Why would someone have a hard time getting people to want to be friends with him, yet be great at listening to people talk about deep personal issues? Is my personality "intense" in ways that amount to immaturity--and if it is, how do I hold onto my idealistic, nonconformist streak without coming across as a jerk or a child with it? And how do I deal with all of this while keeping my career in academia afloat?
posted by urufu to Human Relations (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Somehow I've reached a point in life where I have no emotionally satisfying friendships at all. By and large people seem to "like" me, but they also seem to prefer (need?) to keep me at a certain distance: I am nobody's "go-to" friend, and people seldom call me when they just feel like hanging out or doing something casually fun. I haven't had a best friend in years and I highly doubt anyone would consider me theirs. Strangely, people seem comfortable discussing difficult personal issues with me and opening up to me when they're feeling depressed or alienated (I think I've helped more than my share of misfits feel less alone in life, and I'm proud of that), but that rarely translates into consistent time spent together or the sense of any real connection or durable loyalty. Even the people who say they "love" me don't, in practice, call very often.
And the biggest part of the problem is that I don't feel like I really know what the problem is. I'm told I have an intense personality (I'm also very tall), but that personality isn't backed by much confidence, so when I'm out living my life it doesn't occur to me that people might find me intimidating. My personality can modulate from emphatic to withdrawn to flamboyantly silly, and maybe this comes across to people as incoherent? A good friend once told me that I always look like I'm lost in thought, and that if we weren't friends she would probably be afraid to approach me. None of this "feels" like it's the issue--I know plenty of intense types who are great at making friends precisely because of their intensity--but, I dunno...maybe it's a piece of it?
This has become a bigger concern lately because I'm getting older (I'm 32) and am coming up on some pretty big life changes that could be negatively impacted if my social skills are as bad as I'm worried they might be. People around me are starting to form long-term relationships, pursuing careers, and generally getting themselves involved with major, decade-consuming life commitments, all of which means that they're slowly drifting away from me because I'm not close enough to the center of their lives. Plus, I'm coming to the end of a Ph.D. program and will be going on the job market in a very small field very soon. Getting an academic job is hard under any circumstances but I'm worried that my chances of advancement will be permanently compromised if all of my contacts and friends (some of whom are already out in the field and on hiring committees) see me as "politely tolerable" or "talented but very, very weird." For the last month my Facebook feed has shown a lot of pictures of people taking road trips to the locations of their first (or in some cases second) jobs. The thought of having to take that trip by myself--of not even being able to rustle up a couple of friends who feel like driving across the country in the middle of Summer--makes me sad and scared for my future (and I love road trips more than pretty much anything.) Plus, I'm leaving a place that's been very in tune with my values and has helped me develop more confidence to voice some of the less "pragmatic" beliefs I have (e.g. I support decriminalizing hallucinogens, and I think people need to examine the impact and question the inevitability of maintaining dualistic gender roles in a deeper way than they usually do)--a place full of poets, radicals, historians of psychology, people who still believe the humanities matter, and just generally people who know how to question everything (all of whom still manage to pay their bills on time despite possessing those qualities.) The range of places I might end up next is so huge it makes me feel like my brain is burning--and I'm afraid that, if I end up somewhere more conservative than where I've been, it will change me in ways I don't necessarily want because I won't be strong enough to live among different values without freaking out and subconsciously appropriating them. (To be clear: I'm perfectly capable of getting along with "red staters" and people I disagree with; I'm just not great at confrontation and afraid I'll lose a little of myself in a different environment.)
Basically: I've come to a point in life where I recognize I need to commit myself to something and stick with it despite its imperfections and frustrations--that if I want friends, I'm going to have to make an effort to find them and maintain the friendships; and that if I want to be at the top of my field, I'm going to have to work pretty freaking hard (against my daydreamy tendencies), knowing all the while that even that won't guarantee anything. At the same time, though, there's a very big part of me that suspects that the thing I should be committing myself to isn't *necessarily* another person or a career. That maybe, to make peace with things, I have to seek fulfillment elsewhere and accept that I am different from most other people, particularly other people in my field, in certain rather basic ways--among lesser issues, I fundamentally do not believe that hard work and productivity are inherently "good," I think what most people call "being practical" is always partly cynical (even though we all have to be practical to avoid being a burden to others), and I am hypersensitive to and deeply mistrustful of the power dynamics that emerge when people interact in groups (and feel like I suck at navigating them.)
I realize there a lot of very loose threads here, and I'm sorry about that. I guess the main reason I'm posting this is because I'm looking for some feedback on how to handle this next phase of my life. Why do I have so much trouble making friends, and how do I make more? Am I an unappealing person? How do I stop being so withdrawn around people--or fluctuating between withdrawal, hyperactivity, and frustration at being unable to express myself properly? Should I look for friends who are...spacier? Should I become a Buddhist? Any advice on how to negotiate the academic hiring process and the tenure track when you tend to be pretty idealistic (even if not always outspoken about it)? Should I look for a public venue to express my views--and if so how do I deal with the fact that so many of my attempts to express those views seem to turn out....like this (i.e. circular, self-effacing, and kind of backhandedly narcissistic)?
****Maybe the most important question I can ask, though, is just how I'm coming across in this post? Do I seem like an asshole? Because I feel like I'm going out of my way to not seem like that, yet that every positive assertion I make about myself ends up sounding like something an arrogant teenager would say.****
Please feel free to respond to any part of this you want. Sorry again for the loopiness.