Ask Polly: Am I Too Intense to Have Close Friends?

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Photo: Ken Gillespie

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Dear Polly,

I’m writing to you because I feel like I’ve been working SO hard on self-acceptance and loving my rougher edges and thought I was making real progress — but somehow I keep finding myself stuck in the same hole as always. I don’t know what else to do.

I have this friend, whom I met through work two years ago (she’s 25, I’m 27), and the first year or so of our relationship was like a never-ending episode of Broad City. We saw each other almost every day, including days off, and we had long, rambly eight-hour conversations about sex, feminism, rage, and self-discovery. It was this intense, almost romantic sort of attachment, and I was full of adoration and joy every time I was with her.

Then, about a year into our friendship, she got a boyfriend. I’ve never found it so hard to be happy for a friend meeting a guy: After she told me about him, I actually sobbed for an hour. What is wrong with me?? She’s happy! I love her! I should be happy for her! But she’s the kind of person who tends to focus on one relationship at a time, and I sensed I was about to get shafted — and that’s exactly what happened. I’ve seen her about 70 percent less since then, and our long intimate conversations have vanished. We don’t have marathon hangouts anymore. I knew that level of intensity couldn’t last, but still. I felt abandoned.

Fast forward, I recently moved to a different state, where another close friend of hers (who she’s known a lot longer) also lives, so she flew out to visit. Minus the boyfriend, I hoped this might feel more like old times. She stayed with her other friend, not me, but insisted that seeing me when I was available (her other friend isn’t working, so they were together a lot more) was a priority. Except it wasn’t? We hung out the first night for like an hour and a half, and the next night she invited me to a party this other friend was having, so there wasn’t any quality one-on-one time. The last night she went to dinner with this other friend’s family and said she would text me afterward, but then it was late and she was tired.

Like, clearly she’s not interested in the same level of closeness anymore. Maybe she doesn’t even want to be friends, I don’t know. I can be anxious and depressed and insecure, and sometimes that makes me a drag to be around (especially now, in a new city, I feel like I’m oozing neediness from my pores at all times), and her other friend is consistently confident and bubbly and doesn’t make people deal with that shit.

Relevant, probably, is she’s one of the few close friends I’ve made since high school. I hated college and didn’t make a ton of connections, and it’s hard to make friends as an adult, so I guess when I found her, I put a lot of pressure on it. It sucks though, because I felt like I was finally, slowly, starting to rise up from the old story I told about my unlikability. I’m kind of reserved and awkward, and I always felt like I wasn’t outgoing/witty/smart enough for the people I really wanted to befriend, and here she was, one of my tribe who wanted to be MY friend back!! And now she doesn’t, at least not in the same way, and it’s hard to not hear this little voice saying I was right about myself all along.

I’ve had more short-lived relationships with emotionally unavailable men than I can count, but I always felt good about at least having friends who loved me. Except now she’s not interested, and none of those men have been interested, and I’m still forming relationships with people who turn out to not want me. I’m still anxious and begging for scraps of attention, only it’s so much worse with a female friend than a man. It feels so deeply lonely and like such failure.

What if I really do just have a chip missing? And if my only problem is I think I have a problem, how do I stop thinking that? How do you stop begging for scraps when that seems to be the only thing people are willing to give?

Misfit

Dear Misfit,

You’re attracted to people who seem unlikely to need you as much as you need them. And you’re also drawn to the feeling of not being needed enough. You return to that feeling again and again, like a sad pop song you listen to over and over. Even though it’s sad, it’s also comforting: “This is how it feels to be alive,” some piece of you says. “This sad, romantic feeling of longing is where I live. This is where the best parts of me will always live.”

This is the ugly truth you’re trying to get to when you talk to your friend for hours and hours. You’re trying to unearth that belief and bring it into the sunlight. “Look at what’s here,” you wanted to tell her. “Can you believe how crazy this is? I can’t seem to leave it behind.”

This compulsion to share how terrible you are is actually pushing you in the right direction, in a sense. You have this guiding belief that if someone can see you clearly, in all of your insecurity and neediness, then you might finally feel accepted and loved in ways that you can’t accept and love yourself yet.

There’s just one problem here: You believe, in your heart, that this story has a tragic ending. Even if things start to look happy, you’ll push them until they get sad. You haven’t done the hard work of accepting yourself first. You believe that you’re unlikable and unlovable. You believe that anyone sane or happy will dump you eventually. You believe that you’ll ask for too much, and you’ll be too much.

No wonder making friends feels like falling in love, but in a doomed way. No wonder losing friends feels heartbreaking and also like a pop song and also like a repeating pattern that will never correct itself and also like home.

So let’s start here: You’re not an unlikable misfit. You’re intense, smart, slightly neurotic, slightly awkward, that’s all. Unfortunately, our culture treats awkwardness — a transient, skin-deep, situational side effect — as if it’s a fundamental trait that defines a person. Once you’re thrown into that “awkward” category with all of its accompanying stigmas — “awkward” also means that you’re nerdy, clumsy, intense, shy — every social interaction feels predetermined. The anxious voices in your head tell you: I Am Bad at This. I Will Make a Terrible Impression. I Have Nothing “Normal” to Say. I Am Unlikable.

It’s a shame that smart, self-aware people are taught, at a young age, to take all of their clarity and insight and use it against themselves, thanks to our very rigid understanding of the prescribed, predictable ways that human beings should interact. Instead of making space for unusual people, our culture strongly favors those who are good at accepting (or appearing to accept) the world at face value. If you want to thrive socially, you have to push your self-consciousness to the side, chat cheerfully, and engage with others using simple sentences. So most of us are left to grapple with ourselves privately. And even though this private grappling is the driving theme of every John Hughes film ever made, somehow that doesn’t help. The second we don’t fit neatly into the dominant mode of interaction, we define ourselves as awkward and therefore broken.

If I were you, I’d start questioning your ideas and assumptions about yourself. And I would try to interrupt your instinctive return to the melancholy land of longing that you call home. There is no chip missing. You are simply programmed to encourage and then savor rejection.

I’m the same way, so I get it. A few weeks ago, I threw a party. After fielding a bunch of “Sorry I can’t make it after all!” texts, I said to my husband, “Everyone I know is either too lame to invite to a party or too lame to show up.”

I was just being a dick for no good reason. That statement wasn’t all that accurate. But ponder the sheer absurdity of what I said for a second: People either aren’t good enough for me or they’re too good for me. I mean, what the fuck is that?

I don’t think it’s a rare thing to believe, though. A lot of us carry that kind of belief system around with us, which amounts to magical thinking. “These people bore me; those people would be bored by me.” And it’s an illusion! THESE people aren’t as boring as you think they are, and THOSE people (who you don’t know that well!) aren’t as exciting as they seem from a great distance. And on top of that, they wouldn’t necessarily be bored by you! If you believe, though, that you’ll always be either too good for people or not good enough for people, your core belief is that you’re destined to be alone and lonely.

If everyone is too lame to be your friend or too cool to be your friend, that’s a religion of NO FRIENDS. I have friends. But I do savor disappointment. I like to feel let down. I like the self-righteousness that comes with being treated badly.

Which is patently absurd and also very sad. There’s this scene in the book The Paper Chase, I think, where a law student everyone hates throws a party, and there are all of these little refreshments set out, but no one ever shows up. There’s also this kids’ book, Kingcup Cottage, where a frog throws a party in the swamp and no one comes. The frog takes it personally, but his house is in the swamp, and most animals hate to get their paws wet! There’s a reason these two scenes are embedded in my brain. I like to send out an insulting last-minute invitation to the swamp and then get mad when no animals show up. I like to put snacks in bowls and then feel pissed off about it. I like to suffer and tell a story about how other people are the cause of my suffering.

I like to call myself needy, clingy, lonely, simply because I called myself these things when I was younger and I was too much for my parents (and later, my friends). It’s a way to feel bad without having to do anything, which makes it easier than “You should run four miles” and “You should eat something green” and “Stop being a dick for a second and go outside.”

It’s less true for me now, but for the longest time it was the all-time favorite sad song in my rotation. The refrain goes like this: “The world is broken. Something is wrong with them. Something is wrong with me. Nothing can be done about it.”

“People I want as friends/boyfriends don’t want me” is the same kind of story, one that allows you to sulk instead of continuing to open your heart to yourself and others. This is your belief system: Your tragic ending is already written. People will always fail you, and you will always fail yourself, so what you really want is NO PEOPLE.

You need to start a new religion of loving people, all people, flaws and all. Start by forgiving yourself for being who you are. Are you really unlikable or are you just very different from the kinds of people you happen to love and chase (bubbly, outgoing, smooth)? Are you insecure, or are you just not as secure as the women who seem “better than” you (in your mind at least)? What if you just say this: I am a stunted motherfucker. This is where I am right now. I’m trying my best.

I find those kinds of words freeing, personally. I mean, look, I am a stunted motherfucker, too. I’m not trying to hide it. But here’s something I don’t do anymore: I don’t question things while I’m in the middle of them. I don’t say to myself, “You’re an awkward freak!” while I’m talking to someone who seems extra smooth and confident. I say what I feel like saying. There is never one “right” answer. I follow my instincts. I trust myself. I don’t let my anxiety tell me a shitty story about myself. I’ve noticed that it’s my anxiety that tells these stories, not my logical brain. My anxiety says OK WE NEED A STORY! HERE’S A STORY: YOU ARE FUCKED UP AND YOU ARE ACTIVELY FUCKING UP.

My brain is extremely active and my eyes are open and I’m smart and I notice things. That’s all. My old story was, There Is Something Wrong With Me. My new story goes like this: “Hot DAMN I’m smart.”

I also use eyebrow pencil now. I fucking love eyebrow pencil!

Instead of saying to myself “I am damned for all time” I say to myself “I’m feeling a little awkward today.” Or “I am in a dickish mood.” It’s okay to be a few different things that aren’t predictable or likable. It’s even okay to have low self-esteem, and to notice that your low self-esteem motivates a lot of your behavior. Really, who gives a fuck? Why not just accept what is?

You don’t have to win people over. You don’t have to become confident, even. You just have to accept yourself for who you are right now. Stop expecting to “get better” and just be here. Needy and intense is not terrible. It only scares away certain kinds of people. Say what you want, and let other people say what they want. It’s a simple transaction, not a judgment. Let your friend be avoidant, and let yourself feel hurt. Open your eyes to the women in the world who would rather talk to you one-on-one when they’re only in town for a few nights than go to a party full of strangers. They exist. Stop assuming that they’re beneath you somehow. Stop disliking them just for being too much like (unlikable) you.

All we can possibly do, Misfit, is give our love — to ourselves and others, in spite of great difficulties, in spite of multiple flaws. For me, that takes the shape of continuing to throw parties for the thankless motherfuckers I still love a lot. For you, that takes the shape of learning to accepting yourself and others as you are now. Accept the world as it is right now. Put yourself out there. Befriend people who don’t seem exciting and intense. Give them room to breathe without asking for more or less. Learn how to tolerate friends who ask for less from you, and friends who ask for more from you, too.

Maybe your friend was unfair to you. But the pressures on other people are invisible to us. We can’t be sure what’s happening with them. We have to forgive other people for not giving us what we want. Your friend visited, and she made her own choices without justifying them to you. She still likes you, but she doesn’t want to be your sun and your moon and your stars. That part makes her nervous, so she disappoints you just to let you know that your expectations are too high. She doesn’t want to be your everything. You can recognize that without judging it and make more space for the kinds of people who do want close, intense friendships, too.

But you might have to learn how to be your own everything first. Start by looking in the mirror and saying “I’m needy and sometimes I scare people off and I’m very intense and I have a big heart. But I’m good the way I am, right now. I don’t need to change everything.” When you pressure yourself to “fix” yourself, you pressure others to show you that you’re fixed, that you’re good enough, that you’re lovable.

Let go and just be. Fuck thinking about this for another second. Go buy yourself an eyebrow pencil. Try on a really obnoxious shade of lipstick and wear it everywhere, because who gives a shit, really? This is all an experiment. You can try and fail and try again and fail again and that doesn’t make you a beggar or a failure. You’re just you. The soundtrack to your life doesn’t have to be sad. It’s time to stop fixing yourself. It’s time to start living.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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