I have no friends
March 7, 2006 12:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm 21. I've spent most of my life on my own. I'm not much fun to be around. How do I break out of this cycle?

I never had many friends in school. There was a group I used to stand around with at break, but I never had much to say to them and wasn't really part of their group. I met up with them outside school maybe 2 or 3 times in five years.

Then in about 2001 I met this cool group of people and I had a lot of common interests with and used to see every couple of weeks, but I pretty much had to invite myself to everything. No one minded me being there, but I only ever spoke to a few people from the group, and even though they kind of liked me, those few people eventually got tired of me and it all ended pretty horribly (the person I got on with best ended up telling me "never attempt to contact me ever again". I hadn't done anything. I just exhausted their patience). And like Edward Scissorhands, I went back to my mountaintop at the beginning of 2003. And that's where I've been ever since. (Actually I saw them last year. Somehow it ended in a fight and me being physically kicked out)

I work from home, I know no one in this city, and there is literally one person left who I could phone and they'd talk to me. And even then I can't call them more often than every couple of months, because I have nothing to say to them. I don't do anything. I have no hobbies and pretty much the only place I go is the cinema.

I don't think this is a case of meeting the right group of people. Whoever I meet, I never seem to hit it off with them. It's always exactly the same. There's just this awkwardness and horribleness and the conversation ends.

I've had counseling too. But it turned out to be the kind where they just sit back and listen and don't offer any advice. What I need is for someone to follow me round and tell me what I'm doing wrong. I've always done everything on my own and my sense of what I did right and what I did wrong is completely messed up. I don't know what to do.

The other thing is that none of this depresses me much. I don't do drugs. I don't drink on my own. I don't self harm. I don't listen to angry music. I've just got used to it.

So, erm, what the hell do I do? I need serious help with this. It's not something I can foist on a stranger I'm trying to make friends with. The only thing I've seen that comes to close to my situation is this NYT article about the New Start program in Japan. But I'm in the UK. Where do I start?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (50 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
People don't end up telling you never to contact them again because they're tired of you. Fights and physical removals don't happen for that reason, either. Somewhere, something in how you relate to people has gone seriously wrong, and I'd suggest that you probably do need something - a different therapist, for example, or a life coach to go a little less medical - to help you figure it out.

If you're thinking of working on this on your own, though, I'd start here:

I don't do anything. I have no hobbies and pretty much the only place I go is the cinema.

Find a hobby. Even if it's a relatively solitary hobby, find something that you like to do. I mean, you must do *something* with your time. Even the cinema is a hobby if you look at it as one.

Then find groups of people who enjoy that hobby, even if it's not naturally a group activity. Meetup.com is good for this sort of thing. Meet those people.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:52 PM on March 7, 2006

What did you talk about with the people you knew when you had friends, or at least people with whom you hung out?
posted by mikel at 12:53 PM on March 7, 2006

Missing too much info, but you sound annoying - not to me (so far) but to the average joe.

Do you talk too much, or not at all?
What are people's reactions when you do talk?
Do you like people?

Could you be slightly autistic, or Asperger's without the hobbies?
posted by ernie at 12:57 PM on March 7, 2006

Sorry, not biting this one. I have pissed off many people, I have many groups that don't like me, in fact I'm not even allowed in several Latin American countries. I have never, ever been told so directly, "don't ever contact me again." Nor have I known anyone to say it, and I've never seen a physical fight over merely seeing someone.

See a psychiatrist, another one. And tell them the whole truth. Don't brighten it up, but do tell them everything (even if you think its insignificant), that is if you want an objective opinion.

You must be denying something to yourself about your personality, what you do. I find the tone of the whole question weird, there's more to this that doesn't fit in an AskMetafilter context.
posted by geoff. at 12:58 PM on March 7, 2006

See if there are any MeFi members near you. They might be up to hang out sometime. At least it could build your social skills and maybe meet some FOAFs.
posted by SuperNova at 12:59 PM on March 7, 2006

You need to meet new people who will care about you and you need God, who also cares about you. Please call your local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (it's in the phonebook) and ask for the missionaries.

You can also request a free copy of the Book of Mormon at www.Mormon.org, and I believe the missionaries will contact you a little later on. I highly recommend the former, but that is entirely up to you.
posted by rinkjustice at 1:03 PM on March 7, 2006

rinkjustice: religion is not for everyone, but if he just wants someone who will talk to him Mormon missionaries are great for that!
posted by BSummers at 1:07 PM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

Like the others I feel like I'm getting about one tenth of the story here, which makes it incredibly hard to offer sensible advice, which I would like to.

Can you describe the events that led up to a) you being told not to contact this person again and b) the fight? I think that would give us a much better handle on what's going on here.
posted by unSane at 1:09 PM on March 7, 2006

I expect this'll be shouted down, but hey, can't hurt to throw it out there -- have you ever been active in a church or other religious meeting place? Is there one nearby, maybe one you went to as a kid, where you could go and meet with the pastor/rabbi/whoever and get their perspective, maybe attend services, meet people there? I know it's not for everyone, but sometimes such folk can be much more patient and willing to take the time to draw out a taciturn turtle from his shell.

Alternately, you could place a personal ad in the paper, "Quiet loner looking for people to go to the cinema with."

Probably, you should find another counselor, maybe a psychiatrist -- maybe you've got some social anxiety/social phobia going on. Sometimes you have to shop around to find the counselor who's right for you. Give that another go.

Whatever you do, don't try too hard. You say it doesn't depress you much, but then you go on to say you want "serious help" with this, and there's this tone I get from your post that you feel like you need to change yourself and make yourself more "fun to be around." Maybe you could stand to be a little more outgoing, but maybe you don't really need to change so much as you need to be patient, learn to like yourself as you are, and not try to fit in with people who don't seem to get you. (I can't imagine [a] insisting that someone "never contact me again" when the person in question is just persistently silent, or [b] physically throwing such a person out of a place. What the hell kind of friends were these people? "You never open your mouth so GET THE FUCK OUT AND NEVER CALL ME AGAIN"? Sounds like they were freaks and you're well rid of them, if you really didn't do anything but act [in their opinion] anti-social.)

But yeah, definitely give counseling another go. You probably need to learn how to pick up on social cues, and if you don't have a best mate to walk you around and whisper in your ear, as you wish you did, a good counselor is probably your next best bet.
posted by Gator at 1:09 PM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

Can you describe the events that led up to a) you being told not to contact this person again and b) the fight? I think that would give us a much better handle on what's going on here.

Aye, there's the anonymous rub!
posted by pardonyou? at 1:15 PM on March 7, 2006

Did we really just have a Mormon missionary drop by? Wow.

Anony: I'd say get a new therapist. Find one with two things in mind: look for a behavioral therapist, and look for one that will go out with you to be among people (such therapists do exist, I assume, as my mom once had a therapist that went out with her as part of the therapy).

Such a therapist could a) give you an unbiased opinion on what you are doing to piss people off, and b) help you change your behavior.

And you are most certainly doing something very, very antisocial. I've never had anyone in my entire life tell me "never attempt to contact me ever again." So I'd wager this is more than just a minor problem on your part -- most people will avoid conflict. That you can bring that out in someone (and later fisticuffs!) indicates to me that you are very, very antisocial in some way that is taken as rude in the extreme by others (even if you don't mean it to be).
posted by teece at 1:15 PM on March 7, 2006

I also think therapy would be helpful... specifically behavioral therapy. Some therapists will just listen to what you have to say, others will advise you on what you should do to improve your situation. You may want to look into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and see if there's a specialist near you.
posted by kdern at 1:15 PM on March 7, 2006

A serious hobby or pastime is what you need. Something like rock climbing, where there is a significant element of skill. That way, you can talk about rock climbing, which is easy when you do it regularly. From there you can move on to social encounters that are not predicated solely on a specialized hobby.
posted by sid at 1:18 PM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've been tempted to follow certain people around and tell them everything they do wrong. I'd like more details.

I don't belive your story, though, where you didn't do anything wrong, and wore out their patience. Patience doesn't wear itself out. You have to be trying someones patience to wear it out. What are you doing that is so trying?

Why don't you have any hobbies?

"Somehow it ended in a fight?" Could your cluelessness have something to do with your problem? I've been excluded from groups before, but I've always known why.

Why don't you do anything? Why do you feel people should like you when you make no attempts to offer anything in return?

I know these are pissy questions, but the tone of your question makes me think you want it explained away instead of solved. That never goes well.
posted by jon_kill at 1:18 PM on March 7, 2006

Well, it sounds like no matter what we suggest you DO your results will be the same since you're EXPECTING them to be the same. I think you need to seriously challenge some of the beliefs you have. I would go through and systematically evaluate and recognize each belief you hold about yourself, about life, about others, about the way others see you. Then go through those and use the rational, level-headed part of your mind to challenge the validity of each belief.

For example you seem to believe people just do not like you. This is not an absolute truth. You believe that you have nothing interesting to say. These cannot possibly be true 100% of the time. It is irrational and just plain incorrect to over-attribute these things to yourself, while overlooking situational factors (which includes mood).

I recommend "The Feeling Good Handbook" by Dr. David Burns. On page 260 he has a list of 10 common cognitive distortions, such as overgeneralization, all-or-nothing thinking, discounting the positives, labeling, personalization, etc. I think it's very possible you are guilty of all of them, but you can change them. See more here. Burns is a psyhciatrist and his book has a chapter on social anxiety, as well as a chapter discussing psychiatric drugs.

How to find mistakes in your thinking and how to question and dispute them

Otherwise I think you need to be "slapped around" - I think you need a JOLT of LIFE! I suggest doing something very physically invigorating, maybe once or repeatedly, such as... climbing across a wooden bridge between two steep hills? Bungee jumping? Mountain climbing? Something similar that involves you taking a risk and/or being adventurous.
posted by mojabunni at 1:21 PM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

A serious hobby or pastime is what you need. Something like rock climbing, where there is a significant element of skill. That way, you can talk about rock climbing, which is easy when you do it regularly. From there you can move on to social encounters that are not predicated solely on a specialized hobby.

Screw rock climbing, even if all you do is watch TV you've got rapport with most people walking around the street.

You either flat don't like people, but feel you should and feel guilty about it, or you are clingy and too needy, and vampirically drain people of good will.
posted by ernie at 1:23 PM on March 7, 2006

I'm going to wager that you come off in as arrogant, annoying, or you inadvertently piss off everyone you're around. Alot of people do hurtful and annoying things without knowing, and don't even realize it, or they realize it after the fact but don't change.

I knew an extremely introverted person in highschool who had probably 0 friends out of school, and maybe 1 in school. He would be quiet when you didn't know him well, but when he began to feel comfortable he'd become condescending and arrogant and downright nasty. As a result anyone who many even have wanted to have him hang around was alienated...
posted by mhuckaba at 1:28 PM on March 7, 2006

I think the more different avenues you explore, the better. Try talking to a Mormon missionary or some other religious-type,
take a class or seminar to learn something that interests you,
get involved in your professional field, either through a regional/national organization or by taking some continuing ed courses,
try a different therapist.

I think a life coach is an excellent idea, especially in conjunction with a therapist. While the therapist will focus on underlying issues for your long-term benefit and help you be more pro-social, the life coach can help you address the here-and-now - what to do today, this week, this year. The coach probably won't be able to help change your behaviors, but he/she can probably help you set short-term goals for meeting new people. The therapist will be important in helping you keep those friends, or will help you learn more from your mistakes in losing those friends.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 1:44 PM on March 7, 2006

I second the advice about reading The Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. Burns. Even just reading your post I wouldn't want to hang out with you. I really don't mean to sound harsh, but how about trying, just for one day, to walk around smiling at everyone you see, not whining or complaining about anything, not having a self-defeatist attitude, and instigating conversation with every person you come into contact with. It might just be an excellent exercise in demonstrating that some of your current attitude is causing these difficulties. It may be a shitty day, but it may be a great day where you make a new friend, or at least have a fun conversation and end up feeling good about yourself.

You don't mention any problems with functioning at a normal level or having difficulty holding down a job, so I would guess that you have trained yourself into a way of thinking and feeling that makes others not want to be around you.
posted by meerkatty at 1:44 PM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, 'walking around smiling at everyone you see' is probably the worst single piece of advice I have ever seen posted here. The equivalent of telling an anorexic that they just need a good slap-up meal. Jeebus.
posted by unSane at 1:56 PM on March 7, 2006

I dunno, I don't think this guy's necessarily a kitten-killer. I didn't have any close social contact outside my family until eleventh grade in high school, so when I started making friends around that age I was completely and utterly unaware of how fucking obnoxious I could be. I literally could not tell when people were pissed off and would continue annoying behaviors even when they told me to stop (couldn't tell if they were joking or not). To some degree I still have this problem, and thank God my friends were patient, didn't immediately drop me, and let me know when I needed to tone things down or I'd still be a loner.

It's entirely possible this guy is not an unrepetant, condescending asshole, but he may be intolerably annoying to most people and happened to encounter a particularly uptight group of people for his first friendships.

If it is at all possible, ask the people who dislike you now (or the person who will talk to you) what went wrong. Explain you want to be better and you're sorry how things worked out. Recognize there is an element of truth under any vitriol they unleash on you, and even more truth in any calm, constructive criticism they offer.

Figure out your common interests with your ex-friends, and join clubs, groups, and facilities where people with those interests hang out. For example, if you roleplay ask around (like on Craigslist) if there's anyone in the area looking for a new player. College campuses can be a good resource for this sort of thing.

If you work, take your performance reviews very seriously and work on improving any interpersonal issues mentioned. Ask your supervisor for a informal review if you don't have the formal kind.

And when you start getting close with people, do not be afraid to ask them how and why you piss them off. Make it very clear when it's comfortable to do so that you've got shit social skills and you want to change.

The important thing is you must be willing to change. You have to recognize that you are falliable and there are parts of your personality and the way you act that don't work with people, and it's not a problem with them, it's a problem with you. This is not to say we all need to be part of one giant uniform hive-mind, but there is a difference between normal personality clashes and getting physically removed from a former friend's house.
posted by schroedinger at 2:09 PM on March 7, 2006

I'm sorry, 'walking around smiling at everyone you see' is probably the worst single piece of advice I have ever seen posted here. The equivalent of telling an anorexic that they just need a good slap-up meal. Jeebus.

It is a bad idea if the only result of that behavior is impression management, or merely managing the way others see you without internally changing. It could possibly work, though, if it changes something internal. "Fake it til you make it" can be quite effective because it's very hard for your brain to keep thinking the same negative crap if your behavior is totally contradicting it, and earning you better results.
posted by mojabunni at 2:12 PM on March 7, 2006

The following is all just my own personal experience, and it sounds like your situation is more extreme than my own was/is. I also second the idea of finding another counselor who has an approach that is more fitting with your needs. But that being said...

I used to be quite shy and self-conscious, and lots of my conversations would end in "awkwardness" (although not "horribleness"; I'm not quite sure how to interpret that).

I think the first steps I took in trying to overcome my awkwardness happened inside. First of all, and most importantly, I've always genuinely liked people; my self-consciousness was just getting in the way of my getting to know them. I don't know if you feel the same way. But cultivating a generous, tolerant, and forgiving attitude towards the not-so-perfect fellow members of humanity goes a long way.

The next thing I did in getting over my innate self-consciousness was realize that self-consciousness was totally unnecessary because no one, at least at first, really cares all that much about me. Not in a bad way. In a I-am-not-being-scrutinzed way. That realization was tremendously freeing.

Once I had those internal things down, I realized that people like to talk about themselves, generally. So when meeting new people, I would ask them a few questions (being careful to not sound like I was interrogating them) to get things going, pay attention to the answers, and try to develop the conversation from there. Ideally I would find some common ground and share a bit about myself, again to avoid the "interrogator" effect. And spend more time listening than talking.

Of course there were (and still sometimes are) those moments of awkwardness, and there are (a few) people that I just don't like and don't care to try to get to know. But the final step is accepting that awkwardness happens and is not the end of the world; and that no one is perfect, and neither are you; and that relationships do not have to be as serious and dire as they sometimes feel.
posted by tentacle at 2:16 PM on March 7, 2006 [5 favorites]

I'm a bit of a loner. But I have lots of people in my life because I practice active kindness.

In order to be interesting to other people, you need to be interested. Do you just kind of nod when people talk about their lives? Are you truly interested in other people? (Since you do want people to be interested in you - friendship is a two-way street) Do you truly have nothing to talk about? Because that's okay - people do LOVE listeners. But do your eyes wander when you are listening? Do you smile when you're in the middle of conversations? Do you abruptly stop talking for no reason?

Do you think of other people's feelings before you open your mouth? Do you practice active empathy? Have you thought about travelling -say, backpacking through Europe by yourself? Do you have dreams? Do you go to film festivals? Do you love life with a passion, solitary or no? People are attracted to positive energy. And what I from your post is a lot of negativity.

Get a hobby. What do you like to do? I've always loved music, and there is an amazing community in being in music. You could be in a community of other not-so-social people who build paper models. You could be in another one who loves video games. Part-time in a production company / volunteer in community theatre, even if it's stagehand, if you love cinema/theatre. Do something that brings your spirit up. You need to be happy with who you are, and what you do, before other people can be happy with you.
posted by Sallysings at 2:17 PM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, 'walking around smiling at everyone you see' is probably the worst single piece of advice I have ever seen posted here. The equivalent of telling an anorexic that they just need a good slap-up meal. Jeebus.

I really don't think I gave bad advice. I obviously didn't mean that smiling at people was going to make anon feel better, I meant that the reactions anon may get from this action may help him/her see what his/her current attitude is having on these difficulties. It's common cognitive-behavioral therapy practice (The Burns book explains it, for example).

On preview - what mojabunni explained (far better than me).
posted by meerkatty at 2:18 PM on March 7, 2006

Read How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I know it sounds incredibly cliche but reading this book and practicing some of its simple principles has dramatically changed my life. I recommend slowly digesting it a chapter at a time. Read a chapter, highlight important passages, re-read the same chapter a second or third time, and then spend a few days to practice what you've read. Rinse and repeat with each chapter. Carnegie doesn't say anything profound but he gives great examples of how little things performed in interactions with other people can have profound effects.

Up until a few years ago, I felt like I was in a similar position as you. I had everything going for me (good family, elite college graduate, enviable job, stable finances, good personality, desire to learn hobbies) and yet there was something missing that kept me from making "sticky" relationships - with parents, siblings, friends, coworkers, and strangers. I didn't have anything overtly "wrong" with me and people I knew corroborated it. I just needed some tips to nudge me in the right direction about how to interact with others. It really came down to small behavior changes - smiling, remembering people's names, taking an interest in others, remembering birthdays and special days, appreciating them, and giving them compliments. Like I said, nothing profound but if you make a conscious effort to be humble and practice the above, you'll see a dramatic change around you.

I'm guessing that your previous circle of friends "got tired of [you]" because you contributed nothing to to the circle. They shared their interests with you and invested time and effort to you - smiles, "how you doing?"'s, questions about your life, invitations, gifts, etc. You didn't reciprocate and over time that made you, pardon the phrase, a leech on the friendship circle. Out of politeness, they silently excluded you from their lives and activities but as you tried to invite yourself back in, they became more vocal about it until the one you knew best had to be direct. That was to be expected - he/she had made the biggest time and emotional investment in you and had come up a loser. Think of it like a poker game - the others in the circle had folded early but the friend who best knew you kept on betting that you would change and building up frustration and resentment. At some point, he/she had to cut the losses and all of it just poured out - "never attempt to contact me ever again."

Read the book, stop thinking in "I" and "me" terms, and start thinking about others. Once you have sound principles for good relationships, it's easy to pick up hobbies. Hobbies just provide context and foundation for relationships with people who share similar interests.

My email is in profile if you want to chat.
posted by junesix at 2:27 PM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

We don't have much info. Anon might be leaving out crucial details, but it IS possible for isolation to just creep up on someone. This happened to me, years ago.

I was about 20 years old, I dropped out of college and moved to London (I was previously living in the US). I didn't know anyone there, but I figured I'd make friends.

By nature I am very shy, and back then I never approached anyone. I waited for people to approach me. No one did.

I am very cerebral. I DO have hobbies, but most of them are things like reading and drawing. Back then, if someone had said "Get a more social hobby," I wouldn't have done it. I wouldn't have known what hobby to pick. Dancing? TOTALLY alien to me. Sports? No way. I was the geeky kid who got picked on in gym.

In any case, several things changed that made my life better (though I will always struggle with shyness):

1) I got older and so did the people around me.

2) The Internet came into existence. (Anon, can you use the web to help you? Email. Message boards. Craigslist personals. Chat rooms.)

3) I decided that my hobby was going to be studying people. I watched people. I listened to people. I read books on psychology. I read character-based fiction. By example, I gradually learned some good social skills.

4) I took the initiative and introduced myself to people -- including total strangers. This STILL scares me to death, but I do it anyway, and it usually pays off.

5) I learned that even the most solitary pastimes can be shared. Cinema? People go to the movies together. Reading? There are book clubs.

If seriously felt that I had no friends and the only thing I enjoyed doing was going to the movies, I would post an ad to Craigslist's platonic section saying, "Hi. I'm lonely. I'm going to see 'Curious George' tomorrow at 3pm. Who wants to go with me?"

After the movie, I would invite the people I went with out to drinks. I would listen to them and talk to them. I would not -- as I have done in the past -- worry that I have noting to say.

I don't have to entertain people with amazingly original stories. Most people talk drivel most of the time. Part of my problem was I secretly thought I was above that. I didn't have anything "above that" to say, but I still didn't want to demean myself with "mindless smalltalk."

Also, I feared someone would call me on it. I was literally scared that if I said, "Nice weather we're having," someone would say, "I can't believe you just said something so banal!" Funny thing is, that never happens. Probably because everyone talks banalities, and no one wants to be that hypocritical.

Eventually, I got over these stupid attitudes. Now, if I don't have anything to say, I'll talk about what I did today (even if that was just get up, watch tv, and go to the bathroom). Usually, this drivel starts the conversation going. And once it gets going, it gets more interesting.

Anon, I lead a very busy life, and I actually don't have much time for in-person meetings, but I email a lot. I have a group of (geographically dispersed) email friends. If you drop me a line (check my profile for email), I will add you to my list. And, at the very least, you'll get something in your inbox now and then.
posted by grumblebee at 2:45 PM on March 7, 2006 [3 favorites]

I'd suggest to just go walk around and observe people--but not in a creepy way. Which I guess might be the problem, your awkwardness and lack of conversation plus "inviting yourself along" probably equals creepy weirdo to a lot of people. But if you don't know how to act in social circles, read up on how to, and then go out and observe, analyse, and imitate. I had to fake it for the longest time because I was so socially awkward, but as you get older, you'll have to learn to connect with people in order not to go completely insane. Though some folks can be loners, it sounds like this is not the lifestyle for you.

So when you go grocery shopping or to the cinema, see how people interact--does the customer chit chat w/ the teller, and how, why? Is it a smile? Eye contact? Something the customer is buying or maybe the teller is wearing that they pick up on? And then maybe take a night class or something that forces you to be around people to try to see how that type of social interaction works.
posted by lychee at 2:52 PM on March 7, 2006

How about trying some volunteer work? I know I'm the least interesting to myself and others when I'm focused solely on myself. Do something for others with a good spirit. Think nothing of yourself.

Then again, I could be totally misunderstanding just what's going on.
posted by kc0dxh at 3:03 PM on March 7, 2006

follow up from the original poster:

Telling me I've been a dick is not helpful. I've asked what I should
do about it.

What did you talk about with the people you knew when you had
friends, or at least people with whom you hung out?

Nothing really. Just about how they were and whatnot, but it was all
pretty stilted.

Do you talk too much, or not at all?

I never say a bloody word.

Do you like people?

I like being around people. It's when I have to contribute anything
that I have problems.

Can you describe the events that led up to a) you being told not
to contact this person again

The person that told be never to contact them again had tried really
hard to help me but they had a lot of other stuff going on in their
life and she couldn't cope anymore. And I was being a total dick to
her in that respect. I should add that the end of our relationship
was played out on email, not in person.

b) the fight?

A few members of the group weren't happy with me being there. One of
them (who I'd never met before) decided to have a go at me. It turned
into a row and I got kicked out. There was no actual violence.
posted by jessamyn at 3:05 PM on March 7, 2006

rinkjustice writes "Please call your local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (it's in the phonebook) and ask for the missionaries. "

Seconded. As long as the missionaries think there's even a small chance of converting you, they'll stick around no matter how much they might dislike you. And you can get them to do all sorts of stuff for you, so long as they think it'll bring you closer to "the light". We had some in an apartment building I lived in, and they were forever carrying groceries for people, doing laundry, etc.

And since their missions only last two years, if you wear out one pair, they'll be a never-ending stream of fresh replacements.

(You can even borrow money from them just a month before their mission is up, then ignore their phone calls until they go home.)

Perfect suggestion.
posted by orthogonality at 3:20 PM on March 7, 2006

If you want to take a problem solving approach to this, and you're interested in some of the psychological principles of friendship, check out Theories on Friendship over at ChangingMinds.org.
posted by Laen at 3:39 PM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

A lot of this sounds familiar to me. Some thoughts:

There is no one thing you're doing or not doing. Being social is a very intricate, yet automatic activity. If you've always kept to yourself and are just starting in earnest to be social, in many ways, you're like visitor to a far-away land with strange customs, rules, and unspoken assumptions. Don't beat yourself up for not understanding it instinctually. It's something that's learned. It may be many months of baby steps before you recognize any progress. Cut yourself some slack.

For about two years or so, I made a rule for myself "never say 'no' to anything social", even if I really didn't want to go. You might want to try this. The reason is that you're going to be learning by failing and the more chances to fail you get, the better. More often than not, you will do the "wrong" or "awkward" thing. You will have very "unsmooth" interactions. That's good, because every time you go out, you're gathering data. The time after, you'll know that much more about the customs of this strange, foreign land.

To start, you may have to make your own social opportunities. Craigslist is a good idea. Meetup.com isn't a bad one either.

As far as "having nothing to say", there is always something to say. I used to not understand the point of small talk. I thought I had nothing of importance to communicate, so I kept my mouth shut. But the thing you are communicating with small talk, however meaningless the words are, is "I want to get to know you". That's the real message beneath the words. Say anything. Say you don't like pizza. Say you sat at home working all day and are bored. Say that the weather is nice.

Finally, you sound kinda depressed. People think being depressed is all about being "sad". A lot of times, depression shows itself as just a profound lack of interest in life. Going to a psychiatrist and looking into medication is one option. So is cardio exercise. So is 5-htp.

Good luck. This is completely doable.
posted by the jam at 4:09 PM on March 7, 2006 [2 favorites]

I started working hard to change way back in middle school, and it was hard then. You have my sincere sympathy. Learning to interact with people is hard work. What I realized is that most people don't necessarily care what they're talking about, so long as it's inoffensive or pleasantly framed. So the anxiety over *what* to talk about is somewhat misplaced - it's making sure that your general framework of the conversation, body language, tone of voice, etc., are friendly and pleasant that's key for breaking through the initial few conversations (which is what it sounds like you need to work on first - though future conversations will need some kind of shared interest to sustain a friendship).

Also, while you may want to simply interact with other people, it's a good idea to try and cultivate a genuine interest in who they are, what they are doing with themselves, the trials and triumphs of their lives - often just asking questions of someone else about themselves will make them think of you as a great listener, very caring, a good friend-type. However, there is always a too little / too much boundary that will be different with each person. If you start asking too many questions of someone, they might start asking questions of you, look away, change their tone, etc., to indicate that they're no longer interested in divulging information about themselves and want to hear about *you.* That's when having a hobby comes in handy - it gives you a thing or two to talk about.

Also, if you end up watching Conan or other TV that your peers are into, that tends to be a safe subject of conversation and way of showing that you're socially "with it" in some way. Reading popular books is another way to go.

I may be biased, but I'd go with some kind of solo sport like, oh, bicycling for a hobby. This allows you to build up "cred" or knowledge or whatever by spending time alone, which is what you're most comfortable with, while engaging with other people at bike clubs or bike shops about mechanics, pros/cons of certain bikes, where to go, how to build bikes, etc. Thus the socializing will be a little more natural and not too frequent, and this may be less jarring for you than joining some kind of social club.

Oddly I find myself warming up to the idea of religion, because you'll find a lot of compassionate people, willing to take the time to help you out in teh context of a religious organization. I'd just be wary because sometimes people really really into religion, while happy to help, might themselves have social issues - certainly not all or most, but enough that I'd be aware of the possibility when picking who you want your "coach" or helper or social-practice people to be.

You could also try volunteering in a manual-labor way, where communication can be confined to task-accomplishment ("Hey, hand me that trowel, please.") or can expand to other topics ("Did you see the size of the log Jim just moved? Damn!") etc.

OK this is getting long so I'm cutting myself off. You can do this. Be patient with yourself, don't rush headlong unless you're prepared for a lot of failure early on and willing to learn fast from your mistakes. If you take a slower approach though, again patience is key - maybe keep a log of your progress to remind yourself that you are, in fact, progressing. This is a wortwhile endeavor and will open up a whole new part of life to you. I'm glad you're doing it, and wish you luck.
posted by lorrer at 4:12 PM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

Learning to relate to others is difficult. I think a lot of 21 year olds fear that they are social pariahs. I think finding another counselor would be a good idea, but I don't think being awkward is especially troubling at your age. I am not a doctor, or even a particularly social person. That's just my opinion.

Once you understand how other people might feel, you'll find it easier to relax around them. Compassion is the key. You might want to try stretching your wings working with animals, who are non-judgmental, or by interacting with people who don't care as much about social conventions, like children or the elderly.

You might try volunteering for a cause you like. Sharing a goal is a good way to make contact with people.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 4:32 PM on March 7, 2006

One small suggestion, in addition to the many good suggestions by other above, would be to get a job where you work in an office setting. You're totally isolated by working at home.
posted by bim at 5:41 PM on March 7, 2006

You sound very similar to a friend I had in college. She was a very sweet, caring person, very smart, had a huge interest in tv/movies, and was pretty interesting. However, she had no clue about social cues and interacting with people. She became part of the group of friends I was in because she just started tagging along with us, until we eventually got used to her being there and started to include her (this included some incredibly awkward moments of tagging along, like my roommate and I going to bed and her staying in our dark dorm room on my computer for about an hour after we had gone to sleep- that was just weird).

What she did wrong: She never, ever asked "how are you?" or inquired very much about anything that was going on in our lives. This is a small thing, but it really goes a long way.

She was also an enormous drama queen- everything was blown out of proportion, and she reported the most bizarre things happening to her in class or even just walking down the street. No one, no matter how weird they are, could possibly have attracted as much negative attention as she reported receiving. I think there was something very off about the way she perceived body language and tones of voice, as well as a propensity to over-analyze everything. She was very needy and required a lot of emotional support, while not giving much back to the friendship when other members of the group needed support.

It seems silly to mention this, but it was just one more thing that she did that made her seem like even more of a friendship leech- post-college, she would come to my roommate's and my apartment and just start fixing herself dinner with our food. Without asking. This happened for a long time, until I screwed up the nerve to say something to her about it. Which she interpreted as me saying I hated her and she was a horrible person. I protested, but honestly, at that point my patience for dramatics had worn thin and I let the friendship slide.

I guess the moral of the story is that you might be surprised about how little things tend to add up. But most people will be patient with a lot of personality quirks if you show that you care about them and are interested in their lives. In any event, lots of great advice in this thread, and I wish you luck.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 5:45 PM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

I second the suggestions for therapy, exercise and facilitating Craiglist & meetup. I would also further suggest moving. Shake up your life, get some new surroundings, give yourself the gift of being able to post "New In Town..." at Craigslist.
posted by Sara Anne at 5:52 PM on March 7, 2006

Another possibility that goes along with not being able to read social cues: do you know for a fact if you are able to distinguish tone in conversation? My sister has a friend (let's call her "C") who absolutely cannot tell the difference between sarcasm and sincerity in conversation, for example, or hearing/reading distress cues such as anger, sadness, worry, etc. C, while a perfectly smart, generous, sweet woman, is almost totally incapable of taking words at anything other than their literal face value, and possesses almost no ability to understand vocal tone or facial cues.

This has led to some extremely awkward (and upsetting) moments where C has responded in certain high-emotion situations (including a funeral and visiting one of my nephews in neonatal intensive care) in ways that seem completely inappropriate and even offensive. My sister has, at times, really struggled to stay friends with C because she's so frequently oblivious to the basic emotional reality of many situations, and I know other people have simply cut her off out of frustration.
posted by scody at 6:02 PM on March 7, 2006

Anonymous-- Just keep in mind that people here don't know you and are reading into every word you write. Their reaction to you is based on a few of your comments. Frankly, you don't seem that out of the ordinary to me after eaching in university for a decade.

Please, do get help, try new things, but keep in mind that neither you nor we have perspective on who you are. We're on the internet, you are learning to get on in the world. But do get out. The internet is great, but it isn't the world.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:37 PM on March 7, 2006

I've had counseling too. But it turned out to be the kind where they just sit back and listen and don't offer any advice. What I need is for someone to follow me round and tell me what I'm doing wrong.

Group therapy sounds more like what you need. Just a bunch of people who meet regularly and, hey, you know they're all imperfect because they're in your therapy group. It will do wonders to lower your high standards for yourself and plenty of opportunity to practice social skills on people you may eventually never see again.

I second the Burns, but maybe his other book Intimate Connections is the one you need right now. It covers some of the same material as Feeling Good but with an eye toward relationships (not exclusively romantic). To reiterate, the point of (genuinely) smiling at people, as an exercise, is to get their usually-smiling reaction to you -- and to get over the minor rejection when that occurs. It's a very basic social building block, and people leaning toward Asperger's don't come with it built in. At some level, some of us will always feel that certain social rituals are fundamentally false or involve "acting" -- or we feel that way about our own efforts, and strive for an impossible standard of genuineness.

And, hey, make sure you go to MeFi meetups. It's almost as wacky as group therapy. ;-)
posted by dhartung at 7:01 PM on March 7, 2006

This question reads pretty strange to me. Frankly, it doesn't sound like you want friends. You've already supplied a whole narrative and it's really very clear that you're a shy, awkward, silent, creepy jerk who people just don't like. If this is the case then you should give up. Searching for friends will be a total waste of time for you and your future friends.

I'll suggest a different tack. Instead of looking for friends you might ask yourself why you want friends. Let's say a genie granted you your wish and you suddenly had three or four close friends. What would you do with these friends? Would you just sit around and be friendly with them? What is it that you think friends are actually going to do for you?

You don't need friends. Friends are for people who aren't totally lost in their own little world, for people who aren't disturbingly needy, and for people who have some concept of social grace and can empathize with others. Not you. So put the friend problem on the back burner. Tackle the other problems. If you're lonely and need somebody to talk to then go to a priest. If you want something to do on the weekends then join a club. If you want companionship and affection then buy a dog.
posted by nixerman at 9:35 PM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

You'll probably recognize yourself in the article Caring for Your Introvert and the follow-up interview. There's not a lot of advice there for the introvert, but it may be helpful in understanding why people don't know how to deal with you.

My short essay on dealing with extroverts: Explain to them that quiet does not equal bored. Find non-verbal ways to show them you care about them/appreciate them. (Bake them bread or send them links you know will interest them.) Ask them questions about their stories, so they know you are listening. Keep them apart if you ever want to get a word in edgewise.

I have to admit that most of my friendships have come about by chance, or through friends of friends, but when things get desperate you really need to work at it. For extroverts that part is fun. For us, it's hard work, but it pays off. Off the top of my head, I can think of a several people I've met recently who seemed kind of neat, who I'd like to have invited to a movie or out for coffee, but I didn't. I bet you can think of a few also. Call them up.
posted by teg at 10:11 PM on March 7, 2006

Note that the fastest route to getting kicked out of a social circle in no uncertain terms is--as best as I can tell through observation over the years--to do something to REALLY creep out one or more women in the group. (I mention this after reading the pronouns in your response through Jessamyn.) If you can, figure out if this is part of the dynamic that's going on, and learn how to be appropriate. A brutally honest male aquaintance (current or former) can be your best ally here.
posted by availablelight at 10:18 PM on March 7, 2006

Anonymous. I'm in kind of a similar-ish position to you. I have no friends and don't go anywhere after work. (no money, just moved to a new area).
i also have problems socially and am VERY quiet. i'm the one who sits there saying nothing all night, and yes, people can take that the wrong way.

If you would like to maybe chat over email, maybe I can help if I had more information? Who knows, we might even be in teh same area of the Uk. Or I maybe be able to advise of local groups / people I know in your area.

I'm lucky in that I have a group of friends I keep in contact with by email and text message, and that keeps me sane.

But seriously, email me. (details in profile). I can possibly offer more help over email.
posted by lemonpillows at 2:44 AM on March 8, 2006

You could always try to get a job that involves meeting people in some form. Be it an office job, or working in a bar or Starbucks.

At least then, you can observe other people interacting in the *real world*, and see how that works, and perhaps analyze. That's my plan anyway.

Oh, and yeah, take an interest in other people. Seriously. Helps a lot.
posted by badlydubbedboy at 4:20 AM on March 8, 2006

I second Sallysings and meerkatty. In writing my earlier answer, I had started a whole other paragraph about trying to smile more around people, and trying to be interested and find reasons to respect everyone you meet. But I wasn't happy with my phrasing and I am a total wuss who was afraid of getting slammed for suggesting smiling, and as it turns out, those folks said it better anyway. And they still got slammed.

I also second bim; an office setting might be a great way to practice getting along with others. Not that your co-workers would be your friends, but it's a daily opportunity to practice being likable.

I think therapy would be really helpful, too. I mean, maybe nixerman is right, and what you want isn't a friend. I certainly can't tell one way or the other from the information provided so far, but someone who has met you and listened to your problems on a regular basis might be able to give you some solid advice.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 8:59 AM on March 8, 2006

I never say a bloody word.

I can just about imagine that this, after a looong time, could because so excruciating for other people, that they couldn't bear to be around you in the way you've described.

It was a revelation for me as a youngster to realise that people didn't want me to say the right thing, they just wanted me to say anything to keep up the rhythm of the conversation. Great advice above about cognitive behavioural therapy and about how to meet more people. Once you're sat next to them, don't think you have to have something to say, just practice a quick grin and dropping in totally meaningless things like "Man, that's sooo true," "That's great/awful", "I know what you mean" - just anything.
Learn 3 small talk questions you can just about carry off and don't worry about whether you think they're hideous small talk (What do you do? Where are you from? Cool sweater, where is it from? I hate this weather, I'm a real summer person, how about you?)

Things like that don't mean "I like your sweater"/"I hate the cold", they just mean "I'm interested enough in you as a person to chip in a few words to this conversation" and make the other person feel at ease because that's what they're used to. Relaxes everyone enough to forget that they're talking to a stranger and move onto less self-conscious conversation.

Man I've complimented people on some really hideous clothes/hairdos in the past. Oh, and some lovely ones too, in case anyone I know is reading this....

Oh, and always smile and make eye contact when you're talking to people, especially for the first time.
posted by penguin pie at 3:15 PM on March 8, 2006

In heated conversations, do you listen to what your friends are saying or are you too busy defending your own position? If you listen to what they are saying, you will find clues to how they perceive your behaviour. This will probably be more effective and much easier than having someone follow you around critiquing your actions.

- Mediaddict's social co-ordinator and life coach
posted by mediaddict at 7:42 PM on March 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

ok, i am not a people person either. but i can pretty much give two small pieces of advice: do something charitable as often as possible, and travel. go to asia or sth america and just get around a bit. it will seem like a drag at times, but will also inspire and motivate you. and ignore all the advice people have given you about learning to say the right thing, etc.
posted by edtut at 2:12 AM on November 10, 2006

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