Have you ever seen the film Oldboy? The main character, Oh Dae-su, gets abducted and is imprisoned in a cell. Once he is finally released, he is conversationally crippled because he hasn’t interacted with other people for years.
I’m a little bit like that. When I was a teenager, I was able to make conversation well enough. I was also bullied relentlessly. I developed social anxiety, which then became a full-blown avoidant personality disorder. It was so crippling that I didn’t leave my house more than a handful of times for quite a few years. I had no contact with other people except for my parents, and I was depressed and suicidal. Eventually, I had myself admitted to a psychiatric hospital and lived there for a year. Afterward, I worked up the courage to contact a childhood sweetheart and we renewed our relationship.
Now I have a boyfriend, and I’m no longer downright afraid of most social interactions. I’m capable of leaving my house most of the time without feeling uncomfortable. But talking to people still feels nearly impossible. It’s so damn hard! It feels as if all those years of being alone have damaged my brain. I’m forgetful, cognitively slow, and mentally lazy. I can’t keep up with simple conversations. It takes forever to piece together a sentence, to react to what someone else is telling me. Ninety percent of the time, all I can squeeze out is a “hm” or an “oh” or a “really?” But that’s it. When I do manage to say more than that, I still leave out a lot of details. When I manage to think more than that, I’m somehow incapable of saying it out loud. That’s in part the mental laziness I was talking about, but also just me not consciously noticing my thoughts as something to put into words. Sometimes someone will say something and I discover that those were my thoughts, too. I just wasn’t really aware of it.
When I’m with my boyfriend, I can’t think of any topics to talk about. He is of the endlessly talkative variety, so he doesn’t mind it too much, but it bothers me that whenever I want to make a more genuine connection with him, I just come up completely empty. Not to mention that I can’t properly talk to any of his friends or family and make them like me, which makes me feel bad for my boyfriend. I don’t have any friends of my own either. People have tried, but have grown frustrated or even angry with my inability to talk to them on good days or to show any interest on days when my brain seems to have stopped working altogether. I have days when I shut down completely and just … can’t. Nearly all of my therapists have vocalized their dislike of me because of this, and they seem unable to help me with this problem.
Polly, what can I do? I’m so terrified that it isn’t going to get any better.
Your situation sounds exceptionally upsetting and isolating. I’m sorry that you’ve suffered so much up to this point, and that you haven’t found therapists who are up to the challenge of addressing your problem and helping you to find a path forward.
My gut feeling is that you have two different challenges that are exacerbating each other. The first challenge is that you’re still suffering from social anxiety to some extent. Even though you can leave the house, you still feel wound up over conversations. You don’t feel relaxed enough to access your true thoughts and ideas. Every time you try to talk to someone, you have a panic reaction. You feel nervous and sick. Your thoughts move in tight circles, or you feel like there’s nothing at all in your brain. Other people’s faces seem to say “What’s wrong with you?” and then “I need SOMETHING from you! What is your PROBLEM?” You can see these reactions coming from a mile away, because you’ve been through this experience repeatedly, so you’re preemptively anxious when you see the first signs that you’re fucking everything up again.
I know this feeling well, if only on a relatively small scale. When I was 13, I had a friend who decided I took too long to formulate a thought. She started to say “Yesss?” and eventually started saying “Spit it out, damn it!” whenever I took some time to respond. I started to experience myself as extremely stupid in her presence, and I actually developed a stutter around her for a while. Keep in mind, I had no problems in other situations. I was a talkative extrovert. Her impatience made me so anxious that I couldn’t think straight. I started to feel stupid and devoid of ideas. I started to feel like a nervous void, like a jar full of noxious gas that was always threatening to shatter.
The reasons for my anxiety — and my inability to behave differently around her — are linked to your second challenge: You say you “can’t think of any topics to talk about” when you’re with your boyfriend. You also say, “I can’t properly talk to any of his friends or family and make them like me.” In other words, you’re trying to solve an arbitrary, abstract puzzle that strikes you as impossible. You want to know how people find “topics” — subjects to discuss. You want to know how people make other people like them. You want to crack the code and mimic human behaviors effectively.
You might be able to do these things, if you weren’t anxious, emotional, sensitive, and deeply invested in human connection. You could become a cardboard cutout of a person, one who pretends to be real by imitating real people, one who barks “How’ve you been?” and “Fine, thanks!” and “Looks like someone drank too much coffee this morning, heh heh!” But some core part of you refuses to take this path. Some core part of you wants true vulnerability and real connection with another person who isn’t mouthing words and mimicking the noises around them.
Our culture has a very bad habit of boiling every quirk down to a pathology. We take everything from small idiosyncrasies to deep emotional needs and we translate it all into flaws and quirks and dysfunctions. When someone can’t speak or can’t leave the house anymore, we give that condition a name and say “You’re just like all of these other sick people who can’t leave the house.” Treatment might seem deep and thorough at first, but the goal is to get this person with this group diagnosis to seem more like someone without a diagnosis, a cardboard-cutout person who mirrors everyone else. Instead of asking “What do you think people want from you?” or “What do you believe that you should become, to make other people happy?,” we ask, “What if you tried this trick for pleasing people more?” and “What makes this trick so difficult” and “How hard is it to be a cipher like the rest of us?”
Here’s what I want to ask you: “What is it about the world that strikes you as off? What would you prefer? What is your ideal day? What would be the best thing you could possibly experience in this moment? What would the purest experience of love feel like to you? What do you think it would fix or heal for you? What do you tell yourself when you can’t think of anything to say? What would be the exact opposite of that statement?”
Even if all of your answers to these questions are, roughly, “I just want to be like everyone else,” my opinion is that when you can’t speak, when you can’t think of a single thing to say, when you try to mouth the right words but you JUST CAN’T SOUND THAT WAY, some core tenacious center of your being is staging a protest. There is a revolutionary who lives inside your heart who’s saying, “Even when you sound like them, they don’t love you enough. And eventually, they will know you’re only pretending.”
Solving this puzzle will not bring you peace. You already know that. Your heart isn’t in it.
That’s why the truth is the only way out for you. But the truth is the one thing you DON’T want to speak out loud, because you feel sure that it will only make people dislike you more. You feel sure that the truth will destroy everything you have now. You’re trying to make sure that no one knows how bad it is for you right now. But in the process of struggling to hide in plain sight, in the process of trying to fit in and seem normal, you’re erasing yourself. You’re emptying your mind. You’re asking for help, and your core says NO.
You are someone who must be loved for who she is. You are someone who cannot hide.
Instead of seeing this as a major liability, you need to start to see it as a gift. Your tenacious, rebellious core is the part of you that wants to lead you forward, into a new life, into a new skin, into a new way of moving through the world. When you look for a way to mimic, imitate, pretend, this part of you says NO FUCKING THANK YOU. This part of you feels strongly that your happiness depends on never pretending. You don’t trust mimicry, even as you try to mimic. You don’t want to imitate other people’s sounds. Your mind draws a blank when you try to do this because you’re anxious, sure, but it also draws a blank because you don’t believe in the arbitrary puzzle you’re trying to solve.
This is what you need to understand: Speaking is easy when you have nothing to hide. Talking feels organic when you trust yourself and don’t mind telling the truth. Conversation will not cause panic once you stop trying to crack someone else’s code. You’re a sensitive, secretly rebellious person who wants to “perform better” and be liked, but you’re going into social situations with the wrong set of goals. You’re feeling around in the void of your brain for mysterious “answers” (FIND A GOOD TOPIC! SAY ANYTHING!), but all the while, you’re taking in an enormous amount of feedback from others. Their words and expressions are shouting DO SOMETHING ELSE! DO BETTER! while your brain says “NOTHING HERE IS ACCEPTABLE! EVERYTHING HERE WILL REVEAL EXACTLY HOW BROKEN YOU ARE!”
Reveal how broken you are. The more you let yourself appear broken, the more you’ll see that you’re not broken at all. Or you are broken, but the world is also broken. Or no one is broken. These things shift by the month, by the week, by the minute. Our culture fights this constant shifting by pretending that we are consistent, that we can consistently behave like cardboard cutouts, that lives progress in straight, predictable lines, that everyone speaks and understands and agrees and we all get our happy endings.
I want you to honor your natural allegiance to chaos and uncertainty. Your core self, your stubborn alliance with your own isolation and bewilderment, is much smarter and wilder and richer than the cardboard-cutout culture around you. I want you to align yourself with your rebellious core. But I also want you to listen with an open, curious mind when that core tells you things that are confused and inaccurate. I want you to notice when some voice from deep inside of you says, “You cannot trust what people say. Their words are meaningless. They will never love you even if you make your words sound like theirs.” I’m not saying that you should take your cue from these impressions. I’m saying you should know what you REALLY THINK and BELIEVE right now. You need to examine the beliefs — true and real and also confused, incorrect beliefs — that are guiding your actions and causing you to panic and also trying to lead you to your truest self.
Let’s go back to that friendship I had when I was younger, the one that suddenly gave me a stutter. It never occurred to me that I had a right to say to my impatient friend, “I don’t like how you talk to me when I’m searching for my thoughts.” But it went beyond that. I never found a way to say to her, “You seem manic to me. You seem to want to control what I think and do. I feel like everything I do is disappointing to you. I feel like you have a lot of anger and sadness and they’re always crashing into me, but I’m afraid of them. I feel overwhelmed around you. I feel like my job is to serve you and entertain you, but you treat me like I’m some kind of emotionally stunted idiot when I can’t perform this role.”
It would’ve been a lot to say that to this friend, who was very smart and probably anxious and had lost a parent at a very young age. I knew her intentions were pure, and she was just trying to make us closer. She wanted much more from me than I could give her. And if I were really digging for the truth, I’d learn that some part of me resented and even hated her. This was a recurring sensation in my life, one that grew out of loving very intense, brilliant, slightly narcissistic people, and catering to them with every cell of my being while never serving myself. I often felt erased by these friends, and I resented them for that. I worked very hard to be seen by extremely emotional people who didn’t have the calm presence or ability to see me.
And I believed that no one really cared about me. I believed that I was lovable but no one had the time or energy to love me. I believed that most people were totally full of shit. I believed that the words that came out of people’s mouths were arbitrary and meaningless, mostly. When you believe these kinds of things, it is exceedingly difficult to make people like you, to serve them what they want, to entertain and charm and engage them. You are solving arbitrary puzzles that are not just impossible, they mean nothing to you. Winning is also losing.
Connection goes beyond words. Connection begins with understanding yourself, understanding your core beliefs, understanding the presumptions and confusion and bewilderment that works on you every day, understanding how blocked and hidden and buried you are before you even open your mouth to say your first word of the day.
My guess is that you’re very smart and you have an enormous tangle of beliefs about what other people are made of and how much they care and don’t care. Your biggest mistake right now is thinking that people don’t care at all. Your second biggest mistake is believing that people are preoccupied with you, or even notice how you fail, or that their frustration with you is the same thing as DISLIKING you or hating you. Your anxiety places you at the center of the universe. You have to unravel your anxiety and start telling the truth in order to see that you are merely another person in the room, an observer, someone who has plenty of time and space to speak or remain quiet, someone who is already loved and appreciated in spite of a few flaws and oddities.
You need a great therapist who is as smart as you are, and you need to write down your thoughts. You need to write down the truth until you can speak it out loud. You need to commit to honoring your real, broken, healthy, wild, ever-expanding self. You are a million times bigger and more full than you think you are. You might even be a writer or an artist waiting to blossom. You might even be a genius with a million and one ideas that are struggling to find their way up to the surface from some murky underground. You might even be the world’s most articulate and eloquent communicator. You must go through the dark core of your belief systems to get to the other side, where you can show the world who you really are.
You start by believing in whatever you are, believing in whatever you might discover, no matter how slow and stupid it might seem at first. You start by standing up for yourself, and standing up for your right to be who you already are. You start by pledging allegiance to your own silent, chaotic nation. You start by saying to yourself, “I can be different — bewilderingly different — and still be loved.” You start by loving your petulant core with all of your heart, every day, even when it feels exhausting or nonsensical. You start by gathering your strength through this love. You start by knowing that when the glass jar breaks, noxious gas will not be released, sickening everyone on site. You start by knowing that when the glass jar breaks, your life begins.
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