I could, like many people, go on and on about everything I think is wrong with me. But when it comes down to it, I don’t think these are major things anyone else notices. I am reserved but funny and engaging and thoughtful. My biggest problem is that I have a really hard time connecting with people. This bothers me the most on a friendship level — although I also haven’t been in a romantic relationship in years (that second part bothers me but is not the reason I’m writing!).
I’m introverted, but not severely. It takes me a while to open up, and most people don’t have that kind of patience. With my longtime friends, I’m the “listener” who they can tell anything to, but they don’t reciprocate and mostly no longer show any interest in my life as a human outside of them. This is as much my fault as theirs for letting it go on like this for this long, but I’m not at a point where I even want to repair anything. Instead, I’ve just avoided them as much as possible and tried to seek out other friendships with people who are more like me (my old friends are married with kids; I am a single mid-30s lesbian). I’m not at a point where I want to cut them out, it’s just clear that we are in very different places and think very differently about our friendship.
Every few years, I do meet someone I click well with. About two years ago I got to be super close friends with someone who was a lot like me. We just clicked. Talked every day, about anything and everything, enjoyed each other’s company. I am very much someone who values a few quality relationships versus a ton of acquaintances, so I was very happy to become close friends with someone. It felt like we were on the same page … until she got into a relationship and started fading. This is natural (for some people), of course, but even when I tried to get in touch, she would give very short answers.
I chalked it up to her just being wrapped up in her new relationship. I mourned the friendship because it didn’t seem like it would ever be the same, and I made peace with it. There are some people who like to have friends when they’re single to go out and do things with, and then they just disappear when they aren’t single anymore. She’d always struck me as that way. We became close on the heels of a breakup and she once told me she’s “her best self” in a relationship. So I made peace with her falling off the radar … until I saw (thanks, social media) that she still keeps in touch with many of her OTHER friends. And now I’m obsessing about it all over again, wondering what I did, why she went from telling me everything to cutting me off. She will respond if I get in touch, but there’s a very obvious boundary there and of course I don’t like it, but I’ll respect it.
I’m just so hurt. It takes so much for me to open up to people and let them know me, then something like that happens. So my question is, how can I develop more quality relationships with people? I am obsessed with the idea that there’s something wrong with me and that’s why people don’t want to get to know me. I’m okay with my circle being small, but right now it feels nonexistent. Maybe I wouldn’t be obsessing as much about this person who let me down if (a) we weren’t all staring at the same walls for 2+ months now and (b) I had other close friends who I felt good about in my life.
Somewhat related: It also took me a really long time to get involved in the queer community, and it hasn’t felt like “community” to me at all, so that adds to my isolation. It’s been an ongoing issue for most of my life, feeling like an outsider and not being able to click with a small group of friends.
Obviously no one is meeting new people anytime soon — but when we are safe to socialize again, how can I guide myself to quality, empathetic people who won’t suck my energy and leave me high and dry?
Bad at Friendship
First things first: Anyone who also sometimes feels like an outsider in the queer community and would like a pen pal in the middle of this pandemic, I’ll forward your email to the letter writer if they agree to it (email@example.com).
Onward! I’ve found that people tend to suck up my energy and leave me high and dry mostly when I put my energy on a tray with a nice folded napkin and a little vase of flowers next to it and say, “Enjoy!”
I did that for years. I loved talkative, opinionated, creative women who grew up in emotionally neglectful families. That was my type (and it’s also me). At first, we would hit it off like crazy: nonstop chatter, “Whoa, me, too!,” lots of high-fiving like frat boys, the whole thing. I just watched Booksmart for the first time and it almost made me cry, watching that first scene where they’re dancing in the street to greet each other. That giddy flavor of friendship is one of my favorite things under the sun. I’ve had a lot of friendships like that. I was good at reeling them in. I would come on strong without shame.
But then, I’d always seem to recede into the background, slowly fading at first, then disappearing completely. I did this for many reasons that are so clear to me now, but in the old days, it all felt confusing and upsetting: I’m an incredibly emotional, sensitive, open human being but, like most people from disordered families, I can also be very withdrawn, guarded, and judgmental. I’m one-half clown car, one-half armored vehicle. I’ve been observing how alternately enthusiastic and withholding I can be lately because I have a few new friendships percolating on my stove. Simmering! Reducing! (Yes, okay, isolating is making me weirder. I don’t think I’m alone there, motherfuckers!)
The bottom line is, I would slowly withdraw from some of my closest friendships. A friend would call me on the phone to talk, and I would act like I was listening to a really great podcast. I liked that. I wanted a steady flow of dramatic stories bouncing off my eardrums. I particularly loved stories about blame: Someone somewhere is being an asshole. Someone doesn’t know shit about something. I’m not above that kind of talk now, mind you, but in the old days, I really couldn’t trust someone until they told me who got on their nerves, who was fucking up, who was overrated. I encouraged this kind of blaming in the old days. The conversation never developed into “God, what do any of us really know?” territory, like pretty much every single conversation and every train of thought in my head does now. I didn’t have enough compassion for other people, because I didn’t have enough compassion for myself.
I’m also more avoidant than I realized. I don’t like to be beholden to anyone. I hate scheduling. I’m afraid of putting a Zoom call on my calendar. What if I’m not in the mood when this comes up? I hate disappointing people. I hold myself to a high standard of engagement, even now. I expect too much of myself. But in the old days, it was even worse, like if I was going to open my mouth, I needed to be a mediator, a comedian, a therapist, a mother, and a lover all in one. No wonder I used to talk less and less as a friendship matured! It was exhausting, trying to be everything at once.
Are you starting to see a theme here? I felt like everyone else deserved EVERYTHING from me, but I didn’t think I deserved anything from anyone else. I treated myself like a service provider. I offered up my premium bundle of services and I still wondered if I was really worth it. Just last fall, my friend from high school (who lives in my city now, thank God) said something to me like, “When are you just going to accept that your oldest friends love you? When are you going to trust that we care and we’re not skeptical of you and we’re not going to stop caring?”
Sometimes the older friendships are, the easier it is to project your most insecure relationships from childhood onto them, and to lump them in with less resolved, more volatile, less trusting relationships from your disordered family. If your family wasn’t compassionate enough with you, you’re not compassionate enough with yourself, and you bring that confusion and noise into every friendship. You assume that no one has compassion for you, either.
I could dig around in this mud with you forever, but the start of your path down the yellow-brick road to better friendships is compassion for yourself. There’s a lot of heavy shame in your letter. You’re sure that there’s something wrong with you. Even when you say, “I know there’s nothing that wrong with me” at the start, I’m like, “Yep, I used to throw that disclaimer out a lot, back when I thought I was irretrievably broken.” You’re sure that this one friend you made doesn’t value you that much because of something messed up about you, when really you’re just trying to be extremely chill about her disappearance. What you WANT to say is: IT IS NOT COOL TO COMPLETELY VANISH. I’m sure she can sense that you disapprove of her choices. And if you’d mentioned it from the start, you two could’ve had it out, and even if she’d said “Tough, this is how I am,” at least you wouldn’t be obsessed now.
But when you’re a little avoidant and you have trust issues and you’re an introvert and you’re subconsciously fixated on what’s wrong with you, guess what? You don’t do shit like that. You don’t just say, “You know, I’m trying to be cool, but I have to admit I do feel judgmental about your disappearance. That said, I still love you and I miss you.” When you’re not ashamed of yourself, you can tell the (whole, ugly) truth and be vulnerable at the same time. But when you’re ashamed and guarded and afraid of asking for what you really want from anyone, you crawl back into your hole to lick your wounds instead.
Personally, I’m all about crawling back into holes and licking things. Okay, wow, I swear I am not trying to be creepy! See how nuts everything is right now? There’s this fluid feel to reality when you’re alone a lot. I’ve been quarantining upstairs in my house, away from my family (long story, I’m fine!), and my God, being alone for just one week has given me a ton of empathy for what people who live alone are up against out there. Reminder to everyone: Check in with your friends who live alone!
The point is, self-reflection is good. I know it’s difficult to read the words “There’s nothing wrong with you but here’s how you’re blocking your own path to high-quality friendships!” It feels contradictory. But it isn’t, because most people go through this at one point or another. Most people realize: SHIT. I HAVE TO LEARN TO ASK MY FRIENDS FOR WHAT I WANT FROM THEM. Even after I started preaching from the bible of Ask For What You Want in this column, I still wasn’t that good at doing it. Because you have to keep addressing the deep shame that burbles up every single goddamn time you ask for things! And you have to deal with the shame that comes from other people when you ask for things and THEY DON’T ASK FOR THINGS. For some people, Never Ask For Anything is a lifelong religion. Paradoxically, many of these people also present as narcissistic at first, because it’s okay to just shove your way in and take what you need, you just can’t say that’s what you’re doing as you do it.
I think I’ve been that way in some friendships. In others, I slowly faded into the background and then wondered why my needs weren’t getting met, and blamed it on the other person. Lots of people end up doing both of these things repeatedly. And honestly? The more daring and brave you force yourself to be (it’s harrrrd!) in the realm of friendships, the easier it becomes to forgive these behaviors in yourself and others.
The long-term solution to being shitty at friendship is simple: Accept that you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. Here’s what will help with that: No one knows what they’re doing! Almost everyone I know is at least mildly shitty at friendship or has been that way before. And almost every human being you ask will tell you that they’d like to have a few more friends.
You’re bad at this, for sure! Whatever! It’s fine! You’re also full of shame. Also fine. You will feel humbled by this news. It will suck. I feel humbled like three or four times a week now. I take humbling as a sign that I’m feeling all of my feelings, I know where I am, I’m open to learning, and I’m really stretching and trying dangerous new things. At first, of course, I greet my humbling with anger: “OH NO, I’M NOT FUCKING UP AGAIN. SOMEONE ELSE IS THIS TIME!” Or with sadness: “Wow, I am just so bad at everything.” I had a really difficult experience this week, but it wasn’t the experience itself that got under my skin. It was the underlying self-recrimination it incited that got to me. (I found a way to write an Ask Molly about it, which helped.)
What I realized, via that particular humbling, was that I’m always trying to be good. I want to be the good friend, the perfect patient, the best wife, the most amazing mother. (Haha, I am just okay at most of these things! Not exaggerating, it’s fine, but whew, set more realistic goals, please!) And when I disappoint myself, that can be hard. But the worst thing is when I’m being very, very good and not asking for anything (usually when I should be!) and no one can see how good I’m being. Being very good and being ignored anyway sends me into a state of intensely conflicted despair. It’s worse than sadness. It’s like ANXIOUS devastation: I’m trying so hard to be good and no one sees me.
It sounds so basic, but these are the kinds of places you have to travel to if you want to understand and forgive yourself. A therapist can help. If you haven’t been in therapy, you might consider trying to find a therapist who’ll do remote therapy now. That’s a lot to ask of an introvert, I know. If that’s not possible, I would try writing your way through this: Write down how you feel and what other experiences in your past made you feel the same way. Write down what you feel like you want to “fix” to make everything better. What is the one thing you keep trying to do to fix things? Observe the strong feelings that come up, with patience and empathy, reminding yourself, repeatedly, that every feeling you have, no matter how scary it is, will pass. Sometimes you spend one day feeling wretched and then the next day, you feel miraculously better. It’s like you burned off something toxic by facing a dark truth about yourself. You took your humbling.
Once you get into the habit of showing yourself compassion and looking closely at your most primal feelings about yourself and your rights in a friendship and your right to ask for what you need from the world at large, I think you’ll feel your perspective shifting. Old friends won’t seem quite as distant and suspect. New friends will seem more welcoming. You don’t have to wait to make new friends, either. (See also: Your chaotic in-box today!) I’ve been reaching out to acquaintances much more than before, through social media and elsewhere, and I’m pretty shameless about it. If someone isn’t that into it, I try very hard not to take it personally. Lately, I’ve found that the more I put energy into discovering new connections and forming new friendships and letting each friendship take the shape that it seems to want to take without me forcing it too much, the better I feel about ALL of my relationships, new and old.
When you resolve to stick your neck out a ton, and also to ask for what you want from trusted friends, and also to say no when you really can’t show up, and also to be honest and forgiving but also discerning with new friends, you just feel much more agile and happy in all of your relationships. You don’t have to be a service provider. You don’t withdraw and treat people like podcasts. You don’t blame people for who they are, or for having different priorities than you have. You can play and experiment and show yourself and watch who shows up for it, and watch who doesn’t.
It takes time, I know. Connection is hard! It will humble you. You have to be really brave to make new connections and build new friendships. You have to acknowledge how hard it is, over and over, as you’re doing it. It can really trigger you, so much that you want to give up or blame someone for disappointing you. I would just ask that, no matter how many disorienting emotions are battering around inside of you right now, you open your heart and feel empathy for yourself as much as you can. Give yourself room to fuck up. Forgive yourself for everything.
You can’t always be good, you know? Sometimes you just have to be who you are. When you resolve to be patient with yourself, in spite of all of your enormous flaws (We all have them! So many of them! So bewildering in their range!), something strange happens: Some voice seems to float down from the treetops, to tell you that you deserve love. You deserve love even when your clown car becomes an armored car. You deserve love even when you’re hiding and feeling sorry for yourself. You deserve love even when you’re setting out a pretty tray for someone who doesn’t see you at all. It happens. Everyone has their hurdles. Forgive them and yourself, every day.
This world will love you. Take each new humbling, welcome it, and step back into the light. We all have to do it, all the time. This is how you learn to be brave.
Ask Polly is moving to an every other Wednesday schedule, but there’s a new Ask Polly newsletter to fill in the gaps; please sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here. Her advice column will appear here every other Wednesday.
All letters to firstname.lastname@example.org become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.