Remembering and having the confidence to reach out to people
January 17, 2016 12:31 PM   Subscribe

It is a longstanding habit of mine to assume I am "bothering" people if I reach out to them by, say, wanting to spend time with them or talk to them (how terrible!) unless we are already interacting for a reason that was not my doing (an activity, work, them coming to me). I am also in the habit of just not reaching out even with the few people I am confident I am not bothering.

There is, obviously, some social anxiety that led me to developing this habit, but even now when I am otherwise happy, the habit sticks around. And it is not good for my relationships.

Here's a few examples of what happens:

My best friend from college lives far away from me now, but we are still good friends. Probably 80% of the time, she is the one reaching out to me to say "hey, let's talk on Skype, it's been a while" and following up when I drop off the map since she knows I have issues with depression and it's not personal. She puts in more consistent effort, despite her being one of my favorite people on the planet. I know being a better friend would mean doing the same and consistently reaching out about how she is doing.

People invite me a couple times to hang out with a group. I don't go because I feel awkward or am in a bad mood or something. Then they stop inviting me and I feel sad to not be included, despite it being my doing in the first place.

I assume people don't actually like me despite obvious evidence to the contrary. For example, I recently had this conversation with a friend of mine from work. He stopped by my office and we were talking about the rumor/likely possibility that I am going to be asked to switch to a new department at work, which would put me on the same floor he is on. I "joked" that, "I hope you're prepared, this is going to lead to me bugging you way more often." To which his response, you have LITERALLY NEVER stopped by my office. Which is true--and I have been there for two years! The most I have done to reach out is say maybe 3-4 times that it's been a while and he will follow up and we get coffee/lunch/a drink after work. He has been so kind and helpful since I started and I somehow convinced myself that "he's just being nice" and that it would be imposing on him to try to get to know him better as a friend.

It's MUCH easier to reach out for people if it's clear they could use my help, and I do find that really rewarding. Like I went out of my way to be helpful and give assignments to our (awesome, smart, hard working) summer interns and they really appreciated it and told me I was the only one to really do that. I remembered how much I appreciated it when I was an intern at my current workplace.

I would like to change my non-reaching-out habit. I've thought of putting it on my schedule, like, "every day I will go out of my way to reach out to one person." Does anyone have any other ideas or experiences?
posted by picardythird to Human Relations (10 answers total) 96 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Oh man, I struggle with this too. Here are some ideas:

* Practice looking people in the eye and saying hello every day. When you make a friendly gesture and someone returns it, it's a good feeling and helps build confidence. The other good thing about it is that it creates and sense of agency. It's less about "Does X really want to be my friend? Do they want to extend friendship to me?" and more "Do I chose to extend my friendship to X?"

* I like the idea of setting a habit of reaching out regularly - both in the sense of texting/calling/emailing long-distance friends, and asking people to do things with you.

* Set yourself a rule for, say, a month, to always say "yes" to invitations (assuming you aren't sick and don't have a schedule conflict). You can leave after 30 minutes if you aren't having fun, but you show up and let people know you appreciate the invitation.

As far as people needing your help .. well, here's a story for you. I joined a group over a year ago. I felt very shy and didn't extend myself or make it easy to make friends. Then one of the members of the group experienced a tragic death in their immediately family. I was very sad for him and wanted to help, but because I had never extended my friendship to him to him, I was in no position to do so. If I had extended my friendship, he could have declined .. but he might not have. And I didn't give him, or anyone else, a chance .. just because I didn't want to deal with being rejected as a friend. Which now feels like a really shitty excuse.

Be brave, offer your friendship.
posted by bunderful at 1:39 PM on January 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

The easiest way to do it is to be vulnerable with people you care about, and talk frankly about this like you are doing it with us by posting this question. It helps break the ice, and then the other person usually opens up, relaxes, and shares about being understanding of that anxiety, and then you two can talk about it and feel stronger. Then you go do those plans!

I'm being serious, because people get shocked when I call myself socially anxious when I have a fairly active social life, but that's because I actively talk about my social anxiety while I reconnect, if I really want to. If they happen to judge me for that, then damn they aren't worth being my friends anyway, since I think usually sensitive, compassionate people have at least one or two things they're anxious about all the time.

I also realized that my friends really value having me around, because I have worked hard to be a very supportive listener and I hold space for them. It was so wonderful when I first went to my university and found my supportive community and friend spaces, because everyone was practicing that, and it was such a contrast from my really isolated childhood, competitive public school culture. (These were feminist and queer and anti-oppression spaces, so I think active listening is definitely part of the culture that I was a part of, since that was part of truly effective organizing and relationship-building, plus it was just so much fun to be part of building such supportive environments like that, especially for many of us who didn't come from explicitly supportive environments like that.)

The principles of active listening would be really awesome to look at. That also takes a lot of pressure of me having to be entertaining or interesting, what people really want is someone to listen to them, and if you really like them, then listening is enjoyable and you naturally start to open up and want to share the space and energy together. Being present for people makes people feel lovingly seen and heard, and that is why it is wonderful if you do reach out to people, since it helps you be seen and helps your friends be seen too. That means all the difference in the world, because it's two or more people who really see and like the energy you add, plus it takes all the anxiety off of you.

And honestly, usually people are delighted if you reach out to them first. I think it's hard to really reach out, and then make sure to show up and follow up, and I think it gets easier with how technology makes us flaky and overly accessible. It's really important to be present, and I think that means everything. Like I wish I had a supervisor like you who cared about the summer interns, because I had a horrible supervisor who actually didn't care for us, didn't assign us projects we wanted, and on top of that, didn't care about our presence until we could do something for them. I think you must have a very different temperment, so allow people to know the privilege of your presence!
posted by yueliang at 2:05 PM on January 17, 2016 [8 favorites]

YES. My last experience with that was about an hour ago. I'm serious.

Some time back, someone I was casual friends with confessed to me that she was lonely all the time. I hadn't really reached out to her much because I assumed she was always busy. We went to a birthday party for her once, and her friends filled a whole bar, and she's in big demand for professional and political events, so I'd never thought she'd have time. Apparently not. She said that she can usually find someone to do things with, but only if she initiates. So I issued a standing invitation for dinner every week.

And then, I started inviting other people. If I spend some time with someone and I like them, I invite them them to dinner. Right now, I have a core group of five people who come most weeks, sometimes more, sometimes less.

Then, last night, one of the women who doesn't come often, whom I'd assumed didn't really want to hang out with me, had a pretty serious problem and she reached out to me. Turns out, as with most things, it wasn't all about me. She's been experiencing a sort of extended funk (I am not qualified to diagnose anything beyond funks), and that's why she wasn't showing up.

I had worried about continuing to invite her every week when she was only showing up about 20% of the time, but I just told her that if it was OK, I'd keep inviting her just in case. And she just told me that made a huge difference when she started feeling lonely, knowing that she had someone she could talk to and hang out with.

I had almost stopped inviting her because I didn't want to look weird or creepy or stupid. (And, of course, I would have stopped if she'd told me to and hadn't acted friendly throughout.) And I am really glad I kept it up because she said it made a big difference to her.

People like to act as though they've got everything together, but almost everyone gets lonely and anxious and insecure, and most people like knowing that someone wants to spend time with them. I usually make myself easy to get rid of, like keeping conversations I initiate brief and inviting people by email, so it's a low pressure thing to respond.

If someone thinks I'm a creep or a loser because I'm reaching out to them when they don't want me to, I guess I can live with that. But think how weird that would be, someone talking trash about someone for saying hey to them or asking if they want to go for lunch or something.
posted by ernielundquist at 2:37 PM on January 17, 2016 [28 favorites]

Some of these are too advanced for me, and some of these I have learned to do myself:

I suspect this first thing might work for you, because you say this in your post, "It's MUCH easier to reach out for people if it's clear they could use my help" Anyway, so a friend of mine is very outgoing, friendly when you first meet her and she mentioned that she is shy, which I didn't believe. But, she said that she overcomes it and makes people feel welcome, eager to participate, etc., by looking around a room at a party, event, whatever group gathering it is. There is always someone feeling ackward and standing behind the punch bowl, holding up the wall. She focuses on making that one person feel comfortable. So if you are motivated that way, it might help you, at least for that event to make a person feel comfortable.

A small thing you can do to get people to invite you - if you can't go because the activity would make you feel awkward, share it, its okay, no one likes everything. But immediately invite the person to something else. Another way to get over this is to keep a list of mutual activities that you and friend X or Y likes (lets say plays, or lectures about topic Q). When you see those events, you can send an email (10 seconds, no thought) and it is the sharing of a fun event, not a judgement on you.

Also, this will sound like a strange hack and it took me a lifetime to learn this. Notice how you mention you like to help people? Many people do. So if you meet a person, like them, would legitimately help them back if they needed it, ask for a small favor, a tiny one. Believe it or not, a reverse friendship bond can start.
posted by Wolfster at 2:43 PM on January 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would like to change my non-reaching-out habit. I've thought of putting it on my schedule, like, "every day I will go out of my way to reach out to one person." Does anyone have any other ideas or experiences?

After my divorce, I did exactly that. I was exactly that rule driven about it. I also made the rule that I would see at least one human being besides myself on both weekend days-- sometimes that was volunteering, sometimes it was a random party I might otherwise not have attended, but I didn't let myself be alone even if that meant dragging myself to a random meetup group.

As silly as it sounds, both things worked really well for rebuilding my social structure. I started really using Facebook to reconnect to old friends, and I was moved and surprised how many of them were still there for me. turned into a good way to meet other women in a similar situation who were also looking for new friends.
posted by frumiousb at 3:24 PM on January 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

For the best friend, I think you should put it on your calendar as a to-do item: say, on the 17th of every month, you'll email her to set up a skype chat.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 4:24 PM on January 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not reaching out to people really becomes a self-perpetuating cycle if it continues for a long time. You don't contact your friends, because you assume they aren't interested, then they will see you not contacting them and they will assume it's because YOU'RE not interested. All this ends up creating is a situation where everyone's keeping silent based on a false idea(that the opposite party doesn't want to see them).

You gotta reach out at least some of the time, even if it's just to ask someone about how things are going in their life. It's not fair to expect your friends to chase after you 24/7(the reverse is true as well). If for no other reason, reach out to be fair to these people. Reaching out/putting in emotional labour is how we show that we are invested in a friendship. People aren't mind readers. You gotta show them you care, and chances are they will return the favor.

Start breaking the silence in small ways. Start conversations through social media or texts. If you listened to these people in the past, and know what they like/what their life goals were, a good place to start is asking about those things(like "hey, did you see X movie? I remember you liking those films." or "been a while, how's Y thing going for you?"). A casual reminder that insinuates "Hey, I exist and I enjoy spending time with you" can go a long way. This kind of casual check-in can even rekindle friendships that on the surface had seemed long dead.

Relationships are like fires, they need mutual tending and refuelling to keep them going.
posted by InkDrinker at 4:53 PM on January 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

I had an insight this morning which you may find, if not helpful, at least supportive.

I always carry a book wherever I go. In some ways I prefer reading to the ups and downs of trying to make conversation with people I have a slight acquaintance with (like the regulars at a local bar or neighborhood coffee shop).

What I realized was that the only difference in engaging with an author (as opposed to a real-time human) was that in a book the organization of the thoughts has been prepackaged. In a conversation one has to dig a little and assemble it yourself. This could be considered a fun game (like Clue).

I'm planning on giving this approach a try. I think I might be able to be a reasonably fun person with a little practice.
posted by cleroy at 5:33 PM on January 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Would you feel comfortable organizing a small get-together for friends or co-workers? I also have social anxiety, but I'm also starting to feel like I have a knack for getting people together--if only because I take the first step and ask people if they'd like to get together and do something.

Now, this process is often fraught with me stressing over whether anyone likes me enough to show up, whether my apartment is clean enough, whether I am serving enough food and afterwards, whether everybody had a good time, but the payoff has always been pretty nice. I invited some people from my improv class over for a game night early last year, and when we decided to form our own group, other people started doing the same, inviting everybody to their homes over for drinks/games/food. I feel a little swell of pride to think that I helped kick-start that trend.

Most recently, I also initiated a work team lunch, because some of my colleagues got moved to a different building and we got split up. One of the newer hires thanked me for organizing it, and that also felt pretty darn good.

I'm slooowly starting to realize that the notion that people don't want to hang out is all just a big scary projection of mine. I think people are more than happy to hang when asked; they just don't always think to initiate.

Of course, sometimes when you're trying to forge a new friendship with someone, it also may be the case that you ask them to hang out and they may end up being "too busy" or they're evasive about it, but so far, that's been the rare exception for me, not the rule.
posted by dean_deen at 1:49 PM on January 18, 2016

Response by poster: Thank you all, there are so many thoughtful & helpful sentiments and stories in these responses.

Bunderful's framing of this as friendship being something I can OFFER people, rather than something I worry about whether they are willing to offer me, is simple and illuminating. I hope I remember to keep that idea in mind because it is a great one.
posted by picardythird at 8:26 PM on January 18, 2016

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