I'm a 20-year-old college student, studying anthropology. My family background is basically messed up. My parents divorced when I was three, and my mother had a succession of boyfriends, some of whom were physically abusive to her, although not to me. She left me with my grandparents when I was eleven, and never came back. My dad is a great guy, but owing to his work he traveled a lot, so I rarely saw him.
In school I was always the smart one--"teacher's pet"--and had a pretty high opinion of my intelligence and abilities until I was about twelve or thirteen. When I entered Jr. High and High School I became very introverted. I've always been shy, but it was there that I developed a fear of speaking in public, obsessed over what other people thought of me, and learned to downplay my intelligence. I never felt that I fit in anywhere, a pretty common feeling in early adolescence, but for me it's never gone away. My few friends were loyal, but I never let them get too close to me. I've always been happier listening to other peoples' problems than telling them about my own. Even my own family members don't know "the real me." I've never had a boyfriend, period, but I've never been able to relate very well to guys my own age, and from what I've seen so far, I'm not sure I want to. I'm not the least bit interested in keg parties or casual sex.
I don't understand why I can't allow myself to open up to people. I'm uncomfortable with anyone knowing too much about me, and I try to adapt to be the person I'm expected to be, to accommodate the person I'm with, rather than being who I am. Why do I behave like this? I know I'm a loner, and that's fine with me, but I would like to have at least one meaningful relationship with someone at some point, and be able to actually tell that person what I think and feel. What can I do?
Lesley (20 year-old woman)
You are not alone. I am a man, but when I was 20, I felt in exactly the way you describe. I'd never had a girlfriend, was academically bright but felt socially inept, and was desperately lonely. I got through it, and I have absolutely no doubt that you will too. You ask two kinds of questions: 'Why am I this way?' and 'What can I do to achieve a meaningful relationship?' To my way of seeing the world, the first one doesn't matter all that much. Whatever the road that brought you here, this is the place where you are. But, since you are interested, I'll list a few likely possibilities for you to explore. Chances are, several of these will be true to some extent, and they will have interacted in a complex way rather than added up.
- Genetics. Some people are introverted, and it's OK to be that way. You don't write what your Dad's business is/was, but if it didn't involve extensive contact with others, he may have been burying himself in it as a way of reducing the load of social obligations on him.
- Early childhood trauma. Many young children learn that it's safer to be self-sufficient, that as soon as you love someone they let you down, that if you rely on someone you give them the power to hurt you. As adults, we know that life is complex. You can trust a person in some ways but not in others. And we know that generalizations can lead to error. Just because one bus driver was rude it doesn't mean that all bus drivers are rude. The next one may be delightful. But children think in absolutes. During the many unpleasant times in your childhood, you learned to keep an emotional distance between yourself and every other person.
- Self-fulfilling prophecy. We are as we see ourselves. You write that you had a change at about 12 or 13. Something may have happened then that changed your self-image.
- Perception of others. I note that you see young men as universally interested in nothing but keg parties and casual sex. Of course, you are right about some guys, but let me tell you, not all of them are like that. But if that is your expectation, you will react to them in a cautious, non-trusting, off-putting manner. This will probably have little effect on the ones with a thick skin who ARE only interested in casual sex, but will hurt the sensitive ones you would get on with.
Think about these possibilities (and, being an intelligent person, no doubt you can add to the list). Depending on which applies to you, at least to some extent, you can devise a plan of action. If your nature is to be introverted, value this in yourself. Quiet waters run deep. If your unfortunate childhood has entrenched habits you would now like to break, go ahead and break them in the way you'd break any other habit. Socrates told us how to do this: "Seem the man you wish to be." I didn't know about this saying when I was your age, but practiced it anyway. I took my courage in my hands and talked to strange girls at University. To my surprise, most of them reacted with friendship. Eventually, over 20 came to my wedding! (And yes, I've only had one of those, 32 years ago.) This means that if you want to be closer to your existing friends, talk and act with them as if you felt closer. This does not mean that you need to be false, though at first it will seem to be that way. It means that you are forcing yourself through a barrier you erected as a threatened child, because this safety barrier is no longer needed.
If you feel that your self-perception is part of the problem, change it. Easy to say, hard to do, I know. It's done by GATHERING EVIDENCE. "I am no good at public speaking" leads to avoiding situations where you might practice the skills involved in facing an audience, so of course it's true. It leads to stage fright: a focus on yourself instead of on the job you're doing. If you now seek out safe situations where you need to address an audience, it proves to you that yes, you can. And you then gradually increase the difficulty of the task you set yourself, until you realize, "Hey, I'm good at this!" I'm a basically shy person like you, and yet I've faced large and sometimes hostile audiences. If I could do it, so can you.
It's a pity you didn't record your email address on the form, because I like to send a copy of my answer to the person posting the question. I hope you return to Queendom and find this answer, and even more, I hope it will help you. E mail me and let me know
Have a good life,