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January 4, 2011 8:35 AM   Subscribe

I have an extraordinarily difficult time relating to other people. It often leaves me very bored, lonely, and frustrated. Why am I this way? What can I do?

My whole life, I've felt out of step with other people—as if my brain works in a fundamentally different way than everyone else's. I distinctly remember feeling this way in first grade.

Most people's interests, values, perspectives, and motivations are incomprehensible to me—even bizarre and offensive—and the feeling is very often mutual. People don't get me, and I don't get them. Sometimes people seen so alien it makes my skin crawl. Seriously; I'll be driving down the street, and all the people and artifacts around me will feel like a civilization built by and for a separate species.

For purposes of illustration, here are some of the things that baffle me: sports, Halloween costumes, parties, dancing, poetry, fiction, nationalism and all other forms of tribal/group identity, religion, stage/performance art, fashion and dress, political partisanship, small talk, flirtation, whatever people mean by the word "community" (I've never felt a part of one, so I don't know), television and Hollywood movies (with rare exceptions), conspicuous consumption, ritual and symbolism, and most values and moral judgments which are based on these things. That's just a start—I don't know what general category you'd group these things under, but I basically don't understand any of it.

I had friends as a teenager—I hung out with the stoners, geeks, and counterculture kids—but even then, I felt like a misfit among misfits. More like the anthropologist who lives among the natives, than a true member of the tribe.

I started feeling the sense of alienation more acutely in my early 20s, and since then (I'm now in my early 30s), my social life has been in slow but steady decline. I've had few romantic relationships—the longest and most significant lasted less than a year. I don't really have friends any more. I almost never go out—and when I do, I usually end up bored in the corner and leave early. I spent Christmas and New Year's alone.

I used to go to bars, concerts, parties, art shows—hoping to find people I could relate to—but these efforts were so often fruitless (or downright unpleasant) that I gradually stopped going out at all.

This is key, because I know you're all going to suggest classes, meetups, book clubs, etc. Giving myself more opportunities to connect with others is certainly part of the solution (and I do have some things on my calendar). But I don't think it's the whole solution for me—because even when I've spent plenty of time around other people, I still just don't get them.

I've always had a difficult time fitting in at work, too. I work in a white-collar profession (and have done well, even though I'm not especially motivated by status or money). I enjoy my actual work—but I loathe and resent every second of workplace socializing, from the meetings to the holiday parties to the inter-departmental politics to the daily chit-chat. Yeah, I know—everyone hates this stuff. But you don't understand. It's like a nightmarish fun-house maze to me, and I don't understand why I'm being forced to navigate it—I just want it all to go away, so I can do my job in peace. Work is the one part of my life where I can't just opt out of interacting in ways I don't understand with people I don't understand. I've changed jobs frequently, partly because of this.

On personality tests (such as Myers-Briggs—yes, I take it with a grain of salt), my scores for introversion (as opposed to extroversion) and reasoning/thinking (as opposed to feeling) are both off the charts.

I've often wondered whether I have some neurological condition—Asperger's, say, or an oxytocin deficit. I don't think I qualify for an Asperger's diagnosis, but I did take an online self-inventory which put me right on the borderline between neurotypical and Asperger's. I'm male, if it matters.

tl;dr: in theory, I want friendship and romantic companionship—sometimes quite badly—but in practice, people just weird me the fuck out (and vice-versa). It's always been this way, and it seems to be getting worse as I get older. What do I do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
1) "Most people's interests, values, perspectives, and motivations are incomprehensible to me—even bizarre and offensive—and the feeling is very often mutual. People don't get me, and I don't get them. Sometimes people seen so alien it makes my skin crawl. Seriously; I'll be driving down the street, and all the people and artifacts around me will feel like a civilization built by and for a separate species." We all feel like this at least part of the time. We are all a mystery to each other.

2) Therapy can help you sort this out. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. You worry about being alone and not understanding people and that makes you uncomfortable which makes you uncomfortable to be around which makes it hard to make friends which makes you more confused about people. A therapist can help you get out of this pattern.
posted by softlord at 8:46 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

So what activities ARE you interested in? (Preferably ones that involve other people?)
posted by Omnomnom at 8:52 AM on January 4, 2011

From firsthand experience, it certainly sounds like you're in the realm of Asperger's. For Asperger's self-diagnosis there's the DSM-IV criteria and also the Autism Quotient web site. For confirmation, you might want to research the neurological aspects of autism spectrum disorders, and see if you've evinced any of them.

But that's just a label. Whether you tick that box or not does not affect the day-to-day problems you related (and to which I can relate). For me, the trick was not just to get with other people, but to get with like-minded people. I took up tournament Scrabble, which has a very high Aspie population.

But even that doesn't solve the problem. Fill a room with Aspies and you don't get instant socializing--you get a room full of people who can't navigate social situations any better than you can, and probably want to be left alone about as much as you do. The main difference, however, is that you're not an alien in that group. There is a much higher likelihood that you'll find people on your wavelength than you would in a random sample of the population.

In the meantime, consider therapy, not to "fix" you, but to make the phenomenon of existing in this weird world a bit easier to understand. I'm still dumbfounded by the way NT people interact, but I at least understand the mechanics of it better, and I can survive it a lot better than I could. Once I learned how humans work on the inside (as opposed to the unintelligible signals I got by observing them from the outside), all my relationships improved.

I'm now married and have two kids, so I can't be doing *everything* wrong!
posted by edhorch at 8:53 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sounds like Asperger's to me.

The first question is, what do you want? A friend? A relationship? Short term, or long term? Are you just content being alone? There's nothing wrong with any of those options.

Decide what you want, then accept the fact that in order to get it, you'll have to be a little uncomfortable and bewildered. As softlord says, we all have a little of that (your case sounds more extreme).

For example, the fact that (many) men like cars, and get emotional about them, is completely bewildering to me. I don't understand it at all. But if I were to condemn everyone who liked cars, I'd be limiting myself pretty severely. So for the guy I'm friends with at the moment (and trying to impress), I've learned to 1) memorize the fact that he likes cars, and 2) remember to say things that will make him happy, like "look at that Corvette over there!" I do this despite the fact that I totally, completely don't understand why his eyes light up at the Corvette. It's completely beyond my comprehension. But I'm willing to give up a tiny part of myself, and deal with the bewilderment, in order to maintain that connection.

Good luck.
posted by Melismata at 8:57 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah the big question is what DO you enjoy? Doesn't have to be people-oriented. Because if there is NOTHING you enjoy, then you need medication. So can you give us a little help with what non-work related things you do look forward to/enjoy?
posted by spicynuts at 8:58 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone who said it sounds like you have Asperger's. I believe my father and his male relatives have it, and I've noticed that they are all really comfortable together and they get each other in ways no one else gets them.

I believe Asperger's is more of a brain difference than a disability. I think you might feel very much at home with others who share your unique mental wiring.

Have you seen the site Wrong Planet? It would be worth a look. Good luck!
posted by xenophile at 9:10 AM on January 4, 2011

There's nothing necessarily wrong with not "getting" what lots of other people seem to "get." Lots of other people are baffled by many (or at least a subset) of the same things you're baffled by.

However, as spicynuts pointed out, you didn't talk about the things that you do enjoy, so it's hard to know where to start when it comes to advice.
posted by deanc at 9:11 AM on January 4, 2011

More like the anthropologist who lives among the natives, than a true member of the tribe.
This reminded me of the essay "An Anthropologist on Mars," written about Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who uses that phrase to describe how she feels in social situations.

Maybe it would be helpful to see if a doctor can give you a solid diagnosis of some condition, be it Asperger's or whatever. Even if you don't get diagnosed, you could look into books written by people with autism, for people with autism - maybe there are insights there for you about how better to understand and interact with people.
posted by coupdefoudre at 9:17 AM on January 4, 2011

I hope you don't mind if I sympathize. From your title, it sounds like you're dealing with feelings of being "inadequate." If you're frustrated by the expectation that you should be spending time together with other people… you don't have to. If you've been able to find fulfilling, non-destructive experiences and activities to do in your spare time, please, by all means, use this opportunity to feel good about yourself. Others may have a hard time understanding you, and you may have a hard time understanding them, but that doesn't mean you're not allowed to enjoy yourself.
posted by Nomyte at 9:23 AM on January 4, 2011

Based on the Asperger's people I know, I think it's worth getting that checked out.
posted by mippy at 9:29 AM on January 4, 2011

Are you unhappy about being this way? Or are you just worried that you are defective in some manner?

There are many people in the world who are just happier living a solitary existence. I have at least three virtual hermits on my street! They simply don't acknowledge other people and for what I can tell have no company ever. If you are not bothered by this, perhaps there's nothing to be done about it.
posted by AuntieRuth at 9:52 AM on January 4, 2011

Nthing possible Aspergers diagnosis. I'm an Aspie and find socializing a major chore however if I must socialize I find hanging out in Aspie-centric populations (like with tech geeks and science geeks) much more tolerable as I find them interesting, I tend to understand them better, and they don't seem to mind if I don't "get" social cues and vice versa.
posted by MsKim at 9:54 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are two other tools that are used in conjunction with the AQ test when diagnosing Asperger's in adults: Emotional Quotient and Systemizing Quotient.

Paper versions of the tests can be downloaded here:

In terms of analyzing your results, however, you'll probably need to Google for discussions of test results.

I cannot recommend Tony Atwood's book on Asperger's highly enough in terms of understanding the condition.

Finally, see if you can find a local GRASP or other Asperger's/Autism meetup group in your area.
posted by gsh at 9:56 AM on January 4, 2011

I want friendship and romantic companionship—sometimes quite badly—but in practice, people just weird me the fuck out (and vice-versa). It's always been this way, and it seems to be getting worse as I get older. What do I do?

You sound like my son. He struggles with a lot of the things you've described. It doesn't matter what label you put on it (Aspergers, etc.), what really matters from a practical standpoint is how you feel (like a stranger in a strange land). The good news is that you sound very aware of how you feel and what you want to achieve (i.e. a way to find the people you "click" with, and a better level of comfort with those you don't).

I've suggested to my son that when he's in a situation where he's just totally feeling like other people's behaviors are foreign to him (mostly at work), rather than dwelling on the fact that he feels like an outsider, or feeling upset that he doesn't "get" them, he can try to pretend that he's a scientist studying these strange creatures. Think about how they interact, how they speak, their various mannerisms, etc. Identify the things about them that you do "get" and focus on that as a way to establish commonality. Accept that there are some things and some people you're just never going to really get, but focus on maintaining a comfort level with the people you can connect with, even if it's on a surface level. This approach has helped him feel more relaxed at work. It's not a magic wand, and there are lots of times when he feels frustrated or agitated, but it's gotten better.

As far as finding more intimate relationships with people (friendships, romance, etc.), figure out what kinds of situations/places/topics/hobbies you feel most comfortable with. Where are you and what are you doing when you feel the most "normal" in your own skin? Don't try to force yourself into an activity or social setting you don't enjoy, because even if you meet people there, chances are you're not going to feel the kind of connection you're looking for. Pick one or two activities or interests that really feel comfortable for you (even online) and start making small, surface-level connections. Once you start getting a feel for how to identify people with whom you can establish common ground, you can branch out from there. You may only find a few people you can truly "get" but that's sometimes way more meaningful than a huge social circle anyway.

And, of course, therapy is always an option, not because there's anything "wrong" with you, but because you're feeling some level of pain and anxiety about your situation and a good therapist can help you explore it further.
posted by amyms at 10:01 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Going into hyper-armchair-psychologist mode: your post reminds me of a lot of other posts I've seen over the years, where the writer complains of feeling alienated, and then goes on to describe the rest of society and other people with a nearly clinical detachment that implies a certain amount of superiority on their part. It can be a little frustrating to read - I kind of want to shake them and shout "Get over yourself already!"

Yours isn't nearly as bad as most, but it still sounds like you're living a little too much in your own head as a result of the tendency toward being a loner. I'm speaking from experience here: the downside of not spending time around people is that you have no one to really challenge your thoughts or offer a new perspective. This isn't to say that you need to rush out and socialize immediately, just keep it in mind when you're forming opinions of things that you are working from an especially incomplete picture.

There is no rule requiring you to like popular pastimes and activities such as Halloween costumes, or performance art or anything else on the list in order to be a normal person. It's certainly helpful for socializing, but the essential thing is to appreciate that other people still have perfectly good (and often complicated) reasons for liking them and not dismiss those off hand.

I kind of think that the best place for you to start might be working at relating to people better in your head. Always avoid thinking of someone else's values or interest as a baffling and alien thing - instead, consider that you have your own interests, and that there are "different strokes for different folks". Focus on the ways that you are like others, even if it has to start with broad things like "I drive a car", "I have a job", and "I browse MetaFilter". You are a part of and influenced by the world, even if (like many people!) you dislike small talk or movies or whatever. Paying more attention to your similarities rather than your differences will help a lot in learning to enjoy being around other people, rather than being weirded out by them.
posted by missix at 10:22 AM on January 4, 2011 [19 favorites]

I don't think ASD is out of the question. However, you need a proper assessment because it could be something else.

Whatever it is, a proper assessment will lead you to resources that will help you figure out what you want and how to get it. You probably need a psychiatrist or similar, and one with specialist knowledge of ASDs. An ordinary therapist might try to give you ordinary therapy, which would be no more help to you than saying "go to meetups etc etc".
posted by tel3path at 10:24 AM on January 4, 2011

I'd like to second the idea of therapy, and add that if you don't like the first therapist you find, please try a few others. Depending on the therapist you find you will get the chance to explore the types of socialization that you are exploring. It's possible that you're not having success with the activities that you're choosing because they're larger groups, you may have more success with 1 on 1 interaction. For this reason it might be a good idea to join a dating site.

It can also help to script encounters, if you get anxious during work gatherings it could be helpful to come up with short things to say ahead of times so that you have fallbacks if you get overwhelmed. To some extent theres a "fake it till you make it" effect with social stuff, if you act social long enough sometimes it can blossom.

That said, you're in your 30s now, you've been working on this a long time, you probably will get a lot more out of targeted advice from a professional then you may think.
posted by dadici at 10:25 AM on January 4, 2011

I don’t know if this will really help at all, other than to say that a lot of us feel the same way throughout life. I really felt a lot of what you describe, especially in my teens and 20s, and I still have moments when I’m bored and don’t connect with people. I think that it is a part of being human, and possibly introverted.

Pardon while I get philosophical about this, but it may help, just to change your perspective or show you another point of view. These are just ways to view things differently. I understand looking at nationalism and group things and not getting it, but …you may understand some of the other things if you change your perspective, or at least try to understand what other people may get out of it, and it is much more than behaving as some sort of herd.

For example, you put stage/performance art on your list. Some of the authors and play wrights actually discuss how they don’t connect to the world and even how they uniquely view the world. Here is a blurb from Gore Vidal, but there are many others who have created works just to discuss these things from another point of view. (So in other words, the point of attending the play or reading the story is to …see the universe/the box/society from another perspective, and those people who feel this way usually feel as if they, too, are on the outside).

Gore Vidal (interview in1961):“You are born into a society and you are shaped by it whether you know it or not or whether you like it or not. Each of us is born into a prison of received opinion, superstitions, and of prejudices. Now one of the functions of art is to try and define the prison. A) The artist must know they are in it, and many of them don’t know they are in it and those are the bad artists; they don’t see past those bars. The prison is going to break you eventually but you can at least get a look out, and it is the look out that is art .Try to see the thing whole is what we all want and why we write. There is no purpose to life or point to life other than what you invest by in yourself by your own actions. The making of a book or music or your own creation is to try to hold the moment and give it a certain order and bring order out of chaos and say “here it is, seen whole, even though of course it really isn’t.””

Another thing on your list is Halloween costumes. I really think that this depends on your particular culture…in some parts of the world, sure, just a gathering with a bunch of costumes, but in others, it is a ceremony or acknowledgement of the dead. It may actually be about someone sitting alone, on a tombstone, thinking about the people who they connected to in the past.

Also, one last comment on starting to categorize yourself as Oxytocin deficient, or D4R different type of allele, whatever … There are studies showing that yes, some people love to be around pple 24-y, whereas others may only need a few hours a week, along with corresponding differences in their d4R receptors/transporters, etc. Rather than focusing on whether you belong to one particular group and whether or not one group or another is deficient. Forget all that. Each person has their own unique neurocircuitry, and there are probably strengths/weaknesses associated with each. Create your own ideal environment that fits your unique wiring.

So if you don’t like the politics of a workplace, is there a reason that you need to work in a place like that (or need to do so for the rest of your life?) If you don’t like it, work towards becoming self-employed. You will still need to occasionally chit chat with others, but it is every 6 months to a year vs hourly or daily. I believe that people are wired towards needing or not needing a certain amount of social interaction, and workplaces can bring out the worst …eliminate it if you can, and remember you aren’t in prison, you can step out of it.

Also, nthing missix..step out of your head just a litle bit, if possible, and look at what you have in common with others. Are there activities that you like to do taht you can immerse yourself in and allow other pple in just a little bit? (e.g. cycling, is about the activity, not the group). If just one or a few other pple become important to you, you may want to connect and understand why they find other topics important/interesting, rather than view it as different or odd.
posted by Dances with sock puppets at 11:06 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Paul Graham has an essay called "Why Nerds are Unpopular," in which he claims that they COULD be more popular if they took the time to learn what makes people tick. But as their interests lie elsewhere, they choose not to do this.

I agree with this in part, but I'd add that they may not see it as a choice. "Normal" people don't choose to learn how other people work. They just learn it without trying, via the osmosis of living. So I think many people grow up thinking that you either get it or you don't, and if you don't, you never will. Certainly, when I was growing up, no one offered to teach me about people. The just assumed I'd naturally understand people.

You say you feel like an anthropologist? Well, BE an anthropologist!

Imagine if Jane Goodall had got to Africa, seen the chimps, and said, "I don't get it. They don't act like people. I guess I'll never understand them." That's not what scientists do. Scientists study.

I am an Aspie, but most of my friends are surprised when I tell them that. Because I am social, have friends, etc. I am still shy and I hate parties, but in one-on-one conversation (and in small groups), I'm fine. Even gregarious. But I wasn't born that way. I had to learn it slowly and patiently. Since I didn't want to live an isolated life, I spent years studying.

I didn't just observe. that wouldn't have worked for me, because I wouldn't have had a framework to help me interpret what I was seeing. So in addition to observing, I read. I read every psychology, neurology, biology and self-help book I could get my hands on.

There are all sorts of great frameworks out there to help you understand people. Some of them are partly (or fully) pseudo-science, but even some of them are valuable, as they may give you a metaphorical way of understanding people. Why do people like sports and religion? Do you think you're the first person who has ever wondered about those mysteries? You're not. There's oodles of theories, hypotheses and research.

Maybe reading this stuff turns you off. Well, all I can say is you have to decide how important it is to you. Because, unfortunately, the world of people and sports and religion and politics isn't going away. It's the world you're stuck in. If I were you (and I kind of AM you), I'd learn about it.

The good news is you're really smart. I can tell by your writing. I don't know what subjects you've mastered, but I know you've mastered some. So just think of people as another subject you have to master. Don't expect it to be easy, but expect it to be possible.

Ironically, after years of study, I sometimes know more about what-makes-people-tick than many of my neurotypical friends. It's because I have an informed-outsider's perspective. Other people are better than me about forming instant gut reactions. But I tend to be better at considered analysis.

One book that really helped my is "Games People Play." (And other books by Eric Berne.) It's about Transactional Analysis, which is a school of psychoanalysis that is out of vogue. I consider it a toy model of how people work. I think it leaves a lot out of the equation, but it's an awesome place to start for people like us. It views all human interactions as games with rules, and it spells out what those rules are.

See also "The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism" by two Aspies, Temple Grandin and Sean Barron.

And "You Just Don't Understand," by Deborah Tannen.
posted by grumblebee at 11:10 AM on January 4, 2011 [13 favorites]

Many people here are recommending professional help, but I'm fairly certain that's not a route you're willing to take or think is necessary (not yet, at least). Reaching for that Asperger's label seems like a path that's been set by the society you feel withdrawn from, and the help that would be offered would come from the same place.

I am INTJ myself and cannot comprehend why most of the population have the inane interests and behaviours that they do. However, (like you I suspect) I know the unspoken social rules that exist and am able to follow them, though it often takes more energy than I'd like and puts me in a foul mood that I sometimes have to really make an effort to suppress. Because of this, I never feel compelled to read self-help books on human interaction, as it's something I can easily master it if I choose, but find it fatiguing to do so and unnecessary/personally offensive/boring/insincere/ridiculous. For amusement/pleasure reading and to not feel so alienated in your opinions, I recommend existential literature that deals with topics like the absurdity of humanity.

For myself personally, I have decided on a simple two-step plan to govern my life:
1) where necessary (e.g. in professional/legal settings) follow society's code of conduct and play the game
2) anywhere else (e.g. with real friends and people whose ill opinions can have no adverse effect on my life) I will do and say whatever I please, even if it's totally inappropriate, so long as it will amuse me

To meet new people, I recommend getting together in small groups of 4-6, a mix of friends and strangers (friends of those friends) so that you can speak easily but there's no real pressure. Make a small effort if you want, or don't, and you may find some like-minded individuals, and even some who could be really different and extroverted whose company you still enjoy. The internet's also a great resource for meeting people, if you are willing to risk a real-life meet up. I think it's a long shot to finding anyone really like yourself, but you can come close enough to not being lonely and feeling isolated.
posted by droolshark at 1:59 AM on January 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

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