Socially withdrawn during grad school
September 4, 2017 3:56 AM   Subscribe

I feel bad about not having made any friends during grad school, because I was dealing with multiple stressors at the time.

Grad school was the most difficult time of my life. I was isolated from my family and friends (different region of the country), recovering from a sexual assault / pursuing legal matters related to the assault, still trying to get through my demanding program, land a job, win scholarships, multiple health issues, death of a close friend... honestly, I don't even really remember most of grad school; it was just a huge blur and I wanted to survive. I made it out-- I graduated on time, and found a highly desirable position in a place that is closer to my family and college friends. Yay.

It came at the cost of... well, I didn't make any friends in grad school. I was on good terms with everybody, but not close to anybody. It was a lonely time for me. My program was small and tight-knit, so most people end up invited to most classmates' life events. 10 people in my cohort got married during grad school, and I was invited to only one wedding. In comparison, most people in my class were invited to at least 4-7 of the 10. I don't mean this to sound like a petty high schooler, but I just mean that this kind of made me look back and realize that I made no real friendships during this period of time in my life. Even the people that I had considered my closer acquaintances (now I'm reluctant to use the term "friends") in grad school didn't invite me to their life events, while they invited other classmates. I realize now that everyone else was bonding and socializing over the challenges of grad school together, while I was just so focused on surviving and so ... withdrawn after the assault, that I completely missed out. That, or there's something wrong with me that I'm not aware of that makes people want to avoid me? (I had no problems in college before the assault, I think-- most of my friendships are from before the assault.)

My cohort has mostly dispersed across the country after graduation. I feel this combination of "where have the past few years gone if I didn't even make any friends?" and am kind of sad that people that I did think of as being closer (maybe this perception was skewed because I probably really was very withdrawn) didn't end up seeing me as a friend, perhaps because I didn't have any reserve left in me to even be a friend at that point in my life. I'm sad that the assault affected me so badly and that even though I'm generally fine now, I'm worried that I continue to be... distant from other people in a way that I don't know exactly how to change. Maybe I'm being harsh on myself. I don't know. How can I make friends? How do I even become close to people? Is there a phenomenon where some large life stressor occurs and they just become socially inept afterwards that could describe my situation? How can I improve it?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What you are describing is absolutely normal. I have exactly one friend from my college days, and we only talk to each other online now because we live in different cities and have very different lives. My situation was similar to yours not in the exact details, but in the fact that I had a lot of stressors most of my classmates didn't.

Congratulations on making it through that stressful time! You had to have a huge amount of inner strength; if you can't bring yourself to pat your own back for your accomplishments, allow me to do it for you!

Making friends as an adult can be challenging, but the best way I've found is to get involved in group activities. The most important thing that helped me learn to make adult friends was figuring out in therapy that I really deserved to have them in the first place, and that I actually did have something to offer that would make people not want to run the other way once they got to know me. After that, it was a lot easier to just relax and return other people's friendly interest.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:15 AM on September 4, 2017 [8 favorites]

I don't think what you are describing sounds very unusual. I made only a few friends in college, partly because I was socially inept and didn't know it, and partly because I was dealing with some significant stressors.

It sounds like you've learned something about yourself - that you sometimes withdraw under stress. In the future you'll be better prepared to notice yourself doing this, and you can ask yourself "is this really what I want to do? would it be worth it to push myself a little to go to a party / say hello / invite someone for coffee, so I can set myself up to have a circle of friends?"

Put yourself out there. Go to meetups, make eye contact, smile and say hello, ask people questions about themselves. You'll start to meet people you click with and want to spend more time with. I have also used therapy to help with this. Having someone to talk to eases the sense of isolation, and most of my therapists have had suggestions for ways to connect with people. And after we talked about going to x party or trying y thing, I felt a certain motivation to do that before my next session so I could report back.

Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 5:29 AM on September 4, 2017

I have zero friends from my college days. I commuted to & from school, had a job, and my parents split during that time so I was kind of on the hook for some of the care of my early-teens brother.

Not everyone has access to that kind of college/post-grad life. My adult friends have come from the places I've worked and yours will too.
posted by kimberussell at 5:56 AM on September 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

I have kept none of my friends from undergrad, and when I was in graduate school, I made zero friends. Your situation is pretty normal in my experience; I don't know anyone who actually has that close group of friends from college that movies and TV are always depicting. Anyway, the main ways to meet people now and make friends are to either a) connect with folks where you work, or b) go to meetups or do activities/hobbies that you enjoy, and make friends that way. There isn't a magic formula other than putting yourself out there. You made it through a tough time, and you should be proud! I think your accomplishments are something to be celebrated. Don't be too hard on yourself about the friend thing.
posted by FireFountain at 9:17 AM on September 4, 2017

All the deepest insights sound banal when you distill them. So I apologize for that, and urge you to slow down and really consider the following, in spite of its slick glibness:

Don't look backward.

This isn't a movie. You're not a protagonist moving between plot points. Your stock's not up or down. It's always the same you in the same here and now. Always the same awareness peering out of your eyes, regardless of how it all swirls around you. Nothing ever sticks.

So start right this moment, like you just awoke from a coma into a rich and colorful land. Embrace with relish. Feel no urgency or shame, because it's always right this moment. And always will be.

I know how this sounds, but I swear that I'm not being a new agey woo-woo ditz. It's all literally true. Try as you might, you won't be able to argue a case against it. So drop all baggage, shed anxiety, and embrace like an overstimulated lunatic. Just for the hell of it. Just because it's all right there for you.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:58 AM on September 4, 2017 [6 favorites]

yea, I have friends from high school, from work, even from the music scene I hang out in - but I made none at all in university. It's a busy time! I think most of the people who make a lot of college friends are living in residence, so they have a lot of time to spend together outside of classes. Your experience is pretty normal, it's just that no-one makes movies or tells stories about those of us who had stuff to do with our lives and no time to indulge in wacky hijinks.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:02 PM on September 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm only close with a few people from post-secondary, despite having been in a super tight-knit and studio-focussed program that was extremely social- so don't be too hard on yourself. Of the friends I made, the ones I'm closest to were actually all my housemates for some length of time. If your lifestyle permits, maybe consider getting a roommate? I mean, roommates can be hell. But living together can also be an amazing way to make a close friend.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:12 PM on September 4, 2017

"Why didn't I make friends in grad school?" isn't a question that's likely to lead you to a lot of happiness. More likely to be helpful is to realize right now at this moment in time you realize, "hey! I want more friends!" and the question likely to lead you to more happiness is "what can I do to make more friends?"

I had a similar experience in grad school of not making friends, and I basically decided to go to grad school to "find my people"....I thought (wrongly) that I would find the type of people I was meant to be friends with there. It didn't work out.

But the second question "what can I do to make more friends" has probably been the central struggle of my life. And I'm not particularly socially inept! I started out a little inept and anxiety and self-consciousness helped that snowball into a seeming disability.

Very likely this is hitting you hard right now because almost everyone moving into first real jobs and beginning of real adulthood discovers: "Oh my god, making friends as an adult is orders of magnitude harder than when in school". It's ok. This is normal. It is in fact hard. There are answers to the question.

I'm 48 and I find that after years and years of reading and practicing and making my self do hard things (like initiating friend dates and risking rejection! sometimes EXPERIENCING rejection!) I finally have a lot of friends, feel myself to be genuinely likable, have an easy time making conversation with new people and am practically an extrovert (a bit).

"Why didn't I make friends in grad school?" is only helpful if it is a research analyze, you come up with some reasons, you try to correct those errors and carry on with that new information. Please please don't use the question to make yourself feel bad. You were doing the best you could!

To address the question "can a large life stressor make you inept?" the answer is yes. A) it just uses up your energy and you don't have any left for hard things like asking someone out on a friend date or showing up to a party. B) if you have a big dealy trauma thing happen to you that sets you apart from others it ....well....sets you apart from others. My first child died when she was four months old and damn that can still make conversations awkward to this day, 20 years later. I have had to develop a whole set of social skills just to deal with that, from avoiding the mention when a conversation is too light or with someone too new, to managing other people's awkwardness of not knowing what to say, to actually comforting other people who feel bad for me.

But you can do it! There are lots of books, podcasts, websites, etc etc. on the topic of how to make friends, how to be a better conversationalist, how to have more confidence. Just to throw one out there, I got a lot of great ideas and encouragement from the book MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertsche
posted by Jenny'sCricket at 5:27 PM on September 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

This sounds very, very situational to me and not at all an indication that anything is wrong.

I feel this combination of "where have the past few years gone if I didn't even make any friends?"

I could have written this about 15 years ago. I was in the Peace Corps, which is usually an intense bonding experience; it's not unusual for people to meet their future spouses or make lifelong friends. Many of the people in my volunteer group did exactly this. I didn't. In part it was because, like you, I was dealing with a lot of other stuff (family stuff at home, untreated depression) but partly it was because they were just less my people than I had hoped they would be. You might not necessarily gel awesomely well with a collection of 10-20 strangers, y'know?

I'm worried that I continue to be... distant from other people in a way that I don't know exactly how to change. Maybe I'm being harsh on myself. I don't know. How can I make friends? How do I even become close to people? Is there a phenomenon where some large life stressor occurs and they just become socially inept afterwards that could describe my situation? How can I improve it?

I think you are being harsh on yourself and it looks to me like you're not doing anything wrong. In the same way, there was nothing wrong with me either. When I got out of the Peace Corps I found it harder to make friends (and worried I'd lost the knack), but that was mostly because it's just harder to make friends as an adult. Turns out I hadn't lost any special skills and neither, I would bet, have you. You were just not in a place in your life to make friends, and now you are. Don't overthink it.
posted by forza at 7:59 PM on September 4, 2017

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