Connect the dots (or, people..)
January 9, 2012 11:31 AM   Subscribe

How do you connect with people? How do you reach out to someone you're interested in getting to know better to let them know you're interested in them as a person (with or without romantic potential). I suffer from a bit of social anxiety and shyness so I tend to feel extremely awkward in approaching opportunities for one-on-one interaction.

I've spent the last 15 years or so wandering my way through a series of ready-made social circles. Stepping into a new partner's group of friends, walking into a gaming group or local alternative community, etc. I've relied on those groups to provide me with acquaintances which might develop into friendships. I move around a lot, so this has been the easiest, most efficient way to meet lots of people in new cities. The problem is, group dynamics tend to be about the group, its particular cliques and internal dramas...

It doesn't always lend to individual one-on-one interactions, and actually connecting with another member of the group is more the matter of luck than anything else.

Most of my friendships are superficial, people who I see in group settings and get along with, but rarely talk to as individuals unless they need something from me. I tend to become the advice column / sounding board for those who need to talk, but never have anyone to turn to when I need someone.

When I move away, even those who cling and cry about my leaving quickly stop responding to my attempts to keep in touch, and going back to visit is like walking in as a stranger again. They've already forgotten me, or enmities have popped up somehow in my absence.

This carries over into my relationships, as I tend to be a very ah... impulsive type of person, diving head first into new relationships because I don't want to lose the heat and passion of infatuation. Becoming intimate so quickly usually bypasses a lot of the "getting to know you" stuff... and later when passion begins to settle, I find myself trapped with someone I barely know and don't know how to talk to. The relationship quickly disintegrates as they feel bitter over my "sudden" desire for communication instead of intimacy.

I've followed the same pattern so many times I could walk this maze backward with my eyes shut and still end up at the same destination as always.

In 6 months or so I'm moving out of state, to a place where I don't know anyone. I'm fantasizing about this being a real chance to start over, break pattern and re-lean how to interact with people on an individual basic. Maybe even learn to connect and develop meaningful friendships/relationships... and if that also leads to future romantic relationships being more about what we have in common than how we get on in the bedroom, that'd be awesome too.

My current plan involves taking my puppy for lots of long walks, reading a lot of books, taking plenty of time for self examination to see where I can improve. I want to take the opportunity for a complete change toward the better, leaving most of my self destructive habits behind. I'll read in the park and talk to anyone who strikes up a conversation... avoid the party and bar scene and other situations that will lead me back to the same type of people who have encouraged my bad habits in the past...

I've got the "bettering myself" plan worked out..

I still have no clue how to actually connect with people, or meet people without relying on some kind of social group... I'm not looking to date so would prefer not to involve dating sites and such. I know I can just walk up to interesting looking people and say hello, but... what to say or how to not seem creepy?

Or I could just ramble at people in real life the way I do online, and if they think its cute maybe they won't run away :)
posted by myShanon to Human Relations (19 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I'm kind of the same way -- and it sounds like maybe you have the same problem I figured out I had. The problem wasn't making the initial connection, the problem was the escalated intimacy. You're seeing them as besties -- because that's what you're wired to do. But they aren't seeing YOU as besties just yet, and THAT is the real reason for the quick-drop when you leave a group. (Yeah, yeah, I know they cry when you leave -- but you can cry over the end of a relationship you always sort of knew would be short-term as well.)

So it sounds like your method of MAKING the connection is just fine, and that the problem is actually your escalating that connection to "close and intimate" really fast. I'd focus on slowing that down instead -- that will let you let the real and true intimate relationships develop on their own, but will also spare you the upset if any of the short-and-sweet, bright-and-fast acquaintanceships burn out (and they often do).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:39 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have you considered that you're acting as a sounding board, but you're not offering up your own challenges and vulnerabilities to others? Getting to know people better tends to include an escalation of topics that get more intimate over time, whether that be about a medical issue or a family issue or a childhood trauma.

So if you can, move more slowly with everyone new. Ask about their lives, and venture something about yours. Don't invest a lot of energy in people who you don't enjoy. Lastly, therapy helped me with self esteem and self awareness, both of which helped me with similar social anxiety issues. If you're not interested in therapy, you might take a look at some of the workbooks and primers out there for those with social anxiety.
posted by ldthomps at 12:07 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @EmpressCallipygos I escalate quickly with romantic/sexual relationships... platonic friendships I tend to be awkward and standoffish (which I think contributes to my impulsiveness with relationships... gotta grab it before it gets away).

The acquaintanceships tend to smoulder for a bit... we chat now and then, they call if they need help moving, borrow money, a shoulder to cry on, but not if they're happy and looking for someone to celebrate with. We get along great in the group settings and everyone says they're happy to see me, but I go home alone and don't hear from anyone until the next planned outing. I regularly hear about "a bunch of us went out last night" from facebook posts but never get the invitation. Now and then someone from a group will latch on or make me their little pet (aka, take me under their wing and make sure I get dragged out to everything) but otherwise i'm just kind of there... Fun to hang out with when I'm around, but otherwise out of sight out of mind
posted by myShanon at 12:24 PM on January 9, 2012

Response by poster: @ldthomps I do offer my own stories... Being open about my adventures and troubles seems to be part of why people come to me when they need to talk, because they know I've been through a lot and won't judge them for whatever they're dealing with. I'll admit, I'm better at talking than asking questions, so if they don't volunteer details of something I don't generally push for more. If it comes up in conversation I'll show interest, but I don't really know how to go out of my way to ask the type of questions that will get someone to open up if they're not already willing to do so.

I'm willing to look at therapy, I'm actually starting classes online with intention of eventually getting a Psychology degree and firmly believe that any therapist or psychologist or counselor should have been through the process as a patient as well... Beyond that, i do know I have some things I need to work on (depression, for one)... The problem there is money and opportunity. Since I plan to move out of state I'm not sure there's much point in the expense and effort of opening up to a therapist for only a few months, just to start over in a new city. I do plan to look at options after the move, though.
posted by myShanon at 12:29 PM on January 9, 2012

I escalate quickly with romantic/sexual relationships... platonic friendships I tend to be awkward and standoffish (which I think contributes to my impulsiveness with relationships... gotta grab it before it gets away).

*nods* yup.

The acquaintanceships tend to smoulder for a bit... we chat now and then, they call if they need help moving, borrow money, a shoulder to cry on, but not if they're happy and looking for someone to celebrate with. We get along great in the group settings and everyone says they're happy to see me, but I go home alone and don't hear from anyone until the next planned outing.

*nods* Yup. Sometimes these things just take time, though.

Also -- have you tried being the person who DOES the inviting? You know, rather than waiting for them to invite you along to a movie and then getting annoyed when they don't, have you tried being the one to INITIATE the "hey, guys, let's all go and do [Thing]" plans? I've found that's helped a lot.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:29 PM on January 9, 2012

Response by poster: I've tried organizing a few things... hosted a couple of good parties while I was with my ex, but everything I've tried in the current group since he and I split... has met with zero interest. The majority of the group stopped talking (or responding) to me after the break up (which was mutual and we're pretty much best friends, so there was no need to take sides). The only conclusion I can come up with is that they were only friendly with me because they like him. One of the girls has said a few times "We should get together" but always has a reason she's busy when I suggest actually doing something. Pretty much the only person from that group who talks to me anymore is the ex. He tried organizing something I said I wanted to get people together for, but when he mentioned that it was my idea everyone suddenly lost interest.

Frankly there's too much bs and drama with that group, which is part of why I've decided to move out of state (minor reason, the primary reason is I really hate oklahoma and the weather keeps me constantly miserable). I'm starting now on looking at ideas for how I might get a better start in a new city, and how to focus on actually getting to know people instead of joining up with some group or other as I've always done before. Its been made pretty clear that I'm not particularly wanted within the circle I've spent the last 2+ years in, so I'm focusing on a more hopeful future instead of what looks like a collection of mysteriously burnt bridges.
posted by myShanon at 12:39 PM on January 9, 2012

Hmm. It sounds like you're taking that one incident and sort of projecting it across your entire past -- it sounds like what you're facing now is indeed a case of people "taking sides" even though they didn't really technically need to.

and this may not be because they don't like you or anything -- they may just feel weird about the whole situation because "ooh they broke up and that just feels all oogy and I don't want to accidentally say the wrong thing and ack" and that sometimes does make people "pick sides" even though they don't intend to. And since they knew him first, then...that's where they fell. And it sounds like the problem is more with them than with you.

In other words -- it sounds like this is a much more specific situation, and that situation is -- you're actually doing okay, you just met a bunch of duds.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:59 PM on January 9, 2012

Response by poster: No... the most recent incident is part of a pattern. I've been through similar situations in the past, several times, I'm only describing the most recent one because its where I am in life today... and I'm looking to break away from the entire pattern, not just leave this specific group behind.

the more generic pattern of being the shoulder to cry on or the pocket to dig into (aka, being used under the guise of friendship) has happened in several different states. Being hugged and talked to and told how happy they are to see me when I show up at a party, movie gathering, or whatever else.... but not invited to impromptu events... has happened multiple times in different groups. The out of sight out of mind thing has happened in several groups in different states.

I guess you could say that I get on well in large groups but not so well in one-on-one situations? I can take the spotlight and tell stories that have people doubled over with laughter, but flounder in private conversations or say the wrong thing without meaning to.

In the last 15 years, I've had friendships where there was a sense of "being connected" so few times they can be counted on one hand.

I can chit chat and hang out, but when it comes to forming any sort of bond (aside from sexual, for the duration of the passionate "new relationship energy" phase) there's nothing.

Even in the few cases of sharing a connection, it just kind of happened on its own. We found out we had a lot in common and were able to share those experiences, the feeling of connection was mutual... and even they can't say how or why it happened, only that they felt it.

... the last 15 years is just since high school really, and before then I really wasn't able to connect either, I was the girl in the corner lost in series of books. I didn't start to learn how to be more outgoing until after high school, which was when I discovered that ready made social groups made it easier to meet people... thus taking the first steps into the current pattern.
posted by myShanon at 2:03 PM on January 9, 2012 earlier note applies (work on not feeling intimate with platonic friends right away).

Also, may I make an observation? You've been sort of grabbing at details of things one or another of us has said and saying, "no, but see, it's like this...." and giving us big long detailed Framings For Why We Aren't Getting It. It reminds me of something I saw one character in a webcomic say to another - she had asked him for advice, and he pointed out something that she'd done to exacerbate the situation -- and she said, "wait, let me explain the situation again so I'm right." It sounds kind of like you're sort of trying to do the same thing here -- we make some suggestions, and you come into say "no, but see, it's like this, and so what you're suggesting isn't quite it...."

The reason I notice this isn't because I think it makes you a bad person. I just wonder if maybe you have some idea in your head about what the cause of this problem is, so that if anyone suggests an alternative you are compelled to try to re-explain it so you get the answer you want. And if that's a trait you have in general, that may be something else you want to look at in yourself.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:01 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Neh... Its just kinda hard to be clear on my life history without writing a novel, so I explain various points as they arise :)

Some of it is hard to explain. I don't feel any intimacy with platonic friends, so I'm not sure how to be... even more distant and awkward? Its something I can work on, as far as trying to be aware of how close I try to get vs. how close they seem interested in letting me?

I have no idea what the cause is, and if I thought I knew the answer I wouldn't ask. I just know that I have trouble establishing connections with other people (whether platonic or otherwise). Others seem to manage it easily, so maybe there's just some trick or element of the process that I'm somehow missing.

Maybe growing up with my nose in books led to missing out on some life lesson that should have taught me how to get close to other people without feeling like there's an invisible wall in the way? Something that people who are better at it might be able to explain?
posted by myShanon at 4:51 PM on January 9, 2012

Response by poster: I just wanted to apologize if it did come across as me arguing, it was completely unintentional.

I'm not looking for a specific answer, but trying to make sure my actual question gets answered. These online advice type deals so often go off track over unclear details :(
posted by myShanon at 7:14 PM on January 9, 2012

Speaking of details: has the pattern in your social life been that it's been dominated by one particular group most of the time?

I do offer my own stories

Do you talk about your feelings? Because my experience is that people who are smart, and have interesting stories, and are maybe a little shy/awkward individually but capable of performing well in large groups can sometimes come off as extremely self-sufficient, and people don't reach out because they think you're off doing your own thing, and doing just fine. And speaking of awkward, it's an awkward dance figuring out how much vulnerability is appropriate to show and when and to whom, but that's where the tight connections are formed. My personal approach tends to be to try to start out being a bit dry and self-deprecating, which gives me the option to move into outright humor if people are uncomfortable or moving a little deeper if they show signs of being willing to dig in with me.
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:31 PM on January 9, 2012 [7 favorites]

A little more feelings-giving and a little more inviting-to-one-on-one stuff on your own initiative (drinks after work, dinner, cup 'o tea). You want time to get under the surface of each person's public story, and let them get under the surface of yours.

It's best to have a few non-work, self-indulgent passtimes you're proud of, that you can pursue on your own. They will help stabilize you when people fall through, and give you the comfort and grounding required to open yourself up some.
posted by ead at 9:05 PM on January 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: First of all, give yourself a break - multiple cities in 15 years means you have not stayed not very long anywhere. Solid friendships take time - years, often.

I recommend taking a class or two in fun, interesting things in your new town. Something that meets over 6-12 weeks, is more interactive than lecture, that sincerely interests you.

For me it was a pottery class, then a sailing class. In each case, I connected with a few people, talked to them during & after class, eventually suggested we adjourn to a bar or go for a beer another night. Tell stories, ask questions, listen, be interested... Repeat. Serious academic classes may not be as effective as icebreakers. Less than 4 meetings isn't going to give you a chance to find your peeps & connect.

Commit to volunteering regularly with other people - at a library, animal shelter. Look for a "community kitchen", "community garden" or "community theater". Join a choir. Find a hiking group. Don't assume that your new friends have to be share your age/class/gender.

Do things that you enjoy and explore things that intrigue you.

Help your potential friends without thought of reward, but don't let an individual "overdraw" at the MyShanon bank.
Finally, if you know where&when you're leaving, you might start researching counsellors & therapists before you go. It can sometimes take time to get an appointment.

Good luck.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 9:54 PM on January 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You can't control how people in your new city will react to you, good or bad. I think it's easy to believe one was sick on the day when everybody else got the 'how to find friends' talk. The best you can do is be your true self and create opportunities to connect with the interesting people you meet. Maybe they'll bite. Maybe they won't.

I think when a social group has been consistently piggybacked on a relationship for years and years, it's easy for a person to forget the skill of making friends. Or maybe, if you started dating young enough, you never really learned. You never had to work to build friendships, and now here you are in the single wilderness without friendship survival skills.

The things I have learned about being a friend are:

1) Never offer/commit an act of friendship with a particular self-beneficial outcome in mind, because you are likely to end up disappointed and project that disappointment onto the other person, when the problem is really yours.
2) Create opportunities. Take initiative. Sometimes you have to work to see the opportune moments.
3) Let people do as they will without blame.

Say you gave an acquaintance two movie passes thinking that the acquaintance would invite you and thus create a bond of friendship. And the acquaintance says thanks and invites someone else and leaves you behind. You assume the acquaintance doesn't like you or doesn't want to be friends, and give up. You'd have messed up #1.

Say you meet a couple of people who like a TV show you also enjoy. Instead of letting this pass by as a bland conversation topic, you recognize this as an opportunity to invite them over to have snacks and watch the TV show together. (#2 I think this is the hardest thing to learn as a friendship-weak introvert - how to see social opportunity. The other hard part is routine friendship maintenance.)

Say you've taken the initiative a couple of times and invited people over and it hasn't worked out. They politely decline or just no-show. Instead of looking for what is wrong with you ("I'm insecure, awkward, impulsive") or what is wrong with them ("they're cliquish, they like drama") just accept that they are doing what they want to do. What you want and what they want is simply not in alignment. (#3) Let them go without judgement. Seek out other people whose idea of friendship matches yours. (It's possible this is really bad luck and your continued graciousness will be quietly appreciated.)

"Fun to hang out with when I'm around, but otherwise out of sight out of mind"

It's possible the fact that you categorize yourself is creating the wall and sabotaging your deeper connections. Did you ever say to friends after they posted about a get-together you missed, "Oh my god, you guys, that looked like so much fun! Please invite me next time! I'd love to be there! I'll bring the jell-o!"? Or did you just think, "They must not have wanted me there for some reason. It would be embarrassing to acknowledge that I was excluded."? 'Cause the second attitude is keeping you locked out.

Nothing kills potential friendship faster than obligation and stifled bad will. I think the people who seem to make friends easy know this. They know how to recognize the people whose idea of friendship matches theirs, and spend their social energy efficiently. They don't take mishaps personally. They always assume the best. They are secure in themselves and their larger goals. They are patient with others, and patient with themselves.

I wouldn't worry anymore about your ex's social circle. You're moving in six months and you have lots to think about and many adventures to have in your new city. It really doesn't matter if they changed their minds or are simply neglectful. Their needs and your needs don't align, and nothing more. Let them go, without any ill will. Think of it as practice.
posted by griselda at 5:31 PM on January 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: @EvaDestruction From 96-2007 It was mostly the same group, or a series of groups that shared common individuals. In 2007 I finally ran away from home (moved out of state to get away from a lot of bad memories and bad experiences). Since then I have lived in a dozen or so cities in 6 different states. Different social groups in each area.The same types of things happened in each group, which is why I assume the problem is me.

The current place I've been since late 2009, so its the group that I was involved with longest since leaving home. The ex and I used to get invited out all the time, and when we organized things together lots of people showed up... but once we split, I became invisible. Of course, the group was 2/3 female and most of the single gals swarmed over the ex (he started getting messages within minutes of facebook relationship status change, everything from "I've always liked you, we should do coffee sometime" to blunt and graphic offers of sex. It happened again with the next guy I dated from within the group... and again with the one I just broke up with over the weekend).

You may be right... when it comes to acquaintances I try to avoid showing vulnerability which I've been told makes me seem a bit distant if not outright stuck up. I've been burned a few times by people who took things I opened up about and used it to hurt or humiliate me. It takes me a while to become comfortable enough to take risks or trust.

How do you balance the potential for betrayal with the desire to connect, in deciding what risks to take in getting close to people? (if that makes sense?)

@griselda Wonderful suggestions, I'll definitely keep that bookmarked :)

In answer to your question.. Sometimes when people post about an impromptu thing I'll comment saying it sounds like they had a blast. When it something that I really wanted to do and thought they might be willing to repeat, I've posted comments saying something along the lines of "That sounds like it was really awesome, we should organize something like that again... How about (insert date a week or two out, giving people time to plan ahead and invite others as well), or would another date be better for everyone?" Half the time the group did organize a repeat performance, but set it up for a day I couldn't make it because of work or whatever else. The other half I just got no response, or people said they were interested but all cancelled at the last minute or just didn't show. I won't deny that occasionally I get emo about not being wanted, but I hate passive/aggressive behavior, so when I feel that way I don't make comments cause that would amount to guilt tripping them into inviting me next time.
posted by myShanon at 7:02 PM on January 10, 2012

I asked because, if your pattern has been that there's one social group in each place that's the bulk of your social life, that's a pattern that you might want to work to change in your new location. I've generally been fortunate -- post-high school, I haven't had major issues with toxic friends, but the times when I've felt most limited, or most (for lack of a better word) threatened with respect to my social prospects, is when I've been largely reliant on one group of people. That's a hothouse environment, and while it doesn't necessarily have to encourage drama, it often does.

I think Heart_on_Sleeve and griselda have good suggestions about meeting people. Open yourself up to as many different avenues to meet people as you can reasonably sustain (and if you have introverted tendencies, don't over-reach yourself), and keep those open. Having a core group of friends is good, but look for other social outlets, too. I tend to have a 1-2 important groups of friends, often with some degree of overlap (which I may have encouraged), and then a couple other groups or individuals who are more casual, and often based around a shared interest.

You could try explicitly not dating within your friend group. Maybe that'll work for you, maybe it won't, but it has generally worked pretty well for me. Sometimes I get new friends out of it, and my group of friends are then a safer place to retreat to when a relationship ends -- no vultures circling or sides being taken.

As for vulnerability -- it's a risk, and there are no two ways about that. I wouldn't say that it's easy for me. The big reveals definitely take time and effort to work around to, and my history of people disappointing or betraying me is quite a bit older than yours. It might be worth looking at that particular piece of your history -- were the betrayals malicious, or were they thoughtless? It hurts when it happens, regardless, but there's a difference between someone deliberately hurting you when you've opened up to them, and someone just not thinking, or failing to recognize that you've offered them something in confidence. If the history is more the latter, you might want to look at whether you're communicating to people that you're offering them a confidence, or something that you don't want shared widely. Someone who hurts you thoughtlessly might still be able to mend the relationship, but if you've run up repeatedly against a bunch of jerks and bullies, then you might want to discuss with a therapist what you can do to reduce the attraction people like that have for you, and you for them.

Honestly, I don't know that I can intellectualize the process of how I decide how much to trust people. Some of it is confidence that even if things go badly, they can't really hurt me that much. Some of it is testing the waters with small revelations that I can afford to treat lightly if they're not received well (e.g. oddball hobbies, geeky interests, guilty pleasures). Some of it is observation -- do I like the way they interact with other people, do other people seem to trust them, can I see what they do to earn and honor that trust? No small part of it is chemistry, though -- does someone like me, seem to share a worldview with me, just kind of jive with me in a way that makes me feel happy and comfortable with them? Those are the people I will tend to open up to, but the time and opportunities do have to be there, and I wouldn't say that I can necessarily predict who it will happen with.
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:20 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "were the betrayals malicious, or were they thoughtless?"

I've had both happen... I gave an ex boyfriend detailed information on a previous bad relationship, he used that information as well as other things I told him about my past in order to control me and keep me terrified of striking back out on my own, willing to stay with an abusive relationship rather than take the risk that all the terrible things he said about me might be true (worthless, useless, etc). Obviously thats the worst case, and luckily I came to my senses and escaped in less than a year :)

There were other deliberate and malicious things like a friend getting mad at something they thought I did and spreading rumors using information I'd told in confidence and they'd promised to keep to themselves... and of course the thoughtless type things that understandably happen. It never occurred to me to tell people "hey don't mention the kinky stuff on facebook where my mormon family might read it" and the person who made several inappropriate comments is completely open with her family so didn't stop to think that it might cause unpleasantness.

As for groups... Part of my "new me" plan is to not actively seek out groups, and instead focus on meeting individuals. If that leads to meeting people through them and becoming involved in larger groups I'm okay with that... but I'd like to try spending time with each new and interesting person I meet and learning who they are, instead of just where they fit into a group dynamic. It seems like a reasonable plan I hope?
posted by myShanon at 10:46 PM on January 10, 2012

Ugh, I'm sorry. I know those people are out there, but I have not had to deal with any of them directly for a very long time. I hope you won't again, either. And yes, your plan sounds reasonable -- good luck!
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:00 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

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