You don't know what you don't know, until you know it
May 15, 2014 9:09 AM   Subscribe

I am 21 years old. Currently I am living at home, working two jobs and trying to figure out what to do for school. I am not close to my family, I was kind of neglected as a kid and feel like I lack a lot of basic life skills and understanding of life. I never realized it before but I am very naive and ignorant. I really want to become more successful socially though, but I'm wondering how exactly to catch up or if I can.

I spent a lot of my childhood alone and isolated. My dad was neglectful and told me I basically don't have a family and grew up myself. Mom is schizophrenic and I don't live wht her, and haven't talked to her in a year because she it emotionally abusive. For example, she frequently acts like we are on good terms, hides what she's mad about and then blows up for something that I hd no idea that bothered her and leaves me 40 (yes 40) voicemails about how horrible I am and that everyone is out to get her and she wishes I was never born, etcetera. My dad's girlfriend and her two kids lived with my dad and I, we didn't get along though. My friends told me that my stepsister said she though I was weird, and it hurt my feelings. My stepmom also thinks I'm weird. My sister who is ten years older moved out when she was 18 because my dad was so mean to her, but he's nicer now. She told me when I was a kid that our family was not normal, and my stepmom always said we were dysfunctional, but I had no idea what that meant. My sister is now a lovely person, she seems totally normal and adjusted, she's smart and everything going for her, so she's kind of a role model to me. When I was a kid I frequently spent all my time in my room listening to music and being introverted. I was painfully shy and awkward, not knowing what to say, and still am though I feel like I understand more.

I also just broke up with my boyfried of five years almost two weeks ago. I feel like we got together because he was desperate and I was lonely, and we stayed together because we had no reason good enough to break up as we were both nice people. I never realized it before though. I feel like I had absolutely no idea of how to be in a relationship, I remember his mom asking what my intentions were and it suddenly occurred to me that I should have an intention with the relationship. Is that weird to not even think about it? I didn't want to marry him but I stayed with him because I thought I was happy. We broke up once before but after this final time of breaking up I do not even feel sad, I feel bad for the lost time for both of us and feel guilty for not ending it sooner, but I actually feel mostly very happy with my decision. Just two weeks after the breakup, I feel happy for the first time in a long time, I feel like a new person, and I feel like I'm actually understanding some things about life. I cleaned my room and had a sudden realization, why do I have all this crap that I never use, stuff that I associate with bad memories?

I got rid of the crap and feel so much clearer. I also had an epiphany that Facebook should be a tool for me to express myself and connect socially, that I should have a life to share things about. I went through my friends list and deleted all the people that jnoropbanly wouldn't even say hi to in public, people from high school that I never even really talked to. Also, when I was in high school I had no idea what college even was, my mom only has a fifth grade education and my dad is a carpenter and stepmom a secretary. I knew absolutely nothing about life after high school, I rarely thought about it, and now I look back and wonder what the hell I was thinking?? I actually did end up going to community college because my older sister kinda told me to and I just did what every one else was doing, I have completed three years of school with kinda low grades and am now looking to transfer to a university but I don't know for what. I want to kind of reinvent myself and make friends there.

I have friends from high school that I occasionally talk to, we lost touch for a long time while I was with my boyfriend, but they have changed since high school and now are potheads and don't go to school and live at home. My dad always told me they were weird, but they accepted me and supported me and so I hug out with them. I don't know they were weird. I tried pot for the first time and I was paranoid and didn't like it, I hung out with them a few times lately and realized they were going nowhere in life as of right now, that they were not good for me, and I don't fit in with them. Everyone said that because they see me as a sweet person who would never do drugs or anything, but I didn't know what they meant I guess. Now I know that people will assume I'm like them if they know I'm friends with them, and I don't want to be like them. how did I not see this before. Everyone is confused why I hung out with them and I just realized I shouldnt be. I want to make new friends at university but I feel like I don't know how to make friends, I use to think tv and movies were a waste of time and don't know a lot about pop culture, but I want to. I have started to ask myself what the purpose of friendship is for me, I never thought about it before.

I know this post is kind of all over the place. I'm just wondering though, but is it normal to be as glaringly ignorant as I am? Is there something wrong with me? I feel like I've matured a lot lately and have realized a lot suddenly. I guess I'm wondering if this all makes sense and how I can become a more normal person. Any insight would be wonderful
posted by anon1129 to Human Relations (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If it helps, you haven't mentioned a single instance of ignorance or anything that isn't 100% normal. You're just 21, this is what being 21 looks like.

Nobody is born naturally knowing everything about the world--we learn. We have to learn from someone, and that someone is usually our parents. But since your parents have been MIA, you're learning from other sources, and on a somewhat different (but seriously, not delayed, just different) schedule from others.

Every single person has these realizations you're having...eventually. Some people have one realization at a time, for years. You are having a bunch of them at once, likely because you have discarded the crutch of your relationship, which was a distraction from you ever thinking much about yourself or life. Guess what? Some people would have stayed in that relationship, and not done any reflection or thinking until they got divorced at 45, and then they'd be 45 and posting on AskMe just like you are.

So you're just starting to get into Facebook at 21, so what? Facebook didn't even EXIST until I was 19! I know it seems like the very air we breathe nowadays, but it isn't like you just realized the English language existed, you know? It's just a website.

So you're starting to know more about who you are and about how other people work? That's pretty much exactly what being in college is about. That's what it's for. (And also book learning, but's mostly for being on your own in a training-wheels kind of way, so you can start to figure out what kind of person you are/want to be.)

I guarantee you there is nothing wrong with you, and nothing weird about you. Your life is shared, probably right down to the nitty gritty details, by millions of other perfectly normal 21 year old people.
posted by like_a_friend at 9:30 AM on May 15, 2014 [11 favorites]

It doesn't really sound like there is anything wrong with you.
I get the impression that there might be something right with you.
You seem to have some direction and motivation, and need only continue to define and develop your goals as stated (find good companions, enjoy culture, continue learning). Imagine your future, and then think about what it will take for you to have that future.

Try not to let your belief that you are more ignorant than normal slow you down too much. There aren't that many 21 year-olds that have so much life experience that they can't be called ignorant.
posted by the Real Dan at 9:32 AM on May 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

You are definitely just at the beginning of adulthood and have much to learn, discover and master. And the best thing is that you can. People can change, people can master new skills, people can learn. You are not a fixed entity; your past doesn't need to be your future.

Set yourself small goals, take intermediate steps to get out there and figure out who you are and what you might like to do in your life. Volunteer with organizations who support issues you care about, join a church/mosque/synagog, go for hikes, join a gym, reach out to others.

Definitely make a plan for saving up enough money for you to move out and start living on your own. Start looking at roommate situations on craigslist. You might even think about exploring the idea of cooperative housing or intentional communities. That could be a good transition away from your family.
posted by brookeb at 9:40 AM on May 15, 2014

If you polled college freshmen about prospective majors, and compared the results with actual degrees four years later, the match would probably be about 25%. Education widens your horizons to things you had not thought of as well as giving insight into the areas you find interesting (how do historians, or mathematicians, or sociologists actually spend their time?).

And if you compared their undergraduate major with their eventual career, you would find a high rate of mismatches.

You can't decide about what you don't know about. There is nothing wrong with being a generalist at the beginning. Life forces all into boxes soon enough.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:15 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

A lot of your uncertainties right now seem like they just come with the territory of being 21, and ending a long relationship. You sound pretty normal to me.

It's difficult enough to be 21 years old, coming out of a long relationship and trying to figure out who you are. It's even harder when you don't have parents who were able to help you learn the skills you need to make the transition to adulthood.

You say your sister is your role model--have you talked to her about all this? Would she be willing to help you look at schools, learn to pay bills on time, apply for jobs, or whatever other adult things you want to do?
posted by inertia at 10:23 AM on May 15, 2014

QFT "I get the impression that there might be something right with you."

You are actively questioning who you are, what you know and even better, what you don't know. Many, many people don't start questioning what they know until they are forced to by some major trauma. Some never do at all.

Go forth, make friends, be willing to lose friends, be willing to take risks, be willing (hell, eager!) to fail and fail and fail again.

Ask yourself some questions -
1. What is your favorite ice cream? (I didn't know the answer to this question until I was in my late 30's. I really couldn't have told you.)
2. What makes you feel healthy?
3. What are the things (emotional, tangible, mental) you can't live without?
4. What is your favorite hobby?
5. What would you like to learn how to do?

Be open to everything the world has to teach you.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:24 AM on May 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

You're already doing the exactly right thing, which is to look around you and try to find good role models, mentors, friends, and a path for yourself. You don't have to know exactly what your career path is to go to university, you can see what interests you when you get there, too.

Talk more with your sister and other people that seem to be together and more the way you want to be. How did they get there? Do they have advice for you? Listen, but filter it through what sounds good to you.

If your college has counseling of any sort, think about taking advantage of it. You had a tough childhood and good use some professionals to help you figure out what is right for you. But mostly, keep doing what you're doing, and listen to the answers with your gut. It seems to be on the right track.
posted by ldthomps at 10:27 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know about all the family stuff, but very few people proceed constantly through life like a speedy, beautiful barge. You might have years of "nothing" or failure which suddenly turn into the backstory and preparation of something wonderful. Or, you might have a meteoric rise in popularity and success in your teens and 20s that just makes you look pathetic by the time you're 40, and that period of pathos turns out to make something else possible when you're 47 that's not what you would have wanted at 21, but it's better. You can't really predict it; you can just try to make good decisions in any particular moment.

However, if your answer to Sophie1's #1 question isn't Neapolitan, I suggest you take a long, hard look at yourself.
posted by michaelh at 10:31 AM on May 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is what turning into an adult feels like.

Go do stuff. It doesn't have to be crazy stuff, you don't have to backpack through Asia alone without shoes just yet, just start by getting out in the world and interacting with people. Volunteer, join groups at school, take a weekly adult ed class. Just don't sit at home, or you will become naive and ignorant over time.

There's only a certain amount that your background matters. You're going to wrestle with it as you define for yourself what adulthood means, and you're going to get angry at the behavior of your family in the past for not acting like decent adults, but do not make victimhood your identity. It doesn't do you any good, and all it gives you is excuses that nobody else gives a shit about. If you're the person with the other questions similar to this one, my advice remains to face forward for a few years because you're going to be in your mid-late 20s before you start being able to contextualize your childhood. Yes, those things were notgood, and you should look into therapy for coping *today* with the negative things in your life, but just know that a) you can't time travel and change anything, b) you don't have to solve everything at once, c) you are under no obligation to continue to play the role you played in the past - not with your family, friends, study habits, interests, or goals.

You are always capable of changing how you do things. Always, and at any moment you choose. Be a scientist in your own life: form hypotheses, test them, and examine the results. Form a new hypothesis based on your experience and test again. Expect to have all your testing complete right around the time you die. Enjoy it.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:32 AM on May 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

"What the hell was I thinking?" is like, most of my adolescence, although probably for different reasons. I had the opposite childhood to yours, kind of sheltered, and while my parents did actually teach me a lot about building good skills and self-respect and healthy expectations, there was so much I had to figure out for myself in 20s, and most of it was the kind of social stuff you're asking about here. Hell, recognizing that you're naive and ignorant at 21 probably puts you ahead of the curve -- I was in my mid-20s before I internalized that and started to figure out how my assumptions about the world were holding me back.

"Normal" is a context-specific concept, and the good news is, you can change your context to one in which you feel happier, healthier, and better supported. Where you are right now -- how you're feeling, the questions you're asking -- is a good place to be starting from. Good luck!
posted by EvaDestruction at 10:52 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

"What the hell was I thinking?" is like, most of my adolescence

I'm not sure this ever stops, either. I'm 42, and at this point the only thing I'm sure I'm right about anymore is that 52-year-old me is going to be rolling her eyes at me.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:04 AM on May 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

I work with a lot of current students and recent grads at my Alma Mater to help them figure out what comes next. Many come from loving, supportive families, virtually all of them are dealing with the same questions you are. Being a young adult is a final loss of innocence.

I am in no way minimizing what you are going through, or the particular challenges of your upbringing, but be reassured, pretty much everything you've described is pretty much standard for a human in the developed world.
posted by Good Brain at 11:53 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Couple of things...

1) Yep, you're well within the bounds of normalcy.
2) Just because you were awkward and shy once, you don't have to be that way or even think of yourself that way, forever.
3) Some of your pothead friends probably do what they do excessively because of fear, fear of doing more substantial things or facing substantial expectations. But they may grow out of it, so, feel free to be friendly towards them even though they seem to be at dead ends. I had a college hallmate who sat around all day watching Simpsons reruns and skipping class for multiple semesters until he dropped out. One day I bumped into him and he had cut his hair, taken a bath, and enrolled in a new degree program. He was happy and excited. I was happy for him! I would slso be happy to hear he became a pig farmer or well, anything. As an adult you'll find satisfying relationships are possible with people whose path is very different. So don't be bummed about them. They're young too! Lots of burnouts and dropouts get GEDs or community college degrees, when they get wise to wanting more in life, and some keep going.
4) My mom has a personality disorder. I have forgiven her and feel more compassion for her. Time helped. So did therapy. It really helps to have someone validate how hurtful and wrong it is to have a parent say, "You suck. Wish I never had you." Therapy teaches you to help validate for yourself that this is your parent or family member's disease talking, not an objective statement of fact. Please consider CBT therapy, it will help you feel better and more objective.
I predict a lot of happiness for you some day. You're thinking but not over thinking, you're doing things but not mindlessly, and asking good questions.
posted by mitschlag at 12:50 PM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Confidence just doesn't appear. Doubly so when it comes to that deepset, internal confidence in one's self.

Don't feel bad for not feeling it after what you've been through and not having been exposed to life in the healthiest of ways.

I don't have much direct help to offer beyond that. If I could venture to suggest something it would be that you pick up a hobby that is going to foster some confidence in said hobby while being exposed to other novices in said hobby.

Take pottery for example. You could sign up for a Pottery 101 class, show up, and you're in a situation with X other neophytes that are just as uncomfortable with the task at hand as you are. While learning the ins and outs of throwing a pot, which in itself is a cool thing that will build you up a bit, you may make some progress in interacting with the person at the wheel next to you.

Dunno, just a thought or three. Godspeed, you're not alone, you're not broken, you're on the right track.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:54 PM on May 15, 2014

You have pretty good self awareness, for what it's worth. And you have a clear eyed way of seeing yourself that strikes me as courageous. This will help you become the older, wiser person you wish to be.

Anyway, naivete gets dispelled with experience. Talk to lots of different people. Find out what you like about potential friends (not just: because they accept me and I'm lonely). Seek people out who interest you, learn how to be friends.
Go do stuff. New stuff.
Make mistakes and trust in the wrong kinds of people. Learn from those mistakes.

There's really no way round this stuff, for anybody. FWIW you are not in anyway behind the schedule. Your starting position is just fine. You'll be fine.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:26 PM on May 15, 2014

Well, I just turned 30 and I still feel like I am wandering around making somewhat questionable decisions and learning from the drama that comes out of them, so at 21 I think you are probably doing fine. I feel as if I have had several periods of recurring adolescence, actually. Everyone learns different lessons at a different pace.
posted by thesnowyslaps at 3:16 PM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm 42, and made lots of mistakes and stuff-ups when I was your age. Each one (particularly the ones that still make me cringe twenty one years later) is now an integral part of my personality, just like touching a hot stove element makes never doing that ever again a crucial part of your future approach to whiteware.

One thing I did when I was your age that has paid huge dividends for me is to try and work out general principles in the form of catchy mantras then jam them deep into your brain by visualising them being carved into stone or cast into metal for, like a couple of weeks.

Mine (and yours will likely differ, we're different people) were:

0 Dance the strong dance (when face with a choice of doing the weak easy thing or the strong difficult thing, go for the strong)

0 Follow the fear (fear always has something to teach you)

0 Everything is true, everything is false (there is nothing so true it doesn't have a kernel of falsehood and vice versa: your job is to find them)

0 Careless balance, constant effort (you never get to stop - you will never finish, or win, or get to a point where you no longer need to try- - there is always something better you can do or be)
posted by Sebmojo at 3:35 PM on May 15, 2014

I want to nth to the nth degree that you are normal and that it's great you're asking this question on askme now, and that this forum is precisely where you can learn nearly everything your misguided parents didn't teach you growing up. That's one thing that makes askme great. We can help make up for failed parenting.

I was also neglected as a kid and grew up socially awkward. Sometimes I was so naive and clueless that I wonder if I have some as yet undiscovered form of autism. I wish there had been an askme when I was your age. I discovered it a few years ago and have learned a ton about the rules of social engagement that I never got from my parents (whose naivete and cluelessness they generously passed on to me).

So my advice to becoming more socially successful, which is the advice I took when I first came on board, is to read all the askmes in Human Relations and ask us your questions. And don't agree with everything. For instance, a surprising number of Mefites claim that getting likes on FB is silly since it can't stand in for real friendships. I disagree. I think FB and other social media have redefined what friendship and human interaction is. I think learning how to get 'likes' and followers is a great way for people who are socially awkward, who misread social cues (*clears throat*) and have committed an astounding number of faux pas in their lifetime (*clears throat again*), to learn how to be more socially competent in a medium that actually records every interaction you make.

My other advice is not to ramble. Askme works best when you ask specific questions. Ramble in a journal. Cull your questions from there.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 6:19 AM on May 16, 2014

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