#652: Operation: How Do I People?

Dear Captain Awkward,

So, I’m turning 30, and I don’t know how to interact with people. I think it’s because I’ve had OCD from at least the age of 9—real OCD, with repugnant obsessions about incest and such, not “I color coordinate my sock drawer”—and like a lot of people I kept it a secret. And I had panic disorder, which made me agoraphobic. Also, starting around 12 I felt like I was constantly stuck behind a pane of glass, which according to Wiki might mean I was dissociating, but whatever you call it, it was unpleasant. So to sum up, all the important things in my life were a horrible dark secret, other people didn’t seem real, and I basically couldn’t leave the house without fearing I’d have a panic attack, and frequently having one. It was not conducive to making friends.

In college I was lucky enough to make one super good friend—entirely through her initiative—and several good-ish friends. And then senior year I had a nervous breakdown and scraped through graduation and had more nervous breakdown and went on drugs and into CBT. That was six years ago and I’m much better now. But I don’t know how to deal with people. I didn’t realize this before, because I never wanted to deal with people—I thought I was just introverted and misanthropic, and I liked being that way. Now I don’t know what I am. I don’t think I’m shy. In a crowd I’m not nervous; I’m just nonplussed, like if you walked up and randomly gave me a lathe: I’m like, “Wtf is this for?” I still automatically say no to all social invitations, because even though, so far, I haven’t had real panic attacks on the drugs—and hopefully never will again, knock on wood—my instinct is still to stay home all the time. To my mind you have to have a really, really good reason before you leave the house. And people make me tired. When I have to associate with people, e.g. at work, they apparently like me, and I generally like them; but when getting together is optional, I just… don’t. But I’m lonely.

Romance is particularly a problem; or at least, it’s the problem I mind most acutely. I’d ruled out ever having sex till a few years ago, because repugnant obsessions. (Use your imagination.) Now that I’m better it seems like a possibility, but I feel… well, warped, I guess, like I missed some formative experience and it’s too late for me to be fixed. But dammit, I’d like to have sex, and not just sex, but a relationship. I get filled with hopeless romantic longing on a predictable monthly basis and also any time I see Robert Downey Jr. All my friends are married. I want that shit. But again, I’m almost 30; I don’t have time to replicate all the socializing experiences I should have had when I was 8. What the hell do I do with this lathe?

More Awkward Than You Are

Dear More Awkward,

You are not alone in feeling that you missed out on the time when every other single other person on the planet seemingly became an expert at social skills and dating and sex. Others may have a different collection of anxieties and circumstances, and I don’t want to minimize how fucking unfair and harrowing your road here has been, but many, many other people are figuring all of this out for the first time (or nearly so) at your age (or later). There are also people who once upon a time had tight social circles that seemed to form effortlessly, and then lost everyone to geography or time. People are starting over, or starting Operation: People? projects from scratch all the time at every age. In my wildest dreams y’all find each other and become each other’s people, like the statue bodies without heads and the statue heads without bodies. Late bloomers, unite! Unite, and bloom.

I’ve been chewing on this question for a while, with behind-the-scenes help from Elodie and The Goat Lady and Piny, because I don’t quite know how to, for one example, help you and your brain flip that switch to “yes, I’d love to” from “no thanks” when you receive an invitation. Goat Lady, who curates my inbox for me, has a tag for “Above Cap’n’s Pay Grade” for those questions that are between a Letter Writer and that Letter Writer’s Psyche, and this letter got that tag. But you seem really cool, and I’m in syllabus-crafting mode right now, so I’d like to take a stab at designing a process or experiment for helping you be more social. I don’t know if you’ll have romance, or friendship, or even be less lonely at the end of it (and this isn’t based on any kind of clinical knowledge or scientific anything, and is not a substitute for mental health care). My hope is that trying some of these things out may help you know more about yourself in social situations and know more about what you want from social interactions.

This excellent “Ask Polly” piece by Heather Havrilesky, where she encourages the letter writer to take her time and to cast a wide net for potential friends, makes a good introductory text for this short course:

“…You can’t get a BFF overnight, and you shouldn’t be in the market for that right now anyway. You just need a few people to hang out with occasionally. Mostly, though, you need to practice the art of coming out of your shell, of listening, of making a connection. You can do this with a retiree or a new mom. Maybe it won’t amount to anything, but it’s still good for you. You can simply exchange a few words, learn something. You can simply show up, hold your own space, feel alive, take in the atmosphere, and be prepared to talk if that situation arises.”

-Emphasis mine. What we’re going to do here is practice. And what we are going to practice is “the art of coming out of your shell and making connections.”

I propose a three-month experiment, where you try several different avenues for meeting people or spending more time with the people you already know. We’ll call them projects to keep the course metaphor going, and you could do them (or not) in any sequence as you wish. We already have tons of advice on how to meet people to date them on the site, so I am leaving your dating/romance/sex question out of this post.

Project #1: Start Online

The past week or so has been a busy one, socially for me, with the Awkward Meet & Geek on Thursday (next one is Feb 12, btw), a show Saturday night, and several birthday gatherings scattered in there. The question “How do you know the host/all these people?” came up a lot, and when I thought about it the most common answer to that question was “from online.”

Interlude:Tales of Ye Olde Internet Tymes

When I moved to Chicago in 2000, not really knowing anyone, it took me about a year of consistent effort in meeting new people to have a social circle, and about two years to have friends and anything resembling a regular dating partner. Most of my closest friendships grew out of participation in an internet community and from going to local gatherings for the members of that community. Some of those gatherings were really massive, and not everyone bonded with everyone, but interacting for months and sometimes years online (on the message boards and then more selectively through LiveJournal/IRC/e-mail) brought many of us very close together long before we ever met in real life.[/interlude]

If you aren’t already a member of an internet community (the forums here, a fandom, a topical or hobby-related message board), one way that you could interact more with other people is to find one and jump in. Share things that interest you on InstaTweetVineBook, participate in forum discussions, talk about things that interest you, read what other people say, get to know them, participate a lot when you have time and energy, hang back when you don’t, let people know when you like something they wrote, and if there is a face-to-face gathering where you live, go to it and see who you meet.

Project #2: Set Expectations

Since going places to meet people is anxiety-making for you, and since the purpose of these projects is to practice and learn, let me suggest a an exercise to make going to gatherings easier. Before you go to the thing, try writing in a notebook or document and briefly answer the following questions:

  • What’s one thing you hope will happen?
  • What’s one thing you worry will happen?
  • What’s one thing you think will actually happen?

Personally, when I’m more on top of my anxiety, I find it helpful to take the “What do I fear or worry will happen” question and go one further – “If that thing I worry about actually happened, what would I do about it?” as a way to put the fear in perspective and see that it is quite manageable. However, if the anxiety weasels have turned into anxiety sharks or anxiety bears that step will just make it worse as I keep imagining new possibilities for things to go wrong. You know your brain better than me, so do what works for you.

After the event, open up the notebook or the document and write a few words about what actually happened. How did reality match up to your expectations, worries, hopes?

  • “The best part was ________.”
  • “The coolest person I met was _______” or “If I had to pick one person to hang out with again, it would be ______.”
  • “I was uncomfortable when _________.”
  • “I was surprised by __________.”
  • “Next time I will know to ___________.”

I don’t know how to help you you convince yourself to go in the first place. You have to make the decision to try, when you are ready, with whatever supports you have in place for managing your OCD and overall anxieties. I just think, when and if you decide to go, an exercise in setting expectations and then measuring reality against expectations is a useful one, so that even if the event isn’t OMG the greatest ever you come out with more information than you had before.

As part of setting & reflecting expectations, create some victory conditions for yourself:

  • Interacted with two people I didn’t know before.
  • Had a 10 minute conversation about (topic that interests you).
  • Remembered that one person’s name and said hello to her.
  • Got through the entire event even though I was uncomfortable sometimes.
  • Made a plan to get there on time and bring everything with me, succeeded at all of the above.
  • Sat next to that really nice person from last time.
  • Asked one person for a recommendation for a good place to eat nearby.

Track how the victory conditions change (or don’t) over the course of the project.

Project #3: Go To Some Things

Where should you go, if you go? If Happy Hour with your colleagues still feels like too much, there are structures in place for you to meet new people who you won’t have to see at work on Monday.

MeetUp.com is a site that exists for the purpose of helping strangers to meet each other around common interests. Making an identity and joining groups doesn’t obligate you to do anything or to attend, if you just want to see what’s out there that you might be interested in. Good aspects of these events, for shy or anxious people:

  • They have a defined beginning and end time.
  • They are in public places.
  • There tends to be a friendly host or organizer who will answer your questions before, after, and during the event.
  • They have some activity at the center, whether it’s eating dim sum, watching a film, or playing games, that gives participants something to focus on and talk about.
  • They are full of people who want to meet others.
  • There is no pressure about them. Go when you’re up for it, hang back for months at a time, go again when you feel like it. No one will be mad.

Take a class. I’ve been going to a water aerobics class at the Y in the mornings a few times a week, and just by showing up a few times I know a some people’s names and am greeted by name in turn. I’m not best friends with anyone, I tend to keep to myself and not start conversations (especially naked locker room conversations), and I’m not going there to make new friends. But it’s a nice feeling of community and shared enterprise. When I took a few days off from it, people noticed and welcomed me back. A few of the older ladies have been going to this particular class for years, and ride there together, and know all about each other’s children and grandchildren.

If group exercise isn’t your jam, learn to take better photos. Learn to cook. Learn creative writing. Learn to forge metals. Try something that might give you pleasure, in an environment where there is a facilitator and structured activities and a defined beginning, middle, and end period, where you will run into the same people more than once and can take your time in seeing what bonds develop.

Volunteer. Is there a branch of One Brick where you are? They are an organization that sets up one-off volunteer opportunities at many different organizations, which is very useful for people who don’t have a lot of time and also for people who aren’t sure what they are good at or what they want to do.It lets you get to know a bunch of places before making a commitment to one. If you don’t have OneBrick, good search terms are “volunteer opportunities” “where you live” and maybe something about the kind of organization you want to work with, for instance, “animals.” You don’t have to dazzle people, you just have to show up and try to make yourself useful. Someone will be grateful to see your face when you do.

Don’t try to do all of these things in the same week or month. You will get easily overwhelmed and discouraged. In a three-month experiment, maybe try a different way each month, or stretch things out over the three months.

Project #4: Practice

People are going to ask “what do you do?” (right or wrong, they just are), so, what’s your spiel for that?

What made you want to take this lathe-turning class?

How did you find out about the class?

Do you know any good places to eat around here?

What are you reading?

Seen any good movies lately?

People who are just getting to know you are going to ask questions, and they will likely work from a predictable set of questions, so, predict. Do you need to come up with possible answers to these questions and maybe practice them with a hand puppet, pet, or mirror before you go to stuff? Because you can if you want to, and no one will know that you did.

Interlude: In Defense of Small Talk

People around these parts like to say: “Oh I hate small talk” “Small talk is so stupid” “Small talk is such a boring waste of time.” “I’m not good at small talk.”

Small talk can be repetitive, or be anxiety-making when people are asking questions that should have routine “normal” answers but you aren’t “normal” so you feel like you are doing it all wrong because you don’t know the expected script, or you do know it and you hate it. I get it. Small-talk-proficiency as a standard for judging the worth of a person is a pretty shitty metric.

But as I get older, I realize that small talk gets some stuff done. It gives you at least the beginning of a common frame of reference. And please, “Nice TARDIS key chain” is small talk JUST AS MUCH as “where do you get your nails done” is small talk. People do not have to have all of the same tastes and interests as you for you to talk to them for 10 minutes of time, and I hope the dude who asked me “Do you game?” at a party years ago and then turned on his heel and walked away from me when I said “not really” has figured that out by now. Personally I would prefer “Hey, where do you eat around here?” to “Hey, can you tell me how you voted in the last four elections?“/”What’s your relationship with your family like?” or whatever theoretically Deep Important Big Talk would be from someone I just met. People are mostly not trying to quiz you on all your life choices, they are just trying to find some common ground or a frame of reference with you. See if you can do the same, and ask some questions of your own. [/interlude]

Project #5: Balance “Take it slow” and “Be good to yourself” with “Go back to whatever thing you choose at least 3 times before deciding to ditch it.”

Geeks tend to be optimizers, and even geeks without Anxiety-anxiety will often display a lot of anxiety about doing something new, i.e. “How do I know FOR SURE I will like EVERY SINGLE ASPECT of a thing in advance?” “I want to ask that person out, but I want to BE ABSOLUTELY SURE of their answer before I do.” It’s often nervousness masked as elevated discernment powers, i.e., “I will preemptively reject you and your thing before I am rejected.” I think people who have been left out of social life for long periods tend to both oversell it and undersell it to themselves, like, when you can’t get in, every party is a magical cool place where cool people do cool things, but when you realize you could go and are just scared, it will probably just be a lot of boring standing around with, so why even bother? Advertisers definitely use the idea of exclusivity to sell us things. They want us to want whatever is behind that velvet rope, and feel like we have to make ourselves worthy of it instead of the other way around.

Most social events do involve a lot of standing or sitting around talking to each other. Sometimes there is pub trivia, or learning to build a circuit or operate a bellows, or acquiring knife skills, or “dancing” in water to top 40 “hits” to occupy you, and sometimes those conversations are really fun, and sometimes they are not. You won’t connect with everyone you meet or be magically transported by every Zumba class or game of King of Tokyo. Sometimes you will find that you do not like building the Millennium Falcon out of Legos, or picking up garbage on a running trail.

This is all supposed to be fun and not a way to add a ton of obligations to your plate, so I think it would be good for you to try to set some specific protocols for yourself on when it’s okay to bail on an event or endeavor, as part of the expectation-setting exercise. That little “Why even bother?” voice in your head has been given far, far too much voice, and like when King Theoden kicked Wormtongue out of Rohan, it will take time for you to recalibrate which objections are real and which are that voice trying to get you back home where you are safe (but also lonely). One thing I might suggest is that if someone creeps on you or you feel unsafe, or you find yourself getting overwhelmed and risking (or having) panic attacks, go! Flee! But if the objections are “it’s not as cool as I hoped” or “that one person is vaguely annoying” or “It turns out I am not good at this thing I am trying to learn,” for now, for the purposes of this project, try going two more times and then checking in with yourself about how you feel.

Project #6: Love Others From Afar

I’m pulling this from Sara Eckel’s book, It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons That You’re Single. Eckel writes about the work of Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist who wrote Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. Fredrickson’s team discovered that people could cultivate connection with others and feel more open to connecting with others by practicing a form of meditation called loving-kindess. Eckel describes:

“With loving-kindness meditation, you wish happiness to others through a short mantra – the one I use is ‘May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering.‘ If genuine feelings follow, great. If not, that’s fine, too.

You start by wishing good things to someone you love in an uncomplicated way, like a child or a pet. Then you do it for yourself (many teachers will tell you to start with yourself, I find this order easier), then a friend, then a neutral person (an officemate from another department, the woman who checks you in at the gym), and then a “difficult person.” Finally, you gradually widen that circle to include everyone–in Boston, on the Eastern Seaboard, in the Western Hemisphere, on the planet, etc.

It sounds hokey, but when I practice this regularly I notice the edges around me start to soften–those warm micro-encounters do happen more often. When I see my “neutral person” on the street –the UPS guy, the teenage kid who lives around the corner–I feel that warm rush you get upon seeing an old friend. When I used to bump into my pain-in-the-butt neighbor upstairs—aka my “difficult person”–I might not exactly have felt love, but there was some compassion uprooting my hostility. The rote mantra ‘”may you be free from suffering” helped me see that he was indeed in pain, hence the snippy, put-upon demeanor.

If meditation & mantras trip you up, think of it this way: As you go about your life in public spaces, try observing strangers and look for things to like about them. “That old lady’s face tells a story, and she has great posture!” “That man’s scarf matches his eyes perfectly.” “The cashier is so efficient and deft in her movements.” Don’t stare, don’t intrude. If you do get caught looking, actually say a compliment out loud to them but make sure it’s not something skeevy about their body: “Sorry, didn’t mean to stare, I was just admiring your bag/gloves/scarf/fancy hat/how great that coat is on you.” And then practice silently wishing them well, even if it’s just “I hope this is a good day for him/her/them.” I’m not much of a meditator, but I do this sometimes on the bus or the train when I am having a down day, and it does lift my mood and take me out of myself a bit. It doesn’t cost anything, I don’t risk anything by doing it. It felt silly at first, but I think it does work for me. Maybe it will for you.

Project #7: Wrap Up

Look back at the last three months.

  • What events were your favorite? Could you do more of those/take the next series of classes/keep going to those, and phase out the ones you didn’t like?
  • Did you meet any new people you really liked? What did you like about them? Can you find them on social media or make sure you have each other’s contact information?
  • Was there anyone you really didn’t like? What was it about them?
  • Do you think you might say yes to an invitation or two? What would you need to know to make that feel possible?
  • Is it time for more therapy, to help you process feelings and level up more around all of this?

In the end, you are going to be the sole judge of whether it was worth leaving the house, and what you want to do now, so here endeth the lesson. I’d be interested in hearing from the commentariat, especially from shyer sorts who took some steps to be more social. What worked for you? What convinced you to try?

 

112 comments
  1. therufs said:

    It’s now been five years since I was last handed a fresh syllabus (?!?) but I’d totally take this class.

    Best of luck, LW. Even if you *were* the Very Last Person to be figuring out how to people, that does not mean you aren’t allowed to or shouldn’t do it. There is no deadline and it’s not a race. You can do this!

  2. miss_chevious said:

    Another suggestion to augment what he Captain has suggested here is to reach out a bit more to the friends you already have, who already like you. Most of my friends are dispersed around the globe, and I find reaching out to them through the phone or email or Actual Physical Mail makes me feel more confident about reaching out to strangers. For some reason, I feel like “yeah, I already know people! I have already done this (moderately) successfully! Go me!” It gives me more of an outward looking focus if that makes sense.

  3. Swistle said:

    I would like to chime in with what the Captain said about how common it is to feel as if everyone else has it figured out. I notice it in my current occupation, which is at-home mom: SO MANY OTHER MOMS say (on blogs especially), “How do I….friend?” Like, they think everyone else is easily making friends left and right, and they are the only awkward outcast. Whereas actually there is this whole POOL of them. (And some people REALLY DO do it more easily than others—it’s not like we’re imagining that. But a LOT of people, a LOT, are stumbling around going “Wait. What? Wait. How? Wait?”)

    I like the Captain’s whole practice concept. You seem funny and kind and self-aware and interesting, and I think people will like you and that you will like them.

    • Friendly Hipposcriff said:

      I’ve never had many friends, but I always had a couple of friends that I just clicked with when I met them. It’s taken me decades to make friends slowly – they’re just as good friends now as the people I met and fell in friendship with, but I didn’t know how.

      And part of that is that I am now in a stable relationship and I have a circle of local friends; I have all the social interaction that I crave. Which means that I can go to group meetings in a ‘I’ll go and hang out and if I have a nice conversation, that’s a bonus’ frame of mind; rather than ‘I’m here to make new friends but I don’t know anyone and I don’t know how to start, why haven’t I found a friend already’.

    • Rowan said:

      Yeah, I’ve spent my life feeling like there’s an instruction book out there on how to do ‘normal’ stuff, and everyone else but me has a copy. That’s why the Internet is great – it’s such a relief to find out there are loads of people who are equally clueless.

  4. My situation is different in that I just moved countries, but I thought that some of my reflections on the nature of friendships might help a bit. I find that particularly in geeky circles, there’s this idea that shared interests and outlooks is what makes friendship happen, but I don’t think that’s the case. Shared interests and outlooks make for easy social intercourse when you encounter someone, but what makes solid, lasting friendships for me is time on task and shared *experiences*. So my efforts in my new home are going to finding people who seem cool and then making time to do things with them. It doesn’t have to be often, though that accelerates the process, but making time to do stuff with them that will give us time to really connect and give us happy or interesting memories to look back on. Nobody in my new place will ever be my beloved BFF, but knowing how I make those connections with people, I have a road map for how I can give a new acquaintanceship an opportunity to grow into a real friendship. I don’t know if other people operate this same way, but I’ve felt a lot less sad about leaving all my friends behind since I realized that I can actually make it happen again. 🙂

    TL;DR: target people you don’t find annoying and find things to do with them. 🙂

    • Jane said:

      I think that’s quite true about the experiences — thinking back on the people I’ve really clicked with over the last year, at least three or four of them were people who I had very little in common with, but we were all volunteering and eating meals together, and it just engendered a lovely feeling of community and mutual respect and appreciation. Like: I am an awkward, bookish person, three of these people were musicians, one was an amazing dancer, and all we really were sharing at the beginning was that we all wanted to be where we were.

      • I spent years and years buying into the idea that people who have the same interests as you will be better friends than people you make time to do stuff with, which is, I expect, why I was in my 20s before I had a BFF! 🙂 And now I’ve had two, and we are still BFFs despite me moving away from both of them.

  5. I created a Meetup account about two years ago, but never really got involved in anything. This year, however, I have started actively participating in two Meetup groups, and I’m really enjoying it.

    So what’s different for me now than when I signed up two years ago? For me, the one thing it comes down to is TIME and ENERGY. I’ve been working full-time and taking night classes for the last five years, and this spring semester (“spring” being from January – May) is the first time in almost five years that I haven’t had an academic commitment filling up my evening hours and taking up space in my brain. Now that I don’t have any academic commitments sapping my energy and taking up my time, I find that I’m a lot more open to the idea of devoting that energy and time to meeting folks I’ve never met before.

    My point is that meeting people and doing activities that you’ve never done before takes energy! (I say this as someone who is pretty social and who finds it relatively easy to strike up an acquaintance with random folks.) Meeting people you’ve never met before and learning things that are new to you can be fun, but even when it’s fun…it takes energy! So please don’t beat yourself up if you do put some of the Captain’s advice into practice and you find yourself feeling kind of drained. Being social does not always magically = Happy! Fun! Times! That! Bouy! The! Spirit! Even when you’re enjoying something, you might feel like it’s a bit of an energy suck at first. Usually though, as you become more and more familiar with an activity or a group of people, you’ll find yourself less drained and more invigorated by the activity. It just takes a little while to get to that point, so don’t give up!

    Good luck! I think the very fact that you wrote to the Captain about wanting to change means that you’re in a good mental and emotional space to at least try out some of her suggestions. I’m rooting for you!

  6. I would suggest walking before running. Put aside the idea of romance while you work on making some friends. And even before you work on making friends – you know, a lot of this is simply practice. (That’s often a factor in “people make me tired.” It’s work to think about people when you’re not used to it.) Being in the habit of noticing people, thinking about them as people, and interacting with them. So my suggestion is that you work on saying something kind to one person when you go out. This could be as simple as saying “Hi” to the bus driver when you get on and “Thanks” when you get off. Or telling the barista to have a nice weekend. Basically just adding one or two lines to whatever interaction you HAVE to have with a stranger in the pursuit of your normal pizza-ordering, grocery-buying, check-depositing life.

    And I’d also suggest spending some time in public spaces where you’re not expected to interact with anyone. Get a cup of a coffee, sit by the window, and watch people going by. Think about “What does it seem like they’re doing right now?” “How do I think they might be feeling?” at first, and “What would I say, if I wanted to start a conversation with them?” later. A lot of people find this sort of thing fun. Take quick looks at people and then look away, rather than staring. Start with small doses (20 minutes, followed by the rest of the day at home?) and then work up to more over time and see if you enjoy it. Peoplewatching is a perfectly respectable hobby, and even when I’m feeling freaked out about interacting with people, sitting around some without being expected to talk to them can give me a small people-dose for the day.

    That’s the baby steps approach which probably works for most people. There’s also the “diving into the flaming pool” approach which I did, which was to join an improv troupe that didn’t require auditions. Improv training does give you a toolkit to react in wildly improbable situations and keep a smile on your face. It worked for me, with a LOT of help from the director and members of my troupe, but I’m not sure I recommend it per se.

    Here’s one last mental trick to consider – if you’re at a social occasion and feeling awkward, there’s still a good chance you’re not the most nervous person in the room. Ask yourself who you think that person might be. Consider smiling at them or saying hi and seeing what happens. You are not the only one who’s anxious or confused – a lot of people are just faking calm.

    • Jenny Islander said:

      Seconding the coffee shop trick. For assorted Reasons not germane to this post, I reached adulthood completely unable to people. I lucked into a solid, enduring romantic relationship, but that didn’t solve the issue of how to interact with the other 6+ billion people on the planet. My attempts at finding a Team Me…did not go well. Finally I just sat in a communal area and “read” a book I knew by heart while nursing a drink and letting conversations wash around me. I learned a lot about expressions and gestures (I have unusually keen peripheral vision, per my optometrist) and how they match with tones of voice. I watched casual conversations begin and end. This helped me conduct myself around people less awkwardly.

      • That’s a really great idea! I’d been getting the rhythms of speech and a stable of “normal” responses to common questions/statements from tv and radio, but they’re obviously not fully representative of average conversations. Taking a book for cover means it’d be a pleasant time anyway, and there are likely to be conversations spanning different levels going on!

        • deyne said:

          That’s a great idea. I’m working on learning conversational French, Quebecois is very slangy and all my sentences sounds stilted. Hearing people talking naturally will totally help. I might use a pretty art book with few words, so I have a reason not to turn the pages too quickly/get distracted by exciting sentences.

      • Nashira said:

        Oh. OH. That’s why my psychiatrist uncle always encouraged Cripplingly Shy Anxious People-Terrified Kid Nash to watch people. To learn to gesture and stuff. That just clicked… I mean, I’m 29 now and have only understood facial expressions for like two years now, without spending an hour of analysis for five minutes of interaction… but that’s why he said people watch.

        Dang. I just realized I still do it a lot, in new groups. We go to a weekly group for people into rope bondage/general kinky meet up, and when there’s a lot of new people, I watch until their speech and bodies make sense together. Or i get confirmation from someone more socially adept that they don’t make sense together and it’s not me.

        Thank you for helping make this click!

  7. So, where I work, one of the things we do is provide peer mentoring by people with disabilities to PWD, around their healthcare goals but also their quality-of-life goals. One of the things people ask us about is how to meet other humans, and start having social connections with someone who isn’t getting paid to talk to them.

    Long story short, I totally just sent this post to my coworkers. It *might* end up getting printed out and taped to my wall.

  8. drawswithpens said:

    I’ve found Meetup to be really helpful. I haven’t made any new friends yet, but you can have a really good time if you set your expectations to “have some good conversations” rather than “Make Friends.” I can’t make friends. I’m in a place right now where I’m really put off by the idea of friendship, but I don’t want to be totally isolated either, so Meetup fills a good niche for me that’s fairly low pressure.

    • Pam Adams said:

      Me too- One of the reasons that I like Meetup is that I really don’t want/need new BFF’s, but people with who I can be friendly in a limited way.

      • peregrinations said:

        Yes that’s exactly what I love about Meetup too! I’m a postdoc, which means my life and the lives of the people I meet are really fluid. I moved to CurrentCity for 2 years, which has turned into 4. Already many of the friends I made my first year have moved on, and I’m hesistant to invest too much time into making new good friends. I’m so busy that I really don’t have the time, and it’s hard to justify when I know I (and we) will all be leaving again in another year or two. I have a couple good friends here still, but Meetup is great for rounding that out. It’s perfect for finding friendly people to do fun things with when I have the time and social spoons, and I’ve also met a couple people that I clicked enough with that we’ve hung out on our own. I highly recommend it!

  9. So many people think I’m extroverted and “naturally” social. So I’m outgoing. I still have very few friends. I know it’s because I’d rather be safe and alone than get out there and exert myself. Except that it’s too depressing to live like that, and relationships are the things that truly sustain us.

    It’s surprisingly difficult to build friendships as an adult. The advice here makes a lot of sense. No one is born an expert basket-weaver or opera singer. Skills have to be learned and practiced, and it not only takes time, it takes adapting to the changing landscape.

    Making friends with other parents now that I’m a parent looks different than making friends with grad-school classmates 10 years ago. The thing is, every time I do finally get up the energy and courage to plan something — seriously, scheduling a walk around the park where our kids are playing together is so much more involved than I ever imagined — I find that the other folks are just as hungry for it, and just as clueless about how to do it. We’re all just figuring this out together.

    I guess what I’m saying is that many people are more forgiving and patient than you might think. A few of them will be delighted that you reached out and thankful for the opportunity to get to know you.

  10. tawg said:

    I have two suggestions, that tie into the Captain’s advice. The first is to ask your current friends to help you expand your social circle. Your friends like you and know what kind of person you are, and probably know what kind of people you do and don’t want in your life. When I started talking to my friends about feeling lonely, they subtly did things to help me meet people in their social circle. And then, when I didn’t notice these things, they got more overt about it. For example, on friend has been telling me for years who cool one of her buddies is. Often when I have an anecdote, she’ll respond with a similar thing her buddy has done or been through. And the buddy and I have been at a few parties together, but never really talked. So my friend just started inviting the two of us to smaller and smaller gatherings, until now we sit opposite each other during fortnightly role-playing sessions. I wouldn’t say that we’re bffs, but my friend has definitely helped me to get to know the buddy better and it seems to be working out.

    The second one is a big YES to small talk. For a long time I unthinkingly deflected the focus away from myself. “What are you doing this weekend, tawg?” “Nothing much. You?” And then the person would talk about their plans, and sometimes I’d get frustrated because it was all mundane stuff like “Clean the house, do the groceries” and I couldn’t understand why we were talking about it. But then I realised that it’s actually… perfectly okay… to talk about mundane stuff. I was deflecting because I didn’t think I was interesting enough to talk about. But. Actually. You don’t have to be interesting to do small talk. A lot of small talk is not “I need you to entertain and fascinate me” it’s more “I like you and wanna do words with you, but those words don’t have to be important or valuable”. And sometimes people ask questions about one of those mundane weekend things, and then you have a conversation about the mundane thing and you learn stuff about people and you make a small connection

    (Like, I mentioned grocery shopping, and a workmate said that her goal was to just get her reusable shopping bags back into her car, and it turned out that when she brings the shopping in her cat will jump into the empty bag, and she doesn’t want to disturb her cat so she leaves the bag out, and eventually she ends up with no bags in her car and about fifteen bags in the living room as discarded cat houses. And then we talked about our cats. So that was quite a cute conversation that sprung up from me talking about how I needed to buy some more cereal.)

    • monstrosity said:

      Yes! And now that I’m a grown up person who lives alone, it is really interesting to me how other people live their lives. Does anyone else hang out at home alone on weekends? Do other people feel like Friday night is “go to bed early so that I get extra sleep because my body always want to wake up at 7am”? How do other folks plan and make meals for themselves? It’s so reassuring to me, as well, that this is stuff that other people think about and care about.

      • Glad I’m not the only one who thinks “What other people do all day” is a fascinating subject. But, it’s like the hobby we all share? we all have to achieve the same basic goals each day/week and we all have really different ways of going about it. And it’s a “personal” topic without being an overshare or too much for “chitchat.”

    • Jenesis said:

      Small talk would be so much easier if everyone had cats.

      • Cactus said:

        Seriously. I am a pretty awkward person, but when I meet other cat people things are so much better. I spent at least half my time at my company’s holiday party talking cats with one of our VPs once he discovered I have some, too. (I am nowhere close to his rank in the company.)

      • Inksmith said:

        Hear hear! Though I usually bore everyone I meet by talking about my cat anyway! In my defense, I live alone with Cat, so she’s my most frequent companion, and also, I work as a data analyst, which most people seem to find very boring, so it’s talk about cat or talk about craft projects.

  11. I’m not in quite the same place as the LW, but I think having a low-pressure way to get out and interact with (new) people is a large part of the real reason why I just signed up for a one-day class. And I do want to learn how to do the thing class is about, so I’m looking forward to it even if the interacting-with-people part is less successful.

  12. I love volunteering for several reasons, two of them being a) it’s a fixed amount of time (so you can plan to recoup afterwards) b) you’re all there for the same reason so you have a Fixed Subject to talk about.

    For small talk I learned this from a therapist: start small talk with 3 strangers in a week. Give a compliment 3-5 times a week. It’s a skill just like everything else and you can train yourself to be better and better at it. Taxi drivers, strangers at Whole Foods… the opportunities to say something nice and brief are endless once you start looking. For example, a lot of dog owners loooove to be told nice things about their pets. (Just ask first before you dive in and start petting any animals.)

    LW, may I add that you are so brave? Very brave indeed. Good luck!

    • lizinthelibrary said:

      I’m going to agree 1000x’s, LW you are so brave. I am a children’s librarian and quite often I have parents who use me as a way to help their children learn to talk to strangers. They’ll stop 5 feet in front of the desk and coach their children (remember what were you going to ask her, how were you going to say it, at the end you remember to say…) and some of them it’s obvious they’ve practiced at home/in the car. This is because talking to other people isn’t an ingrained skill. We all learned to do it. Some of us don’t remember learning or learned much faster, but we all learned. And it doesn’t matter if you’re 4 or 34, you can still learn it.

      And it isn’t a once and done thing, but an ongoing process. I could talk to people in high school, but college was a totally different ball game. Adults in the work place were another set of rules Then eventually you realize it isn’t a different set of rules, but just variations and subset rules. For example each Catan expansion is different and yet the same in terms of rules.

      My point is we are all lost and wondering and awkward and your path seems very rough, but you have come so far. You have taken so many great steps to make yourself healthier and happier. These are just the next path and you can do it because you are brave and you have already done so much successfully!

      • Muddie Mae said:

        Aw, that’s so cute! I haven’t raised kids so I had no idea this was a thing.

        I don’t think my mom did this. She probably should have – I didn’t get comfortable talking to strangers until my late 20s, after a couple of years of therapy.

    • Making small talk with strangers sounds like a really good ‘pre-first step’ if some of those other suggestions seem overwhelmingly difficult, LW. I used to struggle a lot with social anxiety and panic attacks and one of my triggers was shop assistants asking if I needed help. My therapist suggested I make replying to that with something other than ‘no thanks’ *FLEEEEE* a project, and it helped me SO MUCH. Even now, if I’m feeling more dissociative and depressed making an effort to say words to people in that kind of low expectation environment helps hugely!

      I don’t mean have a whole conversation: I literally mean saying a few sentences. ‘I love your nail polish, what a great colour!’ or ‘I’m so glad you had the mature cheese, it’s my favourite’ or even ‘have a great day, thanks!’ count! And the beauty of that is that mostly you will not have to deal with these people again a lot (I did tend to practice on shops I didn’t go in much, so that if I had a horrible embarrassing meltdown I could just avoid it all if I wanted) AND they’re generally people who both enjoy and are being paid to interact nicely. It helped give me a bit more confidence to go to bigger things like Captain Awkward meetups, or a hat-making class, or a knitting group and know that I could make nice for a bit without freaking out.

      You are SO BRAVE, LW! And you’re doing phenomenally well! Just think how much you’ve learned in the last few years: this is just another skill. You can do learning stuff, even hard scary uncomfortable stuff. You’ve totally got this.

    • Jane said:

      But like. . . even if you only do a small!talk ONCE a week, give yourself a HUGE GOLD STAR. This stuff takes SO LONG. I started getting socialized at maybe age 18 after a childhood spent largely alone, and I would say it was only seven or so years later than I pretty much had the motions down (though I still have painful anxiety around social interactions reasonably often.)

      Just rolling with the pet thing — are there any humane societies near where you live where you can volunteer, particularly a small facility? My local animal rescue doesn’t have a big enough staff to have someone there all the time. There’s a young guy who just finished up his homeschooling who comes regularly in to take care of the kitties. It’s SO OBVIOUS that he is deeply uncomfortable talking with other people, but the situation is such that he only HAS to say “hello” and “good-bye.” Because he’s such a good volunteer he’s created a situation where everyone feels kindly toward him, so I think if he ever tried to practice conversating on any of the other volunteers they would be very receptive even if he was awkward or confused.

  13. Charmed.Omega said:

    Oh Captain my Captain,

    Is there a syllabus for 201 of this course? I am pretty good now at making friendquaintances but I have no idea how to… figure out who I want to be really close friends with. I keep consuming media where something terrible happens and I just think to myself, if not my dad or my boyfriend I have no idea who I would call if something bad happened (and some things I don’t want to talk about with either of them). I realize it’s a different sort of lonely. I have friends, growing up I had best friends, but I can’t even determine who I would want to be close with now as an adult.

    • JenniferP said:

      201-level readings are probably here, here, here, and here (where there is a big discussion of being social outside big cities). See also: This and this.

      • Charmed.Omega said:

        Thanks!

      • Charmed.Omega said:

        I guess the question I still have is how do you tell if someone is potential-best-friend material? Are you supposed to just know? I have a pretty big friend group, but never anyone I think I’d enjoy hanging out with a whole bunch and telling all my secrets.

        I think if I wanted to cultivate a close friendship with someone I’d know how to, but I don’t know how to find that person in the first place. Do I need to meet even more people (I’ve met so many)? Do I need to try out more friend-dates with the people I do know?

        Also thank you for being a very helpful person on the internet.

        • JenniferP said:

          Thanks for the kind words.

          I suggest that you read the linked Heather Havrilesky post in the OP in full. She talks about remaining open to lots of people vs. looking for that best friend.

        • studentnaturopath said:

          For me it’s been different for different friends (I have 4 and I feel SO lucky to have that many, because they are tale a bullet friends and it can be hard to find even one of those.)

          One, was just time. Well 2, they were a couple that ran a store I shopped at. I shopped there a lot (pet store, hubby and I had fish). Then they were kinda morphed into his fishing buddies. It’s 10 years on and I’ve recently realised/decided they are MY friends, the kind I can catch a movie with or call in an emergency or pop round to see. This was just purely time

          Another was an epiphany friend. We were colleagues but I had a ‘I’m not good enough/she will judge me/it’s a bad fit mental roadblock. It wasn’t til we both had kids and we’re really honest with each other at how much we ducked at parenting that that final hurdle dissolved and now we are, like, BFF ‘s. That took about 6 years

          The final friend was a conscious decision. I met her once, she was lovely and bright and I said ‘fuck you jerkbrain, this one’s mine and you’re not gonna mess that up’. I asked for her number, made an effort to stay in touch, and allowed myself to he comfort a leading with her.

        • Rowan said:

          I think the close friend thing does just happen. You’ll be talking mundane small talk to someone, and one of you will mention something that resonates with the other. A little baby-step confession that would be no big deal to a lot of people but you get that “oh my god ME TOO!” click. Most times, it’s not something you can see coming. So yeah, it’s just luck. Which is kind of a bugger but also reassuring in that it’s not a Thing That You’re Doing Wrong but a case of not having that right moment yet.

        • thepaintedlady said:

          For me, starting to pull people more firmly into Team Me has been a series of small moments, of conversations that start with, “Oh my god! You, too?!” and evolve into moments of deeper connection. Or sometimes of just shared space and time and realizing that I can spend that much time around someone and not want to kill them. Most of these friendships, honestly, have roots in the things I think make me weird – awesome, possibly, but different than the crowd. My best lady friend and I had a moment very early in our friendship where we realized that our mutual sort of sexual bravado – dirty humor, being game for a dare, talking openly about sex in appropriate situations – was not at the time based on a whole lot of experience. It’s a silly thing, but we were each the last person either of us expected to be that person. Our early interactions were mostly helping each other navigate the fairly promiscuous world of theatre grad programs, helping each other suss out nerves versus actual discomfort and anxiety. My derby-intended (roller derby has a term called “derby wives” for your derby soulmate, and she and I are not official just yet) and I share an ability to fake social comfort and an inability to actually feel it. So at gatherings when things get to be too much, we hide together in parking lots and restrooms and cover for the other one when we take off early to sit at home and binge on Netflix.

          In other words, is there an awesome and weird Thing in someone else that speaks to an awesome and weird Thing in you? What is your awesome and weird Thing? Of course it can be shared interests, but in my experience it’s almost always a deeper feature of our personalities that binds us to the people who become Our People. So that’s where I’d start the search. Find the thing that you’d like to share with someone else, and start searching for the person who possesses that thing.

          • Adele said:

            i seem to recall that one of the founding fathers or something had a particular habit when he wanted to build a relationship with someone – he’d ask to borrow a book.
            People like to feel helpful (asking me to walk you through percentages will earn you a friend for life), plus it makes it safe for them to ask you small favours and reciprocity can build from there.
            (Borrowing a book also implies “you have great taste”; particularly back in the olden days, purchasing a book was presumably a considered choice for most)

          • twiggles said:

            Ooh, this certainly applies to my sister-of-the-heart BFF. For us, it is an intensity in the way we like to deconstruct and reconstruct things while talking rapidly and on top of each other that is slightly distressing to everybody else we each know. It took proximity followed by effort to build the friendship, but we now have a safe harbor, which neither of us ever imagined would happen (heck, we didn’t even have a name for the thing that made us feel lonely and a bit apart until we learned it was a thing we shared).

  14. Rose Fox said:

    Small-talk pro tip: if someone mentions a career or hobby that you don’t know anything about, instead of writing them off, say “I don’t know anything about that, but it sounds really interesting. Can you tell me more?” Points of commonality are awesome, and necessary for continuing relationships. But it’s also totally possible to have an enjoyable conversation beginning from a place of ignorance.

    Last night I learned a lot about downhill skiing. I don’t do it, I don’t ever plan to do it, and when the conversation among three hardcore ski enthusiasts got into detailed comparisons of Telluride vs. Sugarbush, I politely excused myself and went to talk to other people. But because I put in a few minutes of listening and nodding, a) those three people don’t think I’m rude like turned-on-his-heel gamer guy and b) I got to hear some really lyrical descriptions of the physical joys of skiing and the beauty of the mountain.

    It can feel really vulnerable to say “I don’t know anything about that”. But showing a little vulnerability as well as interest can also help another person–who is maybe feeling just as shy as you are–open up and feel more confident, and it can pave the way for real connection.

    Second small-talk pro tip: you can always excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, regardless of whether you actually need to make use of the facilities. Especially if you’re not used to socializing, a few minutes alone in a quiet enclosed room can be really really helpful for assessing your level of overwhelm and deciding whether to plunge back in or head home. And it’s a great way to get out of conversations with people who are boring, annoying, or unpleasant. (For lady-type people, if another lady-type person says “We can go together!” and that’s the last thing you want, mime nausea and say you’d prefer a little privacy.)

    • Jenesis said:

      Seconding this. I hate talking about myself, so I’ve learned to put on a decent mimicry of How To People by asking questions that let people elaborate on existing conversation topics that they seem to be enthusiastic about, even if I have no knowledge of the subject. I get to practice listening, maybe discover that the topic isn’t as boring as I initially thought it was, and build rapport with the other person by making them feel like they’re being valued and listened to (even if it is only a few minutes of nodding).

      YMMV, I imagine this would work less well with shy people. I’ve made some great friends with over-talkers and broken off contact with people who seem to only want to ask me questions and never share anything about themselves.

  15. spinnerlynne said:

    I am about to do this. After staying with my family for the holidays I returned to my own flat (far, far away [from my family]) and cried for ten days straight, partly because of stressful circumstances like presentations and exams but partly also because there’s only one person in this city I’d feel almost comfortable inviting for coffee. I saw a therapist yesterday and when I was about to tell her I probably didn’t need to see her again because the crushing sadness has gone away, she said some things about my social (not social) habits and how … I don’t necessarily have to have these exact habits forever. And I decided to do this now because I’m in a good enough place in other ways (low self-esteem, perfectionism, agoraphobia, panic attacks — they may not be things of the past, but they’re no longer my most dominant traits). So I signed up for a renaissance dance class and will go to spinning and knitting groups (and therapy). I think the expectations/goals/evaluations in Project #2 will be particularly helpful for me to work with.

    So here’s to success/progress getting out of our shells for all who wish to do so.

    • Baytree said:

      Congratulations on taking a difficult leap towards people!

      You are definitely not alone. I know what to do to make friends, in theory. In practice I’m just too nervous to DO it most of the time. It takes courage to put yourself out there with someone new.

    • winter said:

      Been there with the “I am here, but no one else is. So lonely.” Totally go to these hobbies! I wish you well.

  16. Spouse and I are creating new social circles after the last one became too much of an emotional drain. I am going to share this with spouse and think about to apply it to us. LW, if you’re in the greater Boston area, there are other people figuring out how to use lathes in the area. Maybe we’ll end up at the same chair leg turning class (or whatever the process is called).

    • Is it time for another Boston Awkward get together? I missed the last one much to my great disappointment.

  17. Code Wench said:

    I really like this LifeHack article on how to make small talk: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/how-to-quickly-improve-your-ability-to-make-small-talk.html. It describes the FORM small talk trick where you ask about Family, Occupation, Recreation or Money.

    You also want to think about how to keep a conversation going. People generally love to talk about themselves so asking questions is usually pretty safe, but sometimes someone asks you a question and you’ll need to provide a “hook” to keep the conversation going. So the answer to a question like, “Do you have family around here?” isn’t just “No”, but “No, my family lives in Iceland. Where did you grow up?”

    • Yeah, the hook is key. One of my small talk go-tos is “What do you do for work?” and when they answer I say “Oh! Do you like it?” You’d be amazed the not-about-work conversations that “Do you like it?” starts. And if that doesn’t open someone up, “What do you do for fun?” usually does.

      • Well, but this opening puts people who dont “work-work” for any reason at that partcular time or those who hate their work to a very uncomfortable position, so maybe what do you do for fun is always safer (there was a thread about it here somewhere).

    • Jane Elliot said:

      We just had a thread farther down about how awkward this is for people who are disabled. If you are disabled, you don’t want to talk about your occupation or money (because both are difficult and or painful to explain) and so this is NOT the best topic to start with. It assumes that being healthy and able bodied is the norm and puts people who are disabled immediately on the defensive the second you meet them about what is wrong. It highlights invisible disabilities and is a horrible way to start conversations. Same with family; for someone who is estranged, they don’t want to be talking about that.

      I would start with Recreation and Hobbies. That is always a safe choice. Then move on to something like pets or if they’re interested in sports.

      • Divizna said:

        You don’t even need to be disabled to feel uneasy about the work topic. You can be unemployed, or a stay-at-home caregiver worrying you’d be deemed a parasite, or still at school at a higher age than usual, or in a job with low prestige… Not a safe topic at all.
        I tend to go with things right at hand, the event we find ourselves at, or something the person has been talking about. And I don’t much ask people things, which I know was condemned here recently, but I prefer to let them start about what they themselves want to share. Lots of small talk, little digging of personal information. Works well in my circles.

        • I got cured of asking about work early in my life when I met a guy at a party that my friend was trying to set me up with and asked what he did, and he half-shouted “WHY DOES EVERYONE ASK THAT?!” Yikes. Okay.

          A favorite gambit is one I got from my first tattoo artist, who asked if I was planning a vacation or what I’d done for my last one. We also got into a great conversation about baseball players (she had tattooed several major leaguers) and she said she could see how drugs were so common because “they don’t know what to do with their down-time.” Interesting insight from her conversational opener.

      • KK said:

        I absolutely agree that work and family are sensitive subjects. They’re not great for small talk. Recreation, hobbies, pets, and hobbies are all safer, and I love talking to people about the things they’re passionate about and engaged in.

        But I also want to add that there are disabled people with jobs who would be happy to talk about work. There are both disabled and able-bodied people who wouldn’t be comfortable answering a question about work because they’re unemployed, don’t like their job, don’t want to explain their work, etc. We’re all different.

  18. sara said:

    I don’t know if this will work for you, but when I recently moved to a new city/job and was feeling anxious about meeting people/making new friends, I made a new rule for myself that my default to every single invitation would be YES, unless I specifically had another conflict already on my calendar. Even if it’s something I wouldn’t normally be crazy about (like, going to see a movie that I wasn’t initially super excited about or going to a restaurant I know I don’t love), I would just go with it, say yes, and go with a positive attitude. It seems like for you, saying “yes” every time might be too intimidating. But what about making a pact with yourself that the next invitation you receive you will say “yes” even if it feels weird/isn’t your ideal outing/you know it will be sort of exhausting? Because hey, it’s just one night in the long span of the rest of your life. Then afterward, assess and see how you feel about it and what you want to do next time. If folks from work are inviting you to things and you guys get along well at work, it seems like this is a good place to start…you don’t have to actually seek anything out or plan anything or meet brand new people. You get to just piggyback on the planning of others, which honestly can sometimes be pretty awesome. 🙂

    • vass said:

      This could lead the OP into some very unsafe situations. I think they need permission to listen to their instincts, if their instincts are telling them things like “I don’t like all the cannibalism jokes this guy is making, or how excited he got when I said I don’t know anyone local, and or how he only just met me and already he’s inviting me to a candlelit dinner in his remote, secluded, falling-down basement manor full of bloodstained bees, and it’s kinda weird how the written invite said TELL NO ONE, BURN THIS MESSAGE.”

      Or “this guy’s coming on way too strong and keeps invading my personal space, and he ordered dinner for me after I said I didn’t want him to.”

      Or even “this group of coworkers asked me to come to a movie with them, but they keep making racist jokes at lunch, and I’m not comfortable with that.”

      • Jane said:

        Maybe the LW could make a list of things they have been invited to do in the past, and then highlight the ones they think they might have liked to do. Or make a list of people who have issued invitations, and highlight the ones who the LW thinks they feel comfortable with and would like to get to know more. Then perhaps the LW could promise themselves to at least check their mental lists the next time an invitation appears and see if it matches up to one of these hypothetical “good” situations, and then lean heavily toward “yes” if it does.

    • Elsajeni said:

      I like this method, and have used it for a similar problem in my own life — but like vass says, there are absolutely some Reasons I Don’t Wanna that you should listen to and say no! Rather than “unless I have a conflict,” I would say “unless I actively don’t want to” — in other words, resetting your default is best for situations where what you’re thinking is along the lines of “mmmmmmmeh, I could take it or leave it… and it would be way easier to leave it…” It’s easy to turn that into reasons to say no; consciously trying to turn it into reasons to say yes is good practice for socializing more and meeting more people. But if you’re thinking something more like “I actually don’t like Karen at all, do I have to go to her party?” or “This guy is coming on stronger than I’m comfortable with” or “I am completely exhausted from this week and cannot bear the thought of Doing Stuff for another minute,” then say no!

      The very-beginner-level version of this exercise might be — without actually saying Yes, necessarily — just to practice thinking about why you want to say no, and telling the difference between “I have a reason not to go” and “I have no reason to go.” With anxiety disorders, of course, it can be really hard to tell the difference between baseline-level meeting-new-people or doing-new-stuff anxiety and actual danger signals; consciously thinking about “Is there something I’m unusually uncomfortable with about this situation, or am I ‘just’ generally anxious like I would be about any situation?” can help a little with that. (LW, are you still seeing a therapist? This is something they might be able to help with as well.)

  19. si1verdrake said:

    First, good luck! I do highly recommend meetups or something similar. Something like 90 percent of my current social circle was the direct result of making a single friend through a club, and then meeting their friends, and friends of friends, and so forth. I’d moved to a new city for grad school, and up to that point my social circle had collapsed to a line with a single friend in the area. While certainly not exactly the same, I was pretty desperately lonely at that point.

    And, while I second the advice to “walk before you run” and concentrate on friendship-making rather than romance, I’d just like to add that concentrating on friendship-making can *also* be working towards romance!

    That friend above? He met a guy who ended up being a housemate of his. Said housemate had a group of friends that started hanging out at parties thrown at that house, which I was at due to the first friend. One guy in that group, several other friends, and I ended up going to a bar together one night. I’d seen him around, but had only interacted with him once before, thought he was cool, but that was it. At the bar, we got to talking, realized we had a bunch in common, and decided to go to a concert together. We’ve been dating for almost 2 years now.

    Now, this wasn’t an overnight thing. It was about 4 years from meeting friend 1 to meeting current boyfriend. And I definitely don’t recommend making friends with the sole intent of “hey! maybe they’ll introduce me to my soul mate!”. But it can certainly, down the line, help with the romance goals.

    • Divizna said:

      Well, even someone you meet at a drum session or in the metal forging class (what a cool idea!) and start off with small talk or extingushing a minor accident might turn out to be your soul mate, can’t they.
      But as I see it, looking specifically for someone to be romantic with doesn’t work. I even think that looking specifically for someone to be friends with doesn’t work either. At least in my experience, it takes getting gradually acquainted, developing fondness and trust to that person… – or not, you can’t tell at the beginning when you don’t really know them yet. Anyway, it may develop into a friendship – but it generally starts with things like “no, Snape’s not a traitor!” or “want some tea too? shall I fill the whole kettle?” or “how do you conjugate this Russian verb again?”, or even, in one case, “nice books you’re selling, pity I need to study for exams”. Which might be too blunt for a shy person, of course, I’m just saying that friendships at first sight are not a common thing.
      I think what helped me was coming into circles around a hobby – such as a small, one-day convention in the local library. The best thing about them actually wasn’t that they gave me a topic to concentrate on, with just a side option of socialising; or that I didn’t need to be afraid of blundering in front of someone that knows me; or that I already had a thing to bond over with others. Those were nice, but the best thing was that these kind of environments were not family, not school, and not anything derived from either, which meant that even when I was still nervous about meeting people, I didn’t have this constant background feeling of being judged, weighed and graded by an ominous authority. So I could relax… a bit… and, you know, just be. The rest came like – like evolution.

  20. nonnymouse said:

    LW, I hear you on a lot of this. Good luck.

    As someone that used to feel a whole mix of alienated and indifferent and lonely, I’m going to tell you a couple of things that moved me away from those attitudes. Not as advice, because I don’t think I picked the best way to go about this, but more because it would have helped me to hear about others walking along a similar path to me.

    Small talk really helped me. For me, this started through a whole bunch of time when I was unemployed and signing on, and eventually somehow through getting the bus a whole bunch and starting to commiserate with fellow grumpy people at the bus stop/in the job centre, my attitude changed from not interacting, to interacting out of boredom, to starting to think about these incidental little conversations with compassion for people. And when I got a job in a cafe, I started getting to know regular customers to the point where I’m still in touch with some of them a year later.

    So did being more honest about stuff I liked. I’m still working on this, and I’m not saying just chuck everything out there indescriminately. Still, through abusive childhood stuff and on-the-autistic-spectrum stuff, I’d trained myself out of saying “hey, I like that book” or “anyone heard about $cool_geek_thing?”. Getting myself to talk about a few of those things more openly on social medias found me a bunch of cool conversations and just made me realise there are more people out there like me than I think.

  21. chasm said:

    LW, your letter really resonated with me. We have some things in common: I was diagnosed with OCD at a young age; I have another anxiety disorder as well (social, not panic); incest is/was one of my major obsessions; I kept my mental illnesses secret from non-family members for a long time; I had a breakdown in my final year of university and spent a few years in intensive CBT treatment programs; and I, too, am approaching 30 with nothing much in the way of romantic or sexual relationships under my belt.

    I’m going to talk a bit about how I managed to be a social person, in my own difficult circumstances. I hope it applies to you, or that you can draw something useful out of it. I’m refraining as much as I can from directly giving you advice or directions, because any advice or directions I have to give would really be aimed at my younger self, which isn’t fair to you at all.

    The Captain’s advice is good, and I’m probably going to be adopting some of it into my own life, particularly the parts that made my shoulders tense up with anticipatory anxiety. Because here’s the rub: for an obsessive-compulsive person like me who responds exceptionally well to CBT, the best way to change my habits, my mood, my circumstances, and my life is to continue to apply CBT frameworks to it. My framework is exposure therapy. I continuously seek out the things that provoke anxiety in me and expose myself to them (in moderation, and with kindness).

    The Captain said: “I don’t know how to help you convince yourself to go in the first place. You have to make the decision to try, when you are ready, with whatever supports you have in place for managing your OCD and overall anxieties.” For me, approaching socializing (and recently, dating) as an exercise in exposure therapy is what makes me go places. Because there’s no failure in exposure therapy. Even if I get to an event (a board games meetup, a date, a concert, a sports game, etc.) and my anxiety spikes, I don’t enjoy myself, and I leave early, it was still an exposure. It was an attempt to make my world bigger than it is right now; to expand my borders and my boundaries to encompass more of the things I want to do, the places I want to go, and the people I want to meet. Because I know from experience that if I don’t, my world will get smaller and smaller and smaller, until it contains only my bed and my lonely mind.

    What I love about exposure therapy, especially when combined with mindfulness and radical acceptance, is that it breaks down the perfectionistic mindset I associate with my OCD. Every difficult thing I do becomes practice, not performance, and you can’t screw up practice.

    Maybe your favourite framework isn’t exposure therapy. That type of behaviour therapy is a harsh mistress, and even proponents of it like me can’t do it all the time. But I bet there is something, some element of CBT or DBT or mindfulness or what have you, that you responded well to in treatment of your OCD and panic disorder. Socializing became a lot easier for me when I realized that I didn’t need new tools for new situations; the tools I’d been given in hospital worked just as well in the outside world.

    Even if none of what I’ve said here is useful to you, I hope you’ll take comfort in knowing that there’s someone else out there who’s struggling with similar stuff. You have all my love and all my faith in you.

    • dreampodd said:

      What I love about exposure therapy, especially when combined with mindfulness and radical acceptance, is that it breaks down the perfectionistic mindset I associate with my OCD. Every difficult thing I do becomes practice, not performance, and you can’t screw up practice.

      I love this so much!

      I also have to echo how much CBT helped me learn to manage my anxiety and OCD. When someone finally explained to me that it was OK and even normal to feel anxiety in new situations it was a huge revelation. I had always assumed that it was a huge sign that something was terribly wrong with me and the situation and that I had to FLEEEEE!!! right now, and of course I never actually discussed this with other people because just the idea of talking about anxiety just made my anxiety skyrocket.

  22. Pam Adams said:

    Second the motion for loving-kindness meditation. I joined a meditation group. They are more Buddhist than I am, but I love the group meditation. (Also, when you’re meditating in a group, you’re ‘with’ people, but not interacting directly with them.)

    Good luck!

  23. SherryH said:

    I’ve had a few small ideas that may or may not be helpful…

    To get to know someone a bit better, ask them for help. Not necessarily something big, but a small thing: Can I use your pen?/Do you know where such-and-such is?/Have you had any luck with this-and-that? People like to help, and it can open the way for a more extensive conversation.

    Offer to help, especially at social gatherings. At a gathering, I’m often the one setting out chairs or putting refreshments on trays or handing out the agenda. It gives me something to do so I’m not as antsy and lets me interact with people in a neutral role without having to put my whole self front and center. And I usually get to know the organizers a bit better.

    Look for models. I used to hate to talk on the phone and felt I was really bad at it. Then I had a job where I sat next to someone who was on the phone a LOT. Calling clients, calling other departments, calling just about anyone, she always sounded so gracious and composed. So now I have a sort of script in my head for what to say when I pick up the phone and call someone about a business matter. (Still hate making phone calls, though. I’m just better at it.) So maybe after you go to an activity or meet a person, think back on things the person said that really made them easy to talk to or smoothed a rough moment and whether you might be able to say something like that in the future if a similar conversation comes up. Folks here are right, conversation and socializing can be really draining, especially if it’s a new skill, and sometimes it helps to have a general framework to work from while you’re getting the pattern down.

    Best of luck, LW, and kudos to you for the hard work you’ve put in so far!

  24. Emma9 said:

    Nth-ing the meetup.com suggestion. I’m in a similar boat (27, went to school online because ‘Yay, I don’t have to interact with people this way!’, only to graduate and realize that the world was still out there and I had no tools for relating to it.)

    But Meetup has been awesome. When you take your focus off of ‘I must be social’/’I must make friends’ and put the focus on the thing you are doing, it’s so much less stressful – there’s no way to ‘fail’, because worst-case scenario, even if you don’t speak a word to another person the whole time, you still did a fun and/or new thing.

    (Bonus: One of the best pieces of grown-up interaction advice I’ve ever read: “Be interested so you can be interesting”. That applies to reading books and articles on subjects you might not know much about, but it also applies to having novel experiences under your belt. It gives you things to talk about, which can boost social interaction in the future. “Well, last weekend I went with my meetup group and did trampoline dodgeball -“/”Trampoline dodgeball??? That’s a THING? Tell me more!”)

    Also: volunteer. It’s similarly helpful in that social interaction is a side-effect instead of your actual goal, plus doing good tends to put you in a positive mood anyway, plus your fellow volunteers are likely to be positive people themselves.

  25. gloria said:

    Can I ask how you (or anyone else who feels like responding) found a social group? I have friends (mostly from high school or earlier, but some I’ve met through jobs or the internet) I hang out with one on one, and I’ve had a boyfriend for four years, but I haven’t had a social circle since high school when it was pretty easy since you had to see people every day.

    • It’s a roll of the dice. Either the cool person you met happens to know a lot of other people you happen to like, or you introduce friends to each other and they hit it off.

      Social circles can be great, no question. But there are also advantages to having some friends who aren’t connected to anyone else you know. For instance, no fallout from anybody else if things become tense between the two of you.

    • Blue Meeple said:

      A group of my friends all met through the same weekly meetup – none of us knew any of the others before we started going, but now we hang out in various configurations outside of the meetup too. It took a long time, though. I moved here 7, almost 7 and a half years ago, it took me 2 years to really start having people I considered friends and the aforementioned friends group only really solidified within the past year or so.

      But it’s not all sunshine and roses. I’ll be honest, they’re not all the people I wish were in my social group. There’s five of us total, and two of them are people I really like, and two of them are people who can really get on my nerves. But I’m sure I have annoying traits, too, and having the whole group is worth being irritated sometimes.

    • Jenesis said:

      Can I ask what you define as a “social group”? Do you feel your emotional bonding needs are not getting met by sequential one-on-ones? (What if you were able to get your boyfriend and high school friends to all hang out together?)

      I’m also generally a one-on-one person, with meeting new people being a fortuitous by-product of checking out [Insert Geeky Interest] clubs when I want to experience something new. Of the people there, I end up never speaking more than a couple times to most of them, becoming friendly acquaintances with a few of them, and maybe (if I’m lucky) becoming friends with one or two of them. I consider the acquaintance-type people to be part of my “social group” in that sphere, even if I never encounter them outside of the times I can spare to attend a meetup of Club.

      • gloria said:

        That’s a good question and one I haven’t thought about as much as I should. I guess I think of a social group as a group of people who hang out together semi-regularly. I feel like I have a decent amount of deep emotional connection in my life but I would like there to be more consistent socialization and for some reason I had assumed that would be easier to accomplish if I had a social group. (I am also very shy so even with people i feel securely friends with it’s hard for me to make plans more than once every few months because I feel like I’m imposing.) I think I will try to find a club or meetup of some kind and see if that helps with what I want, or at least helps clarify what that actually is.

        • Jenesis said:

          Ah, yes, the jerkbrain that keeps telling you you’re “imposing” even though it’s probably truer that people who are your friends are people who want and like your company…in that case what helped me was recognizing that at least one of my friends was feeling the same way, so we became each other’s Mission: Help Friend Get Out More. “Hey, I haven’t had Socializing Time in a week, and I feel lonely/was wondering how you were doing/need more opportunities to practice this social skills thing/need to get out of the house ASAP or I’ll go stir crazy. Want to [suggestion of place and/or Fun Thing]?” Worst case scenario, we both end up tired and not really enjoying ourselves, but at least there’s the satisfaction of checking “got out into the world and interacted with other human beings” off my to-do list for a while.

    • ReanaZ said:

      I started a meetup group. I had recently moved to a new city (country, continent) and was having trouble finding my people. This isn’t for everyone, obviously, but my social anxiety is much alleviated by Being in Control of All the Things and making the rules and having 100% power to kick out people who make me uncomfortable, so it turned out to be a pretty good thing for me. Also, lonely people who need friends but don’t have the energy to organise their own things? Flock to meetup groups and are ripe for friend-poaching. =p My meetup group has gotten LARGE, and there are plenty of people I know casually, but it’s nice to have this big pool of people I can draw from if I feel like doing something my closer friends don’t. But there is also a core group of really good friends who form my immediate social group.

      I’ve been living in this city for over two years now, and except for my partner who I met through online dating, 100% of my friends are through this group. I built the group by meeting people in the group, figuring out who I connected with, watching who consistently came to things, figuring out who seemed like they wanted Friends and not just people to hang with, and gradually drew those people closer. First I had small public events, then I had small events at my house that were posted to the group but only open to people I’d met before, then I slowly started inviting people to hang out/go to things outside of the group, then 1-on-1, etc. Eventually, fairly stable friend group!

      I think being on the lookout for other people who Need Friends can be an easier way to make a friend group rapidly (another if making friends with someone with a big friend group who will invite you in, but I’ve never had much luck with that personally, although I’ve seen it work well for others and I guess I am probably That Friend for most of my friend group). Of close friends from that group, pretty much all of them had had something happen where they were actively looking for New Friends–a recent move, a recent friend group implosion, a break-up where the ex had lots of mutual friends, a realisation that they had no local friends and a resolution to change it, etc. There are other people in my immediate social circle who I would consider pretty good friend who already had existing social circles, and they aren’t nearly as close to me as the others. But that’s cool too.

      I’ve recently met people through my partner who may end up being friends, and I think I am close to leveling up someone I met in a class from friendly acquaintance to friend (she recently moved here… ripe for friend-poaching! ha), so maybe I will have friends I met other places than my meetup group by year 3. =)

  26. mehting said:

    I had a lot of similar issues, being OCD and really behind on developing social skills, and strongly inclined to just stay home. These things may or may not help you, but they sure helped me:

    1. I went to events where my hands would be busy. I found I had a much easier time talking, listening, and not feeling awkward when silence hit if my hands were busy cooking, or sewing, or pounding metal, so crafty classes were interesting and also made people easier

    2, I went to events centered around activities. Parties, hangouts, and the like made me miserable, but events with a central activity made small talk a lot easier to get through. And the fact that they were centered around an activity meant there was a concrete start and end time when EVERYONE arrived and left, so I knew what I was getting in to, and I knew when I could get out again without violating any social rules or norms.

    3. Surprisingly, since I hate strangers touching me, I found folk-type dancing perfect. I was working collaboratively with people, but not really expected to talk except in between dances, so it reduced to small talk load, while getting me comfortable around a group of people. And even more surprisingly, I really had fun, and found that the group was really eager to help me get better, and playful about my mistakes in a kind, positive way when I made mistakes.

    • book_belle said:

      This is such good advice, as always.Thanks, Captain!
      LW, I really feel for you. You are so brave for going forth to socialize. I’m in a similar boat: no OCD, but I do have PTSD, depression and generalized anxiety from being in a sexually/mentally/emotionally abusive relationship with someone who checks nearly all the boxes for “sociopath,” and, after getting myself out, promptly got into another one with an older guy who pretended to be a friend but who used my lack of healing to drag me into an almost identical situation.
      This is probably a silly question, but do these pointers work in a situation where trust in others has been almost thoroughly shattered? I am afraid to make friends after the fiasco with the skeevy “friend,” and am leery of joining groups because my last group chose my abusers over me and pressured me to mend fences with them to stop destroying the group’s happy lala vibes. Now I spend most of my time alone, which is both refreshing after having my time filched by abusers, and sabotaging socializing opportunities out of anxiety and hermitishness, but deep down I’m longing for meaningful connections.
      Tl;dr how do you get over being afraid of people long enough to make friends?

      • Michi said:

        [TW: sexual assault, abuse]

        I am going to do a longer comment regarding this question in general tomorrow morning, but as a person who is incredibly paranoid due to terrible luck with the people I met (Just one example of my terrible luck: when I tried the small goal of befriending one person, and the first person I tried talking to ended up being a creep and sexually assaulting me), I have found that these things helped me start making friends:

        1) As someone who has spent most of their life in abusive relationships, I was constantly worried about whether or not my current relationships were healthy because I didn’t have an idea of what healthy looked like. Advice that I received that has worked very well for me is to ask myself, “Am I happy when I am around _______?” Note that this question is in present tense. In the abusive relationship/friendships I’ve been in, the relationship is typically initially happy and then gradually devolves into miserableness. If I am not happy in my current relationship with the person, I simply stop spending time with them. No providing excuses for their shitty behavior, no attempting to restore something that may never come back, no holding out hopes that the person may evolve to become a better person.

        2) Using my words. I have discovered that non-shitty friends/partners want me to be happy. If I tell them that they are doing something that is making me unhappy, they will apologize and stop doing it immediately because they don’t like making me unhappy. Well, I do have a friend who has a certain set of mental glitches that conflict with mine, i.e. I occasionally have attacks of paranoia in which I believe my friend is trying to harm me, at which point I need for her to describe her emotional state, but she has this problem in that it is very hard for her to communicate her feelings. But we discuss in good faith how we can accommodate each other; for example, she can do certain things to avoid triggering my panic attacks in the first place; I can ask her yes or no questions like “are you angry” which are easier for her to answer.

        I have also discovered that non-shitty friends/partners will take my feelings seriously even if they are unusual or they don’t understand why/how my feelings work that way. I have some specific triggers that don’t really have a rational basis, and my friends believe that those triggers make me upset even though they don’t necessarily understand why it is that way, and they avoid them because they want me to be happy.

        Using my words makes me much less afraid because I know if something is hurting me, I can just solve it in a few minutes by telling the other person that it is bothering me. (Well, they could refuse to listen, but then I know not to continue spending time with them.)

        3) Knowing that it’s okay to be paranoid and to need certain accommodations. Everyone is special and has their own set of needs. It is perfectly reasonable to have certain needs due to having your trust in everyone shattered, and these needs deserve to be accommodated. I’ve found it easier to make friends as I start talking to people about my PTSD and anxiety and gaining more confidence in myself and in my not being a defective/broken human being. The poor luck I have had with meeting people in the past is not something I ought to be ashamed of, and my anxiety does not diminish my positive traits.

      • anon said:

        gonna second you on this “need friends but afraid of people” business – if anyone has any pointers on this, i’d like to know too. would prefer not to go to groups, esp nerd groups, because last time i tried that, everyone sided with the abusive ex-friend for nerd social fallacy reasons. please & thank you?

      • ReanaZ said:

        Michi has some good points. And anon–I feel you on unsafe nerd spaces. I had similar experiences in the nerd spaces in my current city, so I finally started my own (I talked about it more upthread). With clear No Creepier policies and guidelines for what to do if you experience unwanted behavior and what will happen to people who do unacceptable things. It’s not perfect, obviously, because the ultimate judgement is mine and I am only human, but as an abuse survivor whose done a lot of healing and therapy, I am pretty sensitive to red flags, warning signs, gaslighting, who is trying to manipulate who, etc. and I shut creepy behavior down like whoa. And almost always creepers show their creeper colors online before they get to an event, so other people in my group never have to deal with the ick. Often, I don’t even have to get aggressive or kick people out–usually a single instance of polite-but-no-nonsense boundary setting will cause creepers to self-select out of attending anything. (The other day a particularly bad creeper who did end up getting banned got mad at me when I told him his unacceptable online behavior was getting him kicked out of the group and asked me, “How does it feel to be an exclusionary bully?” If the people I’m ‘excluding’ act like you, then pretty great, ol’ chap!)

        I say all this to make two points:
        1. Safe group spaces do exist, but you have to look for them. They may not always advertise themselves as “safe spaces” but green flags for a space that probably tries to be safe are clear, public policies that show they’ve put some thought into what to do if someone is acting out of line. Feminist spaces are also not perfect but often have an awareness of abuse dynamics and try to be safe spaces for survivors. Trauma healing groups–whether they’re talking groups, meditation, art therapy, etc. can also be good, safe spaces to meet people.
        2. For me, an important part of learning to people again after abuse was giving myself 100% permission to shut down, walk away from, or otherwise not tolerate any behavior that made me uncomfortable. Part of the abuse dynamic (as you well know) is making you constantly question your own judgment and when you’ve spend so much time putting up with horrible behavior as normal, it becomes nearly impossible to tell “Is this person’s behavior intentionally creepy or is it just triggering me or is it a little bad but not worth saying anything about or am I overreacting or what will people say if I tell that person to stop will they support me” etc. So one day I decided to start an experiment where I shut down any and all behavior and people that made me uncomfortable and refuse to interact with people who I wasn’t enjoying. I’ve been pretty much told my entire life that if you have standards for how people treat you, you will die sad and alone and have no friends and people will hate you (woohoo, abuse). So I decided maybe I would be sad and alone for a while, but that it would help me figure out what were reasonable boundaries and what weren’t. And…. that experiment started over two years ago and is still going on. And far from being sad and alone, I have a huge group of amazing friends. The main outcome of this experiment is that EVERYONE IN MY LIFE IS AWESOME. There’s no one shitty, no one I just tolerate, and no one kind of okay. I cut out all of those people (including a lot of family and my mother), and it’s made so much more for awesomeness to fill up my life.
        3. Sometimes, when you’re hurting and healing and unsure and recovering from a situation that tried to take away your power, it can be really powerful to control the spaces and social situations you’re in. I found it really healing and helpful to just organise my own social group, to invite people (internet strangers) out, to do all the planning, and to be 100% in charge of what happened and who was allowed to stay and who could come back. I know this is not right for everyone, but this is how I rebuilt my social group when I was shattered and trusted no one.

    • Baytree said:

      YES to all of this, especially number 3. For me it was karate instead of dancing, but it works the same way… limited talking, focused activity, and a welcoming crowd. Plus many martial arts/folk dance/kayaking/whatever clubs will have post-activity hangout sessions. So once you’re comfortable enough with the group it’s easy to extend social time past the activity itself.

    • Elsajeni said:

      Strongly agreed with your #2! A few years ago, I moved to a new city and tried joining a bunch of Meetup groups to meet people — a book club, a sort of general “meet to hang out” group based on age/profession, a gaming group, and a mahjong club. The most successful ones were the gaming group and the mahjong club, because both of them provided set start and end times, a set topic to make conversation about, and a smaller group to make conversation with (since you’d generally be playing a 4-person or 6-person game). The more activity-centered a group event is, the easier I find it to manage small-talk and other social interactions. (I’ve actually started putting this into practice in my existing social circle, too — replacing “Come over to hang out!” with “Come over and we will [watch a specific movie/play a board game/carve pumpkins/etc.]!” It’s going great! Way fewer awkward silences!)

  27. Mitchikins said:

    Echoing the Ask Polly advice, LISTEN. Listen to what someone seems to be saying and to what they’re actually saying, listen for things that connect with you and that are totally foreign, listen for things that you can echo and (less) disagree with, listen for things that you can respond to in positive ways and keep the focus on the other person and give them more room to talk. I do this because people like to talk and if I make things easy for them and they talk and we have a bit of back and forth I feel good about myself for having had a good interaction. It’s also a protective mechanism since I don’t have to talk so much about myself. Win-win!

  28. Great post! But I am gobsmacked trying to imagine what social events involve operating a bellows!

  29. catefish said:

    I could have written this letter. I’ve been living in a new state for a year now and with OCD for a lifetime. The agoraphobia is more recent. The Captain’s breakdown is excellent and beyond helpful, but dear LW, though pushing yourself is a must for breaking through that glass wall, be excellent to yourself. It’s fantastic that you’ve identified a want to connect and the limits you’re facing. it’s crazy tough sometimes, but the satisfaction of knowing “hey, I went out and did that thing even if it made me nervous/uncomfortable/acutely aware of how careless other people are with their elbows!” can make it worth it, even if overall it felt like a bust. Keep plugging. Practice that same compassion recommended above on yourself as well as others. I’m rooting for you, LW.

    • mehting said:

      Seriously, how do people survive with the extreme carelessness of their elbows? how do they not notice they’re touching you with them?

      • catefish said:

        I mean, I hit *things* with my elbows all the time, but never people! I go out of my way to not hit people!

  30. Fergie said:

    Just signed in to say how I am blown away once again that Jennifer responds with so much compassion and thoughtful detail. You are helping strangers all over the world dealing with their awkwardness problems with such generosity of spirit. I wish you all the good karma for the kind of selfless investment you put into each of your responses. You inspire me to be a kinder and more compassionate human being. Signed off with much admiration.

  31. Nessie said:

    LW, I have OCD and anxiety as well (though definitely not to the level that you do), plus I’m very introverted and like to avoid leaving the house if I can (again, not to the level that you do, but it’s a pretty big part of my life).

    I totally agree with all the Captain’s suggestions, but I also want to add something, which is that I get most of my friendship needs met online. Most, not all, and I have a long-term live-in boyfriend so I’m covered on the romantic front. But for me, just being on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr means I’m interacting with a lot of people in a setting that’s really comfortable and fulfilling for me. I do hang out with people IRL—and again, the Captain’s suggestions are stellar on that front—but more often, it’s online.

    That also helps me keep up with people I used to know IRL but have moved away from. My best friend lives in another country now, but she was just sending me updates about a party she was at via WhatsApp. And when people I know only from the Internet come into town, I can meet up with them for coffee or drinks. Or I’ll start talking with someone local online via mutual friends and then end up hanging out with them at parties/events.

    The other day on the train, some dude started ranting about how people were all looking at their phones instead of talking to each other and connecting, and I thought, “I’m actually talking to my friends on Twitter right now, and it’s way better and more real than trying to connect with you, a random shouting stranger.”

    So yeah, I don’t know what your online social life is like, and it definitely sounds like you are craving some IRL relationships, but as long as you’re not using it as an excuse to avoid IRL events you know you want to go to deep down, I just want to say that it really is perfectly valid and normal to have a lot of your social life be online.

  32. monstrosity said:

    That crowd/lathe comparison is so so so beautiful to me. 🙂

  33. Ruth said:

    CA, just to say thank you for this advice & creating this space. I’ve been wishing for a wider friend circle, and this post reminded me to DO something about it. One of my fiance’s friends from college is really cool and I get along with her really well, but we’ve only been together in couple situations. After reading this, I texted her and asked if she wants to hang out tonight. She can’t, but now we’re making plans to get together later. And she seems happy that I reached out!

    So – thank you.

  34. Mr. Celette and I just moved to a new city for his work. he works long hours and I don’t have a job yet. Soooooo my only social interaction with in the flesh humans is an hour or so a day and just Mr. Celette. thus began Operation: People? for me. It’s also my first time socialing fully on my own, rather than through school.

    I really wanna underscore the idea that there are a lot of people in your shoes, LW, or in very similar shoes. Making friends as a student (where there are a lot of people about your age and about your life experience and about your interest all around you) is a different ball game than making friends as an adult! So, even those people who “got the lessons” are having to relearn or seriously sharpen their skills, and at your age too!

    We’ve been doing exactly what the Captain suggests. Going to meet-ups, looking specifically for the other people who are new to town or looking to start getting social (rather than trying to break into an already established social group) and we just met a couple who could be really good friends for us.

    People can be kinda self-centered and one great way to get friends to is be a friend to those people first. Give people something they need. Now, don’t go into this thinking you have to bend over backwards for people or let them walk all over you or buy them cars. No, assume that there are people out there who are just as desperate for friends and lonely and want to improve but also feel awkward and nervous and do the initial hard work for them. It’s amazing how many friendships you can develop simply by being the person who is willing to say “I’ve been wanting to try X new restaurant, do you want to be my restaurant buddy?” You are offering those other lonely people (who feel the same way you do) the greatest gift you could offer them, the chance to solve their loneliness!

    Side benefit: by becoming the Cruise Director of the nascent group, you can make sure that all activities meet your comfort level. I’m an introvert who is up for social until I am very suddenly NOT and having stuff at my house gives me a chance to end things when my social is maxed out. If a certain situation would be triggering for you or tiring or just isn’t your cup of tea, you as Cruise Director can make sure that doesn’t happen without having to explain why.

    Good luck!

    • ReanaZ said:

      I second all of this! If you can muster up the energy and courage to plan things and invite people, many other shy/lonely/awkward people will really appreciate it!

  35. wol said:

    I love all the advice here so far. All I’ve got to add, I think, are my two techniques for actually getting out of the house in the first place. (I don’t have the same social anxieties but I do get overwhelmed and hibernate-y to the point where it feels easier just not to see anybody ever, and then I get lonely, so.)

    The first is to give myself permission to go out for a very short period of time. If there’s an event I sort-of want to go to but staying for the whole evening feels too much, I tell myself that I’m just going to go for half an hour or an hour. I don’t often feel as if I need an excuse to leave (“I’m tired” is enough for me if people ask, repeated with ever-bigger and friendlier smiles if they push the issue, which is very rare), but if you do, work out something ahead of time that you can mumble about needing to be elsewhere. As often as not, once the half hour (or hour) is up, I don’t want to leave because I’m enjoying myself – and that’s fine, too.

    The second is a way of breaking the habit of saying no to every invitation. If going from automatic-no to automatic-yes feels like too big a step, for whatever reason, maybe you could try automatic-maybe. If somebody invites me somewhere these days, my immediate response is “I’ll check my diary and get back to you”, which gives me thinking time. Again, if you immediately realise that you do want to go, you can check your ‘diary’ straight away; at least you’ll have had a couple of minutes of breathing space. But if not, get their phone number so that you can text a response when you get home.

  36. Michi said:

    LW, your letter resonated with me as well. I had the stuck-behind-glass feeling (my Wikipedia research has told me that it might be called derealization, so I’m going to refer it as “derealization” to save space) full-time from some time before I was 10 to when I was 15, and intermittently from when I was 16 to when I was 20. I had a total of zero friends up until eighth grade. I don’t have OCD, but I have severe anxiety. Back before I was 20, I would panic every time someone said hello to me.

    I agree with all the commenters who have said you are brave. You are very brave. And you’ve already taken a big step towards people-ing by reaching out to a therapist and reaching out towards us. I myself haven’t been brave enough to go therapy yet.
    I’m going to list some advice that helped me become better at people-ing in hopes that some of this may be helpful to you or another reader (also see my comment several comments up).

    First of all, there is no reason to postpone enjoying your life in any way until you level up in socialization ability. I respectfully disagree the commenters who say that you should wait until you acquire some more friendships before getting into a romantic relationship. If you are interested in a romantic relationship with a Special Somebody, just ask the Special Somebody out. I, for one, got a fantastic boyfriend first, and he helped me a lot in gaining non-romantic friends. Even though we have since broken up, we are still very good friends, and he continues to cheer me on.

    Anyway, whatever you think will make you happy you should pursue immediately regardless of how many friends/relationships you have/don’t have. Not only did doing this make me happier, it will also helped me with friend-finding in several ways:

    1) It made me feel less anxious when interacting with people. Jennifer mentioned setting small goals. I’d like to add that you should view the small goals solely as confidence boosters and not things to beat yourself up for if you fail to meet them. I used to view every human interaction as a test, and I would freak out whenever someone said hello to me because I felt like if I cannot meet the goal of being able to properly respond when someone said hello, I must be a loser and completely hopeless. The pressure I felt upon someone saying hello to me meant that I often failed to respond because I was too busy panicking. I then felt like a failure and panicked more the next time someone said hello. When I realized that my ability to pursue my dreams and do things that made me happy was completely independent of my ability to socialize, it made socialization much easier because failing during some social interaction wasn’t the end of the world. Nor was it a sign that I do not yet deserve to do something that I want to do. Also, it made me not as bad when I fail because I knew that I was still succeeding in improving my net happiness in other ways.

    2) Interacting with other people less tiring when it is part of doing something I really enjoyed. I find exhausting to have a typical small talk conversation, but I can talk about my favorite anime for days.

    3) For me, pursuing stuff that made me happy gave me the motivation to leave my room and meet people (who will conveniently have similar interests) along the way. One year, when I was facing yet another birthday with no presents because I had no friends, I was determined to treat myself to volumes of my favorite manga. I was so determined that I asked a random classmate of mine to accompany to the bookstore with me. It turned out that he was also a fan of the same manga, and that was how I met my first boyfriend.

    If you don’t know yet what will make you happy, go find that out. When I had derealization, I was generally disinterested in everything because nothing felt real. I had to force myself to explore the realms of, for example, music and figure out my preferences. But once I had interests, it was much easier to make friends because it is much easier to smalltalk about, say, music when you know your stuff and are able to express opinions on the matter.

    Speaking of smalltalk, I used to think of it as the “Bizarro-ritual that, if performed correctly, will result in this thing called friendship.” Smalltalk, to me, was exhausting, boring, and artificial. It helped me a lot when I stopped thinking of smalltalk as a way of getting people to like me and started thinking of it as a way of getting to know people. Instead of asking canned questions that conformed to smalltalk standards, I asked questions about things I was genuinely curious about and questions that I believed would allow me to get to know the person better, and I found that I was able to get into the conversations much more.

    +1 for the comment on making friends by being the cruise director and organizing events. It was really confidence boosting to set up a moon viewing party and have more than a dozen people come to do something as silly as stare at the moon with me. Note that the people you attract may not necessarily be lonely, but regardless, you are offering them the opportunity to hang out with Awesome You, which is valuable in itself.

    Lastly, enlist Team You to help. Team You can help you with talking to people by smoothing out awkward silences. Team You can also provide confidence boosting mantras such as “I believe you can do it!”

    Best of luck, LW. We are all rooting for you.

  37. AthenaC said:

    Some great comments here – I myself had an Operation: People? project a few years back, and in many ways it it still in process.

    For work or any other professional setting where you have to interact with a customer service rep, I have a pretty good script:

    https://athenasantics.wordpress.com/2014/11/12/how-to-talk-to-clients/

    For social interactions, I have practically mastered the art of small talk and making acquaintances. I have even gotten to a point where I actually enjoy people and am completely comfortable being dropped cold into any social situation. I still have no idea how to take a person from “acquaintance” to “friend” so other people will have to help you with that. But for making acquaintances and mastering small talk, your best script (or scripts) will flow along a decision tree –

    – The Captain’s opening questions are good – how do you know X? what do you like to do for fun?
    – Alternatively, you can open with a compliment if there is something purposefully unique about their appearance (as in, something they chose to do on purpose, such as purple hair or a statement jewelry piece or a stunning outfit).
    – One final alternative, you can bs your opening question – Did I hear that you just moved to the area? No? Oh my mistake I must have been confused about what i heard – did you grow up here then? Your bs question and followup can take any form you like as long as it’s not a controversial topic – the point is to get them talking about themselves so you can move on to the next phase of conversation.

    Now, here’s where your decision tree comes in. All of this assumes that the person takes your bait and starts talking about themselves. If they give one-word or evasive answers or physically turn away from you, they don’t want to talk to you and you should say, “Well it was nice to meet you. If you’ll excuse me ….” As you say “if you’ll excuse me,” gesture toward another group (with a tilt of the head or with a movement of the hand that’s holding a drink (if applicable) as if they are your destination (doesn’t matter if they actually are) and start to walk away. It doesn’t matter if you got their name or not – still say the social nicety before you disengage.

    Anyway, let’s go back to assuming they took your bait. You will likely use all of the following, but you will have to alternate so you are balancing the give-and-take of a conversation, avoiding both the interrogation and the it’s-all-about-me show:

    – Firstly, listen all the way to the end of a story / answer to your question. When they have completed expressing an idea there will be a natural pause where you can jump in.
    – Pick something they mentioned that sounds out of the ordinary or something they really lit up when talking about, and ask them more about it. As either the Captain or a commenter said earlier, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about it – let them talk.
    – Pick something they mentioned that you have in common – maybe you’ve traveled somewhere they used to live or maybe you studied something similar – doesn’t matter. Say, “You mentioned X – that reminds me – (insert story here).” Bonus points if it’s a funny story.
    – If you have ANY DOUBT about whether or not your question is sensitive. For example if they mention having children or nieces and you would like to (temporarily) direct the conversation to children in your life, preface any questions with “May I ask …” and if possible, give a reason for your inquiry so that their creep detector doesn’t sound the alarm. For example, “May I ask, where do your children go to school? My neighbor’s kids go to X district and they always seem to have a lot of homework.”

    Most polite people will have questions about you as well. Have answers prepared for the more common questions, bonus points if you have a funny story or description. For example I work as an auditor, so I usually say that I harass people for fun and profit (if you’ve ever worked with / as an auditor, you’ll recognize this as a pretty fair description). Tell a story or two, and talk for no more than a couple minutes before returning the conversation to them. Mirroring their question should work nicely or you can ask a different question.

    If the conversation is going really well, there may not be a reason to artificially shorten it. But if you’re at a gathering with a lot of people, don’t hold one person hostage. Keep the conversation going for ~10 – 15 minutes, and then disengage politely with something like, “Well, it was nice to meet you, but I know I’m not the only one here (chuckle). If you’ll excuse me I’m going to go make the rounds / let you go make the rounds.”

    If you run into the person again while you’re heading out the door, address them briefly – “Hey, X, it was great to meet you tonight. Hope I run into you again soon.” The polite person will respond in kind. At this point contact info may be exchanged if you’re feeling bold.

    That’s my script / decision tree for one-one-one conversation. Approaching groups at a gathering / party can be done as well. I wouldn’t do it in public, but if you are all already at a party / event (especially an invitation-only event) you already have some commonality that will let you get away with approaching people you don’t know –

    – Join a group that’s standing / sitting in such a way that there is physically room for you to join. Don’t try to worm your way in to a closed circle.
    – Join the group. Generally at least one person will make eye contact with you. Just smile and whisper “hi” so as not to interrupt the conversation.
    – Joining the conversation will be somewhat similar to the one-on-one conversation above, except I would open with a story about yourself relevant to what they are talking about (group dynamics generally seem to work this way).
    – In most groups someone will leverage off of what you said to keep the conversation going. If it lulls you can ask someone a question, similar to above.
    – At some point near the beginning, either you or someone else should say, “I don’t think we’ve met yet – I’m X.” “Hi X, I’m Y.” “I’m Z.” Then: “So how do you know A / how did you hear about this?” Or you can keep the conversation going on to whatever topic you were discussing.
    – Whenever you’re ready, excuse yourself with, “Well, it was nice to meet you all – I’m going to freshen my drink and see who else I haven’t met.”

    If it’s not painfully obvious, I am very analytical and I need to have some structure in my head as to how everything needs to go! Hope my thoughts help you.

  38. dreampodd said:

    I’m definitely going to take this class! I especially like point #5.

    This is actually the project that I’ve been trying to work on for myself the last couple months as I recognized that I had no friends. I let my social circle wither into my wife and only a handful of ‘shared’ friends and when the marriage ended (because even mental illness doesn’t forgive doing some stuff) I didn’t feel I had the right to take anything further away from her after destroying our lives (see also: rationalizing pre-emptive rejection) and most of them didn’t want anything further to do with me. After a couple years of feeling sorry for myself and then finally getting my shit (sortof) together I find myself starting over in my 30’s with no friends, no money, and no plan for my life.

    So far my success has been to make a concert buddy with a co-worker. Having started working in the trades, mostly I felt (feel?) alienated from my co-workers whose main interests are drinking and drugs and are much more misogynistic and less cereberal than I am used to and comfortable with (coming from a progressive, academic background). However when carpooling for coffee one day one of the guys said something about loving a particular band I had on the radio (who was also one of my favourites) and we began to bond a little bit over shared musical tastes. A month later that band was coming to our town so I asked him if he wanted to join me and he did. We mostly just experienced the show separately but together and it was a good experience. Now, about two months later, another band we both like is coming to town and we are making plans to go check them out. He is never going to be my BFF but I’m learning a lot about how to be friends with people who are fairly different from me (something I never was open to in the past) and having another human being to go out and share an experience with makes it easier to manage the gnawing pains of loneliness.

  39. Anisoptera said:

    I haven’t had a chance to read all the comments yet, so apologies if I’m repeating what others have already said!

    I’m not that great at this socialising thing either, and have really really had to work at it. But here are a few tips that have helped me massively.

    – Activities you enjoy that are done in a group are the best for the meeting of people/socialising with people when you are awkward. Because there is something to distract you from the socialising, a built in topic of conversation, and a reason to keep seeing those people over and over. Listen to the Captain on this one. 🙂

    – Be aware that you might not be a “drinks after work” person. I am so so not. My current work is very into this type of thing, and I’ve tried going along with it for a while, and you know, I’m not super into doing rounds of drinks in bars, or playing weird inappropriate TMI truth or dare games (seriously) with my drunk coworkers or whatever else. It’s not me. It might not be you, and that’s OK. If you try a given activity a lot and it consistently sucks it’s OK to try something else. For example I enjoy hiking and cycling with people, and quiet conversations in people’s houses at small dinner parties.

    Final pro tip. When you feel friendless, it can be really easy to hang onto people who actually suck and make you feel awful, because they’re all you have. And if you are very socially awkward it’s easy to attract the attentions of terrible people who basically don’t care how you act or what you seem to want or not want, because other people run a mile and you just like the idea that someone likes you (or seems to). And spending all your time with toxic people will make you hate socialising even more and suck out all your energy. I can’t emphasise how important it is to back out of any “friendships” with people you actually hate and who are kind of terrible (I maintained one for *years*). If you are not that into socialising you probably already have limited energy for going out with people. Spend it on people you either know are awesome or are still investigating the possible awesomeness of.

  40. BeldamSansMerci said:

    This falls under the broad suggestion of “take a class”, but one thing that worked for me: doing a First Aid course. (Disclaimer: I’m in the UK, some of this probably won’t be applicable in other places, but a lot of it will.)

    Obviously it’s potentially useful knowledge to have in itself, but even if you never put it into use (I’ve never had to do more than put a plaster on in the nearly 10 years since I took my first course), just feeling like you’d have some idea what to do IF you ever got caught up in a medical emergency can be a huge confidence boost.

    Having an up-to-date (last three years) First Aiding certificate is a thing you can put on your CV! I have a friend who works for a big company, who gets a bit extra added to his salary because their regulations state they have to have X people certified in basic First Aid around at all times and he is one of those people. (The boss was really pleased my friend came prepackaged with this qualification, so they didn’t need to send someone to do the ~24-hour course during paid working hours.)

    All the benefits of interacting-with-people-while-doing-a-thing, rather than ‘just’ socialising, though in our group people tended to hang about for a cuppa and a chat after each class (but it was easy to skip out on this by citing a prior engagement if not in the mood).

    One thing to take into account, is that there is likely to be some roleplaying injuries which will mean physical contact with the other people in the group, e.g. partnering off to practice wrapping bandages, or put a faux-unconscious victim into the ‘recovery’ position. As a very touch-me-not person myself, I found it was within bearable amounts (though the time we rolled up trouser legs to practice bandaging ankles and I hadn’t shaved my legs caused a disproportionate amount of embarrassment at the time).

    Once the course is over, you can walk away with your certificate. OR if you think you would enjoy it, you can look into joining the First Aid Corps on a more permanent basis. Which could mean getting called up to sit in on all sorts of events. A lot of these may be minor local community things, but those can be great in themselves for finding out more about what’s going on in your area. And then there are some – big athletic events, music festivals, etc – that people from corps branches for miles around pretty much fight to get to attend FOR FREE as official First Aiders.

  41. Geranium said:

    After reading all the great advice, I had just a few little bits to share.

    Someone talked about going to a thing and giving yourself permission to leave early. This has hugely helped me. When I’m feeling very unsure about whether I will enjoy or otherwise be up for a whole evening activity, I have set my phone to go off after (some defined time that felt like my tolerance): my plan was that I could use this as my “oops gotta go deal with something, bye now” exit. Interestingly, every time I’ve done this, I’ve been enjoying myself enough in the moment that I just silenced the phone and carried on. For me, just having the safety net of having a means of politely leaving has helped a lot with anxiety.

    It’s also helped to realize that for me, the anticipatory fear usually is much bigger than any actual discomfort that I have when I’m at a people-thing. Now that I know that, I can use it to help get myself out the door: “Oh you know you’ll probably have a good time when you’re actually there (and if you don’t, you have permission to leave), so just grit your teeth and do it.” So, I suggest making a point of paying attention to the (pre-event anxiety):(actual discomfort experienced at the event) ratio, so you can see if this is true for you too.

    The other thing I wanted to share is that I spent years going to things like classes and choir rehearsals partly in hopes of making friends, without ever actually making any friends. And it’s because I didn’t understand how to make that transition. I somehow thought it would just “happen.” I didn’t realize that it requires that somebody takes the initiative to suggest getting together outside the class-thing, to see if the class-acquaintanceship might level up to friendship. Eventually, I joined a group where there were other people who did that, so I had the experience of having someone say to me “Hey, I really enjoyed talking to you tonight, would you be interested in getting coffee/lunch sometime and talk some more?” and trading phone numbers or emails, or pulling our calendars out on the spot right there. And I was *so proud* when it finally occurred to *me* that *I* could do that too. I’ve done it two or three times now and am still proud every time. 🙂

    The last thing was, I have a lot of anxiety about being able to actually find and recognize someone in a crowded restaurant, say, if I don’t already know them well. So I usually make a point of saying “Let’s meet out front” or something like that. (Of course, now most folks have cell phones and we can text each other “I’m here, where are you?” which helps a lot.) But I tell this story because it’s okay to suggest specific things like that if you know they will help you. Sometimes I frame it as “This may seem a little odd but could we..?” And I have *never* had anybody respond by asking incredulously, “you want to do WHAT?? Why would you want to do *that*?? I’ve never heard of anybody doing THAT.” Which of course is what I was afraid of. People are just like “oh, ok, no problem.”

  42. Erika said:

    I wanted to share my story of how I overcame shyness. I was a VERY shy teenager. I was overweight, thought I was the fattest creature on the planet, and didn’t feel like I had any real friends. I used to keep my chin up in the halls and never looked at anyone’s face, because I didn’t want to see the disgust I knew would be written there. It got worse because I started being harassed on the school bus, by guys who would reach over my shoulder from behind and grab my breasts, and by one horrible, gigantic, ugly, scary senior who would run his hand down the side of my cheek and get in my face and tell me all kinds of things he would do to me, then laugh when I shrank away.

    My sophomore year I was partnered with a jock for biology class. Not a top-of-the-pecking order jock, but a guy who was well-liked and good enough at sports that he got invited to all the parties and people didn’t give him any crap. Sam was a very outgoing guy, and he used to tease me in class. Very good natured teasing, and we started actually talking to each other. One day he finally asked me “so, how come you’re so stuck up?” I was flabbergasted. Turned out that what I was doing to protect myself from others, keeping my chin in the air and never looking in anyone’s faces, had sent the message to the whole school that I looked down on them. I had read the vast majority of people completely wrong.

    I decided to not be shy any more. It was VERY HARD. I signed up for Public Speaking as an elective. I joined the drama society. I tried out for plays and even musicals. I joined the choir. I went to the movies with people. I went to parties. Before each and every one of these things, I would get so terrified that I would have diarrhea. But it slowly got easier, and by the time I went to college I was outgoing enough that I don’t think anyone ever knew I’d been that shy/stuck up high school girl.

    When I got older, I took a job at a science museum traveling to schools and giving presentations to hundreds of children at a time. I worked for the EPA moderating public meetings, controlling large hostile crowds with just my words. When I attend parties, I always talk to people. If would would ask almost anyone, they’d tell you that I am a serious extrovert.

    Except that’s not true. I’m a definite introvert that takes time to recover from these public interactions. And I still get diarrhea before parties, even parties I’m planning for close friends. But I *have* friends now, and I plan parties, and I have a great time. And I *can* get up in front of any size crowd and say my piece. And I wouldn’t trade that for the world, upset stomach or not.

    tl;dr: It will be scary, and you might not get the perfect outcome that you dream about, but it is worth making the experiment and it’s worth trying.

    • dreampodd said:

      Thanks for sharing. You are awesome to have done such a great job at recognizing and changing an aspect of your behaviour that you disliked.

  43. Emily said:

    like, when you can’t get in, every party is a magical cool place where cool people do cool things, but when you realize you could go and are just scared, it will probably just be a lot of boring standing around with, so why even bother?

    Hello, this is very much me with most social gatherings! The best thing I’ve figured out is just to make myself go to at least some of the ones that include people I want to spend time with or activities that might be fun, even if I am anxious or not totally sure that I will enjoy myself.

  44. I’ve gone to three Meetup.com events. Two of them had an insular and hostile vibe; the third had such an insular and hostile vibe they either lied about the location or didn’t make any effort to identify themselves. I suspect I might be using it wrong, but I can’t figure out how.

    • Meetup is kinda weird. I’ve joined several groups and been to a couple of events now, but most of the groups I’ve joined end up defaulting to “let’s go snowshoeing!” for some horrible reason, and I am Not An Outdoor Person. But I’m also staying pretty firmly away from anything that looks like it’s trying to attract geeky folks, because it’s my suspicion that established meetup groups intended to be geeky will be insular and hostile.

  45. Camelot said:

    I think one thing that is important here is time. Real relationships (online or IRL) take intimacy and trust which takes time to build. I went from massive crippling anxiety with no real or actually toxic ‘friends’ to anxiety that I manage and real friends over the course of years. I now have friends that are fun and good to me and welcome what I have to bring to them.

    What really helped in addition to good treatment for my mental health issues is treating each activity as an separate event and not projecting forward in time forever based on one night/interaction. Also, asking the right questions. Do I like this person? Do I want to spend time with them? Do I feel better with them? What do I want? This was covered by Captain and others, but feeling like I had enough value in the world to even ask those questions was a huge step forward for me, and made me much easier to be around.

    Easier/lower key interactions I enjoyed= I showed that genuine enjoyment to key people=a gradual deepening of some key relationships over time.

  46. SarahTheEntwife said:

    I don’t have anything to add to the excellent advice already here, but LW, thank you so much for this sentence:

    ” Also, starting around 12 I felt like I was constantly stuck behind a pane of glass, which according to Wiki might mean I was dissociating, but whatever you call it, it was unpleasant.”

    I did that too, and somehow had never connected it to the dissociating that I know I do now in reaction to severe stress. Certain parts of my childhood suddenly make much more sense!

  47. Chocomoholic said:

    Everything that’s been suggested seems really great… if I ever find myself in a situation where I need to get new friends, etc. I will definitely be looking to this post!.

    I also wanted to mention a book I read a while ago, that I found very interesting, called MWF Seeking BFF, by Rachel Bertsche. This is basically the author’s story of how she decided to try and aquire new friends after moving to a new state away from her family and friends. She tries out a lot of different things and I found it was an interesting to read her experience!

  48. Caitlin said:

    I used to be incredibly anxious about acting like myself in front of people. I spent most of my childhood hiding my true self so that when I was mocked, at least they wouldn’t be mocking ME. What helped me break out of that was practising being friendly where no one knew me (a trip about 8 hours away from my hometown).

    So if the above advice about making small talk with strangers, meeting people at places with common interests, etc, freaks you out, I highly recommend going to a place where you think no one will no you. It might just be across town, or maybe you could take a day trip to a nearby city. That way, if your brain reacts with OMG WHY DID I MESS THAT UP SO BADLY, you likely will never see those people again. As you gain confidence, you can start moving closer to home / the interests you have.

  49. Martina Diel said:

    Thank you very much, Jennifer P, for this great advice and all the time you put in to write it down.
    An avid reader from Germany

  50. icewindgale said:

    LW, let me reiterate what many have observed above – I admire your courage! Taking the daunting steps to address the thing that’s bothering you about your life is very cool.

    One small tidbit I’d add is this – once you have a few friends, established such that they invite you to Stuff With Others, it may be worth prioritizing that stuff over other social opportunities if you have limited social energy (you mentioned that people make you tired). My experience has been that the percentage of people I’m glad I met is much higher when I’m meeting friends-of-friends than when I’m meeting the population at large. Since I can basically handle forging approximately one new relationship every six months to a year, this is a huge deal to me.

  51. soukup said:

    Social skills are tricky and weird and complicated and awkward, but they can be learned, and they can be learned at any age, no matter how far “behind” you worry that you are. LW, I can tell that you are a smart and fabulous person, and you are going to figure out how to do people exactly how you want to. Also, hugs of solidarity re. OCD and anxiety — I had OCD as a kid and a teenager, and as an adult have developed an anxiety disorder which I’m still getting under control. This stuff is so hard, and you are so awesome and brave for working on it.

    Everyone else’s advice is so great! There is only one thing I want to add about my own experiences with being intensely shy and lonely:

    Once upon a time when I was a teenager I used to be really, really bad at making friends. I was very lonely, and I would tend to jump on it whenever anyone reached out to me, even if deep down I had a feeling that we weren’t going to end up enjoying each other’s friendship very much. If someone seemed interested in me, I was so down on myself and so desperate to be liked by almost anyone that whether or not I liked them in return, I would jump through hoops to return the attention. When the friendship fizzled — they stopped calling me back, or I unconsciously realized I didn’t like them much and lost the will to force myself to call them back — I would hate myself for not being likeable enough, or for not putting in a stronger effort. One of the most important things for me to learn was to listen to myself carefully and notice when I liked someone, and to notice it when I didn’t. It took me a long time to figure out how important that was, and to realize that I can make friends with someone if and only if I like them.

  52. One activity I’ve enjoyed, where I can get to know people, but at my own pace, is by joining a choir. Whether it is a formal auditioned one, or a chilled out singing group, usually there is an hour or so of singing, 15 minutes of tea break, another hour of singing.

    I’ve been doing this for 4 years and got to know several people in the 15 minute break, but on days when I didn’t want to chat I could just go to the loo, grab a drink & busy myself checking messages on my phone.

    I’ve made a real mix of friends. A couple of good ones who I care about and keep in touch with during the week. Several who I don’t really talk to at the time, but they’ve added me on Facebook and I enjoy reading their updates and receiving their supportive comments. And lots who I still couldn’t name, but that’s ok too.

    The strange but heartwarming thing for me is when I skipped some weeks of choir. When I came back, people were genuinely pleased to see me, whether just saying hi, or glad to see you, or how are you… I was surprised. But they meant it! Then I got invited to meet them for coffee which was lovely.

    We also have events like book sales in choir. I picked up a thriller, and was surprised when an older woman who I’d always thought of as matronly and a bit scary said “good choice! I love a good murder!” and so we started chatting. She turned out to be great fun!

    So, join a group (choir if that’s for you, or something else) where mostly you’re busy with the activity. But which has a break where, if you feel up to it, you can chat. I’ve also been to gym classes etc where people came in, did the class, left. No socialising. So choose something with a mid-class break & see what happens. If you hate it and never go again, you haven’t lost anything. Nobody will know or care. But if you go and do make friends – great!

    Good luck!

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