I desperately need some practical advice about a very impractical life problem. That problem being, I don’t care about my life. To be clear, I don’t want to stop living, and my life could probably be worse. But every day, I think about the things I need to do in order to succeed in college and build a career, and though I try as hard as I can, I just do not care. It’s like pulling teeth to get myself to study or to apply for jobs or to network with people, because I have to fight through the voice in my head screaming that this stuff doesn’t matter.
For context, I’m a 24-year-old transfer student who recently moved to a four-year college. My parents can’t afford to help me financially, so I’ve been taking out loans and working bad jobs. And if I ever want to get out of those bad jobs, I have to do well in school (I’m not doing well this semester). But those aren’t even the real problems.
My real problem is, I start thinking about what could even come after college, and my whole mind goes blank. My degree in communications may eventually get me a better job, but due to my utter lack of charisma and drive, it may not. You know the saying, “It takes a village”? Well, I agree. No one gets anywhere without the support of other people. But in order for people to support you, they need to like you, and I’m not very likable. It’s really hard for me to connect with others on a genuine level. I love my parents, but due to differences in religion, sexuality, and life goals, we tend to keep our conversations light both in content and in frequency. When I make friends, they usually decide I’m not what they signed up for and leave, or I ask too much of them and drive them away. Dating has been a similar disaster. I was okay at peer tutoring, and I was okay at retail, but at a certain point, I just couldn’t turn on whatever it is you turn on to make people feel like the interaction was worthwhile.
It’s not that I hate other people, or that I can’t talk to them. It’s just that it feels terrible the whole time.
I am not prepared for a world of constant communication, of marketing myself. And the older I get, the more I see that I’ll never escape the need to be something more palatable in order to be supported emotionally, and also in order to get hired and continue eating. I’m not trying to be a bitch. I really, truly believe in love and friendship and the power of human connection. But I also really, truly have to make people like me so I can pay my rent. And I have proof that people don’t like my natural personality. So here I am trying to find meaning in a world that, as a whole, doesn’t like the introverted overthinker, the too-honest but also too-distant person that I really am — and also doesn’t really like the person I try to be for its benefit. There is no way for me to win, no matter what job I have or what classes I take or what I do with my life.
Do you have any tips for dealing with a world like this? Because I’m absolutely exhausted.
I Want to Be Me (But I Want to Eat)
Cultivate your faith in the world. There is love for you here.
Yes, plenty of people dislike introverted overthinkers who are too honest and also too distant. The worst possible thing that someone like that can do, though, is pretend to be an upbeat extrovert for the sake of others. Introverted overthinkers with confessional impulses have to learn to love and accept who they are. Then they can be themselves and other people will enjoy them, embrace them, envy their honesty, admire their ideas, adore their unique perspectives, and savor their company.
Right now, you’re taking your stressful circumstances (working your way through college) and your very sensitive, alienated perspective on the world (everyone is predictable and bubbly and abhors complexity) and you’re bundling them together into a dreary outlook for your future. But you don’t even know what life after college will be like. Life in a college town among college students, working a menial job, does not offer an accurate snapshot of life anywhere else. I grew up in a college town and I’ve worked many, many menial jobs. Extrapolating from this habitat is a big mistake. Keep your mind open, because the world is much more wild and interesting than you can imagine.
I say this all the time, and I never stop believing it: Unless you’re naturally a sociopath or predator, you can be yourself around other people — even people who are different from you — and many of them will love you for it. The ones who don’t aren’t some bellwether of your success as a human being. Cast them aside and sally forth with an open heart.
Your primary problem right now is your firm belief that people hate your “natural” personality. You are certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you’re broken and unlovable and you have to hide the truth about who you are. Many people believe this at your age. Some of the people who seem to be rejecting you also believe this about themselves. Instead of fixating on what you’re doing wrong in every interaction, use your sensitive nature to be still and tune into how insecure and ashamed the people around you are. Observe the jittery robots in your midst. Half of the people you encounter as extroverted are secretly introverts. Half of the people you experience as confident are massively insecure. Look for a reflection of your natural, too honest, too distant self hiding behind their masks. It’s there.
It feels terrible to talk to people because you’re trying to make them like you. The second you remove that imperative from your mind, things will improve. You say people don’t like your “natural” personality, but has anyone really experienced it? As long as you’re anxious over how much people like you, trust me, your natural personality is still hidden. The only way your real personality will show is if you connect with other people without fear.
In order to get there, you have to do a bunch of tough things at once. You have to stop obsessing about what people think of you. You have to stop trying so hard to impress people. You have to stop overexplaining everything you do to other people. You have to lower your expectations of others. You have to accept people for who they are (giving them the acceptance that you don’t give yourself yet). You have to listen closely to others instead of remaining preoccupied with how you’re coming across. And you have to speak honestly about your goals, desires, challenges, and flaws.
To someone who’s been trying too hard for years, that probably sounds like an enormous amount of work. But you can also take a short cut: Stop trying to impress people, full stop. Let go of your narrative that you’re unlikable. Let go of the false belief that you’ll only make friends and make a living if you bullshit people. Abandon this notion that no one has ever liked you. You are coating the world in darkness, out of fear and stress and loneliness. Try a new path forward instead.
Many of your current illusions probably spring from your experience with your parents. They are very different from you. You have to keep things light and manage them instead of telling them the truth. Most people have a similar sensation about their parents at your age, but you’ve turned it into your destiny. You must’ve really felt these differences deeply as a child. You must’ve been a very sensitive kid who experienced your parents’ lack of understanding as a profound rejection of who you are as a person. Now you’re carrying that rejection around and projecting it onto every new relationship you make.
What people dislike about you, once they become your friend, is not your natural self. What they dislike is how hard you work, and how much compensatory devotion you expect from them, prematurely, and how angry and rejected you feel when someone lets you down, and how determined you are to hide your true self, even as you demand that other people show their true selves. No matter who you are naturally, as long as you’re pissed off and you’re trying too hard and you’re also fearful and sad and half-hiding, people won’t like you. Even if you think you’re playing the part of the enthusiastic, fun, thoroughly chill new friend convincingly, most people see through it. High-strung people can’t hide themselves that easily — a fact that, once we start to notice it, makes us even more high-strung, and even more convinced that there’s something deeply wrong with us.
To put it simply, you’re ruled by shame. Your parents’ mixed feelings about you made you ashamed of yourself, and you’ve carried that shame with you ever since. Your job now is to notice your shame, and tolerate it, and live in the company of it, consciously, for a while. You need to be painfully aware of how thoroughly shame rules your life. And you have to open your eyes a little wider, so you can see how many of the people around you are carrying around shame with them wherever they go, just like you are.
Once you start to tune in to your own shame, you can see it in other people very quickly: The way they flinch and change the subject, the way their eyes dart around and they can’t focus, the way they apologize for anything real that they happen to say. Once you recognize these things, that’s going to make it easier for you to realize that you’re not uniquely broken or damaged or unlovable. You’re just so ruled by shame and rejection that you’ve made them into a kind of religion.
It’s time to lose your religion. Instead of praying to the gods of shame and rejection every day, instead of repeating this belief that you have to fundamentally change your natural personality in order to be successful and have friends and find love, you need to learn how to be still with yourself. You need to learn to stay calm in the presence of other people without being flooded with the sense that you’re doing it wrong. And you need to learn to push away the waves of dread you feel when you think about the future. We all have to do that. I did it this morning. Let each wave of dread serve as a reminder to search for something you enjoy, to work a little harder, to exercise, to breathe the air, to ground yourself in the pleasures of the day instead of giving in to your darkest thoughts.
Most people are ruled by shame and dread, they just aren’t aware of it. If you never really address it, shame revisits you in different forms throughout the course of your life. When I first moved to the suburbs, I went through a phase of working hard to get people to like me. It was hellish and trying harder only made people like me less. This didn’t happen because I’m just naturally unlikable. It happened because I was anxious and confused by their ambivalence and I started trying way too hard to win them over, while also off-gassing resentment and annoyance and insecurity. There’s nothing people like less than that.
So I had to give up a little. I had to stop monitoring what they thought of me. I had to stop trying to impress them. I had to relax and even withdraw a little. I needed to stop overthinking things, which made me neurotic and judgmental. I had to accept that people would think whatever they wanted to think about me, and they’d often be wrong. Maybe sometimes they’d be right, and that had to be okay, too. I actually had proof that people thought I was a little unhinged, but nothing could be done about it. I had to let it go. I had to accept that my social overexertion and neuroticism and (mostly unspoken) resentment had turned a lot of people against me.
I had to live in the company of shame and rejection. I’d spent years as a socially confident human being, and now I was faced with a kind of junior-high flavor of fear about being a loser in my 40s. Humiliating!
But it also emancipated me and made me so much happier. I had to face reality and make peace with it. And I had to recognize that I’m someone who can’t hide. When I try to hide, people know I’m hiding. I can’t pretend to be more chill than I am. It never works. I have to tell the truth.
Even though I used to think this was specific to me, these days I think it’s true for almost everyone. People know when you’re deluding yourself. They know when you’re trying to seem better than you are. They hate it.
I understand what you’re saying about making a living and being likable. But you’re getting ahead of yourself. Right now, you’re grappling with something much more fundamental than a career path. You’re trying to be happy and comfortable in the world. Give that some respect and devote some energy to figuring out what you want. Find a therapist who charges on a sliding scale. Explain your financial circumstances. You need to really tackle these misconceptions you have about yourself before you go any further.
Once you tackle this head on and dare to surrender to the process of understanding yourself, trust me, you won’t feel nearly as doomed. You have warped views of how the world works because you have warped views of yourself. It’s time to take some guidance from other people and open your heart wide. It’s time to leave your rigid position and move into a more vulnerable one. It’s time to put down your defenses and listen to what people are trying to tell you.
The road ahead is smoother than you think. Take off your heavy work boots and walk barefoot for a while. Breathe in the air. Do you know how it feels to go on a slow walk without a time limit? To look around you as you walk, and risk seeming a little lost, a little meandering? Experiment with going on very slow walks. Experiment with eating lunch and dinner without watching TV or talking to anyone or looking at your phone. Reconnect with the patience that lives inside your bones.
Eventually, when you’ve learned to feel and sense your way through the world, when you’ve learned to appreciate surprises and long-winded stories and unexpected sights and smells, you will naturally take up space in a very different way. You won’t rush people. You won’t expect too much of them. You won’t rush yourself. You won’t expect too much of yourself.
You will find a way to connect authentically and naturally with yourself and others for the first time. In order to pull that off, you’ll need to trust that you’re enough just the way you are. You’ll need to trust that I’m right about you: No one can see you clearly yet. But they will. Some of them are still terrible. But some of them are charming and delicious and weird and special. You won’t see them until they can see you.
Can you take that leap of faith? I hope so. Because once you do, your life is going to feel so much better. Think less about how you’ll survive over the long haul, and focus more on learning to enjoy this day. This part is true for every person alive: Once you learn how to enjoy your day, it solves a lot of problems that previously seemed unrelated to enjoyment. Enjoying your day is the best way to light your path forward, because it involves using your senses and trusting yourself. Taking pleasure in your day is the same thing as taking pleasure in who you are. The more you do it, the more easily other people do it.
Therapy, exercise, writing in a journal will help. But you also have to trust that you are lovable the way you are. It’s the hardest thing to do. It’s the simplest thing to do. How do you do it? Sometimes, you just do it by pretending it’s already true. You love yourself without feeling it, until you can feel it. You decide that you deserve love. You love yourself on principle. You say it out loud: I deserve love and I didn’t get enough of it. I have so much love to give.
Do you really have to sell yourself to stay alive, to survive? Or do you just have to show yourself? Do you have to communicate constantly, or do you just have to find a way to put down your shame and proceed into the light? Use every inch of your being to question what you believe, what you assume, what you think you have to become in order to thrive. Change your mind. Trust that there is love for you in this world.
Because there is love for you here. Reach out for it, in spite of your fear. Reach as far as you can.
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