as defensive, here are a few scripts you could try out in response to someone recommending therapy when you already have a therapist. (If a stranger did this, in a forum where you *hadn’t* asked for advice, different reactions might be appropriate.)
“Thank you for your advice.” (= thank you for taking the time to engage. This isn’t appropriate for me, but thank you anyway.)
This means that you’re not bringing your annoyance to the table. It’s very frustrating when people recommend things that you’ve tried or things that you’re already doing, but ‘thanks for the advice’ usually works better than complaints about advice you’re given when you ask for it.
“How would that work?”
(Subclasses: what kind of therapist should I be looking for? How should I bring up my problem with a therapist? What do you think the outcome would/should be?) You don’t even need to disclose that you have a therapist (and get defensive over having to defend that therapist who, for all we know, is excellent, or over staying with that therapist when you have a niggling suspicion that maybe you’re not making as much progress as you might with a different therapist because humans and all their interactions are complex beasts and we know only a tiny fraction of what’s going on in your life.
“Can you share your own experiences?/What makes you say that?”
None of these commit you to anything. The last two invite a discourse. You don’t need to disclose what you really think, or whether you’ll take the advice, though it’s always useful, I find, to consider advice, even if it’s to confirm that you’re doing the right-for-you thing. But while your response does not invite any further discussion with you, these are about engagement: they prove that you’re taking an interest in what they have to say, and they suggest that you’ll think about the things you learn before coming to conclusions. Whether you’re looking more for factual advice, or more for personal experiences is up to you, but I would posit that you don’t actually have anything to lose by trying these out.
Ok, and you know that 1) you have to be honest with your therapist and actually work at it, and 2) that you can find a new therapist if the one you are seeing isn’t clicking for you?
So, you’re saying that you listened to her about the party, didn’t tell her it was uncomfortable for you to be her sounding board about the party you weren’t invited to, and then she offered some other kindness and you threw it in her face? Apropos of nothing, as far as she could tell?
I didn’t tell her that she was being an ass because I didn’t want to mess up her night and I was hoping that she would go back to ignoring my existence. The next time she contacted me was when she needed emotional help from me instead of her boyfriend. It was after that crisis was over and she was doing a half assed apology for calling me a smartypants for answering a question she had posed online that she offered to go bowling with me someday. At which point I told her not to bother and that I would rather not hear from her again. When she got that email she called me repeatedly in the middle of the night until I had to turn my phone off.
It sounds like you lack close friends. You have lots of sort of friends, and you can do fun things with them (like pool), which is good. But you don’t have close friends you can hang out with. Your last bit about being social valium reminds me of the discussion about helpers and helpees from a few posts ago. When you have a relationship where you are the designated helper and someone else is the designated helpee, then it can’t be a truly close friendship of equals (the sort of friendship you seem to lack and want). And if you regularly act as the helper, then you’ll attract people who want to be int he role of helpee. The Captain has tons of info about polite, friendly ways to set boundaries when people want your emotional support. It seems like you might benefit from using those more, and then trying to focus on any people who are interested in hanging out and doing fun things with you. And then if the friendship is going well very slowly allow some deeper connections by slowing allowing some emotional support that goes in both directions. It’s very important it be balanced, but also that you don’t do too much too fast. I could be misreading your comment and there’s not a whole lot of information about your life from just this, but it does sound like you’ve been spending too much time fostering “friendships” that don’t have a basis in actual friendship. It’s really easy to form quick, faux-close connections with people through needing or giving help. I’ve done that myself. But it provides a terrible foundation for a real friendship. I think friends helping each other is great, but it’s like other forms of intimacy, you want to have it develop slowly and carefully or you may end up thinking you have more of a connection than you do (which is an okay risk to take if you want to, but if you keep getting hurt when you realize the people aren’t actually that close to you, then it’s a problem).
In your position I’d probably invite some people out to a movie or out to dinner, and the people who keep saying no or cancelling and don’t invite me back with other plans, I’d start pruning out of my mental list as “friends”. Although it’s good to find some cheap/free activities to suggest, because sometimes people would like to go out with a friend, but can’t afford it. So, try some of those invites. But basically, put less time and energy into people who don’t want to spend time with you, and put more time into finding people who do. And when building those early connections, be very careful to make sure you are building them based on an enjoyment of each other’s company and equality, rather than giving or receiving of help.
Anyhow, I wish you good luck with things.
Which was the helper/helpee post please?
There’s a lot of discussion in the comments. A lot of people talking about how many problems helpers have caused them, some discussion of how helping isn’t all bad, but you have to be careful about it. And common things that go wrong with a helper-helpee dynamic. But mainly, how it isn’t a true friendship. When you setup that dynamic, you’re setting up a kind of relationship, but the kind that doesn’t work with a close friendship. I think you might find it useful. If you do, then I recommend you read a lot of the archives on this site about boundary-setting. Because there are a lot of friendly, nice ways to start breaking out of that dynamic, and using friendly methods is a good way to see if a relationship can be turned from a helper-helpee dynamic into a friendship or not or to keep a developing friendship on track.
Peter, I get you; in fact, I am your female counterpart… I don’t know about genii, but Confederacies of Dunces, yes… You’ve already solved your own “problem”, and followed advice here, by realizing that takers just love givers and will keep on using you until they use you up, and you’re better off giving your attention and good energy to someone that deserves it -You!- at least until another Decent Person happens along and you find a rapport. It will happen eventually as long as you continue to cultivate your garden.
I’m not shocked by your timeline because I find as one gets older, one is left out of the loops that keep rolling past, missed trains, roads not taken. Friends keep moving or we veer away, and effort must be made to meet good people. I like the emphasis on own company but parks and libraries, dojos, bike trails, boat rentals are just a few locations enjoyable solo or tandem. You do music? cool. Like making love for groups of friends. How about karate or yoga? Reduce the loneliness mental obscuration to nothing while you’re at it.
I did karate. Some friends of mine were taking karate from a friend of theirs. I joined the class for the exercise. It was a lot of fun. I got a green belt. New job killed the class for several of us all at once. Yoga is impractical for reasons.
Hey Peter. I’ve been in a similar place to this and felt the same resentment you are feeling.
I was pretty hurt and unhappy about some things that had happened in my life, so I was obviously sad a lot of the time and that made it hard for many people to be around me.
I also kept trying to make friends or be friends with people who did not prioritize a friendship with me, did not especially want to spend time with me, and did not act like I mattered to them.
What turned things around for me was twofold (1) the stuff I was hurt and unhappy about got better, mainly by just being further in the past; and (2) I took some of the advice on this blog about how to make friends, with a liberal helping of “people who like you will act like they like you.”
I realized at least one “friend” I had would swear up and down that he wanted to see me and do things with me but when I tried to schedule things he ALWAYS said no, and it made me feel like shit. So I decided to stop. I don’t see him much anymore (last time was at a party when he expressed a huge amount of surprise at how long it had been since we’d seen each outher… um yeah dude thanks…) but he also doesn’t make me feel like shit anymore.
And not focusing on these “friends” who really didn’t actually want to be my friends but were (I suppose?) too polite to say so, meant that I was freed up to run that friend algorithm on other people. Anybody got a link to that? –anyway, I have a lot of activities and things I belong to now and I have two good friends and a bunch of regular friends, and none of them make me feel like shit.
So it’s totally possible. But I did also have to spend a lot of time alone, healing and learning how to have fun (and thus be fun) again. I’m not saying that applies to you, I think it was pretty specific to me, but based on what you said, maybe it’s just that these specific people you want to be friends with, either don’t want to be friends with you, or they don’t want to be the KIND of friends you want to be. Which, if it’s true, sucks hard, but the best thing I’ve found to do is let it suck and move on and try other things.
Good luck! I can’t promise it will get better, obviously, but I know it can. Have hope. If I were where you are I would do something nice for you, like give you a chocolate or tell a funny joke to make you laugh, but I’m not so maybe you could do something nice for yourself!
This is, indeed, very Relevant To My Interests. I’m a recovering self-induced Lonely Person who now, for the first time, has a pretty big network of close, casual, and everything-in-between friends. Here’s my experience, in case it helps anyone.
For me, the biggest obstacle to escaping the lonely sads was learning to get out of my head and stop worrying so much about what others thought of me (MUCH easier said than done). I had an emotionally abusive childhood in which I was taught that I was a Uniquely Horrible person, which made me both self-hating and (counter-intuitively, at least to me at the time) self-absorbed. I’ve always naturally been a shy and sensitive person who didn’t make friends easily; combine this with my belief that I was Horrible set me on a terrible feedback loop that took, literally, decades to get out of. I believed I sucked and no one would like me, this caused me to act really shy and awkward and self-focused around friends (because I was sure they would hate me if they got to know me), so naturally I didn’t make many friends (and those I had were superficial, or were people I “helped” ala the last LW (ugh!!)), which was proof that I suck and no one likes me, and so on…
It took four things for me to break out of this loop:
1. Discovering that I really wasn’t inherently Horrible, that what I had been told was not fact but emotional abuse.
2. Treating my depression and anxiety, and seeking out things to be happy about.
3. Forgiving myself, and going easy on myself, for the things I did wrong. Recognizing that I wasn’t the best friend to others when I was in the depths of depression, but that I did the best I could to get by, and would now put that behind me and try to be the best friend I could in the future.
4. Working to not take myself so seriously, and recognizing that others can be just as awkward inside as I am (this site has been a HUGE help in this!)
Practically speaking, as Loren mentioned above, when I’m still feeling awkward I find it really helpful to focus on the other person. Ask him or her questions, listen carefully, and respond to those questions. Being able to laugh at myself in the moment if I’m being awkward or make a mistake (instead of letting jerkbrain take over in a cycle of “omg I did/didn’t do X, they hate me!!”) goes a long ways, too!
I still fall back into depressions sometimes (SAD + living north of 50deg latitude = not a good combo!), and when I do I retreat back into my jerkbrain cycle, withdraw socially, and think no one likes me. But I’m learning not to listen to jerkbrain, because I’ve gone through enough rounds of winter “no one likes me”‘s followed by spring “oh my friends do still like me”s by now that I know from experience that jerkbrain does NOT speak truth, no matter how much it feels like it at the time. The winter sads still suck, but I know now that they’ll pass eventually.
My problem isn’t loneliness per se, though I can indeed get lonely. My problem is my not liking very many people at all. I try to increase my number of friends, but time and effort don’t result in my genuinely loving their company (mild liking is all I can attain). I am really fond of a few people in my life, and in my current city only one of these is not family.
I want to know how to like more people! It’s confusing and exhausting trying to meet more people, and work on improving my acquaintance with promising people, and then eventually realizing that I’m happier not seeing them.
One non-family friend right now (whom I love!) seems like a risky way to live. What if she stops liking me? Or what if (god forbid) I stop liking her, and then I have zero friends?
I don’t think I need to learn to be nicer (as in, I am pretty nice to people, I think). I need to somehow change myself so fundamentally that I can get pleasure out of other people’s company more easily. But that seems impossible.
Anyone else with this problem?
I have this problem! I do not have a solution.
I am not lonely at all. It took me until I was 28 to understand what people even meant by that. At worst, I miss certain people, but I think I have only felt a general kind of loneliness in a few specific and weird circumstances (like being sick in a foreign country where I didn’t know anyone). I have plenty of friends, but I am relatively introverted and have a few hobbies I take very seriously in my spare time, and while I do spend time with my friends, I have only met a few people ever with whom I wanted to spend more than a few hours per week. After that I feel like, “okay, I gotta go do my other things that I find much more interesting, bye!” I can MAYBE handle this with one person per week, and not the same person every week. And I always think they must be able to tell I am impatient to get going.
I think for me, I’m an overachiever so socializing almost feels too frivolous for me to enjoy. Sometimes I have to frame it to myself in more job/duty-like terminology, where I view maintaining friendships as being akin to eating healthy. I also tend to focus on my hobbies & career in a very intense way and socializing can just feel boring in comparison. Also, that level of intensity and focus really does not work in relationships.
I’ve tried varying my friend groups in alignment with my work and hobbies and other random stuff, but yeah, I end up with the same problem as you — I like them ok, but I just don’t crave their company.
I had this problem! Unfortunately, my solution was pretty drastic.
I grew up in a more conservative part of the US. As we moved a bit in this area and I met a variety of people, I thought I just didn’t like people much.
As an adult, I wound up moving to a much more liberal and progressive part of the country. Here I’ve made a number of connections, though I’ve had other issues with the whole socializing and making friends thing.
I think the problem was that there weren’t enough points of similarity in values and life goals, so those early relationships were easily uprooted by moving as a kid and hard to be deeply invested in when I was older. Moving somewhere where the local culture more closely matched mine made it easier to find my people.
Maybe try looking for local groups supporting things you believe in strongly?
I agree with this — I have been much more successful in making friends (both close, middle, and acquaintances) now that I have made and effort to meet people who strongly align with myself politically and religiously. I have found that it is much easier to connect with someone when certain things (such as, oh say, the acceptability of gay people or atheists or the importance of feminism) are given rather than trying to hold back until you figure out where the other person stands, and then having to back way off if they hold unsafe opinions (such as that you should not exist/will burn in hell forever/should be forced to give birth).
I am one of these people too! I sometimes get struck with profound loneliness and feelings of disconnection, but when I try to go out and make friends I rarely find people I really connect with or whose company I enjoy, which sometimes leaves me feeling sadder. The rest of the time I actually feel fine and would rather spend 99% of my time alone anyway. I kept thinking that article should resonate with me more because I do struggle with jerkbrain, but not in that way I guess. I’m just a meanie who doesn’t really like people.
I’m lucky that I have a strong core of friendships back in my hometown, though it’s frustrating not to be able to spend time with them in person as much as I’d like. I’ve met half a dozen perfectly nice people in the city I live in now but never clicked with any of them. My two closest friends are one fellow student from my old grad program who’s as much of an odd duck here as I am and one friend from my hometown who moved here last year and is moving away again on Friday. The last couple weeks I’ve been in a huge spiral over some relationship problems and desperately needed people to go out and have fun with, but there’s no one here I feel comfortable doing that with now that my one friend has moved and the other is travelling. It’s rough not having that local network there when you need it–the long distance can only do so much.
But I can’t seem to *make* myself like the people I’ve met better. They’re all perfectly nice, but we don’t click and I’m not sure why. Most of them have been queer and we’ve theoretically had stuff in common like movies or crafting, but there’s no real “spark” there. We hang out from time to time, but it doesn’t do much for me and feels insincere and selfish to “lead them on” as friends (something I’ve been accused of doing in the past). My grad student friend and I have almost nothing in common (except loving food and being in the same profession, but otherwise our personalities and upbringings are very different), but I guess we have enough in common to understand each other and enough different to find each other fascinating (she’s an international student so we spend a lot of time discussing the differences in politics and society between her country and mine). So maybe it’s not a question of having all the things in common but having the right things in common?
My solution anyway is the fact that I’m already planning on moving to a west coast city where I might be more likely to meet people I connect with. (We’ll see though–I’ve lived there before and it’s technically “liberal and progressive” but I found a lot of superficiality and elitism too.) It’s too bad I can’t live on the internet, because that’s where I seem to meet people I click with the most.
I am the same way, and I really don’t consider it a problem, in and of itself. I have had spells where no one I met made it through the winnowing process, and that was a problem, but the solution to it was to (a) meet more people, and (b) be willing to cut loose the people who were not going to be friends, and not spend all my social spoons maintaining acquaintanceships.
I also have this problem. Sadly, I do not have a solution.
Do you tend to dislike people for specific reasons, or just seldom find that you “click” with people in a way that makes it enjoyable to spend time with them?
I find that I have the second problem. It takes me a long time to warm up to people, and I’m very introverted, which really doesn’t help.
I’m like Aebhel – I take a long time to warm up to people (which means, to make a friend, I need to spend quite a bit of time not being sure if I’m going to like this person or not), and then most of the time I end up realizing we are not ever going to click.
I think Louhish’s solution might be right on – I live where there are very few English-language speakers so the pool of potential friends is small (I try to make friends in the local language, but my imperfect grasp of the language makes social bonding pretty much impossible for me, at least so far). But moving isn’t an easy option for a bunch of reasons.
I know I’m sort of lucky in that I don’t seem to need as many friends as others do. But I do need some, and I want to know people whose company I love.
This is interesting to me, because I really take a *long* time to warm up to people, and I was very very lonely for years. I am now not lonely, but the way that that happened was by joining an activity where I could get to know people really really slowly. There are few things I hate more than having to make one-on-one conversation/smalltalk with someone I don’t know well enough to have what I consider a real conversation. One of my least favourite things about traveling was having to have the some conversations with different people I would never see again; there was never long enough for me to decide I liked them.
Pretty much everyone who is my good friend now I knew for months, in some cases years, with us only at acquaintance level. Then there’d usually be some kind of situation, *very* often a car ride with just us, where we’d talk for a long time and I’d have that “hey, you are cool!” feeling and from then on would like them much more.
Anyway, just my own experience with the problem of “…but I don’t actually like most people.”
OMG I have this problem. I could have written this myself. One thing that I’ve noticed about myself is that I absolutely cannot have more than one real friend. I have a bunch of acquaintances/semi-friends, some of whom I used to feel close to but no longer do, but I do all I can to not ever see or talk to them except for the odd comment on facebook. I have one friend, who unfortunately lives 500 miles away, who has 100% of my friend affection. I’m all but estranged from my family.
I find that I really can’t enjoy time with any other person. Also, I’ve never been able to make friends from casual acquaintances. I find the leap really hard to make. Almost all of my friends in all my life have been people with whom I’ve been FORCED to spend huge amounts of time with, like many hours a day for many days in a row. I can’t feel close to someone gradually by going out for drinks or taking an activity class with them every so often. It doesn’t work.
And if I try to spend time with friends I don’t feel close with, it just feels like torture. I spend the whole time looking at the clock, so BORED. I feel like such an asshole saying that, but it’s true. If I don’t feel close with you, spending time with you is painful for me. I expend so much energy.
This is something that I feel my therapist does not understand. I suffer from depression and anxiety, but she keeps coming back to “Are you lonely?” and “Do you wish you had more people in your life?” The answer to both of these questions is no, but I feel like she doesn’t believe me. I’ve tried to explain this to her, but somehow it must be so different from how she herself feels about things that she just can’t understand.
I think maybe I could be happier if I could find more pleasure in more people, but I don’t think that that is necessarily loneliness.
I think too often people forget that there is a huge difference between being lonely and being alone. They can often happen together, but they don’t have to. We talk about being lonely in a crowd, which can certainly happen to some people. But there’s also being quite contentedly alone. If you’re not lonely, that’s great. I think it’s a lot like how some people are happily single, and some people have trouble recognizing that not everyone feels any need or desire to be in a romantic relationship to be satisfied with their life. But I think you’d know if you were lonely. For me, at least, it’s a pretty blatant experience. I don’t always know the best way to fix it, but I do know when I am and am not lonely. And I’ve certainly gone through times of significant social isolation without being lonely.
I think meeting people on social media can be tremendously helpful for this, because you can audit them – find out what they like, what makes them laugh, what their tolerance for injustices are, whether they behave like douchebags to certain people – without coming across as weird. On twitter, for instance, you can see whether someone is hyper-social (tweeting dozens of @replies every day), responds only to a chosen few and ignores anyone else trying to strike up a conversation, says or retweets content that makes you uncomfortable, whinges continuously without laughing at themselves… and you can then decide whether you would like to be friends with that person or not. But when you find yourself in the physical company of people you have little in common with – that’s less ‘hobbies’ than ‘life experiences, general outlook on life, sense of humour, corresponding social needs and expectations’ – you’re unlikely to make friends with them.
I dunno, I find social media personas can be pretty different from meatspace ones. If you expect someone to talk face to face with the same enthusiasm as they do on twitter – or the reverse – you could very well be setting yourself up for disappointment. The two situations just don’t work the same way.
They don’t work the same way – and heck, we don’t work the same way, sometimes and in some situations we may be outgoing and willing to engage, and another time/place we might want to not do hard work and only engage our friends in monosyllables. But I think some fundamentals, like ‘laughs at racist jokes’, ‘frequently volunteers their religious beliefs’ ‘feels very strongly about x’ are part of a personality, and will probably come out more online than in person, at least at first.
(Personally, my experience with online personas has been twofold: one, trying to maintain one is very hard work and I lasted about three weeks, so I think that most people *are* genuinely themselves, even if they behave less like arseholes in public, and b) so far, other people have matched up in essentials when I did get to meet them/engaged real-life acquaintances on social media)
But the other thing is that blogs and twitter will give you common ground – you already know about that fascinating book, that annoying incident at work, that really cute kitten, so you have something to talk about. ‘This is my life’ posts may be really boring for people who are not interested, but with friends, knowing what’s going on in their lives – including their experimental cooking – gives a nice, low-key way to stay in touch.
And lastly, social media is less awkward, because you won’t be judged so much by your weight, height, ethnicity, gender, but by your personality. (Can I just mention I’m a really big fan of pseudonyms? Personality without baggage.)
This is a really good thing to think about.
I think I used to be more like the meetup goer in the post and one thing that worked for me is just making a rule to never say stuff like that. My personal rule is only make self depreciating statements if the point is to make people laugh or if you’re talking to a friend.
Another rule I made that is working well is “always respond to people who don’t actually care how you are positively with stock statements.” In other words, only tell friends how you are actually doing. Everyone else just gets a “good thanks” or “nothing much” when they ask how you’re doing or what’s going on.
3rd rule. No discussing negative life stuff at parties even with close friends. Recently I had to attend a friend’s wedding reception while in major pain due to an issue I had scheduled surgery for. I hadn’t seen her in awhile and was bursting to tell her about my surgery news and was also really uncomfortable. I did my best making the rounds for a few hours then made an excuse about having to get up early and went home when it was getting to be too much. I told her a couple days later over coffee instead.
4th rule. Try to check in about big emotional dumps with friends. I try not to just go for coffee with people and be like omfg this this this this negative thing. I try to ask whether it’s a good time to talk about serious stuff and after a while of a serious topic I try to change the topic to either their heavy stuff instead of mine or something lighter. It might work for some people to give yourself a set number of minutes. Even with a close friend after a certain amount of time of discussing your serious issue, it’s probably good to come up for a breather and let the conversation head someplace else so people don’t overly associate you with big negative conversations.
The thing I’m working on now is after becoming close with people, how do I maintain the closeness and not push them away here and there as we navigate times where we’re feeling up or down or times where we’re more or less busy.
I think your rules are great. And they’re a good reminder that some of this stuff *can* be learnt; and I think that for me having a set of things in my head _before_ I blurt out a FEELINGSDUMP over a near-stranger could be helpful: do they want to know this? Do they need to know it? Is it appropriate to talk about it now?
My personal struggles with loneliness are kind of like when you haven’t dated for a long while. The next social outing becomes this huge deal in my head, something that can’t live up to my expectations.
This is a reason I love taking a class or volunteering. It’s low stakes social interaction. We have something in common to chat about and it only lasts for a few hours a time. Especially with volunteering where even if you don’t hit it off with someone you’ll still have done a Good Thing. Like today when my Jerkbrain was in full swing I still helped save the lives of two animals, so go Kellis and score for Thrivebrain!
I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot ever since I read Lonely: A Memoir by Emily White, which may interest many of the Awkwardeers on this forum. It makes an interesting case for the unique issues behind loneliness and that it should be seen as a more severe ailment in Western culture. However, it doesn’t provide a lot of tools or solutions for those who experience loneliness. The most useful thing I took from the book was the idea that each person has two types of social needs: communal, one you acquire by having a sense of belonging in a larger group and being respected and valued for your abilities, and intimate, the type you gain through close relationships, where you are emotionally vulnerable. Being able to divide those two cravings has been helpful to me, so it may be of use to some of you. I definitely have the communal – my bosses, coworkers, peers, and fellow poets seem to appreciate my input and my conversation, but I’m failing on the intimacy front. My Jerkbrain still acts up in those communal settings, so it makes it very difficult to have the confidence to extend acquaintance relationships into friendship. Beyond therapy, I don’t know what else to do to fix this for me. But I appreciate this forum, nonetheless.
This really resonated after a rough weekend in the company of my very lonely, very angry, very self-absorbed mother. I don’t know which is worse — the experience of being around someone I love who is thoughtless and mean at top volume, especially to other people I love; or knowing with near-certainty that this is because she is in a lot of pain, that the pain is because she is lonely, and that the loneliness will never get better if she cannot learn to be kind — which I think she is just too old to do.
This is odd and frustrating and maybe needs to be the next step of leveling-up in my own life?
Because I’m kind of lonely right now, and kind of in one of those loops where the person whose company I mostly want is Spouse, and vice-versa and both of us are extroverts who do better when we have more people in our lives than that.
But there are problems. The scenario discussed in Letter 601 is possibly the biggest one – we have money and debt problems, and part of the reason for the money and debt problems is that we actually used to put a lot of money into socializing – going out to eat with friends (and paying for them when/if they didn’t have the cash on them or we knew they were worse off than us money-wise), traveling long distances, participating in hobbies and activities that had a high basic cost of participation. I’ve rejected a few social opportunities even recently because, well, paying the car insurance so that my car stays legally on the road was more important than spending that same money on fancy-restaurant socializing, and the other people in the group are significantly better off financially and it would’ve been embarrassing.
Becoming less tolerant of unacceptable prices of entry into friendship is another biggie. Spouse blew up what had been a promising new friendship because the guy was an unrepentant drunk driver. NOPE. Manipulation by suicide threat? Also NOPE. Going on and on at me over texts about your inability to successfully date inappropriately younger women and how miserable it’s making your life? NOPE NOPE NOPE. And I’m discovering that my newfound lack of tolerance for “diet talk and body shame as feminine social ritual” is becoming a barrier to bringing a lot of otherwise potentially awesome friendships any closer.
Because…well, I don’t really wanna be close friends with someone who doesn’t mean ME when they say various fat-shaming, slut-shaming, ableist, anti-psychiatry, etc. crap…but DOES mean “someone I don’t know personally who actually is exactly like Cheshire or her Spouse except for the not knowing them personally part.” If you are holding up for ridicule as disgusting and lazy and “letting herself go OMG” the idea of someone wearing a dress size two or four smaller than my own…how am I supposed to believe you think positively of me, no matter HOW you backpedal? If you re-blog as a “just an interesting thing, I’m curious what you think” blog post that says the mental illness I am diagnosed with and take medication for does not exist, when you know I struggled to get up my nerve to GET diagnosed, am I supposed to trust you when you say you support my taking care of myself? Really?? Et cetera ad infinitum ad nauseam.
I might still be friendly with people who did the above (and the second is both a longtime close friend and someone I am unofficially mentoring through social work school) but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel lonely when I can’t trust friends not to say hurtful things and then be totally convinced it was OK because they didn’t MEAN me…:(
I so feel you on this. It is really disappointing to discover that a promising new potential-friend has beliefs or behavior patterns that are dealbreakers–especially when they’re of the shaming or invalidating your existence ilk. It sounds like you have a really clear sense of what your boundaries are, which is really important. But it can be so frustrating when knowing your own boundaries means having to say no to connections you thought you wanted.
Yes to this. It’s been secret racism that doesn’t come out for months that been driving friend purges for me lately.
For me, the single thing that helped the most was getting a job where I had to make a certain amount of small talk. A lot of things happened directly and indirectly because of that. In order:
–I realized that I wasn’t as bad at people as I thought. I would screw up and panic and it was kind of obvious and very awkward for me, but I learned that I was not actually The Worst at talking to people and that for most interactions there is no right answer I just wasn’t getting.
–I realized that because even many not-awkward people screw up occasionally, most people are pretty forgiving for a certain amount of awkward as long as you aren’t actively offending or creeping them out. Most people will give you the benefit of the doubt if you don’t get it perfectly right. The stakes aren’t as high as they seem.
–I started complimenting people. Many of the commonly acceptable subjects for small talk in my city, I either don’t know much about (sports, celebrities) or are a minefield for me (family). So I started complimenting people about their clothes or purchases or whatever so that I could have some positive interaction with them. Because I made the effort to be positive, more people would react positively to me and it became a very self-reinforcing cycle.
–I developed an internal list of Signs People Care that I can refer to whenever I get insecure about ‘Self, do people actually like me, or are they just saying that?’
–One of my hangups with talking to people is I assume they aren’t going to be interested in me if I talk about myself in any capacity. Once I started consistently getting evidence that this isn’t necessarily the case it became much easier to interact genuinely with people. I don’t have the sheer number of friends that I did, say, five years ago, but what friendships I do have became deeper once I started trusting that others would care about me.
–I had more contact with people who were obviously involved when they talked to me. When you care about someone and they don’t consistently make an effort to be present when you’re having a conversation, their unconcern will crush and grind your soul like a glacier carving the hills. The few who did this to me I either cut off or pulled back so that their uninvolvement stopped being a reflection on me and/or the relationship.
–I started making more of an effort to let people know that I appreciated them. I realized how easy it can be for people to feel like you take them for granted if you don’t. So I started regularly and explicitly telling my friends, “I think you are super cool and I’m so glad we met.” Once I started giving that way, I started getting. I don’t have to be insecure about whether my friends actually like me because they tell me they do and I can believe them.
–Intertwined with all of this was me getting therapy and learning to trust my own perceptions more and know when they’re being inaccurate because Brain.
Teal deer, I started taking the leap and trusting that people would care about me if I asked them to. It’s been a lot of hard work in small increments. But the nice thing about functional relationships is that you get what you put into them, so even if it’s very much risk/reward at the start, it generally gets easier as time goes on.
The internet helps me. I get overwhelmed easily in person, and it’s harder for me to make good decisions on whether I like someone based on an encounter where I’m exhausted and stressed and anxious. Reading their words is easier. Also it’s easier for me to make a good impression if they can read my words rather than see that I’m obviously tense and stressed and tired and they don’t know why. So we can get to know each other first, and then when we do meet in person I’m that much calmer, and hopefully it’s not in a big, noisy group.
This can occasionally backfire, though. A friend and I decided to meet face to face for the first time at an Asperger’s support group meeting this year, and we accidentally ended up being the Mean Girls who sat together passing notes and giggling, and I’m certain this one guy there was convinced we were non-autistic moles come to the group just to secretly laugh at people. I’m sorry, dude! We really are autistic, I promise. And I’m not a girl! Yes, we were sometimes talking about you, but our notes didn’t say “that guy is really weird,” they said “that guy is monopolising the conversation, and we would like to hear from the other people in the room!” And most of the time we weren’t talking about anyone else present, we were playing hangman and talking smack about Tony Attwood and Simon Baron Cohen. We just needed a support group to go to your support group.
I considered myself an introvert and a hermit and most of my friends were online and I thought I was fine with that … but there came a point where I realized I was lonely and socially awkward and scary as it may be, I needed to find friends in person.
I went on meetup.com, a place I’d been on before for interests, and ended up finding a group of women who also love to knit. A year and a half later, some of them are my best friends. I just went for a walk with one of them.
And! I went to other groups. I found the courage to go to San Diego and stay with one of those online friends and hung out with three more. My coworkers noticed I was being more outgoing and invited me to start playing foosball with them at lunch.
I’m so glad that I found the nerve to start meeting new people based on interests, because it really changed things for the better. I got laid off last month but with my new friends, I’m doing all right.
The real interesting part is that my new friends don’t believe me when I say that I was really shy before meeting them. Because I’ve been the one to say “Hey that thing we keep talking about doing but never do? Let’s pick this time to do this thing.”
What it comes down to… you can’t have adventures if you stay home all of the time. You can’t meet new people if you stay home all of the time. It’s scary. But the payoff is worth it.
[Note to moderators: I originally submitted a comment on my phone and then my Safari app crashed, so I’m not sure if it made it through. Feel free to delete this comment or the previous one if it’s doubled, sorry for the incompetence lolololz. If they both go through by all means go with the comment that seems better.]
I’m in a weird position, because a lot of my loneliness stemming from my C-PTSD, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and whatever’s left over due to the occasional ~*existential malaise of the human condition*~ are all inextricable from the isolation and alienation I feel due to systemic oppression along racial lines. I’m a WoC with nerdy interests and lots of cool acquaintances and a small number of close friends, and the overwhelming number of both categories are white. I love them dearly, but it’s very difficult to feel hopeful sometimes and that’s often exacerbated by knowing that it’s not that they’re not cool – they’re SO COOL – it’s just that racism is something we’re all born into and it’s inescapable and that leaves me pretty stranded.
For example, there are loads of trailers out for “Lucy,” that new Luc Besson movie, floating around my social media feeds. I know there will be debates over whether it’s a good movie or not, because we’re all nerds who love movies. And already I’m seeing various posts to the effect of, “Yeah, strong female protagonist, yeah feminism!” and “No, not effective feminism.” And I’m already dreading and bracing myself for either being the first non-white person in my sphere to point out how racist the movie is and possibly get flak for it or, not even, just have to field expectations that I need to be the person to explain why it’s racist; OR see a white person point out how the movie is racist and then watch them get lauded for how progressive and self-aware they are, where I would possibly be mocked or patronized. And that’s painful for a few reasons. First, where a lot of my friends and acquaintances are seeing “a strong female protagonist” I see “a white woman who shoots and kills a Taiwanese man who looks an awful lot like my grandpa for not speaking English.” Second, I not only don’t want to be the nonwhite person walking my friends through why this movie upsets me; I want them to be upset, too! I want them to empathize with me! I want them to be able to see this stuff on their own, to be able to recognize it without prompting, and to not feel compelled to seek out praise or attention by raising their voices over the voices of PoC in pointing it out so other people can also see it. And, thirdly, it just highlights the number of time those dynamics – and many others – HAVE happened, and will happen again, and I feel weary and tired because of it and feel stuck between the psychological wear and tear of these small but constant stressors or withdrawal from people who are very dear to me.
I love CBT, and it’s come up effectively in my therapy, but my therapist – also a WoC – and I talk a lot about my frustration with its limitations in treatment when it comes to something like dealing with the particular strain of racism that’s so common among the kind of liberal/leftist-leaning progressive white nerds that make up so much of my social circles and support networks. The kind of cognitive reframing that so many CBT treatments rely on doesn’t quite work with something that’s both systemic and individual the way racism is. And, compounding that, it’s true that when I feel isolated I often think of the root of the problem lying with external factors (i.e. my friends) – but that’s usually because they’re endorsing racist media/saying or doing well-intentioned but tokenizing things/looking for anti-racist ally points/supporting the voices of their white friends and loved ones over the voices of PoC in talking about race dynamics/performing (probably genuinely felt) white guilt as the end-all-be-all of their work/etc. These are beautiful, compassionate, intelligent, funny, wise people, all of whom I like and many of whom I adore, and they’ve all hurt me multiple times on this count, and I know it will happen again.
So yeah. That feels pretty lonely a lot of the time.
They both got trapped in spam, but this one is free now!
Feeling like you’re the one who’ll be accused of “ruining the fun” (when racist or sexist pop culture has pre-ruined YOUR fun) has to be a special kind of loneliness. I’m so sorry.
It is. 😦
As a WOC with nerdy interests, I’ve found it necessary to cultivate friendships and relationships and acquaintances with a significant number of other POC nerds in order to offset the overwhelming distress that can come from interacting with white nerds, and to vet friends very very carefully. The problem, of course, lies in the fact that we are all very far apart from each other so there’s very little chance of just grabbing a coffee to vent together about the latest racefail happening. Still, I can continue to swan around predominantly white spaces while knowing that there will be a significant number of people who will Get It, and recharge batteries amongst them.
(As a result, my loneliness has stemmed less from being the only WOC in nerd spaces, and more from how social lives where I live tend to be structured.)
One thing I appreciated about the article was this:
I have been varying degrees of lonely for years, and one of the things I find I constantly have to do is remind myself that feeling lonely or not having as many or as close friends as I’d like doesn’t mean I’m unlikeable or undesirable or otherwise not valuable as a person. It just means there are some things I haven’t figured out how to do yet. (A recent mantra: they’re social SKILLS, not social VIRTUES.)
One of the challenges I have in connecting with people is that being kinky and being a survivor are both central to my life, and those are topics that feel risky to bring up in early conversations with new people. And yet, without talking about it, it’s really hard to answer basic small-talk questions. Why did I move to [current city]? To be somewhere with a bigger queer kinky community. What kind of writing do I do? A blog about the intersection of being kinky and being a survivor, and some erotic fanfiction. Most of the time, I find I’m giving vague, only superficially true answers (I moved here because I wanted to find community. I write, uh, memoir, kind of. And humor), and then I’m drained by the conversation because I’m having to closet myself. And maybe I don’t *have to* closet myself, but it also feels really awful to share something personal and vulnerable about myself and have people be freaked out or disturbed–as if my uttering the word kinky means I’m suddenly going to share icky details of my icky sex life, as if that’s the only reason there could be for bringing it up.
It would be easier to connect with people if I had a better way of gauging who it made sense to take the risk of being honest around. One strategy that just occurred to me is plain asking someone who asks me a small talk question, “How real do you want my answer to be?” Which would both a) prepare the other person to be surprised by the answer I give and b) likely give me a TON of information about what kind of reaction to expect. I am totally going to try this!
I do support asking questions about what sort of answer to give. I’ll often ask people, do you want the simple or less simple version or other ore-answering questions. With the right sort of people, they can work very well.
But you can also consider just being very casual in how you state it, like it’s no big deal. This will still freak some people out, but generally not the people who would have good friend potential. I think what would make me uncomfortable about someone mentioning being a survivor early into am acquaintance would be if they seemed to want significant emotional support from me about it, but if it’s just mentioned as part of their life story, and they clearly are capable of dealing with their own stuff, then I’d be okay with it. Not that I am representative, but I suspect many others would too. Kinky would just be so common in my social circle I wouldn’t even think about it. I actually was at a party just recently talking to some people I didn’t really know, but many of which knew each other, and I found out some of them are kinky and it wasn’t a big deal at all. So, I’m not sure how people who are less used to that react.
But there’s an extent to which that sort of thing can be a filtering device. I had something maybe similar happen once. I was at a party and it came up that I am severely disabled and chronically ill (not having that be visually apparent has both pros and cons), because the person was assuming I was in good health to make a point and then flat-out asked me how I would rate my health. She got extremely uncomfortable and pretty much ended the conversation and stopped interacting with me after learning about my health. And I figured, well, we probably weren’t going to be very compatible friends. Whereas a lot of people get a little awkward or curious, which is fine, most people don’t flee or stop treating me as a person. And while I get that severe disability is a heavy thing to bring up early (it doesn’t always come up early, but it easily can, things like, so what do you do for a living… I’m on disability), definitely acting more comfortable about it myself helps makes other people be so, usually. So, I figure it’s a built-in friendship filter, if you can’t handle learning that about me, it wasn’t going to work out.
Of course, that only works if you’re alright being very public and out about those things, but if I’m reading your comment correctly, you’re not worried about them revealing that info to others, just how they themselves will react.
I definitely know what you mean about using people’s reactions as a filtering device (and ugh to people making assumptions about your health–that sounds like a really unpleasant interaction). Honestly, I’m not sure what it would feel like to just bring it up casually. I spent a long time having to be closeted because my job involved working with teenagers and a lot of people I met were connected to my field of work, so I think I carry that with me even though I don’t still need to. Something to think about. Thank you for your thoughts. 🙂
Captain, this is beautiful!
With apologies, I’m going to paste here a section of relevant text from “Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get A Bit More Done,” by Oliver Burkeman. It summarizes and cites the research and offers a nice going-forward model:
“The harsh irony, Cacioppo writes, is that loneliness renders us worse at
forging the bonds that might relieve it. Hunger impels us to eat, and
tiredness to sleep, but loneliness, which is a fear-based response to
isolation, triggers hyper-alertness to further social dangers: we become
less welcoming of friendly overtures. And as dieters fixate on food,
loneliness prompts a fixation on the self, making things worse — one
reason why volunteering promotes happiness (it’s a distraction), and why
books on making yourself more popular won’t alleviate loneliness, even if
they make you more popular.
The trouble is partly that we don’t understand what loneliness is. When
feeling it, we conclude we’re dislikeable, lacking social skills or
surrounded by unfriendly people. In fact, Cacioppo says, our genes and
upbringing give us unique personal levels of vulnerability to the effects of
isolation; we each have a different threshold for the connectedness we
need in order to stay healthy.
It works like a thermostat: much as physical pain serves as a warning, loneliness signals that we’ve fallen
below our requirements. But we’re terrible at reading our thermostats, so
we ﬂee claustrophobic towns for the big city, then regret it, or leave
stiﬂing jobs for self-employment, only to ﬁnd that office life fulﬁlled a
function we’d never realised. (It’s also why every few years, craving
solitude, I book a week’s solo hiking in Scotland, only to discover that my
tolerance for my own company lasts exactly three days.)
This solves a long-standing mystery of loneliness research: except at
the extremes, people who report more loneliness don’t have fewer
friends; they don’t spend more time alone; they’re not less socially
adept.43 That seems bizarre — unless the reason for their loneliness is
that they simply require more connection than others. A happy
implication of Cacioppo’s work is that loneliness needn’t mean
something’s wrong with your social skills, just that you need a
connectedness top-up. Deep friendships are best, but even a conversation
at the shops helps.
Feeling lonely from time to time ‘is like feeling hungry
or thirsty from time to time,’ he writes. ‘It is part of being human. The
trick is to heed these signals in ways that bring long-term satisfaction.’
Jean-Paul Sartre, one imagines, would find this view lacking: it means
that alleviating the feeling of being alone in the universe is no longer an
existential challenge, but mere life-management, like exercising or
drinking enough water.
Still, I prefer the non-existential version.”
Thank you, this is beautiful and helpful. I love the idea of loneliness as a bodily signal.
I’m glad! I can recommend the book, though standard Middle Class White British Dude Author warnings apply. (Like the passage above where he equates fixating on loneliness with dieters fixating on food, and you’re like “I see the point clearly, but feel like you may be generalising a little bit there in ways you may not understand can be harmful.”
But generally, a reasonable and interesting book.
Brilliant summary, thank you. Very helpful, because it makes me feel I don’t need to blame myself for getting lonely; it’s just a self care and and rebalancing issue, not a sign that I lose at being a person. My need for connection is pretty low, but when I go below that threshold things get very uncomfortable. Seeking out connection becomes like taking exercise – painful at first, then satisfying.
I love Oliver Burkeman!
One important breakthrough for me was realizing that it’s not going to work to try to be liked by people who I don’t actually like. Also that NEEDING someone because I’m lonely is not the same as liking them. Also that I was framing the problem as people not liking me rather than me not liking them, because I thought disliking people would make me a Bad Person and that I was not entitled to choose who I wanted to be friends with. The solution was a combination of a) making new friends with whom I shared interests and values rather than assuming I had to be friends with everyone I met and b) learning to appreciate people more. A made B easier because even if someone had qualities that annoyed me I knew that I chose them because I like them, or even if I didn’t (and we were just thrown together because we’re co-workers or neighbors or whatever) I knew I had the ability to choose whether or not to be friends with them.
NO FRIENDS, take 1
The situation: I had an incredibly active social life and valued role as Good Listener. Then most of my friends moved away, and the couple that remained didn’t have time for me anymore. I spent months feeling bitter and resentful.
What helped: I came upon some fellow grad students one day who were planning some kind of gathering. I stopped to chat, and they invited me. This made me happy until my jerkbrain reminded me that they only invited me because they happened to see me, and they wouldn’t have even thought of me otherwise. But before I could begin my descent into bitter resentfulness, a tiny scrap of rationality cried out, “Of course they wouldn’t think of you. You don’t hang out with them. You don’t think of them either.”
And then I realized, omigod, omigod, omigod, I’m doing it to myself.
The fix: I banned the kinds of negative thoughts that led to the anger spiral. (I usually do NOT advocate censoring/redirecting genuine feelings, but desperate times call for desperate measures.) I resolved that one way or another, I was going to meet new people … although I had no idea how. Then, through no action of my own, an acquaintance friend I barely ever saw asked me out, we dated for a few months, and by the time we broke up, my social life was a little better. It’s as if the universe said, “Eh, she gets it now. We’ll stop fucking with her for a while.”
NO FRIENDS, take 2
The situation: A friend who made up a good deal of my social life moved away.
The fix: I swore I’d be better at making friends this time … but how? An epiphany came from nowhere. Okay, I *can’t* magically find new friends. But if there’s something I want to do, I’m just going to go do it. By myself if there’s nobody to go with me. At least I won’t be staring at the same four walls all the time. And it worked. I met a few people on my solo outings, one who briefly became a good friend, but more importantly, I felt like I was in control of my life. I’d always been happy with my own company in introverted moods where I wanted to stay inside; now I could be happy on my own when I wanted to go outside too.
NO FRIENDS, take 3
The situation: Once again, the friend who was most of my social life moved away.
The fix: Same as before, except I found myself not in the mood to go anywhere. I enjoyed a long period of solitude, knowing that I could go out and do stuff whenever I wanted.
What I learned has limited reach if you’re yearning for a deep connection, but I promise you, it really does help when you realize you don’t need other people to liberate you from your own living room.
The grad student example made me think of my own situation with grad student friends. . .sort of. I left my lab after a emotional breakdown/meltdown, and the group of people who had previously been my primary social circle more or less vanished from my life. In retrospect, I suppose they had no idea what to do either because I was so obviously unglued, but it created that bad reinforcing dynamic where they pulled away, I got sadder and less able to reach out, they pulled away more because I was reaching out less/acting sadder, I got sadder. . . on and on. In my case it came to an end because: end of term, and also because my colleagues reported me to my professor to either get me help or get me kicked out of the lab (not clear.*) For me, the death loneliness was not the lack of connection: it was feeling like no connection was even possible. (THERE IS NO PLACE FOR ME.) Normal loneliness is okay. Normal loneliness you can fix by having folks over for dinner or chatting someone up in the lunch line. Normal loneliness, in some way, still holds a whisper of possibility, because why would I crave something if it didn’t exist?
Death loneliness means you might as well give up, because you cannot imagine the situation in which you could connect with other people. Death loneliness, I suspect, comes from being around people who are toxic to you. (Or really bad Jerkbrain that might need meds as well as therapy.)
In the months after that, I did a lot of work to construct a train out of Lonelytown. A LOT OF WORK. So much work. Therapy work. Hosting people work. Friend date work and new activity work and journaling work and MY TRAIN OUT OF LONELYTOWN HAS A LOT OF TINY, TINY ENGINES, OKAY.
But then I was back in lab this year with those same people who I associate with feeling so painfully lonely, and there are all these old bad feelings hanging around that I can’t shake off, and even if it doesn’t reflect the reality now, it totally obscures the reality. I think that healthy social connection — the kind that eases loneliness — requires that you engage in good faith that the other person will treat you well and kindly, even though you don’t know that person. (I imagine that’s part of the reason that social interaction can be not restorative but harrowing for people sitting on the oppressed end of various axes, because you CAN’T engage assume good faith and you CAN’T let your guard down.) But because of what happened last year, I have an incredibly hard time starting any interactions with lab people with a clean slate. I can’t really pick apart my unjust resentment (they didn’t ever contact me! well, I wasn’t around and they were busy and so was I) from justifiable wariness.
Like: sometimes you need to rewrite those scripts in your head (in my case, the script is “I cannot speak with this person on a friendly level because she saw me lying facedown under my desk and crying; ergo she holds me in contempt; ergo if I make myself vulnerable even by so much as a ‘how are you’ then it is my fault if I get hurt and no one will care.”) If I were going to be here longer, I think I would put in some time figuring out if/how to do that.
But sometimes the script is really fucking strong and it only relates to a certain group or place, and maybe it’s not actually worth it to try to convince yourself you feel at home in a place you don’t feel at home?
Which leads me to the conclusion that; sometimes loneliness is not a cue like hunger or tiredness. Sometimes loneliness is a cue like fear or rage or sadness, that you need to get yourself out of where you are and find a place that is more bearable for you.
* Can I just go on record as saying that I have never been able to reconcile, “Yes, it was totally your right to stop talking to me for whatever reason because we are not obligated to maintain relationships” and “I feel like you treated me like less of a person because I had a mental illness, and I don’t forgive you for that”? Yeah. That is a thing.
* Can I just go on record as saying that I have never been able to reconcile, “Yes, it was totally your right to stop talking to me for whatever reason because we are not obligated to maintain relationships” and “I feel like you treated me like less of a person because I had a mental illness, and I don’t forgive you for that”? Yeah. That is a thing.
They aren’t mutually exclusive. Imagine the following pretend CA letter:
Q. Dear Captain Awkward: My girlfriend is great, but I want to break up with her because she’s not a member of the Aryan race, as I am. Do I have the right to break up with her?
A. Of course you have the right to break up with her. You have the right to break up with anybody for any reason you like. Also, you’re an asshole.
There are shades of gray. I’d judge “I want to reach out to my mentally ill friend but have no idea how, so I’ll keep putting it off” a lot less harshly than “Ewwww, I don’t want to hang out with a mentally ill person.” The former person’s behavior might improve if they learn what the friend needs from them.
MY TRAIN OUT OF LONELYTOWN HAS A LOT OF TINY, TINY ENGINES, OKAY.
Oh, I really love this. Looking back, the train out of anywhere I’ve wanted to leave has always had a lot of tiny, tiny engines.
I think that healthy social connection — the kind that eases loneliness — requires that you engage in good faith that the other person will treat you well and kindly, even though you don’t know that person. (I imagine that’s part of the reason that social interaction can be not restorative but harrowing for people sitting on the oppressed end of various axes, because you CAN’T engage assume good faith and you CAN’T let your guard down.
– – –
This, so much this.
IMHO, the intersection of loneliness, and being Not Elite, and also sell your work is a particularly distinct flavor of hell. You can’t really sell your art/stories/job skills/designs/etc unless you engage with good faith that you a) are inherently Awesome b) have Awesome things to present and c) your audience will fairly and objectively assess your awesome.
If you have doubt going into that interaction, I think they can smell it, the way animals can smell fear. Which is why I think That Guy(tm) who has a lower objective skill level and a pushy attitude has so much success cutting in the proverbial queue and not only ~not~ getting called on it, but wins gigs and accolades and jobs with less invested effort than all the people left behind, who didn’t win the birth lottery and are working so hard to compensate for that.
Inject into that some encounters with genuine Assholes, and the intersection of creative time with a feeling of loneliness. After all, the odds are astronomically low of having a social circle where everyone understands the sublime challenge of pouring your effort into your medium, and that it is Work (even when it is “fun” and/or can be done from one’s home) and that you both need to talk about that Work, and also to escape from that Work sometimes.
Pick all that up and go to a highly public situation where sociability and commerce mingle in waters rendered muddy by a lack of explicit governing conduct policies. Maybe no one else can see the Shame Monster of Past Failures hovering over one shoulder, or Tina feeding you doubt and fear from her Anxious Bag of Holding, or Gretchen tagging along to make sure there’s at least one spectacular asshole at the party – but you can’t afford to acknowledge them, not even a little. In fact, you have to pretend you’ve never met any of them, and they totally didn’t follow you into the room and immediately start behaving badly by the snackfoods.
No Pressure, right?
Even at a “purely social” event – everyone there has something they “do”. It’s either an explicit part of the conversation, or it’s the lumping elephant in the room No One Can Possibly Mention, or that awkward jumble of the two where one is what’s happening and the other is what we’re all doing.
Lean In, they say. Work harder, they say. Think positive, they say. Meet more people, they say. Network more, they say.
They’re right – and at the same time, so rarely do They grasp the weight of all the fishhooks threaded in your back. Loneliness isn’t discrete from depression isn’t discrete from oppression isn’t discrete from all of the things in all of the circles around you. Treating one thing without addressing the rest is like thinking you can banish kudzu with pruning shears. Attempting to treat them all at once is a Sisyphean effort.
– – –
My apologies for preaching to the choir, so to speak. You all understand this – which is why the Captain’s little corner of the internet is a daily visit for me. You may be the proverbial Strangers of the Internet, and I am that awkward goth over in the corner not saying much at this party, but you guys – all of you guys – your being in the world and talking about these things is an amazing thing. I’m less lonely when I come here, and this community has helped me so much as I’ve tried to piece together a better life.
I’ll stop rambling now. Heh.
“If you have doubt going into that interaction, I think they can smell it, the way animals can smell fear. Which is why I think That Guy(tm) who has a lower objective skill level and a pushy attitude has so much success cutting in the proverbial queue and not only ~not~ getting called on it, but wins gigs and accolades and jobs with less invested effort than all the people left behind, who didn’t win the birth lottery and are working so hard to compensate for that.”
One of the many reasons I’m leaving science. That Guy, it’s not really your fault, and I congratulate you on your success, but competing with you is actually really annoying.
… that moment when the internet seems to have eaten what you wrote, and you can’t be totally certain yet.
The spam filter eats, the moderator regurgitates. 🙂
Thank you. **sheepish** I was pretty certain that my Artist Super Power of Break All Technology was surfacing again.
Thank you, Jane, for this entire comment. This statement in particular is going on The Cross-Stitch Sampler of My Life.
* Can I just go on record as saying that I have never been able to reconcile, “Yes, it was totally your right to stop talking to me for whatever reason because we are not obligated to maintain relationships” and “I feel like you treated me like less of a person because I had a mental illness, and I don’t forgive you for that”? Yeah. That is a thing.
I go easy on people who don’t know what to do with a friend with mental illness. Most people are simply not equipped with the right tools, and that’s not their fault. I also know that *I* can barely handle myself when I am in a Pit of Despair, and I know and understand what’s going on. It *is* hurtful to see someone withdraw. I try to keep resentment at bay, though, bc I know that my depression is way out of their field.
I’ve just shared a resource that was promptly (and justly) eaten by the spam filter, but to summarize: one way to interpret loneliness is not “WHY DON’T PEOPLE LOVE ME? I HATE BEING LONELY (commence spiral)” but to view it as your body nudging us with need – the same as hunger, thirst, sleepiness. Loneliness is thus not a judgement on your lack of social skills, but a simple signal that your social units need to be topped up. It may feel terrible, but so can hunger.
Yes, I know this doesn’t help when you don’t have ready access to social units, especially when there are confounding factors; but I found the reframing to be interesting and supportive.
Anyway, I’m a profoundly lonely person! But I’m not particularly bothered by it; I just haven’t met a lot of other members of my species. My loneliness is apparently a source of great surprise to others, because I’m perceived as popular and well-liked, and clearly I have lots of friends, so when I casually mention that I’m deeply lonely, I must be asking for attention, right?
Nah, son, I’m seriously lonely! And I don’t consider myself to really have friends. I still love the people I’m around, my best-beloveds, while accepting that they’re not going to touch my loneliness, and that’s okay. I am a Friend to Others, and I love my “friends,” and I use that word for them, but they don’t Fix Me, and that’s not what they’re for. I’m a Lonely Person. It’s a fundamental aspect of my nature! While occasionally bouts of loneliness do need to be addressed, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a lonely person, if it doesn’t bother you.
I think the easiest analogue is the fact that the Doctor, from Doctor Who, surrounds himself with lovely people whom he does love sincerely and occasionally kisses/sleeps with/shares secrets with, but they still milk episode after episode for drama because he is ~lonely~ and ~the last of his kind~ and ~there are no others like him.~ Even though he clearly gains all kinds of social benefits from his human companions, and cares for them very much, he also gets to have this Special Pain That Is Untouchable.
I know that this is a slightly grandiose comparison, but we all kind of GET that the Doctor is Allowed to Be Lonely, that he can be a Lonely Person even when he’s objectively the Life of the Party, the center of the universe, the best-beloved of all. And we celebrate his splendid manpain and forgive all of his terrible decisions, and when he does deeply foolish things to seek out any other members of his species, it’s considered to be completely understandable. For some reason, the delicious angsty wailing of a lonely white male endling on television is happily consumed and forgiven – but if a female-identified person identifies as fundamentally lonely, people edge away suspiciously because she’s clearly got some kind of broken (possibly contagious) social circuitry.
In conclusion, loneliness (the temporary state) doesn’t feel very nice, and it is good to try to fix that, using whatever tools are available. But Loneliness (the personality trait) isn’t something that is necessarily the hallmark of a bad person, a broken person, a socially unsafe person, a sad person, or an all-alone-in-the-world person. I think that I had internalized that; I would occasionally be shocked and revolted by my ability to stand somewhere, like my own wedding, with everyone I loved wishing me well and celebrating me, and to still feel lonely. But that’s genuinely okay. If somebody had told me this earlier, I would have shrugged it off and enjoyed my wedding, rather than worrying – “WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT, ELODIE? PEOPLE HAVE CROSSED THE PLANET TO LOVE YOU. HOW CAN YOU BE LONELY?”
I’ll close with this Terry Pratchett quote, referring to the young witch Tiffany Aching:
“You see and hear what others canna, the world opens up its secrets to ye, but ye’re always like the person at the party with the wee drink in the corner who canna join in. There’s a little bitty bit inside ye that willna melt and flow.”
And that can be okay.
This is lovely, elodie, and very educational (full disclosure: I am a needs-a-lot-of-alone-time person who is rarely lonely, and who does experience loneliness as a restlessness rather than a sadness).
I do think, though, that the big secret is probably that almost everyone has a little bit inside ourselves that willna melt and flow. I used to work with someone as part of a pretty close team where we talked about personal things a lot. Eventually, we discovered that one of our number had no internal life whatsoever. She didn’t even understand the concept of just thinking about stuff, or imagining, or daydreaming. Spending time alone, for her, meant mentally grinding to a halt without external stimulus. Luckily, the concept of having an internal life was so alien to her that I don’t think she picked up that we thought it was odd. And yet her social skills were pretty good, it’s not like she was irrevocably broken or anything.
I think of it as a little lump of warm stone in my chest that’s my secret self – no one will ever know it, but no-one will ever touch it either, because it’s MINE.
This is perfect! I had always wondered whether I will ever truly connect to someone since I had always considered myself “one of a kind” as a way to compensate for not fitting in at school. And it’s like a little habit that stayed with me. I’m drawn to people that are very different from me as I’m interested in them and I can get accepted into communities where sometimes people sharing similar attributes to me would feel out of place and I would feel really cool about myself. However inevitably there comes a point where I feel like the spectator noticing something about ppl they don’t notice about themselves or being the outsider that doesn’t fully feel the way others do even I may eventually learn the social cues of a community or a friendship group. I also get individual friends that are similar to me in some ways an chilling with them does feel fulfilling if not as exciting as with the different ones and there can be a connection but not quite everything. But perhas as this Terry Pratchett guy says sometimes we have so much and even magical unusual things given to us and it still doesn’t quite feel enough but that’s ok…afterall how else do we keep progressing and see ourselves from the side rather just being consumed by the current emotions at the table?
but if a female-identified person identifies as fundamentally lonely, people edge away suspiciously because she’s clearly got some kind of broken (possibly contagious) social circuitry.
Oh gosh, no kidding. That feeling of being stigmatized? Comes from being stigmatized.
SPAM FILTER, WHY DO WE DO THIS TO EACH OTHER.
Well, I didn’t read through the other 90-odd comments on here, so I hope this hasn’t already been suggested. But what worked for me is that when I feel like a space alien in a party full of humans is to NOT TELL PEOPLE THAT. Or at least, don’t tell the people at the party in question. It’s ok and even helpful to discuss social anxiety with those whom you already have an established relationship. But… well, whether people realize they do this or not, I suspect that everyone makes a kind of internal cost evaluation analysis when they meet someone new. Good friends will tolerate you even when you’re not fun to be around, because they know you can be really cool. Total strangers don’t know that you’re really cool when you aren’t crippled by loneliness or other social angst. So if you meet someone while doing your best Clingy Eeyore impression, they’ll just think “Ugh, I don’t want to be friends with Clingy Eeyore,” and all the effort you spent dragging yourself to the party will be for naught.
Once you’ve decided you’re not going to discuss your dislike of parties with people at parties, sometimes you can be left struggling to find something else to talk about. When this happens, I usually fall back on the same tactic. First, mirror what the other person is doing. A socially well-calibrated person will do what the Captain did and give you a conversational “out”. (“So, how do you know the hosts”? is a good example.) When they give you this out, take it. Doesn’t matter if you have a good story or not, just tell them how you met. Stick to a relatively factual account, it will keep you from injecting your own angst (i.e. “We know each other because they pity me”) into the conversation. If you’re talking to someone who isn’t as calibrated as the Captain, it’s your job to help THEM out. Then you can be the one who asks about the hosts or the weather or whatever. Try to remember things people have said when they come up to you at parties, and use one of those lines to get the conversation started.
If there are follow up questions, answer them, and don’t forget to ask questions of your own. Small talk is kind of like a tennis volley: the idea is to keep the conversation bouncing back and forth. Don’t just act like a ball-repelling brick wall. Once you’ve explained how you know the hosts, ask your conversational partner how he or she knows them. If you’re lucky, they might say something like “We met at E3” and you can say “Oh, I love video games! Have you played x?” and BAM! You’re having an actual, fun conversation. If you aren’t lucky, they might say “We met at the opera” and then you can say “Oh, I don’t know much about opera. Do you attend them often?” Or whatever. Respond to what they said in a way that is true, without being rude (if you hate opera, don’t say that!), then ask a question designed to get them to talk a bit more. The goal is to repeat the question-response-comment-question volley until you hit a subject that you both enjoy enough to converse without thinking so damn hard. This does mean you might have to play conversational hide-and-seek a bit. If you don’t like opera, but you do like metal, you might say “I had no idea operas were performed in our town so often. Hey, that reminds me, I read an article about a classically trained cellist who abandoned a promising career to form her own metal band! She plays some really interesting stuff!” Again, if you’re lucky, they might say “I love metal! Have you heard x?” and BAM! Success! If you aren’t lucky, you’ll have to try again with a different volley. In this particular case, you might discuss your mutual love of music in general, without getting into genre wars. Sometimes, focusing on what you have in common means not looking too closely at the details.
Of course, sometimes you just don’t have anything in common with someone, and that’s ok. You might end up listening to someone enthuse about a subject you’re not particularly interested in, but listen anyway, it’s polite. That person will remember that you had a pleasant chat and will probably remember you as a nice person, even if you don’t have much in common. This is victory! For one thing, even people with different interests can be friends, and sometimes it takes more than one meeting to discover what will one day make you best buds. You might also see that person again in a different social context, and it generally makes things easier if people remember you and like you. You never know when they’ll turn up in your life. Besides, it can actually be kind of fun to listen to someone enthuse about a subject you don’t like, because you might learn something and because enthusiasm is endearing. Maybe you’ll meet someone who is into scuba diving, which you’ve never really thought about but might actually be fun now that you have! Maybe you’ll end up taking some diving classes with that someone! In other words, be open minded.
Aaaaand sometimes you completely strike out, because like tennis, conversational volleys are hard, and require practice. (Forgive the mixed sports metaphors.) When this happens, there will usually be an awkward moment or two while one or both of you struggle to find something to say. There’s probably a graceful way to excuse yourself from a conversation when this happens, but I haven’t quite managed to parse how other people do it. I usually just say something like “I’m getting a drink now” or “Oh, look, I see Phil. Excuse me.” or, when feeling particularly desperate, I’ll get a fake phone call and duck outside to take it (avoid the last tactic, it’s dishonest and probably obvious). If anyone has any suggestions on how to end a conversation gracefully when you’re both out of things to say, I’d love to hear them.
Anyway, that turned into a novel, but this is how I went from “I am allergic to parties” to “I can at least network at grade level”.
These are good observations. I would even say it’s only to say negative things if you can say thing in an upbeat and conversational way rather than a critical way (“Really? I never got into opera. I don’t really like it personally. What do you enjoy about it?”)
The most graceful way I’ve found to end conversations that have petered out is to thank the person and make an excuse (similar to you)– “It was great chatting! I’m going to go top up my drink.” “Lovely meeting you, going to pop off to the loo before the speaker starts.” “Thanks for the chat–I should probably go mingle more now.” “Huh, thanks for telling me all about (extremely detailed knowledge of obscure operas)! I my need to give opera another go. Chat again later!”
The cheerful thank you seems to cancel out some of the awkward of just being all “So… ima go now….”
Long time reader, first time commenter…
So, I read this article yesterday and it really, truly hit home. I am a lonely person. I was a lonely child. I flat-out didn’t fit in at school, I dealt with a lot of bullying both subtle and gross, and I can not recall one successful relationship that I held all the way into adulthood from that period, where I made myself vulnerable to another person, and it actually worked out. Over the years, I kind of built up these walls of protection, even between me and the people I KNOW care about me.
I know a good chunk of it is me. I have a perception that other people are going to hurt me, and some of that has been borne out by my past experience. Some of it is just in my head. And some of it is because I’m a serious introvert, and I have trouble making that initial connection that leads to a deeper relationship.
I moved to a new city about nine months ago, and while I’ve made some friends around here, I wouldn’t consider any of them “close.” I’ve got some ideas on how to fix it. I’m going to a networking event on Wednesday for local young professionals. I’m going to continue working out, and get started in a Tabata class tonight, and ACTUALLY TALK TO MY CLASSMATES DANGIT. And even though I would rather search for a dropped straight pin barefoot, I am going to join Toastmasters so that I can get more confidence talking to people, so I can get better at that initial interaction. I have no idea if any of these will work. Right now I’m just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.
High five from another first time commenter! (Well, technically second time, since I commented above, but it’s basically the same thing)
Your situation sounds a lot like mine, and I don’t really know the solution to it. The last time I tried to branch out and meet people, I was doing a specific kind of volunteering, which… I ended up not enjoying and not being very good at either, so I quit. But the thing is, trying something and having it not work out wasn’t that bad! I think just having that experience made it seem more possible to try things, even if it didn’t work this one time.
But in any case, I hope your activities go well! (Also, Toastmasters sounds like a great idea, though terrifying. I think I’ll try that out myself)
I think that most of my problem is that I don’t particularly want A Social Group. Social groups take work; they take planning and committment and the emotional energy to connect to more than one person at a time. They’re stressful and difficult out of proportion to the amount of enjoyment I get out of them, What I mostly want is a friend. Which I can make, eventually, but the problem with only having one friend is that if that person moves away or moves on, you’ve got no one. With a social group, even if your best friend moves, you still have people to hang out with.
Such mixed feelings. Very wow. Here’s a few of them.
—- Maybe first off is something that’s become the critical piece of my own worldview. Namely: It may be instinctive look at life as cause-and-effect: “If X happens, it’s because Y,” etc. But I think the truth is: More than one thing can be true at the same time. In fact, infinite things — including mutually exclusive ones — can all be true at the same time. If I’m lonely, it’s because X. AND it’s because Y. And it’s because a billion other things. I can tell a whole bunch of different stories about my loneliness and all of them will be true.
So discussions of loneliness and its relationship to the lonely person’s own behavior: True. Many, much true things. But if I tell you a contradictory story about the roots of that same loneliness IT CAN ALSO BE TRUE at the same time.
—- So much discussion of loneliness makes an assumption that I want to highlight, because it often goes unnoticed: It assumes that lonely people CHOOSE their behavior. That they have options, various ways they can respond to others, and they’re choosing ways that are unhelpful and often self-defeating.
Yes, this is a true thing. It’s not the whole truth. The opposite is also true, and so are about a million statements in between. Here’s the opposite true thing that’s in my mind right now: I have intense social anxiety, and if you put me in a room with people, my brain goes KERBLEWIE and it’s hard to even describe what’s happening in it, but the idea that “Just ask these other people about their own lives” is actually possible for me is —
yeah, NO. Anxiety takes me over. No, I’m not helpless before it, and at the same time yes, I am helpless before it, and I’m everything in between, and all of this is true at the same time, and all of this is really hard to hide. And it’s making the other people in the room with me visibly uncomfortable, and it’s my doing, and it’s not my doing, and…
… and it’s all a big muddle. But right now, this point I’m trying to make (I swear I do have one) is something like this:
Giving options — “Try saying this,” or “Try asking questions,” or etc., etc. — to a person with social anxiety is like telling a short person “Have you tried being tall? It helps me out.”
Wow, do I relate to this, and I really like the way you phrased the dichotomy of choosing behaviors but also not really being able to control an over-arching anxiety.
I have things that I might suggest, but they seem like they’d just be ways of telling you to try being tall. (I mean, I’m “short” too, but I have high heels in the form of meds and therapy, and finding a pair that fits comfortably and is in your budget is a chore in and of itself.)
Thank you, KellyK. It is good to feel not-alone.
And meds and therapy: Oh yeah. I have both, and they have made many, many worlds of difference. In actual life function, and also in simply coming to grips with “Okay, my function is limited in these ways, period. I accept this.”
(You forgot the most important High Heels of Happiness: cats + books. But I digress.)
I think for me being social will always feel like — oh, insert metaphor of choice. A battlefield? A minefield? A trial for my life? It will always be an artificial, uncomfortable place. There are times when social tips are wonderful and make a difference and it all works the way it’s supposed to. But in the big picture, the problem isn’t that I lack skills or experience or knowledge. It’s that people themselves terrify me. “Must-Please-This-Person-Or-Fate-Worse-Than-Death.” That never fully goes away.
I can follow all the tips ever written and conversations still come down to counting the moments till I can get away and be safe again.
A lot of tips are designed to help folks through the awkward-beginnings-of-conversations — and yes, those are the worst moments. The problem I’ve never seen addressed, however, is the one where the middles of conversations also terrify me.
Yet I still have the instinctive human longing for connection. I can certainly see it all around. I had an early childhood rich with it (or at least lower-middle-class with it), until I didn’t. So it’s always this promised land where the company of other humans brings solace and happiness. That’s what I keep waiting to find. Tips always promise it — do this! try this! conversation will come! — but what they can’t overcome is a basic equation: company of other humans = fear. Increasing exposure to the company of other humans = more fear.
I know so, so well that the fear is baseless and self-defeating. Knowing this doesn’t even make a dent in it.
I use the “Johanna Test.” It’s not really a novel idea, but it’s something that really changed my thinking when I was in my darkest depression almost three years ago. I was in therapy with a phenomenal psychologist but this thought-change came after spending some wonderful, supportive time with my friend Johanna, who lives on the opposite coast from me.
Johanna is an amazing, smart, funny, kind, gentle, sassy soul whose brain works a lot like mine: we both can have dark-cloud outlooks and have struggled with depression at times. Johanna is also very sensitive to JerkBrain talk and can call it for what it is.
So now, whenever my JerkBrain tells me ugly things about myself (“nobody really wants me here anyway” “nobody gets it, why should I even try” yadayadayada…) the Johanna Test asks me to flip it around. I think, “what would I say to Johanna if she were saying these ugly things about herself?” Invariably, I can see the JerkBrain talk for what it is: self-defeating comments none of my friends, family, or loved ones would abide or agree with. It took some practice, but it really did help me dig my thinking out of The Pit of Despair.
What do I say? “Glass half full-glass half empty; it’s interesting how we each make this choice.” And, (if I’m feeling particularly buoyant at the moment), I smile or chuckle and add, “and how we can flip sides on the same day!”
I’ve been on both sides of the negative-spiral-of-bad. I used to be very lonely, absolutely no friends…bad situation in elementary school meant I had literally no friends till I was 13; counter to many stories, high school was OK for me. I had friends, got invited to parties etc, but was nobody’s ‘best friend’. Very bad breakup and horribly bad time in my life from around 19-21, lost all my high school friends but one (not from any drama, they just moved on). Ended up finding a fantastic group of people; the first time I ever clicked with people socially, and while specific friendships have waxed and waned having a ‘friend group’ was really what allowed me to stop being so miserably certain nobody would like me, and also stop putting pressure on every interaction “can we be friends?? how about now??” style.
So, things worked out for me, but I acknowledge they could easily not have had circumstances not worked out just right. When I already feel friendless, every interaction becomes really fraught and I overanalyze so much…well, I overanalyze anyway (anxiety yay) but while now if some interaction wasn’t perfect, I know it isn’t going to destroy everything…before, it really felt like it actually would. Every coffee hangout with a friend felt like a first date with The Last Person On Earth Who Might Like Me. So that…was not conducive to relaxing.
Now, I’m sort of in the opposite situation. There are a couple of people I know who I know are lonely, but I can sort of…see the problem. The last thing I want to do is put myself in Helper role, but having been there myself, I know how painful it can be. And at the same time, these people take *so* much more social energy for me to be around that the interaction ends up feeling like work for me. Then I end up feeling guilty for only wanting low-stress, chill people around me (after all, people can’t help it and I have much experience with Jerkbrain myself). But like the Captain says, it’s exhausting to constantly have to reassure someone and/or have every comment you make turned around on you. It doesn’t make me come away from the interaction feeling good or happy.
There’s one person I know who really wants close friends (and has told me such), but her method of doing so is to aim 3 or 4 friendship levels higher than where the friendship already is, which often involves pressuring people to do stuff with her and ‘friendly teasing’ that actually comes off as kinda mean. And…I see the situation here but can’t fix it, and I *know* I shouldn’t try because it’s her life, but then I end up feeling guilty when I would rather call people to hang out who are not her…etc.
The phenomenon/thought-pattern you’re describing here is so incredibly familiar to me, and basically describes how I was for a few of the last several year. I had some very bad social experiences early in college that led me to believe that everyone or people of certain “types” hated me, treated me badly, was fake, etc. It ran the gambit. When I first started living with my roommates two years ago I was convinced that they did certain things that hurt my feelings because they hated me (when I look back now it’s obvious that they perfectly valid reasons and had no intention of hurting me. I’ve been doing much better over the last year, due in large part to therapy. What I did in therapy was:
1. Recognize that some people are legitimately shitty or are just people that I will never *click* with. It’s fine to recognize that and walk away. But it’s up to me to stop spending my energy on those people and not feel upset about it. Realizing that there was a reason that I had a bad narrative in my head in the first place and allowing myself to acknowledge that certain people had done hurtful things was key to moving past that bad narrative about friendship.
2. Recognize that I didn’t become friends with some people for logistical reasons that had nothing to do with the person hating me.
3. Recognize that my narrative about personal interactions was grouping people unfairly and that past problems have nothing to do with people I meet in the future.
4. Move into a more “ask culture” approach to friendship where, instead of stewing over things that upset me, I try to approach them with the person. We never hang out — do you want to x thing on y day? That comment made me feel weird — can you not say that. I learned that the possible negative ramifications of a conversation were at least finite and usually ended the stewing.
5. Take on an approach to interpersonal relationships that thinks of them more like Skittles than candy bars. (Maybe a weird metaphor but that’s all I can think of.) I had a habit (perhaps influenced by media) of thinking I had failed at friendship if I wasn’t *good* friends with someone. I either had a candy bar or I didn’t. But getting to whole candy bar with most people is hard. But you can have a lot of lovely people in your life who you have conversations with, or a drink, or whatever, and they all add Skittles to your candy jar. Your best friend may add like 100 Skittles at a time, but your coworker who chats with you about whatever adds 10 and that’s also important. Basically I had to learn to see success where I was having it and not classify everything short of tv worthy “bff” status as failure.
And all of these things helped me have more positive interactions with people, which in turn helped me build a more positive narrative, and so on. A self-reinforcing cycle in a positive direction.
Devin — heh, I love your Skittles metaphor, and it matches up well to my experience. I think the whole “food/friendship” thing is useful to think about in the sense of “giving necessary sustenance.” There are people who are no longer in my life who I was once close to or who I once held the hope of being close to, and it’s easy to classify that (especially using media-influenced friend categories) as a failure on my part. But the fact that those people are not putting Skittles in my jar now doesn’t change the fact that once they provided me a whole day’s worth of Skittles. (It also helps a little to give perspective to some one-off kindnesses in my history — like, my inclination if someone is particularly kind to me one time and then disengages with me is to assume that they wanted to be friends and I just fucked it up. But it’s probably closer to “I see your Skittle jar is perilously close to empty, and I can afford a few this one time.”)
For a lot of my friends, a one-off would likely be a case of “I am not overwhelmed with work for a few days, so I can afford to spend time with people I don’t already have strong relationships with.” And then busyness would return, and suddenly their lives would go back to “Self-maintenance, friends, work, other major obligations, carefully rationed breaks.”
So it wouldn’t be a case of “I see your Skittle jar is close to empty” as much as “Holy moley, I have extra Skittles today! Hey, that person’s interesting, I should maybe ask them if they’d want to hang out.”
A good point. On a day when I have the Skittles of Sociability, the Pudding of Completion, and the Spoons of Doing, sometimes I feel so damned celebratory that the inner voice saying DO ALL OF THE THINGS and TALK TO ALL OF THE PEOPLE and MAKE UP FOR ALL OF THE LOST TIME is incredibly difficult to moderate.
So, when life inevitably happens again, there’s all these projects and connections I’ve begun, that can’t be maintained in quite the same way, and then the Shame Monster comes to visit, just in case I hadn’t already thought about how I’m letting everyone down by not being 100% full of Skittles and Pudding and Spoons every day.
It is an ongoing project to readjust my expectations to better reflect how much activity/sociability I can actually maintain. I try to remember that other people have the same struggle, even if Gretchen is working overtime to convince me otherwise. It helps to think of other people’s random bursts of enthusiasm as genuine by default, and spread the culture of celebrating small victories whenever the opportunity arises.
Freaking Gretchen. She’s been on my case really badly today, and I am sick of her shit. Even TINA is sick of her shit.
This is a tricky one for me. From early years, I’ve held a terror that people were only nice to me as some sort of trick: that laughter in the background was directed at me, and anyone being kind or admiring were using me for some sort of Carrie White style prank. In my 30’s now, I don’t like to think that I’m so delicate as I was, and I don’t believe that anyone actually give enough shits to go through some prolonged phantom friendship for a punchline, but every attempt to reach out still burns. The only new friendship I’ve made since I moved to a strange city exploded into hate-flames. A recent attempt to join a mutual interest group seems to have fallen flat. I don’t think they dislike me, but I don’t think they like me either. The idea of venturing out for a second meeting when the first one bore not so much as a facebook friend request makes me feel like the mangiest puppy to ever beg at a door. I don’t even think this is a comment anymore. I’m just sad and venting. Productive!
You should definitely go to that second meeting! And then a few more.
Don’t read too much into not getting an instant response. With hobby groups it’s very common for people to show up to one or two meetings, decide they’re not really interested or it isn’t as much fun as they thought, and then never appear again. Until new people have shown that they’re planning to stick around, there isn’t much reason to send them a FB friend invite. Give things time to develop.
I agree with No Longer in Academia. Hobby groups, professional networking groups – heck, even guilds in MMORPGs – seem to have this dynamic.
Everyone wants new people in the group, so there’s a rush of excitement and a flurry of “welcome, welcome! We should totally do THINGS!”
But then… everyone kindof hangs back and wonders how much to invest in the new person because you know, that other new person, before, they only stayed for like, three days. Or never did anything with people. Or fussed about everyone else already being busy/established/in a different time zone. Or ate all the brownies. Or left/unfriended/blocked/renamed while everyone else was attending to their mundane lives, and now pointedly ignores all the people from the group.
So, the new person gets all this unfair weight of expectation and fear attached to everything they do, and all the established people hang back a little because they don’t want to be rejected again. This circling like feral dogs does not help the anxiety or loneliness of anyone involved, but we’re caught in this loop in spite of ourselves.
In my writing groups, there’s this unending refrain about Persistence. To a certain extent, that whole category of advice is problematic because of the intersection with Default Privilege… and also at the same time, there is a truth there.
Persistence may not be enough on it’s own to get you published, make a good career, collect friends, or master that one skill you always wanted to have, but it’s a pretty sure bet you ~won’t~ if you ~don’t~.
It always feels like there’s so much to lose if you take the risk of trying – and we do not have very many good narratives about failure in our culture. We talk about fates worse than death, we talk about wanting to die of embarrassment, and we talk about fabulous success stories of token individuals having failed at several things before they were successful. We even talk about artists and writers and inventors as “successful” in cases where they were not publicly celebrated until after their death.
One thing I have learned: persistence will bring you to a place where you find out the mask of Success and Happiness other people wear is largely that: a mask. What happiness and success they do have is tucked underneath the mask right beside a whole pile of anxieties and fears and failures, and when they looked at you, they saw the same mask reflected back at them ~whether you were wearing it or not~. I have had few more unsettling experiences in my life than encountering someone I admired and finding out they were beating themselves up for failing to meet or exceed the “success” I represented to them.
Er… tl;dr version:
SketchedLilly, you should totally go to the group at least a few more times. Three to five meetings will give you a better idea of whether this is a group of people you want to be with, and it will reassure the people at the group that you won’t just poof for no reason. Good luck!
Maybe you’re both right. I’ll try at least one more gathering. I feel a little silly admitting it, but the group is a cosplay group. Steampunk. Feeling socially unwanted is hard. Feeling socially unwanted while being an adult in full costume is something of tepid nightmares. But really, they were nice people and I think we were all just shuffling around feeling a little silly and in the spotlight. Most importantly, we were constantly on the move, wandering around a petting zoo. We never really sat and socialized.
Oh, this is painful. This describes, in perfect and excruciating detail, the dynamic around newcomers in a social hobby I do (The SCA – where there is also, not so helpfully, a lot of handwringing and fearmongering from the national nonprofit organization about OMG Membership!!!).Circling like feral dogs, indeed. How to do this better from the side of the established group welcoming an anxious newcomer is a frequent and ongoing conversation and subject of individual navel-gazing, but this is a new and helpful take on it. Thank you.
SketchedLilly, you should TOTALLY do at least one more gathering. Cosplay is awesome! Being an adult in public in funny clothes DOES seem silly and weird, and we sometimes fall into this awful self-deprecating trap where we assume nobody else “gets” it and everyone in the Outside thinks we’re weirdos – so new people put us off-kilter and stir things up from two directions. On the one hand, yay new faces, what do we do to impress them? and on the other, oh, we were wrong, someone else DOES get it, are we as unique as we thought? Added to just straight-up new-interaction awkwardness, it’s a wonder anyone ever comes back for a second gathering/event/meeting/practice. But when people do, there’s definitely a change in tone, and it gets easier as you find your niche in the group. It’s so very worth it. Oh, do go back, I promise you that someone there is hoping you do.
I can’t speak to feeling entirely friendless and alone and therefore lonely, because as far back as I go in memories, I can remember at least one friend (and sometimes only one), or at least someone I could spend time with, even at the worst when I was being bullied and even the person I thought was my best friend joined the bullying crowd.
On the other hand, loneliness is a familiar companion. I am an introvert and need lots of alone time and am generally okay with it. But I can remember times when I have been invited to a party and made to feel welcome, and yet could not make myself go but instead spent the evening alone crying in the dark wondering what was wrong with me. I still don’t have that figured out. I can say that I feel less lonely when I am alone than when I am with other people, which makes sense, because feeling excluded in the presence of a group is far more alienating and lonely than simply being alone.
I’ve participated in a particular hobby group since I was a teenager, so no matter how often I moved around or how short a time I spent in a particular place, I was able to find a group of people with shared interests, an automatic starting place that felt familiar for making new friends. The harder part is now in middle age discovering that this community that felt so much like family, or at least a caring support network, does not sometimes share my values. The existential crisis of discovering people I held as good friends were racists! I am still wrestling with that as I figure out how to change my social circle without either abruptly cutting off what has been such a large part of life or getting sucked back into its warm, comforting, familiar folds that do not feed important needs or reflect important values I hold. So not quite the same problem that is the focus of this thread.
Anyway, I’ve been trying to establish a routine of reconnecting with long-distance friends. Because of my long history of moving around, many of my relationships are not local. So on weekends, as I putter about the house doing laundry, washing dishes, picking up, etc. I put on the phone headset and check in with friends from my college days or whatever that don’t live nearby. I always try to check in whether it’s a good time to talk, then we catch up for an hour or three. It helps me feel connected in a way that social media doesn’t quite seem to. So that’s part of how I deal with Sunday sads.
Books and walking are also good solace that make me feel less alone in the world and connected to the life around me or in the imagination.
I tend to be a little too pessimistic, judgmental, cynical etc. I am working hard to change the lens by which I observe others (and myself) to a little more positive–seeking things to praise instead of criticize. It’s really hard sometimes. So a lot of the redirection I practice is for myself. When I find myself noticing something negative about someone else (especially, for example, in the weight room with the men lifting All The Weights with really poor form), I try to stop and find something positive instead of just getting annoyed with the person–even if I don’t say anything, I have no poker face, and it either gets me in trouble or provokes lots of laughter at my reaction to things. If I really can’t find anything complimentary, then I try to forgive myself and see if I do better next time. And when I am annoyed with my own mistakes or flaws, I try really hard to frame them as verbs instead of nouns/adjectives–the process model instead of the static model. “I made a mistake, I’ll try to fix it” not “I’m a fool/stupid for making this mistake.”
As I get older, I rely on the buddy system more and more, for the most mundane things beyond some sort of exercise routine. I have groceries buddies. I have research/project buddies. And various exercise buddies. When I was job hunting, I had a buddy system for that too. And it’s so very important for these to be balanced situations. Not this person is holding my hand and doing me a huge favor because I suck at adulting, or whatever jerkbrain litany applies, but we both need some reliable structure in order to follow through on things that are important to us but hard for various reasons. Self-motivation is a perpetual challenge for lots of people, so some semblance of external accountability is so helpful. I do my PT exercises at a friend’s house while she washes her dishes. I bring a book or portable work to another friend’s house because she wants to work on a project and just needs someone there to allow herself to set aside time to dedicate to this particular item. This process allows acquaintances to develop into friends, and friends to develop into close friends because there’s reciprocity, vulnerability and trust, reliance/reliability, caring and support, and just time spent together. Sometimes these are just one-offs and sometimes they’re longstanding routines. They’re various flavors of friend dates. If I didn’t set them up consciously, I’d probably just be a hermit. Plus, they provide a focus that avoid the stress of small talk or any uncomfortable social situation without explicit structure.
Ha! I posted that long comment all about myself and forgot to include a potentially relevant link:
Krista Tippett talking with Jean Vanier.
Here are some tidbits from the interview:
The deepest desire for us all is to be appreciated, to be loved, and to be seen as someone of value.
Martin Luther King Jr. rightly said that we will continue to despise people until we have loved and accepted what is despicable in ourselves.
We need to love people, not because they are beautiful, but because they are human.
Those considered marginalized and disabled can restore balance to the world as to what is important, i.e. love and tenderness.
Please note that Jean Vanier is a Catholic intellectual, so there is plenty of discussion of God and religion in the interview. I listened to this podcast this morning while biking to work, and some of the conversation seemed particularly relevant to this discussion.
I can think of three things that might help in this situation. The first is to acknowledge the crappy unfairness of it, and the things that aren’t within our control. It’s not fair that someone who is lonely has done the work of trying to meet people and still has no friends. It’s not fair that racism, or conflicting politics, or disabilities, or jobs with long hours, or unreliable transportation, or any number of factors can make it even harder to have a happy and fulfilling social life. I think sometimes when people ask for advice, they’re looking for a small side of advice served with a giant helping of empathy and commiseration.
The second is more specific problem-solving that’s really individual to the situation. “I’ve already tried meeting people and it’s not WORKING.” Okay, what specifically have you tried, and how specifically isn’t it working? Because “I have lots of shallow social relationships but no close friends I can depend on” is a very different problem from “I have a hard time meeting people I click with, and slogging through endless small talk to get there doesn’t feel worth it” and they’re both very different from “I’m working long hours on multiple shifts, and I have trouble making social plans because I don’t know my work schedule until that week.”
The third thing, and I’m pretty sure I’m cribbing this directly from Captain Awkward’s dating advice, is to make the process itself as rewarding as possible. There’s no way to guarantee that going to the party or the pub or whatever is going to get you new friends. So you might as well do social things in such a way that even if you don’t make friends, it’s not wasted time and effort. For example, if you enjoy sugary coffee concoctions, and you make it a point to run out with some coworkers to Starbucks or wherever, even if none of those people become real friends, you still got yummy coffee. If you take a knitting class and don’t click with anybody there, but you at least learned how to make a sweater, that’s still a good thing.
I also think that part of trying to make the process itself rewarding is to remember that, at the very least, every awkward conversation at a party or failed attempt to invite people to a thing is at least practice in social skills. If you gain absolutely nothing else from it, it improves those skills and teaches you something for the next time.
Can I offer a fourth thing? One thing I’ve noticed is that it can be helpful for me to think of this as a long-term project. So many of my early social interactions in my then-new place seemed to go nowhere: I felt frustrated and upset, lonely and angry. (I’m sure I projected a lot of negative weird feelings onto other people who I never, ever saw again after that.) Very very slowly, I realized that it wasn’t as simple as Take class; meet new friend/person to date. In fact, it often went like, Take class; become familiar with a group of people; do another social thing months later, and realize someone in the class is a friend of a friend, or that talking about the experience of that class is somehow an excellent topic of conversation for a new person I’ve just met, or something else that involves more than one hop on my social graph. Framing the process of building my own community/network of friends as this long-term, ongoing activity where small actions can pay off in unexpected ways far, far down the road helped me put it into perspective. It’s a bit like meditation that way, for me.
It took me 1-2 years to make friends when I moved to Chicago, for just this reason. You meet people and then remeet them.
I read the post (but not the article) and the above comments to see what applied to me, but now I’m not sure what to think/feel. I decided to write out this comment to not only (hopefully) recieve feedback; I also wanted to process my experiences for myself. Sorry if this gets too long.
I can identify with a lot of the commenters: I just started therapy this June and my therapist has helped me realize that I tend to avoid initiating conversations because I think everyone is judging and dismissing me; I also have trouble with realizing my own self-worth; quite frankly, I hate myself to an extent that I don’t like to think about and it’s hard for me to understand that I’m worth other people’s time. I have social anxiety that doesn’t seem to be too severe according to my therapist, but I hate interacting with new people and having to stress about boring them, constantly analyze their facial expressions to see how they react, and search for topics that keep them interested.
But my main concern lies with the commenter who said that people like me–those who have trouble interacting with others because they devalue themselves–should be helped rather than be befriended (or, if I’m being too harsh, at least before this happens). I can agree with him/her/hir in one sense: one of my old friends confessed to me in high school. We were fine in group interactions, but once we started college I panicked when he suggested eating lunch together on Fridays to catch up. I didn’t know how to interact around him without the buffer of our other friends and acquaintances, and over time I started avoiding him rather than endure stressful conversations or (far more reasonably) telling him about my feelings. Eventually he got fed up and stopped talking to me, saying that he wouldn’t initiate anymore conversations until I explained myself. It became a vicious cycle: I refused to explain myself because I was convinced that he would hate me forever and tell me so, and the longer I waited the less certain I was that he would forgive me (not to mention that I had been a legitimately bad friend). Thankfully, my therapist convinced me that I was letting my doubts and fears control me, and I talked to him. I didn’t have enough faith in him: he forgave me, still wants to be friends, and even told me that I have to have more faith in myself, something that I definitely agree with. But I don’t think that feelings like “I’d rather be in a morgue than at this party” are always that “simple”: like some of the others I’m a PoC, and I often get frustrated and demoralized dealing with near constant instances of (c)overt racism. Rather than simply being unable to relate to people in these cases, I can’t trust them to respect me. At the same time, my experiences with racism influence my suspicions of being judged. Everything’s connected, I guess.
I think one thing that happens with people who are lonely or see themselves as lonely/shy/hard to be friends with, is that they forget that they are allowed to just not like people too, or want to interact with them. If you’re in a toxic, controlling friendship that doesn’t make you happy, it’s harder to see it and to let go, because, what if you don’t have anyone?
Yes! I only have two friends, and I only just started talking to them again. One is the guy mentioned above, and the other I faded away from because of some racist sentiments I’d seen in the past (I’m reaching out to her again because we’ve never had a frank conversation about race and our relationship; my therapist believes that we should have one before I decide how to proceed). I bring this up because nearly all of the racism I’ve experienced this year was in the hands of my crew (rowing) team. Towards the end of the year I began to hate spending time with them and my anxiety spun out of control. But I STILL wanted them to validate me and have a grudging admiration/appreciation for me. I do this all the time: no matter how much I’m disgusted by someone’s views, I always think, “Even if they don’t like me because of [reason], I’ll make it so that they can like me overall DESPITE my being black/feminist/overweight, etc. It’s very messed up. I know that this is more about me being unable to handle others not liking me, but on some level my not liking them seems secondary to their “power” over me.
“What is different about lonely people is how they interpret their interactions with friends and acquaintances. […] Loneliness can create its own self-defeating behavior.”
This cognitive behavioral model is great for people who have social connections and feel lonely. It’s of limited value to the socially isolated. Like Hennig, I work from home. I’ve pursued friendships, and a few have led to something but mostly not. I volunteer to get my ass out of the house and around other people. That social interaction is great, but it’s not the same as friendship. I do have a Two-Way Street standard for my friendships, which is that if I’m the one who always initiates get-togethers, at some point I stop initiating. I don’t think that’s a self-defeating behavior, though, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable desire for reciprocal relationships. As the wise Captain once said, it’s exhausting to always be the driver. Sometimes you want to be the passenger.
I wouldn’t attribute my loneliness to my beliefs about myself or my behaviors around other people. I attribute my loneliness to not having other people to be around in the first place. And yeah, the whole “join a meet-up group” crap doesn’t help. It’s like telling someone who wants a significant other to join OKCupid. Sure, people meet each other there. But there’s a whole lot of false starts before you find a connection, and the false starts wear you down.
Oh my, that used to be me. Like, exactly. It’s a sad read, but it makes me appreciate how far I’ve come.
What got me out of that cycle, which is just so horrible, is therapy. But also one person in my life who was very clear about where the boundaries were. I never really felt like there were “rules” for hanging out with him, but in retrospect that’s what it was. We could hang out, and it was fine for me to talk about how I felt even if it was bad (and it always was), but only up to a point. He’d be very clear about that. “Alright, well, I’d like to talk about something else now,” was a phrase I heard A LOT. It took some real doing to not take it personally, but it did work. I owe that guy a lot. Every lonely person should have someone like that in their life, someone to say, in the kindest way possible, “that’s quite enough now, I demand you say something positive now.” Because you can train yourself out of that mindset.
Fake it till you make it, basically. It worked for me.
I don’t know if someone said this already but go social dancing! I have a hard time with meeting new people and, especially with polite people, always feel like they probably don’t really want me around. For me the best thing ever have been dancing. Take a class in lindy hop or balboa or whatever might feel right and start going to dance events and after a while you’ll have friends. The fact that you don’t really need all that polite smalltalk in the beginning is just so awesome for us folk that don’t know how to do that. I still need to ask people to dance and that has been a struggle but I got over it and I don’t know where I’d be without dancing.
This is a really great post and discussion! Sorry I’m late to the party (I’ve been on holiday with no Wi-Fi for the past week) but a lot of it really resonates with me. I was horribly lonely throughout secondary school, partly because I was socially awkward and struggled a lot to make friends, and partly because it was a very hostile and cliquey environment where no one wanted to be friends with me. Then I got to university, which I’d looked forward to for years as a magical escape out of there, and for the first year I ran into the same problems, and the crushing disappointment nearly made me suicidal. I think my problem was the opposite of the one described in the article – instead of over-sharing that I felt sad and lonely I was very focused on not being ‘weak’ or ‘clingy’ or ‘weird’, which included not letting people see that I had any negative emotions or emotional needs at all. I think it partly came from being raised in a family where ‘politeness’, ‘self-control’ and ‘not airing dirty laundry in public’ are all important values. This past year at university has been pretty amazing and now I finally feel like I have a small group of friends. For me, I think part of that process was being willing to build friendships by being a bit more vulnerable and share stuff that makes me sad or angry if (as far as I can tell) the other person can be trusted with it and we already know each other well enough that it’s appropriate. Similarly, I used to be very reluctant to talk to people about their personal lives, in case they thought I was being nosy or intrusive. I’ve found acknowledging that awkwardness quite helpful (as in ‘Is it OK to ask you such-and-such?’) It’s not easy, but if you want closer friendships, you have to contribute to building them.
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