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Ask Polly: I Hate Going Out, But I Feel Boring Staying In!

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Dear Polly,

Something relatively trivial has been nagging at me for a while. Background: In March, my long-term (three-plus years) boyfriend moved in with me. Everything is going as swimmingly as possible given I am a grade-A neurotic and generally overthink things. (He’s pretty neurotic too; it’s part of his appeal. We really get each other and make each other less neurotic.) We work well together, and we’ve settled into a good rhythm housework-wise and I love coming home to him. Further background: I have a therapist, my family is great, my job is also great.

Here’s my problem: I have had zero impulse to go out, a thing I used to very much enjoy. I can’t tell if I’m self-isolating because of mild post-election depression/winter SAD or I just … like hanging out at home a lot more now. Someone will casually mention “Oh, let’s grab a drink on Friday,” and I’ll agree, but unless they do the logistics, it just doesn’t happen, because my desire is not there. It feels a lot like losing libido but for going out and socializing. I see people fairly often, but it’s home stuff like making a meal together or playing a board game. Like, boring shit. And, because it happens at home, I’m more likely to do things with my partner. And part of what made me love him so much in the first place is he lets me do my own thing, especially socially, and now my own social thing is … gone?

Going out with my girlfriends used to be my way of asserting my independence. I also enjoy getting gussied up and putting on a shit-ton of makeup. But now I’m like, Meh, I don’t care. And it makes me sad! So maybe I’m just boring now? I feel very old and boring for my age. So then I get meta-shame over not wanting to go out, which is annoying and makes me feel like garbage.

It doesn’t help that two of the women in my core friend group moved away in the last year. The two members left are me and another friend who has really found herself in a specific scene in Chicago. A lot of her life revolves around going out, until very late, with a large group of friends who enjoy the same. So I only see her every few weeks now because I have no desire and my power to stay up late is null. I cannot keep up with her, I don’t even want to try. So my friend group is kind of in flux, because I am still getting social time but just in a wider/less-stable group of people.

Sigh. I don’t know what to do, or even if anything needs to be done about it. I feel a faint sense of dread that this thing I used to enjoy is no longer enjoyable. I am not even sure I miss going out. Do I just miss my friends who moved? I have anxiety pains when I show up at an event with my partner and it’s all couples. Like that scene in Bridget Jones, except I did come with a date and yet I still feel out of place and awkward. Is this my life now? Going to couple things or staying at home? Say it ain’t so, Polly.

Love,

Anxious Homebody

Dear Anxious Homebody,

I remember standing around at a party at age 34 thinking, I can’t do this anymore. I’m done. Everything was boring to me. I didn’t want the heated discussions or the flirty small talk or the clever banter or any of it. I didn’t care who was checking me out, and I didn’t care who was worth checking out. I just wanted to eat good aged cheeses in bed for the rest of my life. That felt like a kind of moral failure to me. I felt like I was letting the party world down: a former committed drunk, backing away from the fiesta forever.

Luckily, my soon-to-be husband liked aged cheeses and bed just as much as I did. So we spent a year and a half eating manchego and proscuitto and binge-watching Battlestar Galactica and The Shield. Then we got married and had a kid and we pretty much stayed in bed anyway, aside from the occasional walk with the dogs. I lived in soft pants. I was a happy hermit, but I still felt like a big disappointment to the real world, where people took showers and smiled at each other and exchanged pleasant conversation without wanting to slip out the nearest exit unnoticed.

By the time my youngest kid turned 4, I had gained 15 pounds and had taken to calling myself MILKFAT MARY. This was a joke and nothing more, but the truth was I didn’t feel like myself. I felt sluggish and ugly and also a little afraid of people. I worried that I had lost my touch. I would venture out here and there, and I felt awkward and misshapen. My hair had turned frizzy. My shoes were all wrong. Everyone else had stayed glamorous while I’d turned into a weird, nerdy bridge troll with nothing to say and nothing to offer. I bumped into things and apologized for myself a lot.

Then, one morning, I looked in the mirror and I said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.” I didn’t recognize my face. I didn’t feel like myself. I felt like I was hiding. I wanted to be loud and take up space again. I wanted to meet new people. I wanted to be witty and impressive again (if only in my own imagination). I wanted to pour cold beer into my face.

So I started working out more, started eating more green leafy things, started leaving the house more often. My social life improved.

Then I became a hermit again. Then I made more plans. Then I retreated again. Then I started showering. Then I stopped.

And every time I did one thing or the other, I felt like it was a moral failure. I was too much of a hermit. I was too social. I was neglecting my friends. I wasn’t working hard enough. I was neglecting my kids or my husband. Every step of the way, I was pretty sure I was doing it wrong because there was something a little wrong with me. When a friend who had wall-to-wall plans said, “You don’t like leaving the house and doing things like I do!” I felt guilty and wretched. When my kid said, “You go out to dinner with your friends too much!” I felt guilty and wretched.

So here’s the takeaway: Do exactly what you like to do and don’t pay attention to other people’s expectations of how you should live. I spent too long trying to please other people, trying to counteract my natural impulses, trying to hide what I truly enjoyed and trying to enjoy things (and people!) I didn’t enjoy, and I was never served by that, for a second. I wound up making plans that didn’t excite me and building dissatisfying relationships with people who didn’t make sense to me.

I’m not saying I didn’t learn a lot and pick up some new interests and develop new perspectives along the way that I wouldn’t have had if I’d spent the last two decades at home. Hermits have to interrogate the urge to become a permanent shut-in, particularly when they’re that weird mix of introvert and extrovert and happy and avoidant that most of us are. Secretly anxious, grumpy people-pleasers have it bad. We don’t really want to get it up to leave the house, because once we’re out there, we have to make sure that everyone around us is happy. We have to keep the conversation going. We have to ask questions and listen and make sure everyone is having fun. Sometimes someone like me says yes to a plan even though I know that, given the people involved and the activity involved, I’m going to do a ton of heavy lifting with not much to show for it. Then at midnight, I’m in a bar I fucking hate asking myself, “What crazy twist of fate brought me to this terrible place? I’m too old for this shit.”

It’s a tough call. Sometimes the people who stay up late going to clubs are people you don’t really want to know over the long haul for a very good reason, and other times, they’re your best lifelong friends who merely need to get pulled away for the occasional early dinner and then sent along to the club with their more hard-core club-hopping friends while you go home to bed. Stating your preferences clearly, without apology, is good for you! Having preferences doesn’t make you controlling or pathetic, even though women with preferences are repeatedly told that this is true.

Make peace with who you are. The more you’re in touch with the things you love to do and in touch with the things you really, deeply dislike, the better off you’ll be. When you feel guilty and ashamed of what you want, all you do is fuck shit up. You bail at the last minute; you hide your true desires; you treat friends badly. Instead, recognize the value of female friends and find ways to see them that don’t involve dancing and drinking until 3 a.m. Expressing yourself clearly, without guilt, and telling people what you want directly goes a long way.

But keep in mind that some people don’t give a fuck what you want. They don’t just want you to want the things they want, they want you to BE THEM. When you don’t sound like them, it actually irritates them. When you don’t love the things they love, it makes them angry. I know that sounds absurd, but pay attention. People like that are alllllll over the place, actually. I wish I’d noticed that some friends loved me less exactly when I was the happiest. I wish I’d stopped trying to be someone I’m not just to make other people feel comfortable and right with the world all the time.

You also have to remember that being single and watching all of your friends couple up can feel like being abandoned. Make it clear to your single friends that you want to spend time with them, just not at 1 a.m. at a club. Make plans with them to do the kinds of things that you like to do.

I also think it’s important and smart to invite single people to so-called couples gatherings. That’s just normal, honestly, even if a world of lazy couples tends not to see it that way. Single people need to get invited to do “boring” things, too. A lot of single people love boring shit, but because they’re single, they’re forced to go out on the town a lot, sometimes much more than they actually want to. Supporting single people no matter what, embracing and including people without kids when you have kids — this is just part of being a solid friend. And not to sound harsh, but none of us know when we could end up single again. Shit happens. Defying the stupid-ass ways our culture sorts us into categories is important. The more you break those boundaries and shake things up, the better your social life will be.

Even so, try to be realistic. Some friends want to do, do, do things all the time. Other friends just want to talk more than anything else in the world. Just as you stand up for your own preferences without feeling guilty about them, you have to respect other people’s preferences without making them feel guilty about them.

Staying at home and spending time with people in low-key ways is not a moral failure, as long as you recognize who your true friends are and you express your gratitude and commitment to those friends along the way. When you keep friendships alive that mean nothing to you, you erode your ability to be a good friend to the people who really do matter. When you guiltily go along with plans you hate, made with people you really don’t get and who don’t get you, you bring out the worst in yourself and the worst in them.

This is something new that I’ve just learned: Having a really active, satisfying life — whether you’re at home or out in the world — takes a lot of effort and vision. Throwing parties is no good if you’re just inviting the people you’re expected to invite and not branching out and bringing together new people from different corners of your life. Socializing is no fun if you’re just seeing the people who are the easiest to see and never taking a risk and inviting someone great to spend time with you for the first time, because you know in your heart that the two of you are kindred spirits. When you go from doing whatever comes up and hating it to being a visionary socializer who makes inspired, exciting plans with people who are deeply craving new, more meaningful ways of interacting, your life changes. You are being the kind of friend you want to have yourself. You are making the world a better, more inspired place for the people you love the most.

But most of all? Stop giving yourself a hard time just because you’re changing. You’re a human being. You’re never going to stop changing. You may grow to love the things you currently loathe. You may find that you’re happier than ever living in exactly the ways that would’ve embarrassed you years ago. People who accept themselves as they evolve are the happiest people around. It takes work, sure. But honor your deepest feelings. Honor your principles. Honor who you are. Stop following around friends that make no sense to you, and find some new friends who inspire and excite you.

This life is your creation. You can make it whatever you want. Throw yourself into it, and create a life that feels just right to you.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: I Hate Going Out, But I Feel Boring Staying In!