In theory I want to be more social, but in practice people creep me out
August 22, 2014 2:50 PM   Subscribe

Can a natural loner learn to appreciate and enjoy other people more? Being a hermit is getting to be painfully boring.

I don' trust? enjoy? people. I find it very difficult to relate to others. People as an idea are fine—but when I try to connect with an actual, individual human being, the experience is generally baffling, if not downright unpleasant. (I am an off-the-scale introvert. As a rule, people bewilder, bore, and exhaust me.) This tendency has gotten markedly more pronounced over the last eight years or so.

Because I don't know how to engage rewardingly with people, I don't go out, do stuff, or get involved in things.

Because I don't go out and do things, I get really fucking bored. Like, chronically, debilitatingly bored. I spend all day at work on the computer, and in a typical evening I'll go home and spend another few hours on the computer—because what else am I going to do? None of the alternatives really seem worthwhile. As bored as I get being a hermit, it's less boring and unpleasant than most social experiences. I've been fighting a smoking addiction simply because it's something to do—an easy little bump of chemical stimulation, and a reason to stand in a different place for five minutes.

Because I get really fucking bored, I get depressed. (I've been prone to depression my whole life, but I first got diagnosed a few years ago. I tried meds, which helped pull me out of a particularly bad slump; I'm now med-free. I've tried half a dozen therapists, all of whom were useless. To be honest, I don't understand what therapy is for, or what I'm supposed to be "doing" in therapy.)

I used to find some enjoyment in socializing, and had some semblance of a social life—I went to bars, attended concerts and art shows, hung out with friends. But I guess I've gradually given up on people.

It's sorta like: people have given me a long series of disappointments, small and large. And over time, I feel like I've gradually gotten...burnt out on all these little areas of social experience. Like the set of "things I feel like I can trust people for" has been gradually narrowed down, item by item, with me withdrawing a little bit socially each time—until eventually, I find myself here, in this damn apartment with this damn computer, having withdrawn from all of it, and feeling totally alienated from everyone else and their world.

(Getting older is another part of it. I'm 37. I've aged out of my more youthful concerns—partying, music scenes, certain political/artistic/intellectual pretensions—and yet I feel like I've never grown into anything to replace them. There doesn't seem to be anything there to grow into—what the hell do single 37-year-olds do? I have a couple of old friends that I see every few months, and whose company I enjoy, but it's not enough.)

Basically, I'm wondering: how can I learn to find other people more interesting and enjoyable? How can (or should) I learn to trust people more? How can I become a person who occasionally thinks "that person is pretty cool; maybe I will start seeking out their company", and not "Sartre was right; I can't wait until I can go home"?

The obvious solution to many of my problems is "get out more and socialize more", but getting out and socializing doesn't actually solve the problem if socializing is an awkward and unpleasant experience. The whole point of socializing is to connect with people, not just be in the same physical space with them—and the connection is the part that isn't working. More often, the experience just reinforces and underscores my sense of bafflement and alienation w/r/t humanity.

(In case you're wondering: the fact that I myself—as someone who doesn't really do anything and doesn't really have any friends—am paralyzingly boring is not lost on me.)

Sorry if this is all over the place; it's a confusing spot to be in. Feel free to ask for clarification on stuff. Thanks for reading and possibly answering!
posted by escape from the potato planet to Human Relations (31 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm. This is a really interesting question.

I am also deeply introverted, and share your feeling that people in general tend to be bewildering, boring, and exhausting (and disappointing). So, I feel you. Here is my advice (and it may be harder for someone in their 30s to implement since other people already have well-established social circles at that time, but I think it is worth a shot):

1. You say you have a couple of old friends that you see occasionally. What do you like about them? What do you do when you hang out with them? If you can pinpoint the type of person you're more likely than usual to click with, you could then pursue those people as friends - maybe via Meetups, Metafilter IRL (I hear it's awesome, though I haven't tried it yet), or even with new people you meet in the course of your regular life (work, etc.). Adding just a couple new pals, that you see regularly but not super-frequently, could make a huge difference in your life.

2. You might try reframing the issue a bit, too. I find it challenging and typically unpleasant to socialize, but it is also interesting - everyone has their own unique background and perspective, and therefore we perceive conversations/interpersonal interaction quite differently. Can you think of socializing as an experiment, a way to better understand how other people's minds work? It's what I do, and it helps me psych myself up for mandatory-type social events, which helps me (a) succeed socially and (b) enjoy myself more. Just a thought.

Anyway, good luck with this! I totally feel you on this.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 3:06 PM on August 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

You sound really depressed and I'm a high priest in the church of introvertness. Get thee to a therapist!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:07 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

One thing that jumps out is how you narrowed down your list of "things I can trust people for". When someone disappointed you, why did you decide to write off everyone for that list item, rather than getting more stringent with your selection criteria?

Let's say someone disappointed you by being flaky and bailing on plans. You can spot warning signs and cull out flaky people, leaving only reliable people. Let's ay someone disappoints you by revealing your secrets told to them in confidence. You can see red flags next time someone acts gossipy.

One theory I have is that because your filters are too loose, you are letting in all sorts of people into your Inner Trust Circle who will disappoint you. But if you became really stringent about who you cut out, maybe you would end up with a few people who you do trust.
posted by vienna at 3:08 PM on August 22, 2014 [10 favorites]

I know its not a miracle cure, but have you thought about maybe getting a pet? They're far less annoying than people, just as good for connection, company and relationship building and having that secure base certainly helped me in making interacting in the world seem a a lot less scary.
posted by Middlemarch at 3:13 PM on August 22, 2014 [8 favorites]

Have you considered volunteering? I'm seeing a lot of "I" here. Maybe you'd enjoy people more if you took more of the "you" out of the interactions.
posted by oceanjesse at 3:36 PM on August 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

"Because I get really fucking bored, I get depressed."

When I'm depressed, I get really fucking bored. Might be best to focus on treating the depression first.
posted by Relic at 4:01 PM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is why they have adult classes :) When I was burned out on the dating scene and yet still wanted to try having a life, I took classes---French classes, rock climbing and so on. You were around people, but there was an activity to focus on so it wasn't so intense. And I had a regular place to be at a certain point each week so I didn't feel like I was by myself at home every night. Doing this might make you a) more interesting, and interested, because you are learning something and b) more comfortable around people because you can sort of ease into it a little with something that isn't so interpersonal-focused.
posted by JoannaC at 4:14 PM on August 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: To respond to a few of these (much appreciated) thoughts:

Get thee to a therapist!

See above: I've tried that several times; it was useless. Got any tips on how to make therapy productive? Like I said, I don't really understand what it's for.

One thing that jumps out is how you narrowed down your list of "things I can trust people for". When someone disappointed you, why did you decide to write off everyone for that list item, rather than getting more stringent with your selection criteria?

That's a legitimate question, and something I figured someone would comment on, and you may be onto something.

However, my initial response is: these items haven't necessarily been scratched off in response to a single incident with a single individual. Rather, repeated experiences have worn me down until I have to throw up my hands and say "well, I guess that expecting people to do X is just setting myself up for disappointment".

Some clarification of X may be in order—there are recognizable themes. And I started to put that clarification here. But it got really long, and complicated, and somewhat touchy (i.e., easy to misunderstand). (I can hear the armchair therapists leaning forward with interest.) Maybe after I've had a chance to think about it some more.

I know its not a miracle cure, but have you thought about maybe getting a pet?

I have two cats, who are awesome, and have probably helped me retain what measure of sanity I still have.

Might be best to focus on treating the depression first.

The depression isn't too bad right now—and anyway, I'm convinced that it has real, external causes. I mean: I'm socially isolated. I don't have any long-term goals. There's nothing in my life that could be expected to provide reward or meaning. That's a recipe for depression. Any real victory over the depression is going to involve tackling the underlying causes. And this AskMe is my attempt to address one of those underlying causes.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:18 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, and:

One theory I have is that because your filters are too loose, you are letting in all sorts of people into your Inner Trust Circle who will disappoint you. But if you became really stringent about who you cut out, maybe you would end up with a few people who you do trust.

It may be just the opposite. I think my threshold for filtering people out is lower than most folks', or at least aligned along different axes. There are often things I find hard to swallow about a person, which others barely notice. And I've been known to be fairly merciless about cutting people out for (what I perceive to be) poor character.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:28 PM on August 22, 2014

As an introvert, homebody and someone who never gets bored, here are a few things 30+ people do:
- (fine) cooking and baking
- gardening
- taking care of pets
- sports
- arts & crafts
- reading
- studying new skills/languages
- starting a (side) business
- mentor/teach younger folks
- volunteer
- and there is really always something to do around the house....

I haven't really figured misanthropy out yet, so can't help you there, sorry. But, at least for me, the answer to this question: "how can I learn to find other people more interesting and enjoyable?" is to find an activity I find interesting and worthwhile. I can appreciate people for doing that very activity and thus find them more interesting and enjoyable. I can connect with them regarding this one activity, but don't expect the connection to go beyond. Pouring your energy into something you find worthwhile should also help with your mood. At the end of the day you can say: "Yup, planting those trees was really a good thing for the community. Glad I got to do that today. Nice to see that Pat and Mel took the time to help out as well."
posted by travelwithcats at 4:35 PM on August 22, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I think a lot of Mefites, including myself, identify as introverts. The whole "being exhausted by people" thing in particular resonates strongly with me. Some people are just not big on socializing a lot, and that's okay. Different strokes, etc. Don't let yourself be defined by how social you think you should be.

But: the chronic loneliness, and general sense that you can't trust people, coupled with the history of depression makes me think this is really a mental health issue. It is healthy and adaptive to be alone when being alone makes you feel recharged and rested. It is not healthy to be alone when you are doing so out of some kind of anxiety or compulsive need for solitude. Compulsive smoking is also a common way that depressed or anxious people self-medicate. I think you probably acknowledge this, although you aren't coming right out and saying it in this post.

The thing about having a social life is that it doesn't come the way you think it does. You don't just "be social" in a vacuum. You don't go out and just find friends and apply to be friends with them and then they start inviting you to some group activity so that you have something to do on the weekends. You don't need to make friends so you can stop being lonely. It goes the opposite way. You start by getting involved in something you are passionate about (or at least have a passing interest in), let's say by joining a choir group, then, after weeks or months of seeing the same people doing the same thing you are doing, you strike up a friendship with them. Then you wake up one day and you have friends. Voila! Repeat ad infinitum.

It's amazing how easy it is to forget this when you're really lonely, because a lot of friends are made during a time of life when you're in a group of your peers, such as in high school or college or at a first job, when it's really easy to make friends. It gets harder with age, because a greater proportion of your peers will be lame couples that want to watch Netflix in their pajamas every night. But it's the same formula, no matter your age. If you're in a group doing the same thing, you naturally bond over that activity. All friendships are forged in the fire of shared experience.

You can make those circumstances happen in your own life. You just have to start doing something. The fact that you have no desire to do anything outside your own home is indicative of another problem, I think. I think you need to figure out that first, bigger problem before you can worry about the logistics of building a social life.
posted by deathpanels at 4:39 PM on August 22, 2014 [32 favorites]

I find that the habits of depression (isolating myself, for example) stick around a lot longer than the depression itself, so that might be something to address in therapy. (Also in my experience, it takes a lot of effort to find a competent therapist. Now that you're not depressed may be the time to do it, so that if you find yourself sliding into depression you don't have to take the first thing that comes along therapy-wise.)

Anyway, about the socializing. I used to belong to a communal art studio which offered studio space to individual artists as well as classes to the community. I could sit in my studio, away from others when I wanted to and come out and socialize with the students when I wanted to. That was the perfect blend of just being near people and interacting with people. And I could control it just by walking ten steps out of my own space. (Also, creativity has a way of bootstrapping me up and out of any depressive episodes. Bonus!)

So I guess I would recommend that you find a class in a creative pursuit that you've always wanted to try, like painting, pottery, even sewing or scrapbooking. Something where people work intently for a time and then socialize for a time. It's a good mix for an introvert who needs/wants to socialize.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 5:07 PM on August 22, 2014

Is it possible that on some level you're rejecting people -- pretty much all of them -- so they don't reject you first? It's a Pyrrhic victory but I get where you're coming from. Maybe a goal in therapy could be accepting that if you let your guard down, you might still be disappointed.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:12 PM on August 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You sound like an idealist. I think you have to lower your expectations, and accept that we're all flawed -- selfish, myopic, contradictory, etc. We all have our own interests and preferences, and it's normal for these conflict, even among very close people. Cutting out everyone who sometimes annoys or disappoints inevitably leads to being alone. Therapy, I agree, really would be useful in terms of chipping away at the black and white thinking that underlies idealism.

I work to maintain relationships with those with whom, on balance, I have more positive than negative experiences. Because people also offer connection, comfort, commiseration, recognition, resonance, plenty of other c and r words, probably. I try to manage the negative, by working to accept my own and others' flaws, adjusting my behaviour or expectations, trying to resolve conflicts and miscommunications, and distributing my emotional investments among more than a few people (along with just checking out sometimes; I'm as introverted as I am extroverted).

It's easier to be generous and tolerant when your own needs are met, and when you feel you have a general purpose, or set of values and commitments. Improving communication skills helps with everything/one. It also really helps, I think, to sort of take a step back now and then, and to cultivate a perspective that allows you to see the humour in things -- so many of the trip-ups we find ourselves in are sort of funny given a bit of distance. (I get a lot out of films, shows, stories etc. that comment on the absurdity of our entanglements and take a sort of loving view of people fucking up.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:40 PM on August 22, 2014 [10 favorites]

I think most people who pursue therapy find themselves wondering what it's for. It can feel really vital and affirming on one day, and then totally silly on another.

I think therapy is mainly for forcing yourself out of habitual thought patterns. You sound like an open-minded person, and not a black-and-white thinker at all, but still, we all can get into these pretty deep ruts in our thinking. A couple of suggestions: 1) Look for a therapist whose primary mode of practice is, if not exactly wacky, maybe not something you'd automatically be drawn to. Years ago, I did a bunch of "process work" which, while it was happening I often had to stifle laughter or try not to roll my eyes in front of my therapist. I thought it was seriously stupid. But I swear, it really did help; somehow it totally shifted how I was thinking about my problems (and thinking about my thinking) at the time. More recently, I had good experiences with EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). I was really resistant at first, but after all was said and done, I think it was worth the effort. Definitely better than conventional talk therapy. So I guess my theory is that people who are already very rational in their thinking need to pursue "irrational" therapy. Really, I don't know; this has just been my own experience. 2) Consider looking into group therapy. I am seriously considering joining a "men's group therapy" thing soon. Just writing that makes me feel kind of nauseous and irritable, which is probably a good sign.

Given your question, I think it's also totally fine to just be like: "You know what? I don't really want to go to therapy right now."
posted by bennett being thrown at 5:41 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do you have a hobby? I'm going to use mine as an example. I knit & crochet. So I found some knitting and crocheting groups on (you can use any venue you like to find groups, that's just what I used) and went to those. If I didn't connect with one group, I found another. If you live in a city of any size, there will be plenty of groups for you to try on for size.

Anyway, I go to the groups, meet people, talk with them, and go home. It completely fulfills my need for social interaction. If I happen to connect with someone in the group and meet a friend... all the better - someone to have coffee with once in a while. But honestly? Just meeting with people once or twice a week and sharing that hobby is enough for me. Maybe that can be enough for you too. Just a suggestion.

I'm not one for therapy either. Just so you know you're not alone in that aspect.
posted by patheral at 5:51 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wonder if there is some unmentioned detail such as a bad relationship or something damaging to your sense of trust that you're reacting to, something that happened within the last few years. I know you said that this is something that has persisted your entire life, but I also know that when I was depressed, I tended to fall into catastrophizing thought patterns, and this might be an example of that. I don't want to try to analyze too much, but that's something to consider.

I also read your comments about therapy above. It is perfectly reasonable to be skeptical or dismissive of therapy when you're feeling this low. After all, if therapy was so great, why are you feeling this way? Well, in my opinion, the "point" of therapy isn't to cure you of depression or anxiety or whatever it is you're experiencing. The point is to give you some cognitive skills to help you cope with the unpleasant thoughts that come as a result. Depression is such a tricky thing. It is much more of a cognitive problem than an emotional problem, even though we call it a "mood" disorder. I don't know what kind of therapist you were seeing, but techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are popular nowadays precisely because they target thought patterns and try to develop the muscles to control them. If you're not totally averse to giving therapy another shot, I recommend reading about CBT and seeking out a CBT specialist. It's really a pretty practical approach to the problem.
posted by deathpanels at 6:12 PM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Writing just after deathpanels - sorry; to elaborate on black and white thinking, therapy etc.:

There are often things I find hard to swallow about a person, which others barely notice. And I've been known to be fairly merciless about cutting people out for (what I perceive to be) poor character.

Rather, repeated experiences have worn me down until I have to throw up my hands and say "well, I guess that expecting people to do X is just setting myself up for disappointment".

What do you mean by 'poor' and 'good' character? What have you expected from people? Are you sure your interpretations of past exchanges were correct, and comprehensive?

One theory of depression suggests it's promoted by cognitive styles that involve holding rigid, unrealistic, perfectionistic standards for self and others, and particular attributions (pdf), and a general difficulty tolerating ambiguity. Cognitive behavioural therapy can address these patterns of thinking.

I admit it's sometimes work to find a therapist who delivers CBT in a rigorous way; ask for recommendations, and just, keep trying.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:14 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think it is very easy to get into the habit of judging people by their capacity to disappoint you. And to then judge yourself harshly, in your own disappointment with yourself.

That came out more sterile than I meant it. Let me try again...and before I do, let me preface this by saying, I could be asking nearly the exact same question you're asking. In fact, for the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to compose a similar question, although mine would involve more existential dread and possibly some flailing of the hands. So this answer is kind of hypocritical.

When you say, "well, I guess that expecting people to do X is just setting myself up for disappointment", there's really a lot to unpack in that statement! Where do those expectations come from? What are the expectations, and why does it feel like the question of whether people are meeting them, actually changes the value of people? What criteria are they not meeting, that makes them so exhausting?

Call this feeling, this habit, whatever you like--introversion, early depression, creeping pathological shyness, early-onset hermitude--it has a way of flattening other people, making them lose dimension, as though they only existed to be judged; and of course it flattens yourself as well.

So one strategy is simple acceptance: You may not shake the feeling that they are disappointing you, but you can embrace the idea that they are whole people, who exist apart from your standards and your history, and that the part of them that is disappointing you, is not the entirety of the person.

And that means acceptance of your depth of feeling about them. An example. There is this guy I'm ostensibly friends with, and whenever I moan about being lonely, I think, I should really just call this guy. But there is that same sense of disappointment! Which is weird, because it's not like he has violated my trust or anything...but he has violated my sense of Being The Ideal Friend. He doesn't share the same snobby opinions I do (I don't think he has any, to speak of), for example. Not interested in the same books, certainly not the same music, and although he likes a lot of the same movies I do, he doesn't like them in quite the right way. But! Worse! He is comfortable. He doesn't suffer pangs of anxiety. He is emotionally stable and interested in a wide range of the world around him. He's confident and can carry on conversations that are not all about his emotional state. He is somehow simultaneously worse and better than me, which is the first step in a series of realizations about how I divide up the world, and how judgment makes me lonely. Because, for christ's sake, he's just a guy, and for some reason I have him all divvied up into these Very Important Categories, by which I prove mathematically that he is not friend material, and thus I am doomed to solitude.

I am sure your disappointments are not nearly as shallow as mine are. But I am surprised to find mine concealing a depth of feeling about people, when I examine that disappointment closely. And I find that my judgment is not only unnecessarily harsh, but seems like a mechanism to protect myself from harm--to protect myself from the possibility (the likelihood, says my fear) that everybody's better than me.

Depression is a habit, and a habit is an unexamined, repeated behavior that seeks to hide itself below the level of conscious thought.

I'm usually not very enthusiastic about therapy, but I think it has a purpose here. I think that purpose is to interrogate the habit, in a protected environment, where this system of thought can be prodded at, but where you're not tearing yourself up over it, or just kind of sliding to a halt. Where someone who isn't you, can ask questions you wouldn't have thought of. Where you can talk about things in a way that you really can't do in social settings. Where you can suss out what it is that makes being social such an awkward and unpleasant experience for you.

But maybe that's the wrong thing right now, maybe those questions would just get in the way of simpler steps, like, as other people have already advised, doing interesting things around other people, a sort of intermediary step before expecting people to be interesting. Maybe being around those folks, doing common things, would help to build the new habits, without all the anguished soul-searching (or dry weird homework) of therapy.

In any case, I believe it's possible to accept that awkwardness and unpleasantness, and to be sociable anyway. To accept the things you don't like about people--even their potential to disappoint you--and yet still derive pleasure from their company, from the fact that they are all more complex than their meeting-your-expectationness would imply. To develop a new habit--even if it starts as the lamest form of tolerance--so that you're not excluding good things from your life, out of a fear of disappointment.

(um, end of sermon, jeez.)
posted by mittens at 6:18 PM on August 22, 2014 [23 favorites]

Just to throw this in- I'm a bit older (46) but I'm in a VERY similar mindset as you. The one thing that seems to be helping more than anything is having had my thyroid checked thoroughly and medicated accordingly. I, too, would prefer to avoid medications but the changes I've experienced suggest to me how much our emotional state can be affected by misfiring biological processes. My ability to forgive human nature... fucked up though it is... especially my own... has become noticeably easier.
I've been alone for the past couple of years, but I'm seeing the detrimental effect of being in my own echo chamber. Fresh input is healthiest, ultimately. Seek it out, if only for a while per week.
I'd suggest taking my brother's tach as well: in short, as stated above, lower your standards. Never be surprised by the depth of human bozotude. That way, when they do otherwise, you'll be pleasantly surprised! Seriously!
I wish you luck in your endeavor- we need more self-aware people out in the world. I just hope it leads to happiness for you-
posted by JulesER at 6:37 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I can connect with them regarding this one activity, but don't expect the connection to go beyond.

This is probably one of my main stumbling blocks. I think you're right when you say that "all friendships are forged in the fire of shared experience"—and you're also right that this is easier when you're younger, because young people are kinda opted into certain shared experiences by default.

So seeking shared experiences, with the hope (but not expectation) that you'll bond with a few of your co-experiencers along the way, makes perfect sense. The problem is, these single-shared-interest friendships aren't something I find rewarding for their own sake. To the contrary, they're an uncomfortable, alien chore that makes me want to flee for the nearest exit. I grok that they can be a bridge to something more substantial—but most of the time they're just something I suffer through because it's supposed to be good for me, like eating Brussels sprouts (except that I actually like Brussels sprouts).

For most people, this kind of thing is a benign, or even pleasurable experience—with the side benefit that you might get lucky and find a real friend. For me, it is neither benign nor pleasurable. (And the fact that it is unpleasant makes the chance that you'll bond with someone even more remote.)

I mean, is it starting to sound like I have some form of social anxiety? The psychiatrist who diagnosed me with depression said "you might have social anxiety too, but I'm not sure", and then never mentioned it again. I've doubted that I have it, because I understand anxiety to be: feelings of fear/danger/insecurity; self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy; panic attacks; etc. And I've never really experienced that. But maybe my aversion to socializing with unfamiliar people, my tendency to perceive them as unrelatable or incompatible, my frustration and weariness with social interaction in general, is just a differently-shaped manifestation of anxiety? Is that a thing that happens?

Y'all really have my gears turning, by the way. This is a little bit like what I thought therapy should have been like. I appreciate the candor.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:40 PM on August 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Is that a thing that happens?

Yes indeed. Because, you're right, anxiety can be feelings of fear/danger/insecurity, but one of the ironies of anxiety disorders is how much distress we put ourselves under trying to avoid those feelings of fear. Because feeling fear is usually worse than whatever it is we're fearing. Boredom is easier. Exhaustion is easier. Despair is easier. It is possible to try to hide one's fear in all manner of other things.

Which is NOT to say you have an anxiety disorder. Kindly Internet Strangers shouldn't do that kind of diagnosing!
posted by mittens at 7:06 PM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

the fact that I myself—as someone who doesn't really do anything and doesn't really have any friends—am paralyzingly boring is not lost on me

I'll bet you this isn't true. From reading this question, you sound super smart, articulate, and thoughtful. Those aren't boring qualities. Spending lots of time alone doesn't mean you're boring: on the contrary, it often means you've had more time to think deeply about things others may not have thought about, to pursue solitary hobbies in more depth than more extroverted people may have time or attention for, etc. Do the couple of friends whose company you enjoy find you paralyzingly boring? Or look at it this way: if you could do a Vulcan mind meld with some reasonably intelligent, sympathetic stranger, so that they could see the whole contents of your mind, would they find nothing interesting or attractive there? Sure, you can't do a Vulcan mind meld, which is a problem for us introverts (one that scientists honestly need to get on), but that's an interface problem, not a content problem.

I've tried half a dozen therapists, all of whom were useless

I asked a question on this topic not long ago (and less recently another one pretty similar to yours). On therapy, this is the conclusion I've come to: all therapists are useless. That is, they're useless by themselves. For therapy to work, there has to be a collaboration, in which you do at least as much work as the therapist. If you come in with a "here I am, I'm fucked up, now fix me" attitude, the best therapist in the world will be useless because no one can fix you from the outside. But if you come in with a willingness to try to change habits of thought and behavior, hard as it might be to do so, and you find a therapist who can help, guide and support you in doing that work, that's when you might get something out of therapy.

(Also, check your memail in a little bit.)
posted by zeri at 11:19 PM on August 22, 2014

socializing ... just reinforces and underscores my sense of bafflement and alienation w/r/t humanity

If you're finding interactions with people baffling, even though it seems like you interact with us humans OK online, it may be possible that in person you're unintentionally signaling a degree of sadness or anger or other emotion that is unacknowledged and at odds with your calm words. Or alternatively, you might be talking about stuff that would affect most people emotionally but without showing emotion at all, which makes it hard for other people to know how to connect with you. In person, people react to the emotion (or unexpected lack of emotion, or disconnect between emotion and words), while online you can interact based on words alone. Your therapist can give you feedback about how you come across in person, and if you need to practice either reining it in or being more expressive, therapy is a safe place to practice that.

To be honest, I don't understand what therapy is for, or what I'm supposed to be "doing" in therapy.

Maybe not understanding how it works is OK, as long as it's working? I was in a group CBT program once where at the beginning of each session, we each rated our mood over the previous week on a scale from 1 to 10, and wrote it down. Even though I felt like the program wasn't doing anything, and would have said as much to anyone who asked, I couldn't deny when they showed us our own data from the past several weeks, that my honest ratings of my mood were gradually going up. I guess I could have looked at any number of alternate explanations for the improved mood, or you know, Occam's razor, maybe the mood-improvement program was working for me.

I'd suggest that you find a way to quantify your goals, even if you don't exactly know the steps to reach them, and ask yourself once a week, something like:
On a scale from 1 to 10, how interesting and enjoyable have I felt people in general were?
On a scale from 1 to 10, how inclined to trust people have I been?
Using the fingers on one hand, or maybe eventually both hands, how many people are there in the world whose company might I consider ever seeking out?

The thing about a therapist might be as simple as "two heads are better than one" when brainstorming ways for you to gradually push those numbers up, and cheering you on when you find whatever one weird trick works for you.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:30 AM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have you told your therapist what you have written here?

Would socialising in an online environment work for you? I don't mean dating sites, but sites where you share some hobby in common, playing games online, heck you can even play D&D online with other real people now a days.

Socializing is a bit like exercising, the less you do it the less you want to do it and the less you can do.

Also if you think you'd make a good pet owner, get a dog. Dogs mean you HAVE to do something. You have to get home to feed, them you have to take them for walks, you have to play with them. You can go to dog parks, dog training classes and make random small talk with people you are never going to see again.

I have terrible social anxiety, and getting a dog (actually I have 2) was great for me as in a social situation if I get overloaded, bored, don't know what to say, the dog is there to break the ice or be a subject change or just to reassure me.

Adult classes like someone suggested are a great way to get some socalizing lite in and you are getting some mental stimulation. Meet people for carefully controlled lengths of time that have a set end and you have a built in subject matter and know that you have at least one interest in common with them.
posted by wwax at 2:58 PM on August 23, 2014

Since you like being on the web, hanging out on all the subsites of MetaFilter is a great way to interact with people without having to SEE them. MetaTalk especially reveals the interestingness of the community. Check out Projects. Sign up for music swaps or Secret Quonsar. Maybe go to a meetup; why not come meet some Mefites, many of whom are introverted and socially odd, too.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:53 PM on August 23, 2014

If you like video games, perhaps it's worth finding a local boardgaming meetup group? There's a sort of boardgame Renaissance fueled by Kickstarter happening these days.
posted by pwnguin at 10:54 PM on August 23, 2014

I'm going to flip this sideways for you by asking you to think about this: "I'm 37. I've aged out of my more youthful concerns—partying, music scenes, certain political/artistic/intellectual pretensions—and yet I feel like I've never grown into anything to replace them."

I know EXACTLY what you mean. When I was young I went to clubs and itdoesn'tevenmatter, but the point is that over the years, I stopped doing those things and the things that replaced them involved staying at home.

I didn't have any reasons to go out because I had nothing to do outside the house.

And I realized a few years into this that I was actually making excuses, as are you, to not go out, or to minimize going out.

It doesn't matter if I was ultimately diagnosed with social anxiety or not but I needed to reframe my thinking.

You need to reframe your thinking, because your's not healthy.

I was able to reframe MY thinking into, "What are things I want to do?" and then I was able to think about leaving the house NOT as how was I going to meet people (or was I going to meet people) but instead I was able to just think about stuff I wanted to do and I kind of forced myself to get out and do them. Not to meet people, not to make friends, but because these were things I wanted to do.

Even though I hate running and talking, I joined a runner's group because I love running. I still hate running with people but after running we get coffee and sit and chat and that's kind of fun.

I decided I wanted to kayak, so I bought one and started paddling. I see many of the same people at the various loading docks. I wave at them. It's changed my mindset about OMG PEOPLE and I can't make new friends. Seriously.

**I want to add that if you really can't think of anything you want to get out and do, then VOLUNTEER somewhere or get a dog. Both will force you out of the house.
posted by kinetic at 3:48 AM on August 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Leaving all the mental health issues aside, I find myself a lot like this at work functions. I HATE standing around talking like a cocktail party. I HATE going to a big event with a thousand people wandering around. What I like is being useful, so I always volunteer to be on the staffing committee. I stand at a table, make small jokes with whoever is coming by to register or enter the drawing or get food or whatever; I acknowledge my specific coworkers when they come by and we chat for a few minutes, but then I am done and I have to get back to my task - see you at work Monday!! very cheerful.

Also, the general advice to volunteer in your community is good, but I've not been able to actually get anyone to call me back and give me assignments, so that's not working for me. But I always volunteer at work events and I have a very good time.
posted by CathyG at 10:31 AM on August 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sorry I am replying a few days late on this thread. I've experienced such bad anxiety before that I couldn't get myself to leave my apartment even to get dinner. For a while I got so used to anxiety that it became my default ground state of consciousness and I forgot what it was like to walk confidently around in the world without constantly feeling this unplaceable sense of dread. When I got out of that bad spot – through completely banal means such as eating better, getting more exercise, and changing my routine – I was finally able to recognize how much the anxiety was warping my perceptions. For example, I used to hate going to a group gathering because I always thought people would be judging me, comparing me to others, etc., and I was always worried that I was making a bad impression. In reality, nobody has the time or energy to analyze a stranger across the room. Maybe you have had a similar experience.

So it does sound a bit like you're experiencing anxiety, though of course I am not a professional and don't really know what to tell you beyond my personal impressions. IMHO, "social anxiety" is just a term to describe the effects of anxiety on your ability to socialize with other people. Getting your anxiety treated, either through medication or making lifestyle choices, depending on what works for you, could make social interactions less painful for you. I don't know your background and I can't guarantee you anything (nor can anyone else), but if it's any solace, know that anxiety is an extremely common experience.

Now, even if you learn good strategies for dealing with anxiety, that doesn't mean you're going to automatically become a social butterfly. You might still find that spending most of your time at home reading is more pleasant for you than going on dates or playing kickball or whatever. That is a personal preference and is in no way indicative of a problem. Personally, I don't really like to socialize much, although I can "turn on" for a few hours at a time and fool everyone into thinking I'm some kind charming raconteur. But that's because I'm an introvert, and people exhaust the hell out of me! I know this about myself and I plot my life out accordingly. I sometimes wish I had more social interaction outside of work but that's what classes and clubs and meetup groups are for.
posted by deathpanels at 4:42 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some of this sounds very familiar. I'd like to reiterate the volunteerism advice above. For me, super-duper-introverted and not enjoying of social interaction but also needing some level of meaning in life besides screwing around on the internet, volunteering is a really nice fit.

In particular, having been through a few volunteer gigs, the ones I've liked best are highly structured volunteer roles with some social interaction, but primarily within rigid guidelines. A lot of social anxiety and awkwardness goes away because while you may do some chitchat in slow times, you have a common purpose and a set of tasks and mostly your interaction is structured around those things, but you still get some benefit of social interaction. Something with a constant schedule is nice, so you're not going 'oh god I will never leave my apartment again' but rather 'I'll be out doing X tomorrow, so it's nice to be home enjoying my alone time tonight.' Something where you have some sense of helping people is good.

For me, needle exchange work fit the bill really nicely. You're there doing a specific thing, the fellow volunteers are generally sympatico in some way or they wouldn't be there, exchangers are mostly pretty great and will kick you right out of stereotypes you didn't know what you had although you do get the occasional jerk, the social exchanges are highly structured, you're doing an important thing and helping people, and you're so busy there's not a ton of downtime to stand around feeling awkward. (And if there is, well, you can always find some supply that needs restocking or cleaning-up to keep yourself busy.)

If you're working with the same people every week that may help spur some social life outside the volunteering. But you might also find that just having those regular, predictable, manageable social interactions helps you feel more comfortable with social interaction in general, and makes other forms of seeking social interaction either.

Or that you don't need it. An hour of social interaction in a volunteer setting once or twice a month frankly just about fills up my social needs meter. YMMV.
posted by Stacey at 7:11 AM on August 27, 2014

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