Moderately screwed up. Hand me that ratchet, Nurse.
April 2, 2007 12:28 PM   Subscribe

Therapy or bootstraps? I have no friends beyond immediate family and online acquaintances. I can't clean house or do my home-based job because I get distracted -- by surfing the Net, even though it gets boring and I get less and less pleasure from it, by eating, by walking around the house, or by doing anything but the productive work I know I need to do to be happy. I have a very difficult time even reading a complete book, and I have always been an avid reader. And I have almost completely starved the creative part of myself. I have almost nothing to show for my life over the past twenty years.

I'm seeing my family doctor this week to get a referral, but I have tried psychotherapy once as a teen, once in university, and once in my thirties over many of the same issues, and found that typical talk therapist could either be out-smarted or else they were dispensing cookie cutter advice.

In my first year at a small alternative high school, I hid from fellow students. If I was walking down the hall and people were approaching, I would duck down a side hall so I wouldn't have to greet them. Somehow things turned around the next year and I developed a circle of friends, and I was reasonably sociable and happy. The same thing happened in during my undergraduate degree, where I had several new friends and was part of two overlapping social circles.

But I grew less and less adept at gaining friends as the years passed. In grad school, I saw two women who never met each other before form a fast and deep friendship. I was part of the larger social circle they were part of, but always felt I was on the periphery.

And after leaving university and getting away from the few comfortable social circles I had held onto for 10 years, I found myself around people I didn't feel comfortable with. I was too old, or too shy, or awkward, and I didn't try to make friends.

But now I'm in my 40s. For the past ten years, I haven't even tried to be sociable. My husband and I hardly go out. Our mutual circle of friends has almost completely melted away and his current friends are people from his job (yes, young and attractive and smart and intimidating, and I feel that I embarrass myself around them).

When people talk about the friends they have from childhood or college, I look back and see friends I used to have that I would be ashamed to meet now. I am even more embarrassed that I don't have friends now. I know this is stupid, but it's my gut reaction.

So -- yeah. Social isolation. Self-esteem issues. Some depression. Difficulty concentrating. Do I give therapy another go, or should I just sit down and try some basic, sensible things like volunteering, taking some classes, etc.? That could help with the social isolation, but I still have issues with concentration and focus that may or may not resolve on their own.

(One thing I very recently realized is that I may need to either "incubate" with a group for a year or more to find my place in it, or else I need to be thrown in the deep end by literally living with people, as I did in university co-op housing for a couple of years or in the 6 weeks of French immersion I took one summer before university. I probably won't move into communal living any time soon, but I may need to find a comfy niche for a year before the specific friends issue gets better.)
posted by rosemere to Human Relations (19 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think this is pretty common. Especially working at home can be hugely isolating and leave you feeling a little crazy. The solution to that is, as you know, to get the hell out of the house. So, you ask, should you do therapy or just take action?
Well, why must you choose one approach? Do all of the things you described:

1. Do therapy, shop around until you find a therapist you respect, be honest with the therapist rather than trying to outsmart him/her. Decide what you want out of therapy, and let the therapist know up front.
2. Fnd a work routine that forces you to leave the house - do some of your work at the public library or a coffeeshop, etc.
3. Join groups like casual sports leagues, knitting night, book club, whatever, so that you have two nights a week worth of activities outside the house. Maybe even, the two of you could do different things and then you'll start building your own friendships outside the relationship.
4. Volunteer, do something that takes you out of the house during the day one day a week and has you meeting other adults in a working capacity.
5. Get the therapist to help you stick to manageable goals about the social stuff, and about the building-a-work-environment that-helps-you-focus stuff.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:51 PM on April 2, 2007

There are other types of therapy besides mainly talk. I found that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy helped greatest when dealing with the same sorts of problems. Basically they do as LobsterMitten said in number 5. Helping you make small changes and goals to work towards. It is, I believe, a more practical based therapy.
posted by beautifulcheese at 1:13 PM on April 2, 2007

I can't really offer much advise on therapy, but I think outlining clear goals would probably help. Brainstorm ideas that would get you out and meeting people (you already have some, like volunteering) and make a plan to take concrete steps to getting them done. Make sure the activities you select are actually going to help your goals (ie volunteering to do something on your own may seem tempting, but won't help) and stick with it, and people will warm up to you.

You also want look around to see which groups/activities are best for creating friendships - a small book group is better than a large lecture-style class for example.

Also, find excuses to do things around where you live, smile at people and make small talk when appropriate. It's like social-interaction practice, and it could even lead to real friendships.
posted by fermezporte at 1:13 PM on April 2, 2007

Your problems sound eerily similar to mine. For me, bootstrapping never helped - time just seems to speed by while I'm still collecting my thoughts and self-treatment arsenal, and then I find myself, years later, still trying to get my act together...

You didn't mention medication, but that's the only thing that's significantly helped me. Specifically, Zoloft and then Lexapro for depression and social anxiety (along with loads of other anxiety issues), and more recently, Adderall for ADD.

I found that I needed medication to sort of set the foundation before I could even begin to take action in ways that LobsterMitten suggested. Both are essential, but I couldn't do B without A.

Best of luck to you - you deserve happiness.
posted by granted at 1:14 PM on April 2, 2007

Totally common. You have, essentially, described the bulk of the last 20 years of my life. I have little to show for it and spend too much time in idle pursuits. You have the advantage, however, of being married.

To get out of my antisocial rut, I picked one of my hobbies, joined a local hobby club that meets weekly. I've made some new friends, and they're a little needier than many of my other friends, which encourages me even more to get out of the house.

You have to get out of the house to be social. This means turning off the computer (which is why I seldom post comments to MeFi anymore unless it's during work hours) and going outside. You meet people, you have them over. Having people over forces you to clean house. It's a perpetuating cycle, and it's a good one.

Therapy is a mug's game, IMHO. Really, even if you're as antisocial, moody, depressive, compulsive and short of attention as I am, it all boils down to deciding to do something and then doing it instead of finding excuses to waste time. Sometimes you have to hit bottom to make your decision.

I fully accept that this is a phase for me and that a couple of years down the road I will take six months to a year and be a hermit again. But that's me. In the meantime, Outgoing Jim's hanging out, working out, getting laid and having fun.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:15 PM on April 2, 2007

get a dumb part time job - like at a video rental store or something. meet lots of people - customers and workers. suddenly you will be sick of them calling all the time!
posted by thilmony at 1:33 PM on April 2, 2007

Best answer: Therapy probably can't hurt, but here are a few suggestions to try concurrently, based on what you've already mentioned.

1) Limit your screen-time.
This means TV and computer time. Impose some kind of restriction on yourself, since you are spending more time than you'd like in front of a screen. There are lots of ways to do this: keep the computer turned off, so you are more aware of the time you spend in front of it, because you have to turn it on and off; set an egg timer every time you start using the computer, so the alarm reminds you that your time is up (maybe you get 3 or 4 sessions of 30min each, to start); search AskMe for questions re: ways to limit computer time - they're out there.

2) Make some to-do lists. On paper.
Break down every task or chore into its pieces. For instance, instead of writing down "clean the bathroom", write down all the steps to cleaning the bathroom: spray and wipe sink, polish mirror, sweep floor, etc. That way you can do a little now and a little later.

3) Start a wish list of things to do.
You sound like you feel like life is passing you by. Make a list of some simple, short-term goals you have. Then, goal-by-goal, make a list of some possible ways of starting out towards that goal. For instance, if "make new friends" is on there, maybe take a local adult ed class in cooking or wine-tasting or something. If you need something longer-term, look into volunteering locally.
Think about taking classes for something you've always wanted to learn to do, then list the places to look for those classes.

4) Go for a walk outside every day.
Even just ten minutes will make you feel better over time. Rain is no excuse. If your husband can join you once every week or so, that can be really nice, too.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 1:38 PM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Jesus, this sounds like me.
As a side note, because many of these problems are related to ADD, I'm having myself evaluated. Perhaps you should too.
posted by klangklangston at 1:57 PM on April 2, 2007

I would second the idea to look into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, if you do pursue therapy. It's a more hands-on, "let's solve your problems with actions rather than through talking about them" style, which may suit you, given what you've said about past therapists and about your problems. The basic idea is that thoughts, behaviors, and moods are all linked together -- for example when you procrastinate (behavior) that makes you unhappy (mood) which makes you think you're a failure (thought) -- and that it's often easiest to start working on changing behaviors, which are concrete, rather than changing thoughts or moods. (Different therapists may emphasize different parts of that, of course.)
posted by occhiblu at 2:04 PM on April 2, 2007

Best answer: LobsterMitten is right: "Do therapy, shop around until you find a therapist you respect, be honest with the therapist rather than trying to outsmart him/her. Decide what you want out of therapy, and let the therapist know up front." I'd like to elaborate on this, since it is what made the difference for me.

You need to be willing and able to interview different therapists and reject them if necessary. For some reason, there are a lot of unhelpful therapists in the world (I have no idea why) -- and even among the good therapists, there will be some with whom you have bad chemistry. I found it helpful to write down what I wanted from therapy, what questions I had for potential therapists, and what my deal-breakers are. Having this written down helps to keep you on track, especially when you're feeling confused or lost, and having a hard time asserting yourself.

A few more suggestions: get multiple recommendations from people you trust, and schedule appointments with a few different therapists. During the appointments, pay attention to how you're feeling and how the therapist is responding. At the end, ask any questions that you have. If you're nervous asking questions, bring your sheet of questions with you. By meeting several therapists at once, you'll be better able to see the differences between them -- and how you feel about each one. My personal red flags are:

- An icky feeling. Don't know why, don't know how, but sometimes it's there and it's always a deal-breaker.
- They're talking too much and not listening enough. Especially bad when it comes with simplistic, "cookie-cutter" advice.
- I feel like I'm unable to be honest with them.
- They have irritating politics.

The last item may seem ridiculous, but I've found that I just can't work closely with a therapist who doesn't share some of my basic values. It doesn't mean that they're a bad therapist -- just that they aren't right for me. Politics may not matter to you at all -- but you may have other seemingly foolish criteria that are worth taking seriously.

One last thought: to me, therapy is kind of like a class or an independent study. If the teacher is an idiot or a jerk, I'm not going to get much out of it. But even if the teacher is brilliant, the bulk of the work is still mine to do. I expect a good therapist to provide:

- careful attention and thoughtful responses to my ideas and feelings
- a different perspective -- some kind of useful, new paradigm to structure the way that I think about my life/myself
- consistent support while I'm going through the ups and downs of changing myself

But for all that to work, I have to be willing to give it a lot of time and effort and energy, and a certain amount of trust. If you screen up front for someone that you can respect and trust, I think that you'll have better results.
posted by ourobouros at 2:29 PM on April 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

Ditto klangklangston that your story sounds like some ADDers'. You may want to look into that.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 3:31 PM on April 2, 2007

I've been really impressed with the power of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in my own life. The basic idea is that thoughts create emotion, not the other way around (as we usually suppose). So if you feel unworthy, ashamed, etc., chances are you've got some persistent thought-loops running through you head, telling you that you're unworthy, should be ashamed, etc. Not just that -- you may be noticing and amplifying all the bad things while minimizing the significance of everything else. I've found Feeling Good by David Burns incredibly eye-opening.

It's not easy to identify and undo a lifetime of negative programming, so therapy would probably good idea if this idea appeals to you. But the Feeling Good book should at least give you an idea of whether or not this type of therapy might be helpful.

I also second all the recommendations for joining some kind of group activity -- a reading or writing group, something like that. I swear that almost all of my long-term, close friends have been met this way.

As for ADD, what you have to say does remind me of a friend of mine who discovered that had ADD -- the medication he got on (don't know what it was) really revolutionized his life.
posted by treepour at 3:44 PM on April 2, 2007

Email me, please.
posted by nicething at 4:53 PM on April 2, 2007

Sounds like you need an adventure.
posted by amtho at 5:33 PM on April 2, 2007

You seem to pose the question as either-or, therapy or self-help. When you talk to your doctor, you might want to ask if there could be medical reasons why you feel and act as you do. It might not hurt to have a physical and blood work-up.

In the spectrum of "getting help," remember that it's not just therapy or various kinds of therapy that are available. Perhaps a psychiatrist or psycho-pharmacologist could give you a prescription for something that could help with some of the issues you report.

And of course, if you do choose therapy, please follow the suggestions all the other folks made above. It's not a game for you to "outsmart" the therapist. You get out of it what you honestly put into it.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:35 PM on April 2, 2007

I think once someone is middle aged, that making friends is far harder then when you're younger. I am middle aged and I recently moved away from a town I did have friends in, where I lived for @10 years and the idea of figuring out how to do it all over again is seriously overwhelming at this stage of the game. Health problems make things more complicated for me too. I guess I am fortunate I have held on to friends from college--20 year old friendships, talk to some weekly but these are ALL long distance. Reforming social circles outside of the internet and the phone right now seems an extremely daunting task. My suggestion for you is to find a small church or religious organization, to meet people, or take a class or two at the local community college. I guess this is advice I give even myself, but I havent found a niche here yet either. All the best to you!
posted by Budge at 7:41 PM on April 2, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks very much for all the responses. I could have marked practically every one as "best", but I'm limiting myself to the few that I think might also be broadly applicable to anyone else reading this. (These were also the answers with numbered or bulleted lists. Maybe I'm a bit compulsive, too.)

Thanks also to all those who mentioned ADD and cognitive therapy. ADD is a possibility I won't rule out, but I'm not certain I'm a good fit as I was pretty functional until a few years ago. Nonetheless, I'll ask my thoroughly-interviewed therapist about it. And I think you're all right that CT may be a good fit for me.

Oh, and one thing to those concerned about the "out-smart" comment: I pulled that crap when I was 15 and have no intent of repeating it. My university therapist was a very nice woman who let me talk and cry a lot, and I didn't pull any crap with her, but I didn't get any better, either. And the therapist I saw in my 30s was Dr. Cookie Cutter: fill out the Myers-Briggs, here's a copy of Toxic Parents, here's your affirmations. Blech.

Thanks again.
posted by rosemere at 7:44 PM on April 2, 2007

Seconding the "do something" I found co-ed recreational sports a great help. You look like a fool running after a ball, but so does everyone else. There is a huge social aspect to the games, as most end up in a pub or restaurant. Don't do women only things, as mixed groups tend to be more reasonable, less petty and have a much more interesting chemistry (for times when you're shy, you can just watch and that's a hoot). Also, one benefit could be that both you and your hubby get to play on one team.

I work in a family firm, so know about the lack of friends. The only thing that keeps me grounded is doing activities absolutely not related to work. That's pottery and sports. I'm not great at either, but it's just mud.
posted by Yavsy at 6:59 AM on April 3, 2007

Forget todo lists - to get crap done right now - avoid getting distracted, write down what you want to acomplish in the next 15 minutes or the task at hand and stick it next to your computer. -- It'll keep you on track. When you are done with it - throw it away and write another one.
posted by bigmusic at 10:15 AM on April 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

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