I feel used. I want a close friendship.
January 21, 2009 6:30 PM   Subscribe

How do I get over the feeling that I need to be useful in order for people to like/tolerate me?

[anon due to the people in my metafilter contacts list]

I like to help people. I really do. I get good grades, so that's how I help people. How to do X. Essay look-overs. How to do research at the university level. I'm in university and I'm good at this.

Any close friendship I've had have disintegrated. Unless high school and university friendships really do degrade often, I think it's fair to assume that I consistently do something wrong.

I think the thing I did wrong that I talked/talk about myself too much. I really like knowledge for knowledge's sake, but I've learned to avoid discussing any of that except to let people laugh at how much 'weird' stuff I enjoy knowing. (Generic example of 'weird': I like learning Latin for fun. Latin is useful for my vocabulary, dangit!)

I don't go whining/venting to everyone, just close friends, and I've TRIED to stop whining, full-stop. I fail a lot, and it makes me feel guilty. People don't really need to know if I'm tired, or hungry, or whatever, even if I only mention it briefly. I try to only mention those things if I thing it'll work as a gambit for them to vent and take over the conversation, which, for me, is great. Being in control of a conversation makes me anxious, because I worry I'll whine too much. I tend to repeat questions when this happens because I get so nervous about being in control of the conversation.

Having a friend get too close (on an emotional level, where they expect me to talk about my feelings) makes me anxious. I don't want to talk about any of that. Bottling things up works for me, works for them, everyone's happy.

Combined with a few people who really DID use me, you can see where this is going.

I don't trust people. I'll hang out with them, and have fun with them, but I won't discuss things that interest me or how I feel. To this day, most conversations I have with people start because they need something from me. I certainly won't ask them for much beyond eating lunch with me.

Even asking a VERY nice, open, local religious figure (think "clergy" of a legitimate religion, not cult) a simple question makes me anxious. I don't want to take up someone's time, because I worry it'll alienate them. I think I should be useful instead.

I really want to feel comfortable around people without worrying about whether I'm being useful enough to keep them satisfied. Any ideas?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
This sounds perhaps New Agey, but you need to at least try to find your center—the pivot point from which you can function. For some, it is the people that surround them who define who they are, people who define what they can or cannot do. For others, it is themselves that make them distinctive. It looks like you need to figure out what you yourself want, who you yourself are, before you can even begin to worry about other people.

That knowledge comes at the cost of a lot, but trust me, it's worth it.
posted by trotter at 6:56 PM on January 21, 2009


People don't really need to know if I'm tired, or hungry, or whatever, even if I only mention it briefly. I try to only mention those things if I thing it'll work as a gambit for them to vent and take over the conversation, which, for me, is great.

Everyone complains about these things. Which is to say -- relax. If you start censoring every word that comes out of your mouth, you'll drive yourself crazy. Stop with the critical voice - it's not doing you any favors!

Bottling things up works for me, works for them, everyone's happy.


Really?

I don't trust people. I'll hang out with them, and have fun with them, but I won't discuss things that interest me or how I feel. To this day, most conversations I have with people start because they need something from me.


"Utility" isn't a zero sum game -- why not try approaching it as a collaborative exercise? Instead of thinking about what "you can give people" (or alternatively, what "people can give you," in terms of friendship, attention, etc) think of it as a sharing thing. As in, sharing things that interest *you* -- and giving yourself space to relax, listen, and be curious about others? Asking someone to lunch is a great start! Lots of really shy people can't actually do this (speaking from experience).

Have a little faith in yourself -- most people are a lot more interesting than they give themselves credit for.
posted by puckish at 7:00 PM on January 21, 2009


I think the thing I did wrong that I talked/talk about myself too much.

Sometimes it's really off-putting to have someone chatter about their interests or mundane things like how hungry they are when they never, ever add anything personal or emotional. "I like Latin. Latin is so awesome. Latin is good for my vocabulary!" might prompt me to ask you for help with my Latin class but eventually push me away from friendship with you. On the other hand, "I like learning Latin because it was the first subject I ever felt confident in at school" gives me more of a reason to keep talking to you--not to ask for homework help but to find out more about you as a friend. I'm not saying bare your soul to everyone you meet, but I wonder--and I could be wrong--if talking to you might sometimes feel like a trivia contest rather than a conversation to the people you're talking to. It's like a verbal side effect of your need to feel "useful": you provide information and entertainment rather than engaging people in a meaningful, potentially personal or emotional way. Am I way off?

I think you should start challenging yourself to ask people for things. You can start with someone like the religious figure--who by his (or her) profession and reputation is open to answering questions and offering help. Then move on to others in your life--maybe someone whose paper you have edited in the past, ask that person for... help with your own paper? a basketweaving lesson? something they can offer you. You know that you're willing to help people, let people do you the same favor. It's hard to be friends with someone who never asks for (or accepts) help. Letting someone do something for you can have a profoundly positive strengthening effect on a friendship. (Obviously you need to do things for your friends, too, in order to have a strong friendship, but you seem to have that side of the equation covered.)
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:05 PM on January 21, 2009 [12 favorites]


Having a friend get too close (on an emotional level, where they expect me to talk about my feelings) makes me anxious. I don't want to talk about any of that. Bottling things up works for me, works for them, everyone's happy.

Get out of my head! Seriously, though, this is the problem. Being useful and not too personal is a great way to start friendships, but it's a terrible way to keep them. Someone who becomes a close friend should expect to meet the real you. Keeping them mollified with assistance is not going to cut it for very long - eventually they will feel beholden to you and when you don't let them pay back the debt - they will drift away.

For me, this has largely been a self-esteem issue. Things that happened to me years ago, when I was much more sensitive and far less socially astute, scared my little snail ego right back into its shell. It took work to get it to come back out - and that entailed risk. You have to risk being hurt to make true friends - but be assured that a real friend will never hurt you intentionally. Ask a friend for a small favor - a ride across town or even to just borrow a book. Learn to ask for what you need, but mindfully - not desperately - and you will be fine.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 7:08 PM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have some friends who don't understand why they aren't closer to people. I told them they don't complain enough.

Really. This is a dialogue. Be human, let other people know that it's okay if they bitch, because you bitch. Put in so they feel they can put in. Convo-sation, baby.
posted by OrangeDrink at 7:10 PM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


You said that you don't trust people. And you said that you want to feel comfortable around people without worrying about whether you're being useful. Psychoanalysis aside, those are on two different sides of the spectrum. You want to be liked but you don't want to trust. That's fine, but the way to get over your need to be useful is to be comfortable with the fact that you need to be useful. You're thinking that being useful is a bad thing. It takes up time, you're bothering someone with your presence, blah blah blah. That's all bullshit that you tell yourself because you want to stay humble. And that's a good thing. But no one thinks you're a complete tool-asshole-pervert-retard more than you do.

It sounds to me as though you're trying to manipulate your conversations so that you can take the focus off of yourself, let other people talk, etc. So you're manipulating the conversation so that you don't manipulate the conversation.

I don't really know what else to tell you because this is the internet. Just go with the flow. If you go with the flow, a few things will happen. You'll probably overdo it at first. If you want to not be yourself, you'll go to the other extreme. You'll probably get yourself in trouble. And that's good, because then you'll know your own boundaries, when and where you're comfortable being easy going and where you're comfortable being a withdrawn wallflower. And then you'll be where you want to be. Know thyself. *gong*
posted by bam at 7:20 PM on January 21, 2009


You are talking about shame. You are expressing the belief that, aside from the things you give people, you could not be friends with someone because of some problem or defect. The source of those sorts of thoughts is shame.

Here's what I suggest: every time you have one of these thoughts, ask yourself the same exact thing every time "Am I being nice to myself here?"

Keep asking that.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:27 PM on January 21, 2009 [8 favorites]


People trust people who trust them. I'd say that if your every interaction with someone else was carefully calibrated to manipulate them into not thinking about you, it'll become pretty obvious that you're avoiding something, and the conversation also starts becoming a tad one-sided. People like talking about themselves, sure, but there's only so much to say. Those people you want to be friends with, they want to be needed by you, too. They don't exactly want to be the burden-some one in the friendship, either.

I'm a bit confused on what you're asking here. You say you want close friends who come to you not to get something from you but to be with you specifically, and then you say you don't want to open up to anyone and have a friendship where people expect to get your feelings and emotional reactions to things. Those two are kind of mutually exclusive.

I guess the question is then - why don't you trust people? Or rather, why do you put a blanket distrust on everyone around you? I think a lot of people, especially on Metafilter, tend to be on the cynical and skeptical side when it comes to human interaction, but most people feel the need for companionship (as you do) and are willing to give a few people a chance. I'm not saying open up and be bosom buddies with everyone, but it's going to be incredibly difficult to sustain lasting relationships when you refuse to contribute emotionally to it. If your friends wanted quirky facts or entertainment, they'd go watch a show or befriend a dictionary. Let them see the real you.

Therapy may help - I say this not flippantly, but in earnest - it can help you work through some of the trust issues and figure out what level of lowered guard you're comfortable with. Good luck.
posted by Phire at 7:44 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maybe it would help to approach social interactions without expecting so much out them. If people are laughing at you for being "weird" and different, maybe you just need to learn to say "fuck 'em." Save talking about your interests for people who won't find them strange at all. If you don't trust or like people, it's going to show. Not everyone is worth opening up to, but finding people you feel comfortable confiding in seems essential.

I've never brought up my knowledge of Latin for no reason, but if I did and somebody laughed and called me weird for it, I'd probably feel resentful for their being such a narrow-minded asshole and move right along instead of trying to turn them into my best friend. Why on earth would you want to be friends with people who think the things that matter most to you suck? On the other hand, what makes you think the average person is going to care about the fact that you like learning Latin?

I'm reminded of a story about one of the greatest flaming oddballs of all time, Justice David Souter:

"At a White House dinner for the Hungarian prime minister, Barbara Bush seated the dateless Justice next to an unmarried Bush cousin. On Souter's other side at the table was the wife of Hungary's minister of international economic relations. Unable to find a common living language, they ultimately conversed in Latin."

In other words: keep looking, there's someone out there for everybody.
posted by aquafortis at 8:32 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


One way to look at it: you're gonna be more useful to everyone (including yourself) in you develop into a full human being.

Meaning, someone not only can reason and do good work, but someone who can relate with others in a healthy way.

There is so much that we can get from one another in a single touch, or a deep conversation, or even just a cheesy high five. First of all, it's shown in many studies that lack of attention or lack of affection can make people actually go crazy, and is physically harmful. So if you decide to be interested in someone, make them feel accepted for who they are, you are fulfilling a pretty basic human need for people.

Secondly, you can learn so much by sharing yourself with other people and vice versa. Yes, it may feel "risky" to you, but it will be difficult to develop a richer and "more useful" character without doing so.

Good luck.
posted by uxo at 8:33 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


It is really hard to be close with people if you can't let your guard down enough to practice intimacy. It's okay to fail, be human, make mistakes, whine - really.

And sometimes, what people need most to feel close to you is to feel that _they_ are being helpful to _you_. Sometimes, an air of total capability sends the message "I need nothing and no one, I'm completely self-sufficient, so back away." Sometimes it can help even to let people help you when you don't need the help. Just to be nice.

I echo Phire, therapy might help you with self-acceptance and learning how to allow people to get closer to you without boring you or causing discomfort.
posted by Miko at 8:33 PM on January 21, 2009


This sounds like me a while ago. You need to realize a few things:

  • There are lots of people who are not going to like you no matter what you do. Stop trying to please everyone.

  • Turn off the damn filter. People aren't used to hearing it from you, but they'll get used to it, and if they don't, find other people.

  • posted by Electrius at 9:09 PM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


    Miko:And sometimes, what people need most to feel close to you is to feel that _they_ are being helpful to _you_. Sometimes, an air of total capability sends the message "I need nothing and no one, I'm completely self-sufficient, so back away." Sometimes it can help even to let people help you when you don't need the help. Just to be nice.

    Hm, interesting point. But what about the idea that you attract what you project?

    The times in my life when I'm basically happy with life and excited about the things I'm doing, I feel more expansive, outgoing, and eager to share my thoughts and feelings with others. When I feel anxious, I've found it better to focus my energy on fixing the problems stressing me out... I put meeting new people on the back burner until I get more balanced and centered. There's only so much other people can do for you when you aren't comfortable in your own skin.

    It's important to have human contact when you're vulnerable, nervous, and down, no question about it. But still, isn't it better to take it easy and not expect you're going to be able to develop intimacy with the first few people who take an interest in you? Predators, enablers, and people with a martyr complex have a knack for homing in on targets who can't see through them. Get yourself in healthy place first (therapy, talking to someone you trust) and take don't expect tons of random people to "get" you right off the bat. Being authentic and true to yourself is an ongoing project...
    posted by aquafortis at 9:45 PM on January 21, 2009


    That sounds like me before I started Al-anon. Me-mail me if you want to talk about it. No alcoholic in your life required.
    posted by small_ruminant at 9:54 PM on January 21, 2009


    Not tackling the problem head-on, but I would suggest looking for clubs that focus on something that you are already passionate about. Then you meet someone who shares your passion and the two of you have something to talk about. You don't have to worry about boring these people because you know that they are already interested in what you are talking about. These people may only be friends in that limited context but it is a way to practice the give and take of friendship.

    If you are a university student, you might want a couple sessions with the counseling office (usually free) to get a better handle on what is at the heart of your issues.
    posted by metahawk at 11:50 PM on January 21, 2009


    Hm, interesting point. But what about the idea that you attract what you project?

    The times in my life when I'm basically happy with life and excited about the things I'm doing, I feel more expansive, outgoing, and eager to share my thoughts and feelings with others


    I don't dispute this and I think the focus of my comment is elsewhere. Capability - the offers of help, the emphasis on "value me for what I can do, because who I am is worthless;" or "the only way I'm comfortable getting to know people is in a setting where I'm the helper/expert and they're the needy one, because my own needs are inadmissible to me" - is often a defense for people who are afraid of intimacy.
    posted by Miko at 5:35 AM on January 22, 2009


    There's a part in the book Feeling Good where you draw a graph. The X-axis is a person's age (starting out as a baby, all the way to death) The Y-axis is a person's 'usefulness'. The graph obviously is a hill, with babies and those near death being near 0 on the 'usefulness' scale. They have to be taken care of. And a peak in the middle, where a person has a job, is caring for children, contributing to society, etc. Then you draw a graph of the person's worth as a human being. Here's the secret: it's a horizontal line. It doesn't vary as the person becomes more or less 'useful'. Think about it. Realize it's true. Surely you won't think of a toddler as being worthless because it can't even cook it's own meals, or get angry at your dying Grandma for not working harder. Realize this applies to you, too.
    posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:12 AM on January 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


    I don't trust people. I'll hang out with them, and have fun with them, but I won't discuss things that interest me or how I feel.

    And you think the reason you don't have close friends is that you talk too much?

    Seriously, read over what you just posted, and try to pretend it was posted by someone else; you'll see the problem immediately. You're so obviously setting yourself up for failure that I can't believe you don't see what a case of self-sabotage this is.

    The reason you feel like you need to be "useful" to your friends is that you've preemptively ruled out any non-utilitarian interactions! And the thing that you "consistently do wrong" which causes your relationships to disintegrate is that you're actively pushing people away when they get close, because you're terrified of them. (Look at every instance of the word "anxious," "nervous," etc in your question. Do you see what connects them?)

    Bottling things up works for me, works for them, everyone's happy.

    Obviously not. Duh.
    posted by ook at 8:36 AM on January 22, 2009


    Be cool with yourself first. I'm with trotter on this one.

    If you're feeling distrustful of people, it could be because you've been hanging with psychic vampires that suck your energy that as you said, approach you because they NEED something from you. Not healthy.

    Ok. Everyone goes through this at some point in their lives. Or you can argue that we spend our entire lives trying to hit this.

    The point is to be comfortable and happy with yourself. You want to be comfortable in your solitude and to protect your solitude (read some Rilke). You will no longer feel like your identity and behavior should be dictated by social situations because you have already come to terms with who you are.

    And it feels great when people and their judgments don't get to you.

    There are lots of intelligent individuals out there who share your interests. If you can't be open with them about who you are, you miss out on the opportunity to really connect with someone that you might dig a whole lot.

    How I do it: I spend a lot of time thinking about my place in life. I think about it when I'm about to fall asleep and when I wake up and kinda loaf in bed. When I'm in the shower. When I'm walking. When I'm in the forest.

    Do whatever you have to do to hang out and get to know and like yourself, away from other people.
    posted by HolyWood at 2:12 PM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


    To elaborate on what Green Eyed Monster said, it sounds like you feel like your feelings are not worthwhile and/or are afraid that others will ignore, ridicule, or otherwise reject any feelings that you share. That is why you bottle them up and feel anxious sharing even the most mundane personal details with others, even feeling that what you have to say is not worth your religious figure's time. (BTW, this religious figure chose this vocation because they want to listen to and help you.)

    This is very common if you've had someone important in your life, probably a parent or similar, invalidate your feelings/thoughts, etc. (Google this; it's a pretty common self-help theme). The person either did not care about any of your thoughts/feelings, or argued with you about what you were feeling (e.g., You are not hungry; you just ate.). Maybe you had bad experiences with the friends who you say "used" you, although I'm not really sure how you differentiate being "used" in a negative way and being "used" because you will only allow relationships in which you help the other without allowing them to return the favor.

    Also, I'm not sure that I understood this correctly, but you say that you share certain interests/whatever of yours to let people laugh at them. This is a pretty transparent tactic, almost bragging about how "unique" and "quirky" and "weird" you are. I'm not sure if that's what you're doing, but if you are, you should stop. I guess this is also part of your need to feel useful, but you shouldn't subject yourself to being the clown to serve as others' entertainment. You are worth more than that, but you need to believe that before others will.
    posted by thebazilist at 3:18 PM on January 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


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