What if I just don't fit in with people?
December 28, 2014 7:03 AM   Subscribe

I have the sneaking suspicion that I was born in the wrong place (or planet), and I want to come to terms with the loneliness that sometimes creeps in. Please help? Details inside.

Um, hello! I'm a 20-year-old introverted female from SE Asia, and so far in my entire life it's been a repeated script of me finding it hard to connect with others. I know the age-old advice is to smile, laugh, ask people questions, listen, be truly interested, remember what they say, and so on, but I think an unspoken rule is that there must be some commonality with your senses of humor or viewpoints in life for an actual friendship to happen. For the record, what I consider a friendship is when things are light, natural, unforced, when semi-personal day-to-day things can be discussed (I don't need someone to unearth childhood trauma with, just someone I can be honest with if I don't feel in the mood that day, etc.), and when you can laugh about stuff together. That doesn't seem too big of a deal, does it? It just rarely happens for me. I should probably mention I got clinically diagnosed with depression and that I'm an anxious person by default, but now I'm much happier (but still not without periods of being down) after having left school for a while. I'm med-free now, and I'm resuming my studies this January (Oh, God. I mean -- yay?).

I realize I can't get specific answers about how to improve my social skills, but I still think that even if I did improve-- didn't air negativity out too much, approached people more, offered my aid in schoolwork, etc. -- there would still be this barrier that separates me from others because of our inherent differences. It's just something I feel in my gut, especially since it seems I laugh at stuff other people don't find funny, and vice versa. Because I've seen other people be tightwads, and inconsiderate about others getting sidelined, and be conversation-hoggers, but still have friends. Probably because they're funny? I don't know. My experience is that people are so caught up in their own world that they don't appreciate politeness or consideration, or a listening ear, which are things I try to provide. I'm still willing to try and improve, but I have limited energy and time, and I don't want to be devastated when things don't go well. Plus, I don't want to be that person who gives just because she's expecting something in return. I want to accept the possibility of just being a different-colored fish in the sea. Yes, I don't know how the future will go, but it's still helpful to know I can live with the 'worst-case scenario', especially since I really REALLY don't think it's as unlikely as people might think. I'm not expecting the loneliness to never come back (this stuff is biologically hardwired, isn't it?), I just want to minimize it so I can get on with things that make me happy. Knowing I'm not alone in this experience would be super helpful, I think.

I'm not about to close myself off from the world and move to a Tibetan mountaintop. I still want to help people, to volunteer my time and energy if I can spare them, and to give space for people to vent and talk. But I want to find a way to accept that maybe I'm just someone people won't necessarily appreciate, for whatever reason. I want to be contented and nourished by self-love. This is something I experienced during my leave of absence when I largely stayed at home and immersed myself in hobbies, but it's 10x harder back in school where everybody's laughing among themselves and snapping selfies and suchlike.

So, uhh, tldr: If I find that I'm just a person who isn't that interesting or worthwhile to others, is it possible to be happy and fulfilled for a sustained period of time? Are there people who have done this successfully? How can I start being like this?

Thanks a lot!
posted by The Shonky Shop to Human Relations (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This is something I experienced during my leave of absence when I largely stayed at home and immersed myself in hobbies, but it's 10x harder back in school where everybody's laughing among themselves and snapping selfies and suchlike.

You may be tired of hearing this already, but school and the age that you are is likely a big part of the problem. The kind of social life you experience at school/university is not the kind you're going to have for the rest of your life. It's very competitive, for one thing.

Not that it's easier when you get older, necessarily, just different. You certainly find plenty of people on here saying they wish they had as many friends as they did at university. But I think it may suit you better when you are a little older and things are lower key.
posted by BibiRose at 7:22 AM on December 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Don't try so hard. Join clubs, volunteer, be friendly and helpful. For some people, you'll click immediately, others you'll grow on each other. It's like music. Once you're a regular, people will engage you more and more in things, and it'll naturally progress from there. A lot of folks fall in with people right off the bat, and that's great. Others, friendships grow for.

So offer to form a study group, or just join one. Be out and about and mix and mingle. It will fall into place, even when you feel as conspicuous as a fly on a plate, press on.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:31 AM on December 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I want to be contented and nourished by self-love. This is something I experienced during my leave of absence when I largely stayed at home and immersed myself in hobbies, but it's 10x harder back in school where everybody's laughing among themselves and snapping selfies and suchlike.

Well, then you've actually already got this sorted. You are content in your own company; it's the company of your classmates that makes you feel lonely and alienated. But university is a totally false environment. It will mirror no other social construct you'll encounter in your life.

I suspect this is a case of getting through college so you can go out into a world that is far, far more diverse and has far more places for introverts to fit in.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:45 AM on December 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think for a large portion of my youth I may have given off a sort of dramatic damsel-in-distress dreamy vibe at odds with reality. Rightly or wrongly, I read some of that in you, too. Things improved greatly for me not only because I got older and left school, but because at some point in my life I truly learned to rely on myself, trust myself, and became much more hard, practical, and matter-of-fact. Being in the working world and earning a living helps greatly with this, although it's sometimes not free of the petty drama that school is more often riddled with.

Your anxiety and anxiousness to please comes across in your writing style, and I imagine it probably comes across in real life too. Instead of aspiring to be compassionate and a good listener, aspire to be a bold leader. Aspire to be strong and confident and laugh at the small stuff and to really believe in yourself. I think that will come across as much more attractive to other people in turn. This is something I wish all young women could learn earlier in life, as often no one tells us to be bold or to take care of ourselves.
posted by quincunx at 8:07 AM on December 28, 2014 [13 favorites]

If it helps, just from the way you've written this question you sound wise, kind, witty, insightful, and genuine - the kind of person others would treasure as a friend. I have a feeling you'll find your people sooner or later. Making friends really is hard, even for interesting people, and you're not alone even if you feel that way.

Don't compare your friendships (or lack thereof) to others', because not all friendships are the same, and having a lot of friends doesn't mean a person is a good friend, or happier because of those friends. Some friendships and friend groups are cliquey and gossipy and full of drama; some are brought together by circumstance and will fizzle as soon as the friends no longer share a class or job; some groups have one or more people on the fringe who feel as lonely and isolated as you do, and maybe even worse because they're constantly reminded that they'll never be fully accepted into their friend group. Being alone means not having to deal with all that mess; you can think of it as waiting for the right friends to come along instead of settling for friends you don't particularly like.

You may want to consider making friends online, via Twitter or blogs/forums/etc. centered around your interests. It's not always the same as in-person friendships, and it's not always easier, but I think it can be really good for introverts, for people who express themselves well through writing, and for people who just feel different from everyone they see every day.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:08 AM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

You have to find your tribe. It can take awhile to find people to connect with and it does take effort. You are right that people are caught up in their own worlds. If someone seems interesting to you, you have to ask them to hang out and pursue the friendship, which can be very hard to do at first. I find that it helps to look outside of my peer group (I kind of hate what interests my current peer group). My closest friends are never my age and come from all walks of life. I've gone through utterly lonely periods where I couldn't find anyone to connect with, to periods of being a social butterfly with a full schedule.

Be introverted. Laugh at things no one else around you gets. Eventually, someone else will laugh with you and you will know that that is the person that you want to be introverted with. You won't always be alone. Right now, you are around people who are not fully formed. They don't totally know who they are or who they will be, and this causes them to lack the confidence to hang out with the quiet people. Keep being you and looking for someone who you want to hang out with.
posted by myselfasme at 8:09 AM on December 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

You sound like just the kind of person I like to be friends with because they compliment me - they don't match me. A reserved, but generously strange energy. I'm a thirty year old woman with a very small handful of local friends, a rich online life, and a tendency to end up in charge of things I don't want to be in charge of because most of my friends are even more introverted than I am.

My point is, like everyone else is saying, you'll find people who love and appreciate you, but you might not be in the right environment or age bracket for that quite yet. My advice is to use what energy you have to step away from school to a more age-diverse group when you can. Maybe something related to your hobbies? Or a volunteer organization where everyone has a common goal and diverse experience. You'll definitely be appreciated in a group like that, and there should be some chances to socialize outside of the cause, too.

Maybe revisit the meds situation. Your question reads like you're depressed. Convincing yourself you're an alien and things are meant to be horrible forever is classic stuff. (Been there, go back there often enough myself.) You'll be going through a lot of life changes very soon, so keep an open mind about your options and step back in maybe a month (or whenever you've got a solid idea of what your life is going to look like for the next while) and talk about them with a mental health professional to get you sorted.

You are not alone in this experience.
posted by Mizu at 9:51 AM on December 28, 2014

I had a similar experience in my teens and early 20s. I didn't find "my people" until my mid-to-late 20s. Hang in there. You fit in somewhere, you just haven't found it yet.
posted by erst at 10:39 AM on December 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

But I want to find a way to accept that maybe I'm just someone people won't necessarily appreciate, for whatever reason. I want to be contented and nourished by self-love.

I don't think it's a desirable goal to become okay with being consistently unappreciated in life. Nor do I think you want to saddle yourself with this self-image: I'm just the kind of person that people don't appreciate. Yes, sure, there will be times in your life when you act in kind, caring ways and people will fail to appreciate you for it, and it's good if you don't let that get you down. But it's entirely reasonable to want mutually satisfying friendships, relationships where the affection and appreciation go both ways. You mention humor a lot. Humor is, or can be, a big bonding thing. Sharing the same sense of humor and sensibility is appealing. You might find that you really feel at home with people who share your sensibility, and maybe you just haven't met enough of these people yet. The world is wide with many, many people in it. So you will find others you connect with. I remember feeling some of what you're feeling when I was in my early 20s. I'd be out with people but not really enjoying myself because I wasn't really clicking with people. But then I met other people. Some you click with, plenty you don't. Try not to feel at fault or bad about this.

And of course, self-love is a great and worthy goal, too.
posted by swheatie at 12:05 PM on December 28, 2014

Yes to what sweathie said - i wouldn't try to formalize some self image of yourself as a loner as a defense mechanism. I did that, and the problem is that it works. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy - you become more of a loner. Instead, keep envisioning the friendships / community you want. Use that image (yourself as someone worthy of those relationships but still looking for your people) in the meantime instead. Now that you're recovering from your depression, that should help.
posted by salvia at 1:49 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think part of it is the growing process of your 20s. I'm 31 and I've changed a lot in the past decade in how I see people in relation to me.
I've come to accept that there are *some* people who though they are very nice you just won't ever be friends with - just the way it is. Hard lesson for me.
I do have a handful of very good friends now and have learnt that this doesn't happen overnight and takes regular maintenance and care. Remember no two people agree 100% on everything.
Some people will share enough of your sense of humour/viewpoint for you to connect. Just can take some searching. I wish you luck.
posted by 92_elements at 3:12 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a very small circle of very close friends. I've never been the life-of-the-party type. But I really enjoy interacting one-on-one with people that I have a close trusting bond with. For me, the secret was to be brave enough to share your vulnerabilities with others. Not right away, of course. But when you've identified someone you like and feel you have some common ground with and who seems like someone you can trust, don't just share your "Facebook" self, all the happy, shiny things that make you wonderful, but if you want to really get to know someone, you've got to show that you trust them enough to open up and share some of the stuff you think you're afraid to share with 99% of the world.
posted by marsha56 at 4:28 PM on December 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ugh, I feel horrible saying this but you sound like a "nice guy," in that you are angry at others for not appreciating your "politeness or consideration, or [sic] listening ear." These are not sufficient for someone to become your friend. Don't get me wrong, they are wonderful qualities that are well appreciated by many. However, I have found that friendship is really founded on sharing your vulnerabilities, similar sense of humour and shared experience. Good friendships takes years to grow and cultivate. Just because you don't have the friendships you want now, doesn't mean that you will never have them.

It may sound at this point that I don't have any empathy for you or your situation. I do. I have been very lonely in times of my life. At those times it can be hard to remember that I don't want to be friends with just anyone. It's OK not be friends with everyone and for some people not to find my company appealing. Especially if I don't want to become friends - why should I be mad, if we both don't want to be friends?

My advice is the same as those above. University is a very different environment than other times and parts of your life. Other venues and age ranges will provide a different atmosphere. My worry for you is that you have put a lot of focus on what you have to offer - without thought to what you want in a friend. The world is made of a lot of people - find some people that make YOU laugh!
posted by Gor-ella at 8:20 AM on December 29, 2014

I'm pushing 60 and I've never found my tribe.

Instead, I was fortunate enough to find a life partner who is my only true friend and now, thank god, my husband. It has made all the difference.

What made it possible was having joined a social group in my mid-20s for people with common interests: we were all LGBT professionals. Did I click with everyone there simply because we were the same in so many ways? Absolutely not, but I made some pleasant acquaintances and, most importantly, was there at the right time and place when fate brought us together.

Honestly, "the age-old advice . . . to smile, laugh, ask people questions, listen, be truly interested, remember what they say, and so on . . ." hasn't produced friends for me, either. I worked once with a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) practitioner who thought he was really helping me out by giving me a page of conversation starters. It was amusing, actually, because he was so far out of touch with my needs. My problem is that I can start conversations 'till the cows come home but they just don't lead anywhere.

But my experience over the decades has NOT led me to conclude that I am "a person who isn't that interesting or worthwhile to others . . ." Instead, I accept that some people appear to connect with others more easily than I do, and it's unlikely this stage that I will be one of them. I know that I am interesting and worthwhile to my husband, our children and our grandchildren - and, most importantly, to myself. Also, I remind myself that the images of friendships we see in media of all sorts are just that - manufactured images - and I try to pay as little attention to them as I do to people selling laundry detergent on TV.

While I agree that life changes once you leave college, the basic interpersonal dynamics do not change much. Office life is full of "people laughing among themselves . . .", except work and career considerations are tossed into the mix.

I have thrived in jobs where I had a clear role, because the role offered me a persona that made it very easy to interact with other employees. I wasn't ADave: I was the [job description] guy. And on top of that, I'm generally a nice person, so people didn't get out of the way when they saw me coming.

What I learned is that even though my co-workers might have appeared to have lots of friends at work, at least some of those were probably situational friendships with shallow roots. Being on good terms with people and perhaps having one person I could go out to lunch with was enough. (Well, doing excellent work and having my manager appreciate me helped as well.)

But also learned that whatever it is that keeps me from making friends also gets in the way of supervising or managing others. Too many employees want a boss who's a buddy and a regular guy, and that definitely is not me. Higher up the management ladder, I found I don't have what it takes to schmooze my way through company politics. So being an advisor or having a technical/ professional role where I'm not in charge of other people's performance suits me just fine.

I do recommend finding a therapist who can help you 1) gain some insight as to why you don't feel like you're part of whatever group you're around; and 2) more importantly, find self acceptance as someone who is worthwhile and worth loving. Also, while no therapist has ever led me to an epiphany that changed my life, it has been incredibly helpful to be able to talk to a therapist regularly. It's an important outlet and an opportunity to spend time with someone who is on your side. You definitely should not have to go through this alone and in silence.

As to Item 1, above, while I probably have some intrinsic qualities that keep me apart from others, I realize that growing up in South America, moving to the States, then back to South America, then to the Bay Area, then to a rural Red State while going to boarding school in Europe and the East Coast, and losing my mother - all before I was 16 - and coming out in the late '70s - has contributed enormously to not being able to find my tribe. I was never in any one of these singular situations long enough to learn how to be. Perhaps it's having a degree in anthropology that give me this perspective, but I think my problem is largely cultural. I still feel like an expat living in a foreign country.

You did not say why you discontinued taking medications. I am not your therapist or psychiatrist, but some medications can be helpful in combination with therapy. The important thing is to know the side effects (especially the risks of tardive dyskinesia) and make sure the meds aren't making you seem overmedicated.
posted by ADave at 10:45 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

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