Help me out of this pattern
September 19, 2011 8:21 AM   Subscribe

I tried starting over. It failed. I am feeling hopeless. I have a small group of friends in my new city, but I don't want to wear them out by being negative or constantly in crisis. I've been in therapy off and on for 15 years and am not in it right now because I don't know if more of it is even what I need.

When I look back over my life, I see two main patterns: being underemployed and attracting narcissists. I thought that if I moved to another city with a better economy and a more liberal, educated population with more artistic venues, I would be in a place where maybe these two things could change.

The first person I met here was someone I found online who had an interesting personal ad in the platonic section of Craigslist and was also a newcomer. Seven months and a lot of tears later, I ended this friendship/romantic relationship because this person did and said many hurtful and critical things to me and I found my self-esteem dropping. I couldn't allow this person to keep destroying it. I've had this dynamic with everyone I've ever been extremely close with. I attract people who are intelligent and charismatic who create intensity with me from the beginning and tell me I am the only one who understands them, and after they build me up, start picking me apart. I have ended every one of these relationships myself after trying to work things out with these people, and in every case they have thrown a fit and never apologized for hurting me. They have all fit the profile of narcissists.

I have some non-narcissist friends who do not create this sort of intensity with me. They're supportive and validating. However, they have lives of their own, being healthy people. Most of them live far away. I don't want to presume on them and ask too much support, even though I'm incredibly lonely right now. I live alone, and the ending of my relationship with my most recent narcissist has left a void in my life. I feel so needy. I know that will just turn off healthy people, whereas narcissists thrive on it and try to create an instant BFF experience. I just don't know how to be the fun and interesting new friend when I'm going through all this. At such times in my life, I isolate until I can't stand it anymore and then I am more vulnerable to a new narcissist friend or lover.

I also thought I would be able to find a better job, but instead I have found two menial low-paying jobs that I now feel trapped in. I was in an industry that died during the recession, and don't have the time or money to upgrade my skill set. I work about 60 hours a week. It's taking its toll on my health. Both jobs are stressful. I have trouble sleeping and have lost my appetite. I feel bad about myself not being able to find anything more professional. I don't have time to exercise to help with my obvious depression, let alone job-hunt for something better, or join meetups to make new friends. Unfortunately, in the early days of my friendship with this most recent narcissistic person, they insisted on meeting people I had met separately from them, and are now part of that budding social circle, and I feel like I have lost some of those other people due to the awkwardness of my friendship ending with the narcissist -- who seems really cool and interesting on the surface, and it would just make me look bad to trash them to these other people.

If you guys think I should return to therapy yet again, I will, but after 15 years I don't know why I am not already better. I've tried medication in the past, too, but the side effects have been awful. I take St. John's Wort now and it does help. I know that when I have time to exercise and sleep, it does wonders. I don't know how to find that time when I have to work 60 hours a week or more just to stay afloat.

FWIW, I'm female, 40+. And I'm ashamed that at this point, I am not further along in the two main arenas of life. I'm scared that it will be this way forever, and I'll just end up an eccentric, lonely person, a semi-charity case, who just dies of stress one day in her lonely little apartment. How can I regain the hope and optimism I had when I first moved here? How can I make healthier friends while I am depressed, lonely, and on the rebound from a narcissist who shook my faith in myself? How can I upgrade my skill set, exercise, and sleep when I work all the time just to make ends meet?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, I do have to say, I'm overwhelmed by the sense of desparate neediness, just from your post. I have to wonder, why are you gauging your life—and the successfullness or lack there of—by other people? I would STRONGLY suggest that you not look for a new relationship at all. For quite awhile. I think you need a break from focusing on other people and depending on them to make you feel good. Don't worry about the job so much. Just bring in the paycheck(s). But what would make you feel better is finding an interest or hobby that you can focus on. Even if it's just reading! Plan weekly trips to the library. Or maybe you always wanted to paint? Look for free classe. Or check out your local game shop and join in on weekly board game sessions.

Some kind of activity that will occupy your mind and give you enjoyment is where you need to start. Then (much later! focus on you for awhile!), through your own interests, you will meet like minded people that you can develop true friendships/relationships with.
posted by Eicats at 8:37 AM on September 19, 2011

Oh- and don't worry about everything all at once. It's enough to freak anyone out.
posted by Eicats at 8:41 AM on September 19, 2011

There's a lot to pull apart in your question, but I will say that anybody who says that you're the "only person who understands" them is someone to run away from quickly.
posted by xingcat at 8:41 AM on September 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've offered this advice in the past, mainly because it helped me so much when I was in these very same shoes.

Start REALLY small. Focus on small, simple joys that are just for you right now. Yeah, work sucks, and yeah, you're having what a friend of mine calls "a bad case of people" right now. But there are still small, simple perks you can give yourself that are cheap, simple, and good.

1. Start with your bed. Take a good look at your bed -- is there anything you can do to improve the sensory experience of your bed? Is it in the wrong place? Could the sheets be a TOUCH more comfy? Figure out what you can afford to upgrade your bed -- whether it's washing the sheets a little more often, or getting a set of sheets with a TINY bit more of a thread count, or just moving it across the room so the sunrise doesn't hit you in the face-- and then do it. Then take a couple minutes each morning right when you wake up to just...focus on the sensory pleasures of your bed. You've created that experience just for you. Enjoy that.

2. Food. Yeah, we know that we're supposed to eat healthy and all that, but we're focused on pleasure right now. Do you notice that you FEEL better when you eat something in particular? Focus on that -- either find the restaurant in your neighborhood that makes it well, or teach yourself to make it, spending time trying different recipes until you have found the most perfect version of whatever-it-is.

Or, maybe you just know that you like to enjoy the kind of long, slow-cooking things that you can putter around the house while you're making it. Pick a couple weekends out of the month and make that thing, and do not feel guilty about the fact that you're staying home all afternoon because you have to watch it cooking. You deserve to have that food, dammit, and you're going to make sure you have it.

3. Your house. Cleaning can be a chore, I know, but doesn't it feel good to have a clean house at the end of the day? Sometimes I find it really grounding and comforting to just give things a really good clean - but only if I ENJOY that clean at the end of the day. Sitting down with a cup of tea and just...being there, looking at how nice and settled everything is and reflecting that I deserve to be in a house that clean.

4. Baths. Even if you can't afford the super-foofy expensive bath stuff, you can make your own - get a package of dried milk power and a package of epsom salts, mix them half-and-half, and you've got a foaming bath mix that works relaly well. Add a few drops of your favorite perfume to the water just for the luxury of it. Another good one that's also good for your skin -- lemon slices, a drizzle of olive oil and a cup of salt, all mixed together and then dumped right in your bath as it's filling. Do that for yourself.

Those are all small and simple things, to remind you that you deserve good things. Focus on that right now to build up your resiliance a bit more while you're coping with the suck that's happening right now. Then you can tackle the rest of the world in a bit.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:54 AM on September 19, 2011 [32 favorites]

Sometimes you have to sit in lonely until you find the strength in it. I second not looking for another relationship --not even being open to one should it happen along-- for a while. You sound stronger & healthier than you think: You know how to recognize a bad relationship, and you have the strength and fortitude to end it. Even a brief look around the green will show you a wealth of people who can't even say that. But that loneliness still scares you into letting in those fascinating, inspiring, and yet...BAD...poeople.

Just do your thing. Pursue your hobbies, invent a few social activities that take you out of your normal group, learn to walk alone... Value your friends, but embrace the solitude. There's things you can do and see and feel that you almost never experience when you're with others. It can be such a breath of fresh air.

So go out and find that air where you can be wholly you & unashamed and unpreoccupied by your singularity. It makes you able to be a better friend to the people who remain with you. It might also give you a better shot at attracting people who value strength & independence.
posted by Ys at 8:57 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have to agree with all the previous answers. You come across as very, very needy, which is a magnet for creepsters of all sorts. I'll also add that, IMHO, you should not look for friends/romantic relationships on craigslist. My sister dated a guy that was "intelligent and charismatic". He is one of those people who, after he destroyed my sister and moved, posts on craigslist and dating sites about being a misunderstood soul and so poetic & insightful and 'invites' people to discover the world with him. He is a sociopath and completely full of himself and crap at the same time. Not a good way to meet people, bottom line.

I did the cross-country move many years ago, killed myself working, and I can tell you that the best way out is to keep looking for a better job (even if it is outside of your industry) and don't lose faith that you will find one. It sounds trite, but it is true.

I'm not one of those people that 's big on suggesting therapy, because I believe you have to fix yourself. I will say that you can meet decent people by volunteering for a good organization. Do VITA/TCE work, volunteer at a nursing home or hospital or animal shelter or homeless shelter, whatever you think is worthwhile. Yes, you work 60 hours a week- I've been there. You can find 2-4 hours a week, I know it because I did it.

As for finding more time, do you work that many hours to keep up with expenses that aren't truly necessary? Are you living in a big, lavish apartment or making do with something decent? If you can cut your expenses, you might not have to work as many hours. Then you would be able to exercise, take classes or pursue a degree to upgrade your skill set, and focus on yourself.

Don't seek validation from others. This seems to be a core issue. Why should you be ashamed of where you are at in life? Life is a series of learning experiences, and is not a contest to see who has the most. The first step for you is self-acceptance and working on your self-confidence, because only after that will you be able to find good people who accept you for you.
posted by bolognius maximus at 8:57 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

the ending of my relationship with my most recent narcissist has left a void in my life

It has not left you with a void in your life. It's just left you with free time. Which it sure sounds like you need to improve your job situation, so it's not like you don't have anything else to do.

Take two years off relationships - full stop no men, and no new friendships unless they grow organically out of an activity you are pursuing to sort your life out. No exceptions. No bullshit "platonic" Craigslist* shit. Own your life, practice being in control of it. Focus on the work situation, because you're not going to find some guy on Craigslist (or, frankly, nearly anywhere else) who's going to fly in on his magic carpet of mentally healthy awesomeness with big old bags of money to save you. Not in this economy, and not in this reality because emotionally healthy people don't want to save other people.

*Craigslist is for other people's old used shit, and for fucking. In two years, if you have to, you can join a real dating site. This is just another method of hating yourself and might even be a form of passive suicide. Clear your browser history and move on. Spend that time reading about 18th century art or something.

You have to be the person you can rely on. Stop making your life about other people.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:24 AM on September 19, 2011 [17 favorites]

Other people are offering you helpful longer-term approaches. In the immediate term, though, you sound understandably exhausted, and that really won't be helping. Do you get paid leave? Can you take a little time off ASAP to give yourself a short break from (some of) the stress? From personal experience, even just a couple of days tacked onto the weekend can be enough to make a difference.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 9:32 AM on September 19, 2011

I've been in roughly similar circumstances, stuck and confused, and I know some people that were in quite similar circumstances. In these cases, 12-step work helped immensely! You don't need to believe in God for it to work, nor do you have to start believing. The work works.
posted by krilli at 9:33 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Anonymous, I can't help but cringe at the responses balking at how "needy" you are coming across. I didn't get that vibe at all from your question. You seemed to have clearly identified the problematic patterns in your interpersonal relationships and I think in so doing you've already clearly charted out what the solution is: trust yourself. If you see all the early warning signs of a narcissistic personality, don't invest in that relationship.

It's true that a lot of people don't have the energy or the time for the level of intensity that seems to really feed you in a relationship or a friendship, so that's just something to take into account. Have reasonable expectations in function of the kinds of people you meet. If you meet a person without a lot of time, don't expect them to be able to be able to provide a great deal of emotional support. Likewise, if someone manifests narcissistic tendencies, you'll know to steer clear.

I do agree with Bolognius that seeking validation from others is a pretty surefire way to make yourself miserable. Often we idealize the people we look for validation from, when in reality they're just as imperfect as we are.

What kind of therapy have you tried? Has it been with one therapist for a long time, a few different ones, or have you gone through many? I think that if you keep burning through them, it may be a sign that you're unwilling to be open to the insights they have about you. On the other hand, if it was one for a long time, it may've been that you didn't mesh. If you've got health insurance, it might not hurt to give therapy another go around if you're open to it--your situation does sound like a lot to deal with on your own, especially since you're saying you don't want to feel like you're burdening new friends with your struggles.
posted by Enneking at 9:49 AM on September 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

Yes, you do sound needy. Which is OK because we're all human with needs, and some of yours aren't being met right now. This is my suggestion for you, a needy person who is feeling sad, overwhelmed and maybe a little hopeless:

You have a lot to give. What about focusing for a little while on what you have to give rather than on what you feel you need? Giving is something you can take control of and be proactive about. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, or play cards with residents at an assisted living facility, or be a literacy volunteer, or help out in an after-school center. Deliver Meals on Wheels, help sort donations at the Salvation Army, volunteer at a 5-K race that benefits a cause you believe in.

I don't suggest this so that you make yourself feel better by seeing the misfortunes of others. I just think that giving feels good. At a particularly low point in my life, my then-teenaged nephew went through two bouts of life threatening illnesses. Contributing to his care and having the chance to get outside of my own head, and be a part of something bigger than myself, was the best possible thing I could do. What I could do for him mattered and that made me feel like I mattered too.

Please just give this a try. You sound so sad but the fact that you're asking for help means you want to connect and be a part of a community. Take the first step by giving of yourself, and see, over time, what comes back to you.
posted by Kangaroo at 10:03 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Want unconditional love? Get a pet! A dog, cat, or other furry cuddly creature (rats are surprisingly affectionate, smart and cuddly, and take up less room than a larger pet) might help fill the void. A pet can't substitute for human contact, but it can blunt the edge of your yearning and give you something to love who loves you back. (Having cats makes a huge difference to my well-being. I went uncatted for five long months earlier this year, then I adopted my current girl from a local shelter and I love her to bits.)

Don't do this if you don't have the time or money to care for a pet, or don't WANT a pet (and dogs are much more demanding than cats), don't do this. But consider adopting a pet or, if you can't, volunteering at a local animal shelter where you can fill up on unconditional kitty and puppy love.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:11 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Take two years off relationships - full stop no men, and no new friendships unless they grow organically out of an activity you are pursuing to sort your life out. No exceptions. "

I did this. Well, I resolved to do it for one year when my dating decisions were clearly repeatedly catastrophic. I called it the "Man Hiatus." I was worried it'd feel limiting, but actually it was such a RELIEF, just not even having that possibility available when I met people, not worrying about looking for relationships, just being able to totally excise all that stress. When I completed the year (and my friends gave me a happy no-man-iversary card, it was cute), I was enjoying my life so much more that I went right on not dating. Didn't date at all for around two and a half years. (During my "prime dating years" when I was meeting "all the right men." It was STILL BETTER not dating!) When I finally decided to date again I dated a dude who was moving to another continent in 12 weeks so I knew it couldn't be serious -- I enjoyed my singlehood too much by then. About six months after that I met a guy, started dating him, and married him. I totally credit the Man Hiatus with getting my head on straight so I could attract the right kind of people and not be a moron in relationships.

BTW, you don't seem needy to me, you seem TIRED. Have you thought about local community colleges for skills retraining? They may have scholarships that would enable you to drop one of the jobs and still pay for classes. Or you can do a ton of classes online these days. Not sure what kind of skills retraining you need, but CCs are cheap and there are scholarships for adult students.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:40 AM on September 19, 2011 [12 favorites]

OP, don’t define yourself as needy, but rather human. Everyone goes through times of loneliness.

I’m just going to give ideas for you deal with part of this. Similar to the other posters, I think that you should take a break from dating. It sounds like not only did you have a “friend” betrayal, but a breakup. So rather than viewing this as a void in your life, try to look at things that you want to do for yourself.

Great! Make a list of things that you want to see, do, and try in your new city (and if you are constrained by funds, google your city plus free, or find a book listing free things to do in your city). Surely there are art galleries, art museums, or something that defines artistic venues to you – and you wanted those things, so go see them. Also, is there anything about artistic venues that you enjoyed (the creative aspect? The art work?) Can you go to the next level and find a class and try it out? Or learn about it? Make it a goal to take part in the community, too. Once a week, even if you are working 60 hours a week, go see or watch or participate in one of these things.

It sounds like you may have moved to a new town to become someone maybe try the things that pulled you to that place and even become some of those things, too.

Great! Make a list of things that you want to see, do, and try in your new city (and if you are constrained by funds, google your city plus free, or find a book listing free things to do in your city). Surely there are art galleries, art museums, or something that defines artistic venues to you – and you wanted those things, so go see them. Also, is there anything about artistic venues that you enjoyed (the creative aspect? The art work?) Can you go to the next level and find a class and try it out? Or learn about it? Make it a goal to take part in the community, too. Once a week, even if you are working 60 hours a week, go see or watch or participate in one of these things.

Also, although I think that you should look for healthy friends, I think that you should challenge the premise that you can’t enjoy things when you are alone and that you “need” someone to fill a void. Go do the things on your list once a week, but before you go, write down how much you think you will like doing it alone…also write down how you found doing it alone when you return (and any ideas that may have changed as a result, too). Do this for a few weeks and I bet you may find that it is okay doing things alone.

As for the work stuff, I would also make that a big priority. What concerns me when I read your description; you don’t mention what you like or wan to do (Hobbies? What type of new job?) Part of the problem may be that you don’t have an interest or interests even or career direction identified. Have you taken these steps yet? If you do have skills that you want to learn, take the reins and ask your supervisor/coworkers, etc., if you can work on any such projects (the goal is to work on building your skill set for the next job). Spend some of the time that you would have spent with the narcissist improving your CV, shopping it around, etc.

Also, I wonder from reading your post (you refer to St John’s Wart, which has a similar MOA to antidepressants, therapy, etc.) if you may have depression right now. It is up to you to decide if you want to get treated (and moving is stressful and could trigger symptoms again), but even if not, remember that it can alter how you perceive things. So instead of seeing neutral faces, you may see a grouchy face. On that note – reach out to your new friends and previous friends. Sure, you dumped the narcissist, but did some of the people in your new group enjoy your company? Hang out with some of those people one on one. Or even if your old friends are busy, call them up, but once a month (and rotate every 2 weeks to another). Just say that you just moved, are feeling a bit lonely, and wanted to hear their voice or catch up with him or her. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing these things; they were/are your friends and probably want to hear from you.
posted by Wolfster at 11:34 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Go to one of those artistic venues and get yourself a ring you really like. Before you put it on your finger, make a promise to yourself, a promise that the ring represents. It's a promise to give yourself a break from the guilt and the self-hatred, to try and love yourself and comfort yourself, to believe that you are in the place you're in because you're unlucky and because the world is shitty sometimes, not because you're bad or unlovable. When you falter, you can look at the ring and remind yourself that you are worthy of love and happiness. It's a reminder that as wonderful as friends are, you can take of yourself, you are strong and beautiful on your own.

Once you've got that down, it's time to make some acquaintances. Not friends, not intense platonic relationships. Acquaintances. Pick one or two nights or days a week that you're going to push yourself to leave the house, even if you're exhausted, and join a club or meetup based on one of your interests - board games, dancing, a book club, brewing, biking, running, volunteering.

Practice reciprocity with the people you meet this way. Take small leaps. Ask them how they got interested in X. How long they've been doing X. What else they do with their time. Have casual conversation with them each time you see them. When you feel like you're starting to get to know them, ask them to get coffee or go see a movie outside of the group. Don't rush things. You can mention your problems, but briefly before moving o to something lighter. Pay attention to how they respond to your confidences. Do they tell you about their own issues? Do they change the subject?

The reason you keep getting into relationships with narcissists is because something inside you is responding to the attention they pay you. Most friendships worth having start slowly and build gradually. If you meet someone who wants to know you - all of you! Right now! All the time! That's a bad sign. Put the brakes on. If they're legitimately interested in you they'll be willing to wait a few weeks, or months to get to know you better.

Try to find at least two or three people who you want to cultivate a relationship with. Don't look for the people you can crush on or who remind you of bad relationships in the past. Look for steady folks like the friends you've made who live elsewhere. People who interest you, who help you feel good about yourself in a genuine, mild way. Eventually these acquaintances will become friends, and eventually those friends will become confidantes. And when that happens, it will be glorious, but in the mean time, you have that promise to yourself to keep.

In the mean time, if you're feeling lonely, rely on the friends you have. If you're worried that you're overburdening them, tell them that. Say, "If I ever get too much for you, let me know and I'll back off. You won't let me down and I won't be mad at you for it. It's important to me that our friendship brings both of us comfort and happiness." In the mean time, you can lighten the burden on your friends by making sure you spend half your conversations talking about them - their joys, their sorrows.

And if you ever feel like you really have no one to talk to, try a phone line, like 1-800-273-TALK. It's not just for suicidal people - it's also for folks who are lonely and need another source of support.

Good luck. You deserve friendship and happiness.
posted by danceswithanonymity at 11:45 AM on September 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

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