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?