I think that in the past year I became, what I’d define to be, a man. Not to say that before I was a boy, but I was in some sort of flux.
I struggled a lot over the past several years with individuality and identity.
I still vividly remember the gray feelings, the dreariness, and the isolation that were the guts of my 2011. Notably, the couple years before that low point were all build up to that low point.
In less than 2 weeks, I’ll be 27, and I’m stoked. This will be the best year of my life, thus far, but I’ve also put an insane amount of work– deliberate work– into getting to this point. The past month has just been tune up to iron out any major wrinkles in all the slow changes I’ve made in my life.
There are probably several principles I’ve instituted in my life that took me from the cavernous fortress of solitude that used to be my bedroom, to having the opposite problem of having to make a concerted effort to spend a night with my lonesome. I think that most of these driving forces aren’t just great philosophies to institute if you’re struggling with loneliness, depression, anxiety, lack of confidence, or any other kind of social deficit, but also speak a lot to how to be effective at caring for people. While I’ve made all these internal adjustments, most have been small things that have layered, but I can break down most of it to 2 major changes I’ve instituted.
I usually write in a way that resonates more emotionally, more abstractly, but this time, I am going to try to be more practical. I’ve made a lot of internal changes over the past few years, and these are changes that not only helped break me out of depression and social anxiety, but also have made me better off than before I fell into personal winter.
My struggles with anxiety, depression, and emotional damage are well documented, but there are a myriad of people in my life who have no clue about my most recent metamorphosis. One of the things about sinking 20,000 leagues under the sea, interpersonally, is that a lot of the tactics you need to take to combat the anxiety and other emotional anchors that develop are not as viable, because it can be just that hard to function.
It may have taken longer, but, for me, they were just as effective as if I had, for instance, told myself with the social anxiety disorder that I had developed — “ok, I’m going to go out in public and force myself to talk to two or three people, even if it is just Hi and Bye.”
A lot of it boils down to tackling it head on, but sometimes we just lack the stability to go do it, or don’t have anyone who can push us and be our training wheels for a while. I had to develop methods that would put me in positions where I was forced to tackle it head on until I was always in positions to tackle it head on.
Now, I am in a place where I still have to make a point to be deliberate with some things in order to eradicate any remnants of my former anxiety problems, but I’ve developed so many habits and personal philosophies, that act almost as a fail-safe for when I think I am better off than I am and stop being deliberate with my improvement.
These habits and personal institutions are bigger than the end game I am writing about here, though, so we’ll just call them traits of compassionate friends.
1. Never Say No
When I was at my lowest point, I was so restless and cut off from people that I made a pact with myself. I wouldn’t say no to anything. Granted, there were some exceptions that are outliers (e.g. – if someone asked me to do bath salts with them, obvious no. etc.), but my lifestyle and decision making made those a non-factor. The point was, from a practical standpoint, it was a stupid personal rule to institute. You have to say no to some things. You should say no to some things. But for me, I needed that extreme.
Today, I’ve tapered that rule off into something more reasonable, but the point of the exaggeration is this: if I automatically was going to say yes to anything, be it an invite to a birthday party or a petty dare, then none of my other detrimental social manifestations would have an opportunity to get in the way, thus blunting the crippling effects of those socially destructive weapons.
Secondly, because opportunities are scarce when you’re in a rut, it ensures that you won’t be kicking yourself for days afterward for bailing on the first friend to try to reconnect with you in weeks. And once you start getting socially active again, eventually the next opportunity will present itself, and sooner the next and so forth, until you don’t remember when things changed or exactly how you seemingly won all your friends back and are surrounded by more than you remember ever having.
The Real Crux of the Never Say No Policy
Let me touch on something greater here, though. Look! THIS IS ME STRESSING IT!
My policy today is this: always show up to something you’re invited to.
Now, I don’t always show up to something I’m invited to, because sometimes it just isn’t possible, and heck, sometimes I’m just a lame friend, but because of this policy, I always, without hesitation– with excitement and gratitude– try my hardest to at least make an appearance.
We’ve all got those friends who we like, and don’t ever give up on with finality, but they just kind of, well, suck. You invite them to things, you text or call them after not talking for weeks or months, and when you do, they are always excited and you each promise to reconnect, then when you try again, it doesn’t happen. Usually, it doesn’t happen because they flake out, get busy (flake out), or just can’t iron our scheduling with you (flake out).
These things are fine. We all have to do this sometimes, but these types of friends are notorious for this. In fact, if you and your other friends ask how about them, all you end up talking about is how they are impossible to get together with, and you, in the moment, almost always seem to conclude the same thing: that person sucks.
The real truth is that these people just aren’t good friends. They might be great ‘in the moment’ friends, whenever those moments are. They aren’t good at being friends, though. For whatever reason, they may genuinely like all their friends and care about them, but for 99% of them, they can’t put anybody but themselves first. The fact is, I can’t find anyone who isn’t guilty of this from time to time. I know I am, but while far from perfect, that doesn’t stop me from taking a personal inventory on if I am giving someone a fair shake or not.
You could ask a myriad of questions for numerous people. Who usually initiates a conversation? Is it equal? Who usually is the one to let interaction die off? Does only one of us try to ever make plans?
And on and on and on.
This is good, but also exhausting, and you’ll still find a way to overlook people who really like you a lot, and who you enjoy as well.
And this is a large part why I am how I am with invitations.
Consider this: if someone invites you to something, it means they value you enough to ask you to spend time with them; to experience life with them! To share the world! In a lot of ways, they are putting themselves out there. Nobody expects everybody to come to something they are invited to, but you would never invite someone who you would be upset if they showed up (well, if you do, you’re doing something wrong). Likewise, you never invite someone who you wouldn’t be disappointed that they couldn’t come. This isn’t to say you pout or get really bummed out when they can’t, thanks to the invitation expectation quotient, but this is a case where absence of one thing equates to the presence of another. Excitement or disappointment.
Knowing full well how much an invitation actually means, how much value it indicates you have to another person’s life, then why, under any circumstances would you not desperately want to go to anything another invited you to?
Don’t answer that question just yet.
I’ve gone to plenty of gatherings and events I was invited to despite not knowing the person well at all, not strongly liking them, or even disliking the person.
That might be torture or impractical for some, but, once again, when I consider the implications, it shows I am missing something. This person sees something in me, so I at least give them a chance to see something else, but usually I give myself a chance to see something in them that I overlooked. I might have to go out on a limb, but I find that getting to know them is easier than normal because I already know that they tangibly like me as a person. If I don’t feel strongly positive things for them, I find that the pendulum swings quickly when I have the context of an invite illuminating what was previously a dark social cavern.
Finally, always accepting invites has really helped me not only show others that I care, it shows myself that I care.
Those two notions are mutual. The more I care for my friends, the more that they will understand that I care for them, thus I will have deeper, stronger bonds with everyone in my life. I believe that the greater number of close, strong bonds you have with people is a rough, but pretty good external indicator of one’s character. Not only are you augmenting your social life, making better friends, and really thriving off of your own ability to be a compassionate human, but you earn a lot of respect.
Any one of those reasons on their own is enough to justify the concept of always accepting an invitation. Heck, invitations being flattering is enough. The fact that it is so multi-faceted makes it one of the most important parts of my own life, though.
And before I move on, I might have come off as a little harsh on my feelings towards flakers and claiming those types of people can’t put anyone but themselves first, but consider this– you rarely get to see someone. You try and try, and maybe they always have a valid excuse. An excuse is only valid for a temporary period of time. If I am busy one time, what is stopping me from going the extra mile, proactively finding a time when we are both free and insisting we meet up?
Right. If you can’t do that, you’re selfish.
2. Learn how to be a lone wolf, then learn how to excel as a lone wolf
My previous social tale spin put me in an awkward position.
In fact, I only felt awkward. I felt awkward when I saw my friends. I felt awkward ordering food at the drive thru. I felt awkward at work. I felt awkward around my family.
To make matters worse, I was always on my own. Gone were the days where I could get a group of buddies together and go into something with some solidarity; some momentum. If I went to a party, I showed up by myself. If I went to dinner with people, I showed up and left alone. If I wanted to do something, I eventually just started doing it alone. First, because it was easier. Second, because I had so little self-worth that I couldn’t bring myself to ask, lest people find out how pitiful, miserable, and lonely I was. (All these things were grave exaggerations in my head.)
Not only was I typically alone, if I ever did anything, it had to be alone.
I had to become a true lone wolf.
Most People Have No Sense of ‘Alone’
One of the things that really bugs me about people is the general inability to be alone.
I know there are a lot of sociocultural pressures. For instance, as you progress through your 20’s, reach your 30’s and possibly even further, if you’re not married, family, friends, acquaintances all begin to treat you like you’ve done something wrong, or that you’ve missed some boat that only sails once (…like the Titanic).
“When are you going to settle down?”
“Why haven’t you found yourself a wife/husband yet?”
“Are you seeing anyone yet?”
And on and on and on.
Contrary to what too many outside influences have you believe, there is nothing wrong with being alone, in fact, being alone is a great thing!
This isn’t to say that you should strive to be alone, or that it is a permanent way of life, but it is just key to that entire moderation thing.
We’ve all had those friends who seem to have been in a ‘serious’ relationship with 80 people. Right when they get out of one, less than a week later they are dating someone else. Honestly, I would feel like a sociopath or might get myself checked out for borderline personality disorder if that were me, but it indicates that there is at least an imbalance on dependency or inability to spend time with yourself at all.
Maybe it’s just me, but that’s terrifying. Those people terrify me. Some of my longest, closest friends are like that. Hey, you, friends I love. You terrify me! Try chilling out for a while, please?
More Than Just Romance
It’s not just about love, though. I think the romantic element of being alone is an exacerbated demonstration, but it is more prevalent on a simple friendship level. And I can see why. We are social creatures. Going into any social setting on your own is tough. I’m sure there are biological and deeply embedded sociological factors that go into play with this. I mean, to survive, we’ve typically needed to group up, so when we see someone gone maverick, it can set off some instinctual cues that might make us wonder — “what’s wrong with this guy that he’s just parading around this place by himself? He some sort of black sheep?”
I still show up to things solo at least half of the time, and whatever it might be, I still feel some small nerves when I do, but once I get around people or friends, I am comfortable.
In fact, it is very liberating.
As somewhat of an aside, I’ll mention that I’m an overcommitter (go figure, you accept every invitation, idiot). One great thing that being a lonewolf has provided me is that I can make a circuit and see multiple groups of friends pretty easily. This isn’t a selling point for lone wolfing, but I’ve found it to be an added benefit.
You Were Talking About “Lone Wolfing”
I mentioned at the beginning that I previously struggled with individuality and identity. When you have to present yourself — on behalf of yourself alone — to various groups of people, you learn more about who you are and who you are to other people exponentially faster than if you always had your warm cocoon of comfort in numbers; your pack.
I became a Lone Wolf out of necessity. I had no other options, and that forced hand has become one of the greatest blessings I’ve ever had.
Not only does it help me learn who I am and how to represent myself, it accelerated my entire resocialization.
Socially, there is a concept that I like to refer to as an away game. In sports, you play an away game on your opponents turf. Their town, their stadium/field/court, their people, their fans. At the end of the day, the game is still the same game with the same rules and players, but it is startling how much impact playing a home game can have on a team’s winning percentage. Just goes to show how far support goes (not traveling helps).
Socially, it is not that much different. When you’re a lone wolf, you play a lot of away games. You might know one or two people well, and the rest are probably acquaintances or strangers.
First off, this forces you to always be on your game, even if you’re far from it. Even if you can’t snap out of it and just feel like you were a dud, the likelihood of it happening again, frequency, and overall depths you’ll sink to will all reduce over time. Away games are both highly stressful and highly rewarding, because they rebuild confidence rapidly, especially when it goes especially well.
Beyond that, playing a Lone Wolf Away Game also provides great potential to earn another true friend.
In the Friendosphere we’ve got Strangers, Acquaintances, and Friends. There are a lot of other levels of each of these categories, but the overlooked one is the friend you have that you’d never hang out with on your own (and vice versa), rarely communicate with, but when you see each other at some mutual friend’s gathering, you have a good time. They are more than acquaintances, but less than friends.
Over time, these types of relationships tend to cook until they come out of the oven as real friendships. And of course, sometimes you just hit it off with strangers and add another significant person in your life.
Being a lone wolf takes a certain kind of bravery, social aptitude and agility. Many people just don’t have these things developed, even if they’re social mavens — maybe especially if they are social mavens. The positive traits being a lone wolf instills are immeasurable for your other intimate relationships (and on that note, I’d suggest never dating/marrying anyone who doesn’t have the ability to lone wolf from time to time.)
Finally, because you usually have an inside connection or two with lone wolf social opportunities, you don’t have to submit yourself to the full on apprehension of interacting with total strangers, which is huge with severe anxiety. At worst, you can be a little clingy if you need a bit of a shield, just be conscious of it. Even if the best you can do from suffocating your friend is pull yourself away for a while at a party or something. I mean, I’ve retrospectively gotten put on blast for this before, but hey, I just needed timeouts because while they weren’t for anyone else, they were high stress situations for me. It didn’t mean I wasn’t having fun. Ironically, the friends who have put me at blast for this type of behavior were not my friends before my journey back into social normalcy. Now they are!
I know I just said finally, but I’ll say two more things about learning to Lone Wolf. Remember that counter-intuitive element to showing up and socializing on your own accord? The crazy thing is that it doesn’t show that you are some sort of outcast, but actually shows that you really like to be around people so much that you’ll show up even if it has to be by yourself just to have the opportunity to. Maybe a very select few people will stereotype someone like that, but people catch on to these subconscious notions very quickly.
Beyond that, you’ll also find that many of your friends consider you as part of their inner circle, because you usually show up, and you don’t need this friend or that friend as a shield so things don’t ever get awkward. Because who the hell cares?
Just remember, being alone and being lonely are not the same thing.
There’s Always a Long Way to Go
Like with all things in life, nothing really comes easy. I’ll continue improving on anything I am aware of, and I always strive to be a better friend to those I know and better person to those who are strangers. I could cook out some other major factors that led to my ‘dark phoenix rises’ moment that I’ve worked so hard for, but these are my two favorite.
On top of that, they complement each other perfectly. Even if someone is only trying some variation of one, you pretty much have to develop the other.
I don’t know if anyone will ever read this and feel like it spoke to them directly, but this is something that was such a struggle for me. For a long time, it was my life. It was dark and gloomy and lonely. Because of that, this stuff matters a lot to me. Maybe it impacts no one. Maybe nobody reads it, but I think the best I could hope for is that if you at least know someone who has struggled with any sort of depression, anxiety, emotional or social problems, that maybe you can understand their struggle a little bit better, and be better equipped offer your hand to help them through that time.
There are few things as crushing as seeing someone who is a broken shell of themselves, but there are also few things as uplifting as seeing that person revived and in a livelier state than they ever were before. I’m living proof.