Undercover Agent Forever: Impostor Syndrome

If you’re the sort of person who reads Discovering Your Awesome, which you clearly are, you’ve probably experienced the get-under-your-skin discomfort of feeling like you don’t belong. Not a “I walked into the wrong classroom” not belonging, but the insidious and irrational conviction that whatever group you’re in, wherever you are, is a mistake. That you have somehow tricked the gatekeepers into letting you in and now are at constant risk of being found out and kicked out.

Ah, Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome is the worst kind of ‘friend’, the sort that perches on your shoulder and whispers into your ear everything that will go wrong in this scenario.

Can’t draw attention to yourself– then they’ll realize you’re a fake.

Can’t deviate from the norm– then they’ll see your true colors.

Can’t mess up– then they’ll know you’re an impostor.

This is a terrible, vicious mental trap on an individual level, and a downright disastrous one when exposed to a group. Individualized impostor syndrome on its own is bad enough, and widely discussed. It’s the goal-killer, the hope crusher, the reason you cannot give yourself permission to start, never mind succeed. What I want to explore is what happens when you take impostor syndrome out of the vacuum in which most discussions place it, and discover it in group settings.

The group dynamics, especially as they are perceived by an individual, change dramatically.

First, impostor syndrome creates a low-level state of constant anxiety as you try to avoid detection. Think of it like being an undercover spy, except your goal isn’t gathering intel and getting out: it’s staying as long as possible until you’re found out. We can compare this to the old Atari games–there was no way to win; you simply tried to not lose as the game became progressively harder. Eventually the aliens won and Earth was destroyed. The baseline anxiety created by being constantly undercover can and will increase as the situation ‘demands’, interfering with any goals or social interactions you hope to accomplish.

Impostor syndrome also leads people to participate in the I’m More Broken than You game in an attempt to remain undetected for longer. This is the part where the undercover agent is fluent in the native language of wherever they’re hiding. If it’s a sports team and you hear other people praise the teammate who finished the game despite suffering a concussion that they kept hidden, you’re more likely to minimize your own injuries, because you’ve seen that behaviour rewarded. If you’re in academia, and your peers humble brag about the all-nighter they pulled to finish their term paper and write the final for the undergrad course they’re teaching, you’ll learn that sleep deprivation is an acceptable way to handle overwhelm. If you’re in a male-dominated profession and are constantly exposed to sexist comments about women, even the supposedly ‘harmless’ ones (spoiler: they’re all harmful), a part of you risks internalizing that.

I’m not saying that your environment will slowly corrupt you into acting like a person you don’t want to be. What I am saying is that social pressure is powerful, and when a part of your brain has you convinced that you don’t belong there, your brain loses some of its ability to filter out actions and thoughts it would normally disagree with.

Now imagine that most everyone in a given group is struggling with Impostor Syndrome, terrified of being found out and ridiculed. How likely is that group going to be able to affect positive change from within?

Yeah, not so likely.

But there is good news. Most everyone is undercover, which means that you’re not alone. That can be really hard for your brain to accept–no one else looks like they’re panicking on the inside. But neither do you. Remember, you’re all undercover, and you’re all really good at it. What people don’t realize is that you’re all agents from the same department.

Which department? The Department of Capable Adulthood and Not Making a Mess of Life.

Everyone belongs in this department, with very few exceptions (if you’re reading this, you’re in the department–go, you!) People might be at different levels in said department, but everyone gets the Impostor Syndrome challenge at some point. So far as I can tell, the trick to working through Impostor Syndrome, especially as it applies to groups, is twofold:

First, remember that everyone is either going through this challenge, or has been through this challenge. They are too worried about you figuring out that they don’t belong, to try and determine if you don’t belong.

Second, because everyone is either dealing with Impostor Syndrome in some way or has already beat that round, they’ll know where you’re coming from. One of the things I’ve found helpful is talking about Impostor Syndrome (or writing about it, QED). Getting reassurances from the people around you, seeing their initial bafflement when you share your concerns about not belonging, can do wonders with putting your brain at ease. It is not cheating to receive reassurance. This mission is not actually top secret, and they’re in your department anyways.

Impostor Syndrome is not the most pleasant experience, particularly as a reoccurring one. However, mitigating the effects of Impostor Syndrome, both for the individual and within group dynamics, is doable. The best part about being an undercover agent is the debriefing and return to civilian life that comes when you realize that a, you belong, and b, you don’t have to be undercover if you don’t want to be.

This blog is part of  Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop: "Gifted Self-Care"the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Gifted Self-Care. To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_gifted_self_care.htm.

Giving Yourself Permission: Making Self-Care a Priority

In a nutshell, self-care is about remembering to take care of yourself.  In an endlessly busy world with many things to get done, self-care can seem like a low priority.  “I’m too stressed with (x, y, z) to take a break—maybe I’ll get a chance when that project is done.”  Except the projects go on and on, and many of our daily tasks just pile up.  So how can you cope?

I’ll start with giving you a snapshot from my life.  I work in social work, helping college students learn independent living skills.  There is a never-ending list of things that I could do to improve—things to do for my clients, things to help my coworkers, larger policy discussions, and professional development for myself.  I feel like I don’t have enough time to get everything done—and that’s only the work side of things. (What is this “dating” you speak of, and what do you mean that it’s a huge time investment?)

My current process has developed out of a series of failed coping strategies.  When I was in college, I procrastinated on my papers and then, in order to get the papers done, I would skip all of my fun/relaxing activities.  This process had a dual purpose: skipping fun stuff gave me more time to work on the papers, and it was a way to punish myself for procrastinating.  (Maybe I would learn to not procrastinate!) I’d end up miserable and lonely, struggling with the papers even when I managed to turn them in.  The strategy worked just enough that I clung to it. (And, after all, I thought I deserved to be punished because I procrastinated so much.)

Since that strategy didn’t work out so well, I’ve been working to figure out what else might work.  Self-care has been immensely helpful.  And the biggest part of it, for me, is giving myself permission to take care of myself.  At first, I had to think about it in terms of efficiency:  I realized that pushing myself super hard meant that I turned out substandard work.  If I rested, my work quality improved. If I’m exhausted, I am not nearly as helpful to my clients and coworkers.  In my most recent classes, I’ve had to give myself permission to take breaks—sure that paper is overdue, but I’ll end up crying and giving up on it unless I take a break right now.  If I get some rest/ have some fun, I am more likely to feel refreshed and interested in continuing on the project.

Since I worry about slacking off too much, I negotiate with myself: this amount of time for study, that amount of time for fun.  I’m not allowed to cancel events to punish myself.  Since I have the option to do so, I have also taken a break from classes so I can rewrite my dealing-with-stress script.  I schedule weekly activities that get me out of my apartment and interacting with other people.  I call friends.  I meditate.  And I try to do a check-in with myself once in a while.  Right now, my status is “decent, but needs more exercise and more time meditating.”  It’s a pretty continual back and forth process; it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve noticed how much better I feel when I’m getting regular exercise.  It’s still not a solid part of my schedule, but it’s getting there.  Slowly.  Find what things work for you; everybody’s got their own style.

I often get caught up in the feeling that I’m too busy and there’s no time for self-care.  That’s a huge sign for me: it means that I’m overextended and I need to spend more time on self-care, not less.  It also means that I’ve let self-care slide to a lower spot on the list of priorities and it’s time for me to give myself permission to rank it higher up the list again.   Put self-care higher on your list.  Reduce the number of things you have to do.  Delegate something.  Decide that the dishes can wait a little longer because you really need to paint that picture.  If the fun thing is stressing you out more than it’s helping you, drop it and pick another fun thing (or a nap).  Sometimes there’s a crisis and you need to just push through; as soon as you have time to take a breath, reevaluate your needs.  If I push too hard for too long, I break down and become useless.  When I make sure I’m getting enough rest, food, water, etc., I can keep going for a lot longer.  And I treat other people better, so less stress gets passed around that way.

So here’s the last thing, the bit of insight that’s lurking behind these ramblings: you are worth it.  You are worth taking care of.  You deserve to be treated well (even—especially—by  yourself).  When I stopped trying to punish myself and focused on taking care of myself instead, my load got a lot lighter (even as I got more done).  The transition can be rough, but it’s so worth it.


This blog is part of  Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop: "Gifted Self-Care"the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Gifted Self-Care. To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_gifted_self_care.htm.

Sudden-Onset Social Paranoia: What to Do When Your Brain Abruptly Tries to Eat You

You’re out with friends, sitting, chatting. During a brief lull in conversation, one friend pulls out their cell and sends a quick text. You catch the quickest glance towards your less talkative companion as the cell is put away. You think nothing of it, don’t even register the glance as conversation continues.

Less than a minute later, your friend’s cell buzzes with a text. Not the friend who send the message earlier. Friend 2 checks their phone, sends a short glance to Friend 1, and replies. Conversation didn’t slow, and still doesn’t when Friend 1 gets the reply.

This is the moment when the back of your brain tells you that your two friends are texting each other about you, as you’re sitting there chatting.

It’s nonsense, but already your mind is racing though a record of everything you’ve said and done since sitting down together. Are you talking too much? Is the topic boring? Is the seating arrangement wrong? Your futile attempts to stop your mind short do nothing to prevent the bloom of anxiety in your gut. It doubles as you recall how perceptive your friends are–they’ll notice your fidgeting, the strained smiles that come with the knowledge that people are talking about you.

You refuse to let it build to the point of breaking (yay, good!) You politely mention to Friend 1 that you noticed the texts and that it made you anxious, while feeling absolutely ridiculous and embarrassed because you know you’re being socially paranoid. Sure enough, Friend 1 shows you the texts: a simple check-in with Friend 2. They texted the checkin so they wouldn’t interrupt the flow of conversation.

The scarlet staining your cheeks doesn’t fade for seven minutes.

Folks, I’ve done this. Recently, in fact. I feel less embarrassed by the occurrence knowing that I was sleep dep’d (everything goes to hell when you’re sleep dep’d). That, and it had been a few months since the last time that happened, so I guess my head thought I was due.

So many deeper concerns feed Sudden-Onset Social Paranoia (SOSP). Fear of rejection. Social insecurities. In this most recent scenario, sleep dep, the need for protein, and less daylight were some of the key causes. (I photosynthesize– #wintersucks)

Had I not been sleep dep’d and food crashing, my response might’ve been different. Or at least slightly more comfortable. My suggestions to soothe Sudden Onset Social Paranoid:

-Breathe. No really, take a moment for a deep breath. Remind yourself that not every conversation that happens without your inclusion is thus somehow about you. That is not meant to be insulting. This shit is surprisingly hard. Especially if your head can dig up a reason why maybe you might be right even a little bit.

-Trust. Remember that you trust your friends to talk to you if something is bothering them. I know this can be amazingly difficult with your brain eyeballs-deep in SOSP, but making the statement can help remind the back of your head of what reality actually looks like.

-Speak. You know what killed SOSP? Seeing the texts. I didn’t ask to see them, but getting verbal confirmation from my friends that they weren’t texting judgmental things about me took away what little ammunition SOSP had. If one of my friends asks me seemingly out of the blue, “do you hate me?”, I don’t laugh– I answer them seriously.

-Forgive. Don’t beat yourself up for SOSP episodes. This is without exception easier said than done. Everything is practice, and we’re aiming for the ideal in which SOSP doesn’t get a foothold in situations where it traditionally would have. Ideals are challenging to reach; it takes time to train your brain.

Forgiving yourself is arguably the most important component. The extra anxiety from feeling dumb for overreacting is exactly what we don’t need to deal with when trying to level out after. Or while trying to decrease SOSP occurrences.

SOSP is unpleasant. SOSP happens sometimes. Breathe. Practice. Walk on.

This blog is part of  Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop: "Gifted Self-Care"the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Gifted Self-Care. To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_gifted_self_care.htm.

Overexcitabilities and Finding Tribe

I got a computer science degree because I thought I hated people. I thought I liked logic, technology, and solvable problems.  Yet, the more I look at things, the more I am sure that the best predictor of both resilience and health is social connections and belonging.   We are monkeys; there are no functional ways to escape that mammals need connection and touch, even for introverts.

(although trees and animals and oceans and books and music and writing and movement and food, help fill related needs)

(also, linear media is challenging for me, so feel free to either go on tangents with me or skip everything in parenthesis)

This seems like horrible news to those who either
• mostly hate people, because their values clash with most of the people they’ve met;
• mostly think people will hate them, because there is something wrong with them.

The answer in both cases seems to be to keep looking for people with similar values.

It surprises me to no end that I am both engaged and seem to have a community now.  It does not surprise me at all that I still default to sharing only those things that someone asks about directly.  Old habits of feeling like you don’t belong anywhere die hard, but I refuse to be one of those people who curled in on themselves and stopped trying to connect.

(blogging feels supper vulnerable and all sorts of fun, shame-related outsider stuff comes up)

There was about a ten-year period in my life after turning eighteen when I was sure that no one would ever want to deal with me.  One of the reasons that I play in the gifted community is that is was the first functional-for-me environment that had people who chose to play with me, even if it was not clear to them what they could get from me.  As I look back on that period in my life, I see a few overarching themes, each connected to one or more of Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilities.

(basically the more excitable and intense you are the more likely you are to develop into something very very atypically interesting and possibly socially positive)

(no guarantees, and I like the idea of positive maladjustment from this theory)

Positive Maladjustment: A conflict with and rejection of those standards  and attitudes of one’s social environment which are incompatible with one’s growing awareness of a higher scale of values which is developing as an internal imperative. (Dab. 1972, p. 302) – (If you like things which sound like this, go here.) (It is completely off-topic)

(tangents are a lot like plot bunnies)

(note: that was not a definition of of Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilities, look here instead)

I was anxious and scared all the time (emotional overexcitability), coping by feeling as little as possible and telling myself that I was not afraid of anything.  My strongest overexcitability is emotional, so I tend to know when people have a problem or when a social dynamic is about to implode, way before anyone else is willing to admit there is a problem.  For a while I thought that my behavior and presence was the catalyst causing all the unnecessary excitement.

(which of course meant that I was evil and should stay away from non-evil people)

(black and white thinking for the not-win)

My best explanation for my internal experience was that I was not human and/or had multiple personalities or bipolar or just crazy. Since I had plenty of sensitivities to both environment and food as well as emotional meltdowns, both of those theories seemed plausible and disturbingly likely.  (imaginational overexcitability)

(much of our media deserves to be shot for creating all these tropes with no functional modeling to balance them out with)

(I know that people argue about whether “multiple personalities” or “dissociative identity disorder” are real things, either in general or in specific cases. I am not wading into that debate here.  My current stance for me is that I have a wide variety of asynchronous ways of presenting myself and that they don’t need a mental health related label to “explain them”).

(asynchronous development is my favorite gifted  concept)

I was captivated by touch and substances. I did not much care for having a gender identity or  sexual orientation or for practicing monogamy. At the same time, I could neither hold still, nor deal well with intense stimuli. (psychomotor and sensual overexcitability)

(also central auditory processing differences,  sensory integration fun, and executive function specialness…  all pretty mild and all super annoying when you have no idea why everything makes you spaz out… better now that I know what to do more of and what less of and when I need downtime and what food is)

(also while I’m linking to many topics, here is impostor syndrome!)

(also, FODMAPs turned out what was wrong with my food… avoiding fructose/fructans and dairy basically takes care of it)

(if you feel like crap all the time, figure out why!  Pain, tiredness and digestion issues often have a findable reason for being there.)

(The reason this is important for this article is that it is harder to make friends when you can’t eat with others or don’t feel well.)

I would do anything for an interesting conversation. I would do anything to avoid being bored. I played with a lot of risky stuff, drove recklessly, and had many older acquaintances willing to trade entertainment for entertainment. I read all the time, but hated everything about classroom instruction. I overthought everything which made emotional overexcitability worse and caused serious going to sleep without having a panic attack problems. (intellectual overexcitability, stacked on top of the rest of them)

That meant that, as I saw things, the only people who would think I was not crazy were others like me. If I wanted connection, I first needed to find other genderqueer, alternate relationship lifestyle, non-humans with multiple personalities, who also did not think I sucked and where not likely to treat me badly.  Of course, that meant that there were not many options for community, healthy relationships or mental health professionals or educators I was comfortable talking with.

(the criteria that most often suffered was healthy environment or relationship, since not being completely lonely trumps everything else)

All of these put me outside of a cultural narrative where I could connect or gain social approval. There was no doubt in my mind that there was something BROKEN about me, and that meant that I deserved anything negative that happened in my life.  It also, got in the way of being able to get therapy and external support for years.

I don’t claim that my logic made any sense and I will not dismiss as stupid what at the time was my best set of available coping mechanisms and reality structures.  It is so socially edgy to talk about this and I am going to talk about it, since I keep seeing the same types of self-imposed isolation in the younger adults within the gifted community (and extended geek and LGBTQIA communities).

Freak. Outsider. Failure. Shameful. Labels so many of us start with.  It will take me at least another 5 years to rewrite most of it.  And I never would have been able to start doing so, if I did not always relentlessly search for others like me.  I had no reason to believe they even existed, but it was approximately equivalent to “I can always give up tomorrow” (best use of procrastination ever!) – Also, they are not “like me,” we just like each other and have similar needs for intellectual and emotional entertainment.

Last weekend, I went to a games party, featuring a bunch of my favorite gifted homeschoolers/unschoolers. It was amazing watching the seamless interplay of people who are now my extended community, integrating a roomful of highly-intense people from about age 8 to middle age.  I watched an eight-year-old patiently explain the rules of Monster Boss to the rest of us and be treated like a valued and respected member of the group.  I enjoyed watching people remember to ask about things like food allergies before bringing nuts and dairy into the house. There was no alcohol, and the games were engaging without it.  I watched touch and not-touch negotiated with no weirdness or overtones. Some people were boisterous, others quiet, others reading or listening to something else.  This social dynamic fell in stark contrast with a couple of recent experiences at a normal American wedding: the awkwardness of another party where strangers hugged me without asking if it was ok and blaring music and the assumption that everyone can eat the same stuff and enjoy the same kind of crowded overwhelming space.  It just feels different and better in functional spaces where smart weird sensitive diverse people can belong.  (the other group did nothing wrong, but it is not what I pick as first choice these days)

On another occasion, I had a conversation with a younger person exploring ideas of non-monogamy for the first time.  She lives in a place where everything about the way she thinks makes her feel like an outsider and a freak.   This last conversation is the main reason I went here with this article.  The person I talked with needed someone to discuss relationship models with.  Someone who would not tell her that she was being silly for reading and thinking about non-monogamy.   Someone who will discuss the pros and cons of various models with no built-in judgement rooted in shame and social norms.  Someone who totally gets how hard it is to establish relationships when all the normal ways to do it never worked for you, and you tend to overthink things and not take much for granted.

If all of the older people behave in a way that looks like we are straight edge and never did anything experimental (or sometimes downright risky), who will our young adults talk with when they need to discuss less functional aspects of their lifestyle choices?   I’m so much more afraid for those who can’t connect with anyone, than for those who need to try different things before figuring out who they want to connect with and how.  There are loads of things I like about non-punitive, openminded monogamy, where you can totally be attracted to other people, but I would not tolerate them if they were a foregone unexamined conclusion.

It is so easy for Andy and me to pass for “normal” these days, but we are not that and we did not get here in a straight coherent painless line.   We are also not all there yet, since friendships are still slow to form and we find many typical social activities way too stationary and linear to focus on for long.   I’m still awkward as hell, but it doesn’t seem to matter to those with whom I connect best.  Andy plays best with those who ignore that he is a lawyer and a boy and just treat him like a non-directive chill person that he is outside of work.  (He put in over 5 hours to help me make this article.)

I don’t know how to wrap this topic into a neat little blog post, but here is what I do know:

Big cities on the coast have their issues, but they are much more liberal have many more venues to connect with other “freaks.”  There are more options for connection and if you screw up in one environment, it is not the only one of those available.

Even when I did not believe that anyone sane could accept me, I still looked and tried different things.  The last few communities I encountered, I couldn’t have even imagined.  Andy and I are going on the JoCo Cruise and to WisCon and prior to a few years ago, even my imaginational overexcitability cold not have caused me to dreamwish for spaces like that.  As it is, this year is the first time we have been financially able to even think about doing things like this.

There are people who are kind and intelligent and effective in making this world better, who would enjoy meeting you and talking with you.  Yes, you! Even if all you do is ask simple questions. Even if you are not always kind and sometimes you are angry and violent and do stupid shit that hurts yourself or others. You can get better at all of that, and it will be easier with role models who make sense to you.

There are no foregone conclusions for trauma, depression, anxiety, ADHD, social awkwardness or other stuff like that. They can have nasty outcomes, but much of it can be healed. Not for everyone, and not necessarily without support, but it can get to the point where brokenness is no longer a salient feature of this experience. Talk to people with similar histories who are ahead of you on this path and seem to be going where you want to be. Ask them what helped them.

It’s not like everyone else is always ok. There are spaces where being very different or intense or awkward or variable or highly sensitive is not unusual. Even if the way your stuff manifests is not like anyone else’s, it can be ok, even if some of it is louder than you would like. (and usually there are some people who are also like that if you get as far as talking about it, but not everywhere)

There are many communities that do not care about how “deviant” your sexuality, gender or spiritual beliefs are, as long as your practice is respectful and consensual. It is all ok as long as no one is getting hurt. There is no penalty for what turns you on or what fantasies live in your head, the only part that is important is what you do.

There are no wrong emotions.

There is no such thing as too broken or too crazy.

If you ask for help and the person you asked is not gentle or can’t follow, find someone else.

Volunteer to help at events, even if you think you will suck at it.  It will help you connect.

If you know zero people who feel real enough to be friends with, look for a new environment.

Everything is different when you are not dependent on someone else.

Comparison sucks. Those people who are doing better have some privilege or luck helping them.

Reach out. Ask for help. Offer help. Initiate. Feel awkward. Collect rejections. Repeat.  Cry or scream or eat chocolate or retreat for a while or meditate or write or move.

Find your tribe.  It is better than you can possibly imagine, even when it is still clunky and awkward.  Let it be awkward the first 5 to 10 times.  If you love the people and the activity, you will settle in and adjust, just not as quickly as you think you should.

This post is part of Hoagies Gifted Blog Hop – Gifted Friendships

hoagies gifted blog hop frienship

Making friends as a newly-minted adult

When you’re a gifted adult, how do you find friends?  Even if you found your tribe in college, what do you do when they’re far away and you suddenly have a busy work schedule and no idea how to find people off-campus?  Here are some practical things and some bigger-picture ideas to keep in mind, both of which may help you along the way to finding new friends.

I have never been particularly adept at befriending people my age.  As a child, many of my friends were older than me.  In high school, many of my friends were at least a year older or younger than me.  The first time I really clicked with a group of peers was at a young writers’ group during a summer of high school, but we were from all over the country.  In college, I finally found a group of people who were close friends, lived nearby, and were my age peers.

I went to a small college with a high percentage of smart, geeky students.  We had a storytellers group and a swing dance club, and I felt almost social (by my standards, but I’m pretty far on the introverted side of the scale).  I attended activities a couple of nights per week, and during my senior year my roommate and I hosted gatherings in our on-campus apartment.  Friends were nearby, so we’d chat in the dining hall or as we walked to class.  I knew that if I missed an event because of homework or some other obligation, I would still see my friends within the next day or two.

When I graduated, I spent a few years on boats, where I had my crew—a built-in social group.  I wilted for lack of friends.  Contracts were usually no longer than six months, so I’d have to get used to an entirely new group of people at least twice a year.  I always had a group ready if I wanted to go to the bar, but by the time I started considering someone a close friend, it would be time for both of us to move on to new ships.  After that, I lived with my parents for a while and did some swing dancing and D&D, but mostly felt lonely until I moved to a small city and started to make friends in earnest.

I’ve had some pretty solid successes over the last year.  As I write this, I’m sitting in my new friends’ house, taking care of their cat while they’re away at an event.  Typical to my usual pattern, most of my new friends are older than me (12+ years older), but I have also recently made a few friends who are closer to my age.  The following advice comes with a huge disclaimer—I’m only a year into the current round of making friends.  That said, I think that the past year has gone very well, so here’s my take on the stuff that worked for me.

First off: it’s not easy.  Ok, maybe it’s easy for some people, but they’re probably not reading this article.  The short version of this is: yeah, making friends can feel awkward as hell, especially at the start.  Usually, you can’t just go up to someone, say, “Hi, want to be friends?” and have it move on perfectly from there.  I get along fine with most of the people I encounter on a daily basis and can have a nice little chat with them.  Few of these people have enough in common with me to support a friendship.  On the other hand, some of my closer friendships started out with a few highly awkward interactions—these don’t doom relationships!

The rest of this post covers some logistics of looking for friends and other things to keep in mind during the process.


Some things to do:

* Activities

What are some things you like to do?  Write out a basic list and scan local newspapers and your local Meetup page to find activities that appeal to you.  Do you like music?  (Performing or just listening?)  Find a place where you can listen to local musicians, or an open-mic night where you can perform.  Like talking about books?  Check in with your local library to see if they have any book discussion groups.  If there aren’t any groups going, or if there is a group but it doesn’t cover your preferred genre(s), consider starting a group yourself – the librarians will probably have some great advice on how to go about doing so.  If you like making things, is there a local makerspace (or someone who has some spare garage space and wants to collaborate on projects)?  The SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) can be wonderful for people who are interested in history and/or fighting, archery, crafting, etc., and they have groups all over the place.  It has something for (almost) everyone and can be a great way to get an introduction to fun things you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.

One of my friends walked me through this part of the process.  (Not literally—in an online conversation.)  I was stuck in a cycle of not knowing what to do, not reaching out, and then feeling lonely and isolated.  By showing me some options, my friend helped be start thinking about ways to find people and deal with my loneliness.  I hope that some of these suggestions are useful to you or at least get you thinking about other things that might work.  If you get stuck, try brainstorming with someone; a local acquaintance might know of nearby opportunities, while a faraway friend might help you think of other activities to investigate.

* Transportation

If you’re not in an urban area, it can be harder to reach the critical mass of people needed to get these activities going – but it might be easier to query the local grapevine to find out who might be interested.  If you know someone local who is interested in some of the same things, you might be able to carpool.

* Timing

This is one of the things that’s been hardest for me to accept.  I just don’t spend as much time with friends post-college as I did during college.  I count myself lucky if I see friends once a week (and usually that only happens if we both attend some regular activity together). As far as I can tell, this is just a reality of having a working schedule and living further apart – it’s easier to spend lots of time together when your friends’ dorms are only a five-minute walk away.

* Long-distance friends

One of the things that kept me same throughout this process was ongoing contact with college friends.  They all live far away; I like talking on the phone, so I was able to use occasional phone calls to stay in touch.  IMs work, as do emails; use whatever method works for you and your friends.  If some of your friends are your age, you can probably commiserate on the travails of finding new friends; share tips and tricks!  Just don’t make this your sole source of contact.  I love my phone calls with college friends, but I also need to have friends who are physically nearby – people to have a cup of tea with and just sit with.  When life gets particularly difficult, it’s good to have people who are physically nearby who can help out (even if all you need is a hug).


And some things to think about:

* Foot-in-mouth

No, not hoof-and-mouth, and no, it’s not communicable.  Well, awkwardness is, a little.  Anyway.  I have this thing with conversations.  I can have a great conversation where I’ve talked with friends about things that I care about, that they care about, and I feel we’ve bonded.  Everything’s peachy.  And then I get home, I think back on the conversation a little, and then I realize that I said something embarrassing.  And then I obsess.  I start thinking, “Oh my god, that was awful, they’ll think I’m so stupid/insensitive/etc.”

And then we hang out again, and maybe I bring it up, and usually they (1) didn’t even notice, or (2) remember the comment but were not at all upset by it.  Mostly I have learned to recognize that these fears are way out of proportion to the actual danger.

* Overlooking mistakes

These are people who are choosing to spend time with you.  Chances are good that they’re doing so because they like you.  Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re acting rationally (what a huge waste of time to hang out with someone who you dislike).  If they shrug off a rude comment, it might not be because they have low standards in their friends—it’s probably just that they understand that people have different tolerance for directness and also that people make mistakes.

So here’s a revolutionary idea: lots of other people also feel a bit awkward in social interaction!  You’re not the only one.  They probably have their own foot-in-mouth moments.  Chances are good that they are often too busy worrying over their own missteps to notice yours—or they noticed but considered their own mistakes worse.  Hey, who knows, maybe they were so impressed by some neat thing you said or did that they didn’t notice your less-than-stellar comments.

* Friends for different activities

This is something that I resist – I want to be able to have good conversations with all of my friends.  But it is at least worth thinking about.  So I have some friends that I go to SCA events with.  If I get back into sailing, I might have another friend or two who I mostly only see while I’m sailing.  One friend for chats over coffee, another friend for shoe-shopping.  I don’t know, it doesn’t quite make sense to me, but it might work for you.  But this goes along with the smaller amount of time-per-friend-per-week – if you want to spend time with a friend every day or every other day, you’ll probably have to rotate between people.  This is a good way to explore new activities, and, as mentioned above, new activities are a great way to find new friends.  A D&D friend might become one of your closest friends.

* Measuring up

One thing that comes up, over and over, in my relationships is this idea of measuring up.  Sure, these people like me—but what if they like me because I’m well-read?   What happens if they discover some essential thing that I haven’t read yet, and they decide I’m not worth knowing after all?  I’m shaking my head a bit as I write because it sounds almost silly, but it is a real fear.  Since many of my new friends are much older than me, I’m constantly discovering books, skills, and experiences that they’re familiar with and I’ve never read/learned/encountered.  And yet, the age difference really brings this point into relief: they’ve had a lot more time to accumulate those experiences, and they don’t think any less of me because I haven’t had those experiences.  So instead of obsessing over the idea that I haven’t read enough yet, I ask them about things they’ve read, and my to-read list grows (and grows and grows).

We each bring our unique combination of strengths, weaknesses, and experiences to relationships.  I’m learning to appreciate my friends’ strengths without feeling like I have to have the same strengths in order to be a worthy friend.  Maybe it’s a smidge selfish of me—I enjoy teaching, and there’s nothing to teach if everyone knows the same things I do.  But I also enjoy learning, and I love having friends who want to teach me about the things they love.  So I acknowledge the “oh god I’m inadequate” feeling and then I move on—there’s so much left to learn.


Summing up:

This is really just a description of part of my journey, but I hope that it is helpful for you on your own search.  If you have questions to ask or tips to contribute, please let me know in the comments.  And always remember that friendship is an ongoing process, not a simple destination—friendships are built out of shared experiences.

Some relevant articles:

* Friends of a Certain Age: Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?

As a mid-20s introvert, I feel like I have already encountered many of the problems discussed in this article.

* I Know What You Think of Me

Can you control others’ opinions of you? Nope.  Are you perfect in their eyes?  Unlikely.  Do they like you anyway and choose to spend time with you?  Yup.

“Play Partner” or “Sure Shelter”: What gifted children look for in friendship 

This article helped me articulate what I’m looking for in friendships and how that ideal is different from the relationship I have with casual acquaintances.


This post is part of Hoagies Gifted Blog Hop – Gifted Friendships

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