DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I was a lonely kid. I remember reading a story in 5th grade that described a friend as someone who you told your deepest secrets to, and felt mystified enough by that to mention it in this letter two decades later. Fell into some social circles by middle and high school, and fell right out of them again once those concluded. Dropped out of my first year away at college so hard it registered on seismometers. My bad breakup that year made me terrified of any negative feelings in a relationship – the moment the first hint of jealousy showed up after that, I would shut down completely.
After years of underemployment and living at home, I joined the Army. For two months prior to basic training I felt like a normal person. I was working out two hours a day with a small group of dedicated future soldiers and everything just clicked. I was well-liked by peers and superiors, and did well enough to make Staff Sergeant. However, despite being respected, I never really made lasting friendships, whether with co-workers or while pursuing my hobbies outside of work. Either I would invite people to do things and they would consistently flake out, or I would join people for social events outside of work and feel more distant than ever. I did go to a succession of therapists while I was in for (basically) dysthymia but never did seem to get anywhere.
Now I’m in a vocational program in a new city and between jobs. I’m going to meetups and pursuing my hobbies but the whole making friends thing still eludes me (as does a greater life purpose, but one problem at a time). I don’t think my social skills are bad – I can Dale Carnegie my way through most interactions. Active listening isn’t a problem because people usually are pretty interesting if you give them a chance to talk, and I do far more listening than talking. I just feel like real connection is consistently eluding me and I don’t know why. Obviously if I can’t make friendships then anything romantic is a non-starter. What few romantic relationship attempts I’ve had fizzled out when she lost interest.
I’m having a hard time visualizing what a close friendship would even look like, beyond showing up and doing things. I’ve been carefully curating what I say for so long that I don’t know how to be authentic in a relationship in a way that isn’t emotional vomit. Expressing how I actually feel has consistently had negative results; reaching out to others always left me feeling disconnected, so I stopped.
So in sweeping terms the answer seems to be vulnerability. However, I’ve read your material, as well as reading Brene Brown’s book and several other sources and where I’m arriving consistently is “yes, but how?” There’s some sort of underpants gnome logic here that I’m clearly missing.
Stuck in a Fishbowl
DEAR STUCK IN A FISHBOWL: Have you ever met someone, had a conversation with them, even worked with them for weeks or months and only belatedly realize that you know absolutely nothing about them, SiaF? You have some bare-bones basic knowledge of the facts of their lives — what they did over the weekend, how they feel about their current assignment at work, how they felt about the conclusion of the Skywalker saga… but you don’t know anything about them as a person?
How often would you think of that person when it came time to do something social? How often do you think about that person at all when they’re not in your immediate eye-line or required for some task that you’re working on? And how often would you consider that person anything more than just an acquaintance, another face in a sea of faces at work. Someone to nod at on the way in or as you’re leaving for the day, but that’s more or less it?
From the sounds of things, that’s what’s going on with you, SiaF. You can socialize, you can charm, you can mingle… but you don’t really connect because it doesn’t sound like you give anyone anything to connect to. And I suspect the problem is one of authenticity and vulnerability.
At the heart of the matter is the idea of vulnerability. This is something that a lot of folks get wrong, especially men, in no small part because we tend to see vulnerability as just letting down all the shields and feelings-vomit all over the place. Contrary to what we’re primed to expect — hey, we’re being vulnerable, people should respond to that! — what we get are folks shying away from us, particularly other men. Because we’re socialized to believe that the only acceptable emotions to display are anger and stoic indifference, we have a hard time expressing how we genuinely feel. We’re functionally out of practice and so we tend to just barf everything up like an emotional Mr. Creosote. This isn’t productive under the best of circumstances, but it’s especially off-putting to other men. Since we’re not used to expressing emotions ourselves, we tend to uncomfortable with outward displays of emotion, especially any that we consider “weak” like sadness or frustration; doubly so if it involves tears.
(This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why so many guys think that women tearing up is “cheating” somehow; they’re so uncomfortable with such an open expression of emotion that they try to avoid it or make it stop.)
But being vulnerable isn’t about just feels-dumping on people or having no boundaries or filter. It’s not about just projectile-vomiting your feels all over the place or sharing whatever thought comes into your head, it’s about expressing yourself authentically. Take, for example, the concept of a “guilty pleasure”. The idea is that this is something that you enjoy that you know you’re not “supposed” to. It could be a manly-man’s love for Taylor Swift’s music, a grown-ass man enjoying cartoons like Steven Universe and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, reading “trashy” books or other things that are somehow out of bounds for whatever reason. But defining things as a guilty pleasure is the exact opposite of vulnerability and authenticity; that “heh heh, yeah I know I’m not supposed to like this” is a way of guarding against judgement by acknowledging that he’s not supposed to enjoy it. Someone who’s letting themselves be vulnerable, however, isn’t going to make excuses; they like it because it speaks to them or because they enjoy it in and of itself and they don’t care if other folks think it’s weird.
Similarly, vulnerability is the opposite of the curated life that many of us live. In an era of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, there’s this intense pressure to live a life that seems perfect and amazing at all times. Everything is posed, staged and airbrushed within an inch of its life because it’s being propped up for the consumption of others. We’re putting up emotional and social Potemkin villages in order to show the world just how awesome and amazing we are. But embracing vulnerability means not being afraid of letting the cracks show. It means letting go of the idea that you need to display excellence at all times. Not every weekend can be a crazy rager or an amazing adventure. Not every meal is going to be a banquet and not every paycheck is going to be a fortune. Sometimes your dinner is going to be scrounging crackers and cheese like a trash-goblin; sometimes your weekend is going to be spent on the couch because you were just overwhelmed and needed to turn your brain off.
When we embrace vulnerability, we are being emotionally honest. We’re letting people see our real selves. That lets us forge real connections with the people we’re looking to build relationships with.
Now like I said, that doesn’t mean that you just go up to someone and open up to them about how awful your weekend was. It’s more about not being afraid to let them see the real you and get to know you on a level that’s deeper than what’s on the immediate surface. You don’t need to tell them all about your insecurities or your deepest fears; you just let them see more of who you actually are and what you’re actually about.
And yeah, you’re probably going to have to be the first to be vulnerable with folks. Many times, connecting with people and making lasting friendships means modelling the kind of friendship you want to have. That’s why the key is being real with folks; by doing so, you’re giving them permission to be real with you.
You’re also not just sitting around talking about your feelings (but hey, you can totally do that too); you can be real and bond while you’re doing other things. You can grab beers and talk about real s
t. You can play video games and still talk about goals or ambitions and interests. When you have those moments to talk about something real or meaningful about you, let yourself be real instead of going with the expected, humorous or otherwise defensive answer.
The more folks you’re spending time with feel like they’re getting to know the real you, the easier it becomes to forge a connection that’s more than just weak, surface ties.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)