Auntie SparkNotes is on vacay this week, so we’re publishing some of her vintage gems to help ease your back-to-school anxiety!
Dear Auntie SparkNotes,
I am a junior in college, and I’m unhappy. First of all, I have two friends on campus. They aren’t even in the same social circle, and I haven’t seen either since last semester. I tried to talk to one of them a while ago because if you want friends you have to reach out to them, but she barely responded and I know she’s much busier than I am, so I didn’t bother her. I wanted to go see the other this weekend, but she was sick. Other than these two, I don’t talk to anyone.
I had a little group freshman year with three other girls (including the busy person I mentioned), but one dropped out and another has taken a hiatus since the second semester and won’t be back until spring. The last one I never see anymore–we used to be in the same dorm and would hang out all the time. There were a few other people I would say hi to if I saw them. I wasn’t a socialite, but at least I wasn’t alone all the time. Then I moved off-campus because my parents can’t afford the dorms anymore, and that was the end of that.
I try to make friends. I talk to people in class, go to clubs and events, try to get involved. One problem is that I live off campus, and even though it’s not that far, no one wants to see me when they have to take the bus. I don’t have a car, and don’t like being out alone at night, so that cuts me off from anything after about 6 p.m.
I’ve tried to make connections with people. I see them, say “Hey how are you? We should get together” and they say “Yeah we should!” and we never do. I ask them to have lunch with me or something and it’s nice while it lasts, but I never hear from them after that. Or else they say they’re busy and I don’t see them at all. Don’t people normally reciprocate if they think someone is worthwhile? I don’t keep suggesting things to people because I don’t want to force myself on anyone. I text people to see how they are, so they know I want them around, but the conversation goes nowhere.
Other people are having “the college experience.” They mix school/work with having fun, going to the movies, doing whatever. I just drag myself to school, drag myself home, and do homework. That’s it. Last year, I got to see friends twice—once in the fall semester, and once in the spring. I got a text one time asking “Do you still want to go to _____?” but it was for someone else. Nobody ever asks me to go do something with them. No one wants to see how I’m doing or just chat. Then they post Facebook pictures of how they went on a road trip or ice skating and they’re so happy with their best friends. It occurred to me last week that I have spent two years in college and I’m still lost. Every day is a mechanical repeat of the day before—go to school (which I used to love), get a latte so I can have a reason to be happy, go home and struggle to find motivation to get any work done. I wanted to get a job in order not to feel useless and be more independent, and meet some more people, but sometimes I can barely keep up with schoolwork. I don’t even want to try to make friends anymore because they will drift away. Or if I find someone who seems nice, and try to talk to them again, they give one-word answers and won’t look at me. And when I go back to the mechanical life, I feel worse than before. I broke down crying out of the blue a few days ago because I used to have friends here, but don’t seem to anymore. I can’t go on like this. What is wrong with me?
With you? Oh, honey. Nothing. Nothing is wrong with you. That is, unless you left out the part of your letter where you have several extra heads, a serious case of deodorant-resistant BO, and a personal policy of not wearing pants in public places.
But assuming that’s not the case, then it’s not you, Sparkler. It’s just your approach to socializing and your personal outlook that need some help.
However, that stuff does need help, in a couple different ways. And first and foremost, there’s one part of your letter that nearly made me do a spit-take. Can you guess which one? It’s the part where you say, “I don’t have a car, and don’t like being out alone at night, so that cuts me off from anything after about 6 p.m.”
Sparkler. SPARKLER. Sparklerrrrrrrrrr. Do you mean to tell me that you, a grownup woman in your third year of college, are so uncomfy about being out after dark that you disappear into your house like a scaredy-werewolf the moment the sun goes down?
Because if so, that’s one big clue to the Mystery of Your Disappeared Social Life.
For one thing, sweet pea, a blanket ban on being out at night will effectively exclude you from probably 90% of friendship-sustaining activities you might have otherwise taken part in. Clubs and events and such are fine, but the hours between 6 p.m. and midnight are prime time for the kind of unstructured socializing that’s essential to forming close bonds like the ones you crave. That’s why you had such an easier time making friends when you were sharing a dorm with your peers, and it’s also why you really, really need to reconsider your stance on being out after sundown. It’s ridiculous, it’s not serving you, and it’ll be one of the easiest ways in the world to broaden your social horizons.
But before you do that, you’ll need to deal with the larger, tougher problem. And that problem, sweetheart, is that you’re inadvertently presenting yourself in a way that puts people off. I know you feel intensely lonely, but letting it show so much is hurting you, not helping you. It’s why people who seemed nice at first are avoiding you when you approach them again: in your eagerness to make a friend, you’re coming off as desperate.
And while you’re right that sustaining a friendship requires reaching out sometimes, you seem to have missed the part where you need to have a connection with the person you’re reaching out to. It’s great to suggest getting together with people, but it only works if people have a reason to want to get together with you—and the simple fact of your desiring their friendship isn’t going to be enough. People don’t like being treated like filler material for an empty box with “FRIENDS” written on it. You need to be interested in them, personally, and you also need to be personally interesting to them.
Because you’re right: People will make an effort to see you if they see spending time with you as worthwhile. But being seen as worthwhile means being okay on your own, first and foremost, so that you’re bringing something to the table other than pure, indiscriminate loathing of having to be by yourself.
So, here’s the deal: For now, give up the quest to make a friend, any friend, and get busy making yourself the master of your own fulfillment. What are your passions? What are you good at? What makes you feel engaged and interested and alive? What can you do, see, and experience so that you’re not relying on a latte to be your only daily source of joy?
You need to find your answers to these questions, and whatever those answers are, you need to incorporate them into your life. That emptiness you feel is not for other people to fill; nobody else can make you feel whole, useful, and happy. That’s your job, and it’s vital that you do it.
Because here’s the thing: If you do it right, then it will have the secondary effect of making you the kind of confident, well-rounded, whole person that people do enjoy being friends with—and it’ll make it so much easier for you to connect with people organically, based on mutual fondness and interest, rather than trying to force friendships out of desperation with anyone who seems nice enough. (Add in a willingness to leave your house at night and either socialize on campus or meet people halfway, and your social situation should be substantially improved by the start of next semester.)
But it will also have the primary effect of making you not desperate, because you won’t be frantically looking outside yourself for fulfillment all the time. And that’s so, so much more important than simply being able to make friends. Because even the most socially active person is going to fly solo sometimes, no matter how likeable or worthwhile they are. And when that happens, the thing that differentiates emotionally healthy people is this: That even when they’re by themselves for awhile, they still feel like they’re in pretty good company.
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