Confidence making friends?
September 14, 2009 1:28 PM   Subscribe

Please talk me out of my anxiety about making friends.

By way of context, I'm male and a full time graduate student.

I have trouble making friends. Generally, not only am I afraid to make the first move, I'm afraid to make any sort of move. Here's the thinking I use to justify this to myself: We all know the vaguely annoying guy who hangs around when he's not very wanted, and although people are polite to him while he's there, they're not going to invite him around and they may privately wish he would just go away. He wants to be people's friend, but they don't want to be his friend--and that's okay, friendship is voluntary. (I know I'm not just imagining this phenomenon because while I don't have many friends now I've been other the annoyed side of it and I'm married, so I hear about and experience first hand the people like this who my wife knows.) I have no reason to think I am that guy. But mostly that's because I'm generally very quiet, almost never go up to talk to people I know, and never ever invite people to do things with me.

I am afraid that if I were to start talking to people and trying to be part of their lives or invite them to be part of my life, I would become that guy. And I would be causing people to dislike me or making them uncomfortable, and I might not even know it, because most people are nice and wouldn't let on that I'm overstaying my welcome or inserting myself where I'm not wanted. And that's a frightening prospect, since everyone in that situation is unhappy.

As a result, I feel like I am always waiting for someone else to come up to me and tell me "I want to be your friend" so that I can be certain that I'm not being merely tolerated. That's my greatest fear. Because, really, I'm an introvert and happily married and generally content not to have real friendships. (I just recognize that perhaps I'm wrong about that and I'm missing something, so I want to figure this out.) Since I'm usually happy by myself, my choice has been not to seek out social relationships instead of being constantly afraid that I was annoying someone.

But I don't get invited to do things with people or sought out for conversation after class. Other people do, somehow! So I assume that that difference is a result of something that's apparent about me. Other people have qualities that make people seek them out for friendship, and for some reason people don't seek me out.

I feel like I should say that I have no reason to think I'm depressed or even that I have low self-esteem. I think I'm an fine guy, easy to get along with. I don't think that my failure to make/attract friends is a judgment on my quality as a person. But I know that just because someone is an utterly unobjectionable human being doesn't mean that specific other people want to be their friend. Obviously that's a very personal thing.

I'm really afraid of exercising the kind of confidence that seems necessary to start conversations or plan dates/events. For some people (in particular situations), that confidence is warranted because people are happy to be on the receiving end. For others, it's not, because people (in that particular situation) aren't attracted to them.

How do I stop assuming that I'm in the second group?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Therapy and gradual exposure (practice).
posted by mpls2 at 1:34 PM on September 14, 2009

As a result, I feel like I am always waiting for someone else to come up to me and tell me "I want to be your friend" so that I can be certain that I'm not being merely tolerated.

Yeah, me too. The thing is people are probably doing this already in subtle ways. People may be trying to reach out to you but you have this internal dialogue and attitude that it's not worth the effort to reach out yourself and you don't realize these subtle bids for friendship or conversation. It takes a lot of energy to be closed off because you are afraid of being hurt or rejected.

This is how I try to look at it: Life is short. I'm never going to be in the same situation twice. An entire class could come and go, or an entire athletic season, or club or whatever, and I want to leave that situation with at least enjoying some of the people that are in it with me. There is no need to find a best friend, that is a lot of pressure and rare, but I would at least want to not be so closed off. I'm pleasant and smiley but more often than not I say little or nothing to people, or become annoyed at small talk or predictable joking. This is just a defense mechanism because I'm scared as hell. It's an exhaustive existence and I try to limit that kind of behavior. Either I can seize the moment and try to make small talk, be pleasant, and try to have a good time, or I continue being closed off and quiet because I'm afraid nobody will enjoy talking with me.

Most people are not so shallow. Most people are going to enjoy talking with you. A lot of people have the same insecurities and shyness and apprehension of talking with others and making friends. You just have to continue telling yourself that you are worthy (act like you belong even if you don't think you do) and keep putting yourself out there even if it is painful and uncomfortable. Breathe the discomfort in. Live with it and keep practicing. If people want to label you as annoying or whatever, (they're not) that is their problem. That will ease your anxiety.

I think it would be good if you and your wife put yourself in social situations together. It might be easier to socialize as a couple.
posted by Fairchild at 1:55 PM on September 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm in a similar situation as you ... in fact, I could have written this AskMe (aside from the grad student and married part). As hard as it is, I've found that forcing myself to "risk" being That Guy has found me many good ... acquaintances at least, and even a few friends. Yes, it's scary as hell, and I pretty much have to do it on days where I feel on top of the world (just not enough strength to do it other times)... but the times I have come out of my shell, it is overwhelmingly statistically a good idea (we're talking 2 or 3 times when the bad stuff I was expecting happened to... probably at least 100 times it's gone at least passably well - not necessarily a friendship, but a positive, reciprocated pleasant interaction). If it helps any, also, look at how many people have favorited your AskMe. As of my posting here, that's 12 other MeFites who want to see the answers here - you're definitely not alone. I have a theory that nearly everyone out there is to some extent scared to interact and in their shell... Kudos to you for wanting to step forward and interact! It's totally worth it, as hard as it is.
posted by frwagon at 2:10 PM on September 14, 2009

Most people are in fact, neutral towards you. It's nice to have you around because there's another person to talk to, but if you aren't, they aren't going to cry about it. Put less pressure on yourself to 'perform' in social situations.
posted by moiraine at 2:36 PM on September 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think it helps to view human interactions on a spectrum. In your case, you will want to look at the "unnoticed-wallflower" to "obnoxious-twat-that-nobody-wants-around" spectrum.

you are here
unnoticed wallflower - - - - - - - - - - - - - average person - - - - - - - - - - - - obnoxious-twat-that-nobody-wants-around

As you can see, you have a lot of breathing room. Go wander. Don't worry about accidentally slipping into far right hand side of the spectrum. You will have plenty of warning before you get there.
posted by baxter_ilion at 2:51 PM on September 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

We're all afraid of being That Guy. Well, most of us--the only ones who aren't afraid of being That Guy are, most likely, That Guy. Knowing that may be helpful.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:54 PM on September 14, 2009

As a result, I feel like I am always waiting for someone else to come up to me and tell me "I want to be your friend"....But I don't get invited to do things with people or sought out for conversation after class. Other people do, somehow!

The "somehow" here is not mysterious at all. The "somehow" here is that those people are not waiting for other people to come up to them and tell them they want to be their friends.

People who invite people to things get invited to things. People who make overtures to people get overtures made to them.

Just try. The worst that can happen is that you might annoy someone.

Or, Toastmasters. I recommend Toastmasters all the time, but it really helps people work through their social awkwardness.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:55 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding what Fairchild said about people reaching out in subtle ways. I can recall times when my acquaintances would mention little details about their lives, but I didn't pursue those topics for fear of prying. In retrospect, they probably wanted to talk about it, and they must have thought that I wasn't interested.
posted by ambulatorybird at 3:00 PM on September 14, 2009

In addition to the advice above, you've got to just take the risk that occasionally you'll be That Guy, in some minor way. People have to know you're interested in hanging out with them. Invite people to do stuff, and invite yourself along to open-ended group activities. If after one (or maybe two) times putting yourself out there with a specific person or group, you don't get any reciprocation or increased recognition/socializing, then back off.

But you can't let the worry that you might incidentally impose yourself on someone paralyze you. That's analysis for later, after one or two unreciprocated events. If people feel imposed upon after a minor overture of friendship, fuck 'em. Really. Being That Guy is about longer-term failure to take a hint, not the inherent uncertainty at the potential beginnings of friendships.
posted by mercredi at 3:01 PM on September 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

You will be That Guy for a while, because surprise, you're socially awkward.

As others have said, you learn social skills with practice, and eventually you'll be That Guy much less often.

But you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself, to inconvenience other people, and to be unwanted, because that's how you get the experience and practice you need to be socially competent.

Personally, I'm thankful when I mess up socially, because it's an opportunity to learn.
posted by trevyn at 4:14 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Learn to be a good listener. That guy's problem is that he doesn't listen to anybody, so he doesn't hear the reactions to him when he behaves badly. The way to not be that guy is to listen.

Offer low-key friendship, as in "Wanna go get a beer/coffee/sandwich?" Read How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie. It's kind of cheesy, okay, quite cheesy, but it works. Remember to ask Jane in Billing about her granddaughter. Send Jason the link about Tactical Bacon, because you know he thinks zombies are funny. Ask your boss how his weekend was. You don't have to be a suckup; just be a little bit interested in people. If you just worked on a spreadsheet for 2 hours with a coworker, and you're going for lunch, say "Hey, wanna grab a sandwich?"

Be accessible, and take a few risks. Go to a MeFi meetup, even if you're shy. If there's a blanket "Drinks after work" invite, Go. Have a beer or 2, and do it again next week or the week after. A lot of what we know as friendship is familiarity and shared experience.
posted by theora55 at 4:22 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Please talk me out of my anxiety about making friends.

No. You cannot be talked out of your anxiety regarding making friends. Anxiety is a feeling. You will continue to have this feeling regarding your human relationships for the rest of your life. It is a feature, not a bug. It is there to make sure that you don't slap strangers and pee in your neighbor's yard.

Instead, you must learn to accept it for the tool that it is, and learn how not to react to it so strongly. In short, your issue is your reaction to the anxiety, not the anxiety itself. Somewhere along the line you have learned that it is terrible to have anxiety and if you are having anxiety, it means something bad is about to happen.

I'd be willing to bet that when you were younger, when you were anxious, it usually did mean something was wrong. Usually it is a yelling/abusive parent or authority figure. You learned that if there was anxiety, it meant keep down and do nothing.

Now you are having regular old anxiety everybody gets about things. But your reaction is to do nothing, because that may have worked for you in the past.

So how to get over this? Simple. When you feel anxious, find where the feelings are in your body, back, chest, whatever, and then just focus on those feelings. Let your self feel the anxiety for as long as you can. Make a game of it. Keep your concentration on your anxiety and its physical manifestations. Do not engage the object of the anxiety--do not try to come up with words of comfort or a plan that will make the object of the anxiety less likely to occur. Do it all of the time.

Also, try therapy--it can really help.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:48 PM on September 14, 2009 [10 favorites]

Just a thought: You're thinking about yourself too much in this.
People generally enjoy other people who make them feel good, because in general, everyone else is thinking about themselves too. People will think they like you and enjoy being around you if you make them feel good. If you're in a knot over being socially awkward, and quiet and withfrawn as a result, they're most likely interpreting your behaviour as you being disinterested in them. If you turn the focus to others, you'll find people will seek you out.

Think about it. The people you like are generally the ones who make you feel good, right? Make others feel good, and you will never be the annoying hanger-on.

In practical terms, this is easy to execute - listen often, ask questions about what others think about things, show an interest, make plans with people and engage others in an interested way. Be thoughtful and open. Try not to spend too much time thinking about how you come across.

It reminds me of this one time when I was sitting on a beach in a bikini feeling like what right do I have to be here, in a bikini, (and how do I look? and am I awfully pale? and my goodness fretfretfret...) when all of a sudden it occured to me that everyone around me was simply too likewise self-involved to give a damn anyway. Instant freedom.
posted by lottie at 5:35 PM on September 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Hello, me! I've been thinking of asking this question myself lately, because I've recently started working in a new environment and feeling a lot like the new kid at school who has to size up the cliques in the cafeteria and determine who she can eat lunch with.

I disagree with trevyn. You're not That Guy, you're... who? You're probably so quiet and withdrawn people forget you're there, which makes it almost impossible for you to be That Guy, if that makes you feel any better. This is also why people aren't seeking you out for conversation after class. If you don't seem open and approachable, people will be unsure if you want to be asked to join them at the pub. "Gee, anonymous boots in and out of here so fast without talking to anybody, he must be really busy/have lots on his mind. We won't bother him then."

Like you, I feel incredibly relieved when somebody approaches me and does all the legwork of the whole introduction and get-to-know-you dance. I'm so grateful for all of the friendly people who have made my new workplace feel welcoming. And you know what? I want to be more like these people. No one who has approached me and asked me if I want to grab lunch with them has been That Guy.

You don't have to throw a houseparty or horn your way into other people's conversations to start making acquaintances. A "hi" and a smile as you enter class and a "see you next time" or "goodnight" as you leave will signal that you're interested in your classmates and open the door to something bigger down the road.
posted by Rora at 5:53 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

You need to disconnect this from anxiety. As long as you connect 'making friends' with 'anxiety' in your head it's going to be too hard before you even start. Even just thinking of it as 'sometimes I feel anxious in social situations' is better.

One way I do this in social situations is a bit of an internal mind game: I think of myself as a social scientist trying out different behaviors to see what sort of response I get from others. This disconnects me from it being so personal - talking to strangers - and if I'm rejected then that's just data to be collected for my imaginary study of public responses. It's kind of dumb I know, but it works for me. Makes me laugh and relax a little about it all.

Behaviors I experiment with are things like make eye contact, smile, have open body language, introduce myself, comment on something they said (for example: 'I like what you said about blaa blaa blaa.' or 'how do you know about such in such?")

I also try to remind myself that the other half of the conversation shares in the success or failure of connecting. And I am generous with the other side. Maybe they're busy, preoccupied, experiencing their own anxiety, whatever. If people are rude or mean I try to remember it's not about me it's something going on with them and I don't know anything about that.

Be sure to pick the right environment. One YOU are comfortable in. One that attracts people who share your interests.

And you have to let go of the fear of being the 'vaguely annoying guy.' The people who are kind to that person are being kind because they want to - not out of some huge horrid pressure to be so. And if people want out of a social situation they usually figure one out. Stop doing that to yourself. You're probably not even that person at all. And if you are it's not all the time every social situation so cut yourself some slack.

Know that everyone makes social errors. Even the other people you watch that seem so confident and secure. I like to think that I am going to emit kindness out into the world therefore I'll attract that in others. Generally that works. You can do this. You have something to offer. Good luck.
posted by dog food sugar at 6:24 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

It strikes me that your concept of how friendships start is cartoonishly simplistic. You seem to think that the people around you already know whether they like you or don't like you. The reality is that they can't possibly know, because they haven't interacted with you. Even if they've noticed you and formed some loose impression based on your appearance or the books you carry, they have nothing invested and don't care much about you at all. Getting to know other people is a gradual process of discovery and deepening acceptance; the real risks, at the outset, are tiny.

In the event that someone who doesn't know you feels some serious discomfort with you, then it really has nothing to do with you at all. You will have been merely a screen upon which they've projected whatever has made them uncomfortable. You have no control over that sort of thing, and it makes no sense for you to take any responsibility for it. It'll be pretty rare anyhow.

More broadly, it is other people's responsibility to communicate their preferences. You cannot reliably guess their feelings. Yeah, some people will dislike you for one reason or another, won't tell you. That's their choice, and does not indicate any failure on your part. Some may nevertheless resent you for not knowing how they feel, but that's their personal problem.

Also, get comfortable with discomfort. It happens to everyone every day. You'll live. Other people will live. Being the catalyst for someone else's discomfort is not a crime.

Having said all of this, I used to feel exactly this way all the time and still suffer similar anxieties when I'm in a low spot. But I can see now that the idea that one should "make" friends, as if they were a craft project, is a trap in itself. You don't "make" friends. You simply go out there and be yourself, in view of other people. Some of those other people will be repulsed for reasons of their own, but some will laugh at the things you find funny, love the book you're carrying, think that your awkwardness is cute or that your bike is cool. Some of those people will invite you to join them for a beer, or you'll invite them. Sometimes the invitee will accept, and you'll suddenly find yourself drinking a beer and talking with someone you don't know very well but find appealing. You won't be friends at this point, but you'll realize that you don't need to be. You'll be okay just as you are.
posted by jon1270 at 7:33 PM on September 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

I hardly read this post or the responses, but want to post my advice anyway...

My God man. You are making an argument against even trying! Anything in life can fail! People take this chance when they do something uncomfortable. You need to give yourself permission to try and FAIL! (e.g. I made that person really uncomfortable and they had a bad time, oh well, my intentions were good and I was trying).

Damn! What's wrong with the world is not people trying it's lack of trying! Get out there now!
posted by xammerboy at 8:16 PM on September 14, 2009

I'd try Toastmasters, for getting over social phobias, etc. You meet people there, know how to give speeches, praises people, look others in the eye, etc.

Lots of clubs all over the place - try for a club near you.

I sure tell people about this approach.


posted by Kalepa at 8:43 PM on September 14, 2009

You've gotten a lot of good advice already, so let me just add something that has helped me:

Realize that even if everyone is sighing behind your back and saying "What's THAT GUY doing here?" it's not really something you can control. I had to say to myself, even if everyone is just humoring me, being polite, pretending to enjoy my company only to complain behind my back, that's their lie, and their problem, and they have to deal with the results of being dishonest (i.e., having me around). I find it easier to crawl out from under my rock if I no longer feel like I'm the guilty party if people are just humoring me.

Now, you can get away with this because, as baxter_ilion notes, you've got a lot of leeway on the wallflower --> clueless douchebag spectrum. Just be a good listener and accept some invitations--even if that invitation is just eye contact and a brief observation about something after class. (Also note that every group of friends needs someone quiet, a Nick Carraway type, and you're probably well positioned to fill that role. Not everyone needs to be the life of the party).
posted by EL-O-ESS at 8:56 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Two notes on friendship to keep in mind:

1) As it's been mentioned before, people are probably trying to get to know you by using social cues. You--like me!--are probably so balled up with anxiety about the idea of being That Guy that you're not even noticing these preemptive friendship signals.

Here's an example. During my freshman year of college, I hardly knew anyone. One girl in my classes would constantly talk to me. She asked me if I wanted to check out her cool room; I said, "No thanks!" She asked me if I'd seen the future Stewie episode of Family Guy; when I said no, she invited me to watch it with her. I said, "Nah, I don't really want to see it right now."

It was a couple of days later that I realized she had been trying to become my friend. I hadn't even noticed.

Realizing that I'd been an airhead, I went to her and mentioned that the Family Guy viewing sounded cool. It was a bit awkward, but I knew that at least someone in our pair was interested in starting a friendship. Everything worked out for the best, and we're still friends to this day.

In this situation, the girl never stated, "I want to be your friend!" If I hadn't decoded the (fairly obvious!) signals, then I'd probably have one less friend to this day.

2) On the flip side, your own "friendship signals" may get crossed in the wires. Like attracts like; you might try to befriend someone like you or me, and they might be oblivious to your advances. Don't give up! It's hard, I know, but your persistence will be worth it.

Maybe you make a friend; maybe you don't. Your anxiety is turning a normal social interaction into a Big Deal. As much as you may not like it, you shouldn't fight against your anxiety. I've found that putting up a fight only makes things worse. Instead, you should accept your fears for what they are.

A counter-intuitive idea that I've heard of to help combat fear is to purposefully try to worsen the symptoms of your anxiety. Heart racing? Try to make it beat faster. Feeling woozy? Bring on the nausea! By doing this, you can starve the vicious circle of anxiety feeding anxiety. This method helps prove to your rational mind that fear isn't pathological--it's simply there. I've tried this method for my own fears, and it can be hit-or-miss. But, from what I've heard from other nervous Nellies, it's a pretty powerful technique!

I hope this helps. You're not alone. :)
posted by ElectricBlue at 12:08 AM on September 15, 2009

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