What's wrong with me - and how can I start to change?
May 6, 2018 11:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the first half of my thirties and I've realized that life seems to pass by me. I mean my life is more or less okay - I can pay my bills, I have a job that's at least partway interesting. My life hasn't changed much in the last ten to fifteen years. But that's not really a good thing.

I've somehow normalized my life as boring but okay, while all this time I've been missing both the emotional and physical contact of friendships and relationships. Now I've reached a point where I've realized I'm fed up with my complacency, laziness, procrastination, passiveness, anxiety and my acceptance of the current status quo.

Sorry for my large and rambling question; also English is not my primary language, so this might be a bit uneven to read.

The impetus for this questions came along when I recently attended the wedding of my closest friend. It was a very happy event and in the end I enjoyed the party. At the same time, events and social gatherings like these make me feel inept, out of place, self-conscious and very introverted. You know how there are people out there who can strike up conversations with a group of random strangers and enjoy themselves in no time? I'm the complete opposite of those people.

I am a shy and introverted person and have a hard time working up the nerve to start / join conversations and to keep conversations moving. It somehow feels like exhaustive work to me. This applies both to strangers and to people I'm close to. Nonetheless I like talking and spending time with close friends but after that I need time alone to relax. In a similar way I seem to have difficulties creating friendships and keeping existing friendships alive. The result is that I have very, very few close friends. I've never been in a relationship.

I want my life to be at least a little bit more interesting. I'm looking for gradual change and don't need it to change by 180 degrees instantly. I want to enjoy leading small talk with strangers. I want more friends in my life that I enjoy hanging out with. I want a relationship in my life. I want to love and be loved.

So do you have any suggestions?

I consider consulting with my GP (doctor) concerning my unhappiness with my current situation. I have had a routine physical done every two years or so but haven't brought up this topic so far. According to the physicals everything is alright (apart from one or two minor, chronic illnesses). I'm pretty sure that some kind of psychological consultation will be needed. Would you recommend bypassing my GP and consulting with a specialist instead? I suspect it will be easier for me to talk about this topic with a specialist than with my GP.

Literature recommendations? I've enjoyed reading "How to Win Friends & Influence People" and some of the advice within does apply to me.

Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
I used to be very much like you. Personality wise, deep down, I am still very much an introvert but I got past the issues of connecting with people by simply faking it. Pretend like you’re an outgoing extrovert and adopt a different personality. You can even have someone else in mind to channel when you do it. I did this for so long to cope with the continual interaction at work that eventually it became real. Now if I tell people that I’m an introvert, and had issues striking up conversations, no one believes me! Try it. It will feel weird at first but it does work.
posted by Jubey at 12:31 AM on May 7, 2018 [13 favorites]

Do you exercise? Unless something is physically limiting you from being able to, I strongly recommend exercising because it'll make you feel better, creates goals you can gradually work towards at your own pace, and at least right after exercising you'll experience a rush of endorphins that can help you "forget" the shyness. If you're okay with paying for classes, picking up something like Brazilian Jiujitsu can really transform your life (but it's male-dominated FYI if you're a woman). If you're strapped for cash, consider joining a hiking or running group.

Also, we humans learn from imitation. So if you want to learn how to keep a conversation flowing but don't feel confident contributing just yet, being in an activity group helps because the focus will be on the activity (so it's fine if you don't talk) but you have the benefit of being around others who are talking.
posted by bluelight at 1:03 AM on May 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

Although I don't know how it works on the institutional level in your country, I feel it would fine to bring up your emotional situation with your GP. The GP can provide support, resources, or a referral to a psychotherapist. They can also help you navigate the steps towards something helpful (such as seeing a psychotherapist, as you've mentioned). Nevertheless I don't think this is a medicalizable problem.

I am also very withdrawn and I struggle with social anxiety. But I think the difficulty to start and keep friendships is a human condition; it's not necessarily about some personality traits in you. You just have a different approach and style to social interactions from those "people out there".

Looking back, I find it helpful to enter more meaningful relationships if there is a common activity, an kind of experience connecting people and me, such as a shared passion. Sometimes a relationship develops out of the commonality and trust built on shared activities when you meet people who are compatible with your style. Also when engaged in an activity we usually feel less self-conscious. And some psychologists agree.

Try to keep ourselves open, so when good things happen we're there to receive it.
posted by runcifex at 1:12 AM on May 7, 2018

What's wrong with me

Not a thing. You come across as a capable, competent human being.

how can I start to change?

By getting a really good grip on where you are so that you'll actually be able to pursue the acquisition and honing of such new skills as prove to be useful without a whole pile of the customary "I am not worthy / this is too hard" bullshit that soaks into all of us getting in your way.
posted by flabdablet at 1:46 AM on May 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

I want to enjoy leading small talk with strangers. I want more friends in my life that I enjoy hanging out with. I want a relationship in my life. I want to love and be loved.

I still struggle with this a lot, and am much older than you. It's hard to feel like an outsider in a world where it looks like everyone else understands how it works, finds their person, has all sorts of fun interesting relationships and life events. And you reach the conclusion that something is wrong with you. You feel deficient, lacking, incapable; all sorts of negatives. And you become convinced that if only you could change, if only you could figure out the secret, you would be welcomed into that club and achieve that same happiness you seem to see everywhere you look.

It's not true. It never was true, and it never will be true. There is nothing wrong with you. The only mistake you're making is to compare yourself to others. "Comparison is the thief of joy" is a very true saying. Placing all your focus outside yourself, and finding instance after instance where you are not matching up to to this ideal you seem to perceive, is going to keep you in a place of unhappiness.

Once you start to exist daily in this mindset that you're "wrong" and that without changing yourself, you will never find these things you seek, you've self-fulfilled your own prophecy. You are NOT wrong. You are NOT deficient. You deserve love and friendship and happiness just as you are, and trust me- there are so many others out there who feel like you do. We just don't show up on social radar because we are all "shy and introverted person[s] and have a hard time working up the nerve to start / join conversations and to keep conversations moving," for whom this "feels like exhaustive work."

I am not sure how to advise you on change in the manner you describe. My advice about change is, to stop believing that need to change in order to be happy. And to change your attitude about how you see yourself, and to accept yourself and develop confidence in the fact that only when you're secure and happy as you are, will the things you seek come to you. (I'm advising myself, as much as you, right now).
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:37 AM on May 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

I have a rather specific suggesion which may or may not work for you. It sounds to me that life is feeling rather stale for you. One solution might be to chuck it all and travel the world, but I would suggest joining rambling, hiking or urban exploration groups. The reason is, these tend (in my admittedly limited experience) to require fairly low level forms of engagement or conversation, so you develop groups of people you are comfortable with without feeling like you have to prove yourself socially. The walking part of it takes you out of your ordinary haunts enough to create interest and newness. It won't fix your problems, but it might help to take a step or two out of your feeling of inertia.
posted by tavegyl at 3:07 AM on May 7, 2018 [7 favorites]

There is nothing wrong with you. The way you feel is natural, and something that you will find many people share. I used to be/still am an introvert who has had to work at developing the skills that seem to come naturally to other people, such making small talk and conversation with random people. The good news is, these are skills, and they can be learned.

You ask how to change things, and I can only share my experience. After coming to a similar place, I decided to try to become the kind of person I'd want to talk to. Someone who always had something to say. Someone who always had something to do. Someone who was nice.

I read widely. I listened to people. I consumed popular culture. I formed opinions. I'd always been nervous about sharing my thoughts because they might be Wrong and then I would be Rejected.

But I found that when I started to carefully share my honest opinions, even if they were different to the person's I was talking to, it was not a disaster. Everyone worth talking to shares the same broad goal for small talk and conversation, and that's to ensure that we both survive. Someone who disagrees with your opinion and shames/belittles you because of it is likely not someone you want to talk to anyway.

The other thing I did (and continue to do) was become someone who actively seeks out a wide variety of hobbies and activities. Some haven't persisted (swing dancing, running). Some have (photography, weightlifting, cooking/eating out), and continue to be a source of interest, creative expression, accomplishment and personal achievement. These experiences give me something to talk about, something else to have opinions about, something to invite people to share, and a rational defence against negative self-talk.

I remain an introvert and am still someone who has anxiety around small talk and random conversation. But I've found that having a few tools in my arsenal-- genuine opinions, some life experiences under my belt, a generally positive outlook-- means that I've somehow become someone who has a busy, fulfilling life, doing activities I enjoy with people I like. Yes, it took time, and a lot of false starts, and feeling like a failure, and fear of and actual rejection. But I'm glad I started somewhere.

You mentioned reading material-- I would strongly recommend Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang as a manual for how to actively seek out rejection to discover that the world doesn't end, and that things can turn out even better than you imagined.
posted by roshy at 3:20 AM on May 7, 2018 [11 favorites]

I could have written most of your question. For a while I was an aspiring hermit, but I've come to realize that although I *am* introverted I also have a very deep need for love and company.

For a long time I was rather passive in groups and wouldn't strike up a conversation - I'd wait for someone else to talk to me and would get hurt or resentful if no one did. Something shifted for me - I was reading a post on the blue about conversational expectations in different regions. In some places it's rude to ask a lot of questions about others and polite to leave people their own space, in other places it's the opposite. For some reason reading that gave me permission to break the rules in my head and start being the one to speak first and ask questions. I've started noticing that it feels a lot more natural to talk to someone if we make eye contact first - so now I try to make more eye contact in general, and smile. I've also begun - thanks to reading discussions here - to try to be more tolerant of minor discomfort in socializing and that seems to help too.

The more you talk to people, the easier it will get. It's okay to work with a therapist on this too. Look for group activities near you- volunteering, community garden, exercise, choir, Toastmasters, improv, art classes - pick something that sounds good and meets regularly. Go for at least 2 months and make it a goal to talk to someone new and learn their name every time you go.

This stuff can be hard but it's so, so rewarding.
posted by bunderful at 5:25 AM on May 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm you, and in many ways I still am.

Seconding the suggestion for group activities. There is no guarantee that you will find instant friends that way, but you will at least be doing something, and you will have some social interaction. I found that one thing that started helping me feel better was joining a book club that I really liked; and the biggest reason I liked it, I realized, was that I enjoyed the company of the people in it. (It's almost better when we hate a book, because everyone has so much fun coming up with hysterically funny ways to describe just how much it sucked.)

Or another idea - do you avoid going to movies or museums or other cultural things by yourself, because you feel like you "should" go with someone? If so, then try that as well. A movie is still the same movie whether you're seeing it alone or with a friend, and the story told by the movie may be food for thought about things that will give you something to think about. Same to with museums - I almost prefer going to museums alone, so I can look at things at my own pace, follow my own interests, and skip things that I am not interested in (and stay as long as I like in a section that catches my fancy).

A journal also helps. I've started doing what some writers call "morning pages" - at least three pages' worth of handwritten writing, sometime in the early morning. It's boring word-vomit, but it does help clear away the boring distracting thoughts enough so that I am starting to have some moments of self-discovery. Or if you do go with going to more movies, writing down your thougthts about the movies can also be interesting - hell, I've ended up getting a blog out of doing that.

And, forgiving yourself. I also went through a similar phase of "my life is just about going to work, getting paid and going home", but forgave myself for that because I was going through a streak of very bad luck (practically the whole time I have been a MeFi member, this was the case) and the fact that my circumstances had to shrink to get through that is something to be proud of; I knew what to do to keep the house of cards somewhat stable, and that is a sign of strength. I bet if you reflect on the "why" of why you have arranged your life this way thus far, you may find things to be proud of as well.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:49 AM on May 7, 2018 [7 favorites]

At the same time, events and social gatherings like these make me feel inept, out of place, self-conscious and very introverted.

Yes! I just was at a wedding, I know these exact feels. A lot of this is what we call "social anxiety" (meaning that being around others can bring on more intense than usual feelings that something is wrong and a feeling that you can't reach out or interact with other people even though you may feel fine if you are at home just living your life) and it's tough because it's sort of self limiting. You have the bad feels, you don't want to try thing that might make you feel worse, you don't try anything, nothing ever changes, you go to another wedding and you're like AAAAGHHHH.

So the underlying thing can be anxiety a sort of constant "Am I doing this the right way? What is the right way? Why do I do everything the wrong way? Man I hate this." sort of critical narrative that goes on in your head. Part of what you can do is get that voice to shut up so you can have some other thoughts/feelings. A few things help:

- exercise
- limiting caffeine and trying to eat better
- limiting technologically mediated interactions in favor of IRL ones
- interactions with people, even minor ones
- talking to friends a little about this (not belaboring it, but just sharing it so you can fell less isolated in your feelings)
- mindfulness (lots of ways to achieve this, I am a meditation, fan, there are other ways, I like the idea of "nature bathing" just going out in nature)

And yeah talking to a doctor is a good idea. Therapy works for a lot of people. Medication works for a lot of people. Once you've tried some things you can get an idea of how much you think you will need to do to get to where you want. Having realistic goals is useful also. I am never going to be the life of the party, but I can get to the point where I can have a small conversation about low-stakes stuff with strangers without a constant stream of UR DOIN IT RONG shrieking in my ear. It's nice.
posted by jessamyn at 8:22 AM on May 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

I coach people like you every day.
Congratulations and well done on coming to this point, I am super proud of you.
1) As others have mentioned, get moving. Exercise. Break a 30 minute sweat each and every day.
I would recommend doing this in the morning to get you day off right.
2) Next, get out of the house.
I used MeetUp to find people like me, who were into the same things that I was, and then go out and meet them. Having a common interest makes it a lot easier to strike up conversations, or at least walk up to one and listen to it :)
3) Get out of your comfort zone. As you said, we're not expecting a 180, but you are going to have to challenge yourself and get used to feeling some discomfort, moving past it, and then having a new, larger comfort zone.
These three things will get you started.
I wish you all the best!
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 8:50 AM on May 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah, my life feels like that too, sometimes, though I am a bit older than you. Although I can make it through social situations and sometimes enjoy them, I feel your pain - its exhausting, and hard, and overwhelming to try to connect with people in settings like weddings, where a bit portion of the experience is small talking.

I think life is easier and more rewarding when you place yourself in situations where you come together for a larger purpose that's not JUST for socializing - but creating. Is there anything you care about and want to build? A social issue you care about? An art project? Do you like gardening? I feel like having a common purpose with others makes it so much easier to get to know people... a place to start out together.
posted by RajahKing at 9:40 AM on May 7, 2018

I, too, have felt the way you do, and what helped me the most was getting some therapy that helped me figure out how to get out of my own way (because social anxiety, etc, can be rough). The interesting thing was that therapy didn't focus on my social anxiety, but it sure did help with it and everything else that made me feel stuck.
posted by ldthomps at 11:18 AM on May 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

One simple trick: help out.

When you are at a gathering, offering to help, even if it’s just to clean up, bring out snacks, etc. can really make a difference. It gives you something to do and at the same time engage with others in a way where you already get appreciation. (Volunteering is very good for this as well.) Whenever I start to feel awkward I look around and see how I can fill a need. Takes the pressure off.
posted by MountainDaisy at 11:35 AM on May 7, 2018 [17 favorites]

I used to be very introverted and painfully shy. Over time and with practice, I've changed that. One thing that helps is being curious. When you meet someone, you really know nothing about them or their life, which gives a lot of freedom to ask questions. Most people like to talk about something in their lives, so follow their lead and get curious about what they're talking about and ask them about that. It's an easy way to at least get a conversation going. And, of course, a conversation is a two-way street; sometimes the other person isn't particularly conversational and it's not on you to carry the whole thing.
posted by kokaku at 3:35 PM on May 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

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