DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I was The Last American Virgin from way back in 2022, back for revenge (and an update). Let me tell you about my year:
After seeing your (incredibly kind and helpful) letter I made a few changes. I worked on getting more social skills and friends, and disregarded dating stuff (which I feel was the right choice). I have decent people skills after some practice; I feel at this point it’s more of a shyness issue than a skill issue. I joined some clubs and got a bit more comfortable in group environments. I learned how to make friends, but most of these friendships didn’t last, in part because I have fearful/disorganized attachment style, which I didn’t know before. That caused me to run from otherwise good friendships mostly based off my constantly-fluctuating emotions, an issue that I’m working on now. I saw an actual doctor and he says I definitely have social anxiety, but not severe enough to be a disorder. Currently I don’t have professional treatment for it, just exposure stuff and techniques I’ve picked up.
I do have a few follow-up questions, though. The end of the school year is approaching, and the school clubs that I was in have shut down for the year, so I’m not seeing my club acquaintances anymore. I feel intimidated at the idea of making new friends right now, mostly because of plain old anxiety and apathy because people aren’t going to be nearby anyway. I wanna figure out what I should do to try to build a social life outside of school, especially during the summer. I will be doing a few summer clubs, and I do have the numbers of a handful of friends, but that’s about it. I did consider just putting my time and energy into improving my skills in my hobbies, but I have a deep feeling of guilt when I think about doing any self-improvement that doesn’t help me socially. I kind of want to spend energy on social stuff and other stuff, but those emotions are canceling each other out and I’m ending up doing nothing. What do you think I should do? Do I even have a reason to be worried?
Working Things Out
DEAR WORKING THINGS OUT: Hey, thanks for writing back to let us know how things are going WTO! I’m glad to hear you’ve made so much progress; you should be proud of everything you’ve accomplished so far.
So let’s keep that ball rolling, shall we?
First of all, there’s good news: your attachment style can be changed. The trick is that it takes work and therapy; much of changing your attachment style is to work on the issues that triggered it in the first place, and that tends to require an actual therapist to dig into them. But they can be changed into a more positive and pro-social style that will benefit you overall, especially as you become more aware of both your behaviors and your triggers.
This will also help immensely with your feelings of intimidation about making new friends; when you don’t have to worry about fighting your own brain about the things you actually want, it all goes much easier.
Now, I fully realize that at your age and being in high-school, you may not have as much access to therapy or counseling as you would in college; most high-schools don’t have the same sort of resources for students that colleges and universities do. This means you may have to work on some of this on your own while you and your parents see about the possibilities of finding a counselor for you. However, there are options; you can find a surprising number of cognitive behavioral therapy exercises for self-directed treatment, including at sites like MoodGym. These can be helpful for dealing with anxieties and intrusive thoughts. While I wouldn’t say that these are substitutes for working with a trained mental health professional, they can definitely help and be a supplement or serve for triage until you can get access.
What about the conflicting desire to work on stuff you enjoy vs. doing the things that improve your social life? Well, how about looking at it this way: what you want is to be a more interesting, emotionally healthy and well-rounded person. Taking time to do things strictly for your own enjoyment is a part of that process. Engaging in your passions and interests is a big part of both being a more interesting person, but also rebuilding your social energy and stamina.
Think of it like training for sports. Yeah, scrimmage and matches are part of the game… but you also need time for recovery. If you do nothing but train with no time off, then you risk overtraining, exhausting your body and mind and increasing the likelihood of injury, as well as reducing the effectiveness of practice.
Taking the time to do things that you love, just because you love them and enjoy doing them, is an important part of self-improvement. After all, when you are being more social and hanging out with folks, you’ll want things to talk about and things to do, right? Working on those things you enjoy gives you more chances to do them with other people, too, later on.
So really it’s a matter of “why not both?” You can spend some time working on your social life and time doing things just for you. Balancing the two is an important part of that whole “work life balance” thing that you’ll hear adults complain about. But balancing them also means that sometimes one gets priority over the other. During the summer, you’ve got an opportunity to take the time to relax, do the things you like for their own sake and recoup and regain your emotional and social energy for the fall. Then when school rolls back around, you’ll be rested, relaxed, tanned and ready to give the old campus a wedgie again.
Don’t forget: you are a priority. Your holistic self, not just any one aspect of it. Focusing entirely on one area – whether it’s trying to get swole, make friends or any other form of self-improvement – is futile if you neglect the rest of yourself in the process. Neglecting those other sides of yourself, including the ones where you just devote some time to pointless enjoyment with no particular goal, means that the work you’re doing in other areas becomes less effective. What does it benefit you to develop your social skills if doing so burns you out in the process or you have nothing to do with the people you’re being more social with? Cultivating your inner life is as important as your outer.
So my advice? Take some time and indulge your hobbies freely and without guilt. Doing so for a bit will be what makes it possible to do the things that improve your social life… and you’ll have a much better time of it in the process.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com