‘I’m Having a Hard Time Making Friends at My Fancy University’

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Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg/Photo Getty

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Dear Polly,

I hope you can tell me How to Be a Person in the World, because I’m not sure I ever learned how.

I was raised by a loving, lower-middle-class family in the kind of small town that feel-good TV shows are set in. Virtually from birth, I had a group of disgustingly Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants–esque friends who were more like sisters. And I was an academic golden child, graduating first in my high-school class: the kind of kid everyone expects to leave town and do big things. (I also fell in love with the boy who proved to be my constant competitor for small-town success; we started dating halfway through high school.) I loved people because the people I knew loved me. No material comforts could have made me more content than the knowledge that I was supported by my whole hometown.

To everyone’s delight, I received a full ride to a university with two big, scary sells: It was  very prestigious and very far away from my home state. I was ecstatic … until I moved in last fall and I found myself tremendously unhappy outside of class. I spent my first few months inviting classmates to endless lunches, hallmates to Friday frat parties, and groups to museums and concerts. In response, I got detached rejections. When I joined various clubs, and even a sorority, members seemed to be more interested in competing for prized officer positions than building connections. I hadn’t dreamed of replicating my hometown friend group, but I also hadn’t anticipated eating every meal alone. I hadn’t anticipated going whole days without talking to anyone, or smiling at all. Maybe people were actually competitive and unfriendly; maybe I was randomly unlucky; maybe I was just bad at making friends because I’d never really had to before. All I know is that I got the flu at the end of my first semester and, bedridden, realized I had nobody to come check on me. No new contacts in my phone. I cried for days. I was fucking lonely, and it broke me.

After returning from a comforting winter break, I guess I chose to feel beaten rather than productively challenged. So I started to treat myself like a victim. I attended my morning classes and went right back to bed. I ate approximately one meal a day, always in the comfort of my room. I quit my part-time job and all of my other activities. Sometimes my unfairly awesome boyfriend would take a four-hour bus from his own college to visit me on the weekends. He would force me to sleep at normal hours and eat real meals, dragging me out of bed to the point that I resented him. He, my family, and my hometown friends were all concerned about my well-being. But I felt guilty and whiny and ungrateful and increasingly burdensome, and flaked on all their FaceTime check-ins to nap more and stare at the ceiling.

I essentially retreated into bed for the entire semester. I became lazy and solitary, descriptors that had never applied to me. I only spoke when spoken to; I straight-up stopped trying socially. My RA noticed the change and referred me to the campus therapist, who suggested I see a psychiatrist about clinical depression. But I was, and am, pretty sure I was only suffering from a combination of privileged problems, “gifted-child syndrome” and homesickness among them.

Now I’m back home for the summer, decent grades in tow, and I’m already doing much better emotionally. But I’m at a loss when I think about how to proceed when I go back in the fall. My parents think I’m overreacting, that I should focus on my classes. My boyfriend and friends think I should stick out another semester and consider transferring out. I don’t know what I think. Most of me believes I just gave up too easily and felt too bad for myself, that I’ll have the college experience of my dreams if I just go back to school this fall and try harder to form lasting connections. Another part is convinced I need to lower my standards for relationships and chill out, and that people will come into my life accordingly. And a small voice in my head just wants out of the fancy-name university — but I’m almost certain that my problem stems from my own damn expectations, and the town-size family I grew up with, just as much as it does from my school.

How do I reorient myself? Where do I go from here?

Sincerely,

Sophomore Slump

Dear Sophomore Slump,

I grew up in a reasonably small town and then went to a reasonably fancy school filled with kids I initially encountered as obnoxiously self-conscious and faux-sophisticated. My attitude was that we were too young to try so goddamn hard to sound old. My solution was to get a boyfriend immediately and then disappear into his frat-boy universe. For the rest of college, I leapfrogged from one boyfriend to the next and largely shunned meaningful connections in favor of drinking games and giant bong hits. I don’t recommend this approach.

I wouldn’t pathologize your inability to quickly adjust to an extremely taxing first year at college. Your upbringing sounds pretty relaxing and idyllic. Keep in mind that a lot of college-age kids are just starting to manifest the damage that came from being raised under far-less-soothing circumstances. Moreover, many people who went to fancy-name schools will tell you that fancy-name schools are packed with incredibly intense, deeply insecure overachievers, half of whom suspect at some level that they’re frauds and they don’t belong there. No matter what sorts of repugnant sounds they make in the hopes of appearing worldly and sophisticated, many of the inhabitants of these microcosms feel isolated and confused about how to make real connections. They also might’ve learned to mimic aloofness or apathy in order to avoid seeming needy or uncool. Places like that are notoriously rough on kids from small towns who haven’t spent a lot of time with kids who went to prep school or spend their teen years in Manhattan or other self-proclaimed fancy places.

As an adult, you’ll meet a lot of people who claim that their fancy schools were “full of dicks.” Many transfer or drop out. But I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that approach either, at least not yet. I think your friends are right. You should lower your expectations and try another semester, if not another full year. But don’t be tempted to believe that you’re about to have the college experience of your dreams. During your freshman year, this attitude put you at risk of trying a tiny bit too hard to replicate what you had at home. When you try very hard and you’re still a little sad and anxious, other people tend to avoid you like the plague.

Right now, it sounds like you’re sure that you’ll either WIN or LOSE, that you’ll either have the time of your life or you’ll go back into your dorm room and never come out. Your black-and-white thinking makes the situation worse. You’re so focused on your success or failure that it’s pretty hard to make genuine, open connections with other people.

You have to take a new approach. You have to try to loosen your mind’s controlling grip on the situation — to step back from your schemes and fantasies and exhausting efforts to “fix” everything — and just feel your way forward slowly instead. Rather than trying to rally and impress and create amazing memories, you need to just show up as a relaxed, approachable human being with no agenda.

I would start by cultivating compassion for yourself. You’ve been a confident, happy person all your life, and this past year has rattled you. It makes sense that your parents think you’re overreacting to the situation. You’re a naturally emotional human being who’s never been in this particular situation before. WHY WOULDN’T IT THROW YOU FOR A LOOP? You need to have some empathy for yourself right now. My guess is that you prefer to let your emotions fly out, so the world can see the real you. Maybe you’ve always done it that way, and it’s worked just fine up until now. So when people don’t seem to like the real you or your emotions, you feel so self-conscious and stifled that you retreat completely, and it feels TERRRRIBLE.

Forgive yourself. You’re intense. You want the world and you want it now. Sit with that, and accept it as much as you can. It’s okay to turn people off with your passion at this point in your life. It means you’re a fucking fireball waiting to explode. Don’t hide your flame for anyone. Celebrate it.

You can do that while also cultivating compassion for the insecure, intense overachievers around you. A lot of these kids are really bad at expressing their thoughts and feelings in a direct way. They want to compete and debate each other, rather than just being honest and plain about how they’re doing. Have you read The Idiot, by Elif Batuman? You should read it this summer. It’s about an isolated, overthinking alien surrounded by other aliens during her freshman year at Harvard. It’s the perfect distillation of how it feels to try (and largely fail) to connect with people who make no sense to you whatsoever.

It sounds like your boyfriend calls and visits often, and you turn to him whenever you feel isolated or upset. That’s nice, but it compromises your ability to stay open to the people around you. If you’re constantly running to your boyfriend for support, and potential friends see that, they might not want to bother getting closer to you. I made similar choices when I was your age. It was plainly obvious to all potential friends that my boyfriend always came first, and I didn’t make many lasting friendships my freshman year as a result. If you truly want to make your friendships a priority, you have to resist the urge to hide inside your relationship with your boyfriend every time you feel a little bit lonely or uncomfortable at your school. I know that’s easier said than done! Just try to be aware of it.

This fall you’re going to have to force yourself to get out into the world. I would try to slow way down and observe the weird behaviors, norms, and tics of your fellow sophomores. Practice going to busy places and trying to stay calm and open without approaching anyone or explaining yourself. One of the best skills you can have, as a young person and as an adult, is the ability to be comfortable in a public space, in a crowd, at a party, without speaking to anyone. Holding your own space and observing the world without maniacally chatting doesn’t make you a weirdo, it makes you stronger and more able to go anywhere and do anything. Once you find a way to do that, you’ll have a skill to draw on for decades to come. (Yes, trying it will probably make you anxious. Expect that and tolerate it. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, and eventually you’ll take a lot of pride in how calm you remain when you enter a room and know no one there.)

Compassion is the key to developing this strength (and many others). Compassion is also the key to making real connections with all kinds of different people. Instead of impressing people, your focus shifts toward letting people show you who they are, slowly. You observe and you’re polite and you speak occasionally when spoken to, but you try to coax your mind away from how you seem to others or whether or not you’re failing. As long as you’re working on your compassion for yourself, this is possible. But if you’re mad at yourself and you’re also indulging your obsessive fantasies about how college COULD be if you were “better at it,” you’ll struggle.

This chapter in your life is utterly different from anything that came before it. In order to thrive, you have to abandon your lifelong overachiever strategies (“Try harder! Make a plan! Tackle this problem!”). You have to learn to take a deep breath, observe, let yourself be who you are, and know that you are deeply loved already. And even though you may remain friendless at first, you have to remember that you might have more real emotional support in your life than the chattering humans around you. You have to cultivate your faith in yourself. You have to remember that as long as you stay open, things will improve. You have to find a way to give yourself what you need while you exist in this gray area. You have to resist the urge to hide and give up.

It’s a lot. If you sounded clinically depressed to me, I would have different advice for you. But I think your instincts are correct on that front: You’re not deeply depressed. You’re frustrated and lonely because your circumstances at school are frustrating and lonely. Now you have an opportunity to learn about balance, about occupying the middle ground between champion and loser, happy and depressed, surrounded by friends and utterly alone. I would strongly recommend exercising several times a week and joining a few clubs if you can stomach it. You need a little structure built into your life so you don’t hide again. Exercise will give you a natural boost of optimism that can help steer you through the year ahead.

I know it doesn’t seem like it right now, but returning to your school in the fall and tolerating whatever you find there might end up being the most important thing you do for the next decade. You’re going to learn A LOT — about overcoming a challenging situation, about treating yourself and others with true compassion, and about calmly, patiently making space for other people instead of forcing things. You’ll learn to accept and forgive yourself for not being effortlessly great at everything, and you’ll learn to stop berating yourself the second things feel sad or scary or uncomfortable.

You’re about to become an adult, in other words. This excruciating time will make you into who you want to be. Have faith in that. You’ve already shown that you can withstand a lot without breaking. Take some pride in that, because not everyone can do that at your age. You’re stronger than you realize. Once you can see that clearly and give yourself credit for it, things will get a lot better.

Order the 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.

Polly

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I’m Having a Hard Time Making Friends at My Fancy University