Apathetic About Relationships
January 5, 2013 8:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm only 22, but I feel like I've given up on the notion of developing fulfilling friendships or potential romantic relationships with others because of my past. How do I change my attitude so that I can hopefully develop more fulfilling relationships?

I experienced a lot of traumatic human/social relation kind of experiences from the ages of 13-19. During this part of my life, I was bullied on the playground and treated poorly at home.

I don't remember much from this point of my life, but to sum it up: people mistreated me and I remember one person throwing a shoe at me for no reason during elementrary school, I was called a lot of names during this part of my life too, I struggled to fit in during primary and middle school. Then, in high school I found it difficult to make friends and ended up becoming part of one group since a friend of mine talked a lot to the people in this group. Eventually, they all turned their backs on me, ignored me, and chose to side with the bully in the group after she created drama between us. At the time, this was hard for me because I felt particularly close to this person prior to the demise of my relationships with group members including this person. I ended up walking the hallways alone, feeling like an outcast. I missed out on events that feel trivial now like prom, but felt important at the time. I was also bullied by one kid in my science class who called me names like "alien" based on how I looked and threw things at me while nobody did anything to intervene. I truly felt like an outcast and to make matters worse, there was a lot of family dysfunction happening during this point in my life. One parent drank to cope with their depression while the other used physical abuse to express their aggression.

Despite all of this, I still desired friendship, but the emotional residue from my past moved with me into my early college years. I've learned that you can't actually run away from your past. Anyways, during my first year of college I had a difficult time developing friendships with others. I had a really shitty roommate during my first year, we didn't get along, and she reminded me of someone from high school (as discussed in the paragraph above). She was the type of person that threw a party after I had moved out of the dorm room because she was relieved that I was gone. She was the type of person that took the time to get to know others, only to use that information against them so that there was a power struggle in relationships. And, she was the type of person who would make a lot of immature judgement calls towards others based on things like their appearance. So, she was pretty much a mean girl.

I struggled to cope with this part of my life and ultimately bottled everything up inside. This led to a breakdown resulting in a year and a half's worth of therapy sessions, psychiatrist sessions, and psychiatric nurse sessions as provided by the college's resources. I knew that my mental health was in a bad place so I started to distance myself from a lot of people, places, and things in my life that reminded me of my past. I also didn't know how to cope with my mental health, struggled to maintain any sort of relationship with others, and kind of fell off the face of the earth.

During this part of my life, I also developed some really shitty coping methods like drinking severely (lost a lot of friends in freshman year because of this), eating copious amounts of food to the point where I had gained 79 pounds to be exact, and a few other unhealthy things. I also spent A LOT of time cooped up without any plans, watching the time go by as I immersed myself into television shows and the internet.

I am in a much, much better place now. But, I have noticed that I am quite apathetic about developing friendships with others. I feel like I've become a lone wolf because I don't think I'm friendship or relationship material. I just don't feel like anyone would understand me or that I'd find people with similar interests. I think a part of me has also been scared to develop friendships because I struggled with learning how to progress something from an acquaintance relationship to a friendship. With all of this being said, I really like myself, enjoy my company, and take better care of myself now than before. But, I feel like I'll never find my place in terms of friendships or relationships. I feel like I've removed the idea of even developing friendships with others because the time has passed and that so many people around me already have tons of friendships from high school and college. I know that it's never too late to develop friendships, but it becomes harder over the years, especially if you are perceived as different based on your looks or 'off' because of anxiety issues.

How do I change my attitude so that I can develop friendships and relationships with more people? As of right now, I have one friend that I've lived with for three years and another that's from my hometown. The first friendship is more fulfilling because of our personalities which mesh well together although we don't have a whole lot in common whereas the second friendship is less fulfilling, but just a relationship I keep because of our history which has spanned 14-15 years now.

I'm going to be moving to a really big city in less than a year from now so I'm hoping to develop the social skills necessary to develop friendships. So, that's where I turn to you, I'm hoping people can help me figure out how to change my attitude towards friendships and relationships so that I don't miss out on such an important part of life (a part of my life that I desperately longed for during my teens).
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Short answer before I hit the road...

The key thing to any relationship is that it really takes two people understanding eachother. The awesome thing with this, is that you get to define yourself to new people you haven't met, who don't know your past or anything about you except what you do and say. Your traumatic past has clearly affected you, but I'd caution yourself to take it too hard and let it DEFINE you.

You define you. And you are awesome. Have a great day.
posted by Giggilituffin at 8:44 AM on January 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm really sorry you've had such a rough time, OP.

I really like myself, enjoy my company, and take better care of myself now than before

THIS is awesome. That's going to help you a lot.

I am not a therapist, but I think one of the big hurdles for you might be learning to assume good intent and interest ("Most people are good at heart and most of them will be interested in getting to know me.") Obviously this is not true for everyone, but it's very hard to meet the people it is not true for if you start by assuming everyone has bad intentions.

I'd suggest going to some events that are related to your interests and taking it slow. Watch how people interact with each other. See who says hello to everyone. See who offers to help people who are having difficulty. See who's being a jerk.

If you have access to a therapist, set some relationship goals for 2013, and ask them to help you break them down into manageable steps and work your way through them.

Being understood is a complicated thing. No one ever completely understands another person. But people do love each other, care about each other, and share experiences with each other. There's no reason you should not be part of that.

Good luck, OP. I hope some of this is helpful.
posted by bunderful at 9:17 AM on January 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

From your description, I would say I had a similar upbringing. I was teased mercilessly in school about my looks. It was common occurrence to receive prank phone calls and to be asked out as a joke by a popular guy, only to watch him report back to the Cool Kids table so they all could laugh at me. I was picked last in gym class. I never went to parties. My best friend in middle school ditched me because she wanted to become popular. Oh yeah, and my mom used to beat the crap out of me while my dad stood by and did nothing.

These things stayed with me for awhile, making me wary of becoming close to others. I thought I was too ugly and worthless to ever be loved, either by friends or by a partner. I lost my virginity to some fucking asshole when I was 16 who dumped me in the hallway 2 months later.

And then I went to college far away, and decided that I was not going to let my past define me. That was about 8 years ago and it has not been easy; there has been therapy and antidepressants and minor breakdowns along the way. But I love who I am now, and I do not let the unsavory parts of my childhood follow me any longer. You cannot control how you were treated by others, but you CAN control how you treat yourself and interact with the world.

Everyone has a story. Everyone has pain and trouble in life at some point; that should not keep you from pursuing relationships with other people. I am 25, I've had 2 very decent romantic relationships and some of my closest friends I've made this year, way after college. Your life is far from over at 22.

And prom? Absolutely, unequivocally overrated.
posted by thank you silence at 9:48 AM on January 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ok, I'm going to sound like the most obnoxious person, but everyone goes through a period where they give up on love; as you mature, you'll either a) dwell and revel in your pessimism and become a bitter self-fulfilling prophecy, b) become more or less satisfied with the idea of being partnerless and have a happy, full life replete with other kinds of love and experience or c) grow out of it. Since you're 22, I think c) is the most likely option; your life and personality are probably still far from settled.

Just keep working on understanding yourself, loving yourself, being healthy and having a good life. When you are ready to go back out there, you'll know. Be determined to be happy and dedicated to fighting hopelesness, bitterness or stagnation; it's the only way the loving part of you can survive.
posted by windykites at 10:21 AM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

As for friendship: just find a few decent people and keep showing up. Eventually you'll find that they matter to you. Do it even if you don't want to or don't think you can do it "right". The only way to get good at this stuff is practise. The website succeed socially gives a lot of helpful tips and answers a lot of questions; I found it helpful.
posted by windykites at 10:27 AM on January 5, 2013

Nthing bunderful's suggestion to "assume good intent and interest." I'd also go a step farther, and suggest working on your empathy skills by actively looking for the good in people, even those who are being jerks. (I'm not suggesting you lack empathy, but I'd argue this is something we all could improve about ourselves.) In my experience, practicing empathy is a really great way to combat apathy, because it makes you really look at people, and people are truly fascinating creatures. The bully who created drama in high school, for example, was likely doing that as a way to cope with their own self-esteem issues. That doesn't excuse their behavior, but thinking about what kind of environment they might have been raised in and the coping mechanisms they may have been taught either implicitly or explicitly gives context to the behavior, and makes them more of a 3D person than a 2D caricature or villain.

You can practice empathy anywhere, anytime you see someone being rude or inappropriate. Just try to imagine what might have happened to that person today to make them so crabby, and think about how they must be feeling to cause them to act that way. If you can learn to see the good in people who may not deserve it at the moment, then it will be a cinch to see the good in people who do (which is most of the population). You'll become a more positive person, which is its own reward, but you'll also find positive people are drawn to other positive people. This will make it a LOT easier to build deeper relationships with the right kinds of people (not bullies or jerks) when you go to new activity groups or networking events or move to a new city.
posted by zebra at 10:39 AM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

By your age I had had a really crap and chaotic upbrining, been bullied mercilessly at a range of schools , been in a totally insane relationship between the ages of 16 and 20 with a man old enough to be my father (who was a certifiable psychopath and ended up in jail some years after I left him, for some pretty awful things) which ended up including a overnight stay in a psych unit, been at my mother's side through more than one of her attempts at re-hab and a heck of other rather horrid things...
I met my husband just before I turned 23. I am still with him almost 13 years later, have a kid, and have a pretty good life. And I don't have a lot of close friends, but I have found that I am not the kind of person who needs them.
Sorry I don't have any strategies in all this for you. I just want you to know that you can move on. Actually, I do have a strategy - stop worrying about how you are going to make new relationships in to friendships. Just meet people. Remember that everyone else is possibly a roiling mess of insecurity and you are just as worthy of friendship as them.
posted by Megami at 10:49 AM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Above all else, take your time! It's 100% natural to shy away from people for a while after you've been surrounded by assholes. It was your parents' job to give you a safe place to starting growing up, and to teach you the basics of taking care of yourself in the world. Well, they fucked up, so now you're going to have to figure it out on your own. Totally doable, but it takes time, effort, and freedom from asshole-induced drama and craziness.

You may feel like there's something wrong with you and that you should try to make yourself socialize more. But after what you've been through, it's going to take a while until you develop a solid sense of who's safe and who's not - it's pretty likely that you will be drawn to assholes for a while, even though that doesn't seem to make sense - it's just the way the mind works. Keep being super-great to yourself, spend some time with people who are positive and who have good things to say about you and others. Never feel guilty for blowing off someone who acts like a jerk!

You're going to do great. Believe in yourself and be good to yourself.
posted by facetious at 1:03 PM on January 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

I know that it's never too late to develop friendships, but it becomes harder over the years, especially if you are perceived as different based on your looks or 'off' because of anxiety issues.

I've found the opposite to be true. I had a hard time forming friendships in my younger years, and a much easier time in my 30s-40s. There are a lot of reasons for this -- people become less concerned with being "cool"; you yourself become more assured in your identity and accepting of your own quirks; you develop more interests that connect you with more people; you develop coping skills for the anxiety; etc.

I'm not suggesting you wait till you're older to pursue friendships, but just wanted to point out that it's not a universal truism that friendships are more easily come by in your young years. Especially for those of us who march to the beat of a different drummer -- it takes us a while to figure out where our people are.

Also, with time and distance from your upbringing, the history that was imposed upon you, when you were very young and had little power over you destiny, will be counterbalanced and eventually over-ruled by all the new experiences you choose for yourself. You get to write the book from here on out.

You have a lot to look forward to. Be brave.
posted by nacho fries at 1:52 PM on January 5, 2013 [10 favorites]

Seconding what nacho fries said above, you may find it easier to actually make friends to your liking now that schooling is over. You may worry about your social skills but in my opinion don't-- just worry about being persistent and not beating yourself up too much. The reason for this is that in the crucible of junior high and high school, and even college, friends can serve more than one purpose; sure, people make them to fulfill the usual needs for intimacy, companionship, and fun. However, they are also used for a sense of security and to prop up, in the case of high school, the psychological needs of people who are by definition immature. You said yourself that your freshman roommate was a mean girl; not a mean woman. So your history doesn't place you at a disadvantage, not at all. There is no reason why your friendships shouldn't be much much more rewarding than they have been.

Plus... From this point on, you pretty much get to design your life and the people you choose to have in it. I think this is another major difference when it comes to making friends in your early 20s versus high school. Now that you are older and more experienced you can have a sense about what draws people to you as a friend, and maybe moreso what draws you in other people as a friend. That in itself is a huge advantage for making real, true friendships.
posted by kettleoffish at 4:29 PM on January 5, 2013

No, you can't 'run away from your past' - but you can sure as hell leave it behind you!
Seconding kettleoffish saying that you pretty much get to design your life now - you do, and the choices you make may not all be perfect, but they will be yours!
Look forward, say hey to someone just because, and revel in your own gifts. Self-confidence brings its own rewards.
posted by PlantGoddess at 5:27 PM on January 5, 2013

Can you work out? I would suggest a martial art if you can find one that suits you. You'll be fitter, have incremental goals to achieve, and you'll likely meet supportive people in your classes.
posted by last night a dj saved my life at 7:12 PM on January 5, 2013

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