It’s not about you

I think that a lot of people take things personally when it actually has nothing to do with them. I’ve realized that it’s actually fairly self-centered to think that everyone wants their friendships to come first. Friends are not there to serve us or meet our every emotional need.

I think many of us have tendencies to expect a lot of our friends, thinking that because they care about us it means that anything they do is a reflection of how they feel about us. But it’s actually really unhealthy to think that we are someone’s first priority when they’re going through hard times themselves.

The truth is that most people are pretty wrapped up in dealing with their own things. I have a couple close friends where I know if I don’t hear from them for a while, it has nothing to do with me. If I had a major problem like a possible divorce or a hospitalized kid, they’d drop their issues to help, but they have too much stuff of their own to deal with a garden-variety bad day of someone else’s problems. Most of the time I’m the same way.

So many people have anxiety issues, health issues, general life crises. Life is just hard sometimes and not everybody gets through it best by talking it out or hanging out. Some of my closest friends are actually less likely to want to talk when they’re in distress.

There’s this whole idea that we’re supposed to deal with things on our own, which can be hard to shake even if you know that people love you and want to listen. I just send an encouraging message or card and wait until they’re ready to talk about it (or to talk about something else.) Acknowledgment of pain is often enough to remind someone that you’re still there for them and you still care.

Part of maturity is knowing that most crises will eventually pass on their own, so just rehashing them with someone feels unnecessary and unhelpful. Canceled plans, radio silence for a while, and unanswered texts almost never mean that they don’t like you anymore. It’s just that they’re dealing with some shit. Friendship is often like the icing on the cake of a good life. You’re not always up for that when you feel down. Sometimes feeling down makes you feel like you’ll be bad company, or you’re just not in a place where you can be social.

All this is why it’s so important to learn to be able to fulfill your own needs. People aren’t always going to be there for you and it doesn’t mean they’re not good friends. We need to be able to put ourselves in others’ shoes, to get the perspective check that their worlds do not and cannot revolve around us.

Friends cannot be our whole world; this is not “Sex and the City” or “Friends.” That’s a pretty unrealistic model, especially when you get out of your 20s and settle down.

At some point, for most of us, our romantic relationships serve as our primary outlet in a crisis. Usually that’s because we go through the hard times along with our romantic partners, thus strengthening the relationship. I’ve known very few people who had both strong relationships and equally strong friendships. You only have so much mental energy.

Again, none of it means that people aren’t really our friends. Part of being a good friend is realizing that sometimes your friends don’t want to talk. It’s not personal. Once you find peace within yourself and learn how to deal with your own problems, your friendships change.

It doesn’t mean you won’t ever talk to your friends about your problems, but it changes how and when you talk to your friends about your problems and theirs. You should know what’s going on in their lives and they about yours, but they don’t need the nitty-gritty details about your every crisis. You’re often more likely to find out what’s going on when the storm passes or they finally come up for air again.

Sometimes the best way to be a good friend is to give people some space.

The loneliness of middle age

I remember when I was in my teens and twenties, it was easy to make new friends. People you worked with wanted to hang out, though it usually involved drinking.

Then as a mom of little kids, it was easy to make situational friends with the other moms of my kids’ friends. (With some exceptions, that is: Chandler’s mom was super weird and uptight and seemed 50 years older than me.)

But now, in my mid-40s, it’s hard to make new friends. My kids have their own lives with their own friends. I’m not a member of any church. I work at home. I’m not even a member of any fandoms, which makes it hard to meet people online like I used to.

When I last worked in offices, the easy friendships were still there–among the childless people in their 20s and early 30s, and they still bonded over drinking. I was not included and didn’t have the interest in binge drinking with them anyway.

It’s far from uncommon to have trouble making friends after 40. Most people are busy with their families, set in their ways, broke, and/or just plain have fewer opportunities to meet people. That article says that most people’s social circles are pretty much set in their 30s. So it will be an uphill climb from here for me.

This is such a common issue that it’s been covered in The Atlantic and The New York Times. I am far from alone in feeling alone, but that doesn’t make things feel better. I’m at an age where my spouse can fill most needs for companionship and does–but that’s also a lot to expect of one person.

Last night, I was supposed to meet up with one of my oldest, most reliable friends (incidentally, whom I met at a job in my 20s.) She moved out of state last summer and was in town for a couple days and made plans to meet up with me.

At the very last minute, she had to cancel and I was far more devastated than I should have been. One of my rare opportunities to see a friend–and get out of my house for a while–slipped through my hands. I sat on the bathroom floor and cried for an embarrassingly long time.

Now, I know better than anyone what it’s like to visit family in another state for a couple days, since that was my experience with every trip back home in my 20s. It was never relaxing at all. In fact, it was very stressful and there was always so much pressure on me to see so many people. Inevitably, there were always a couple people I couldn’t get to, which meant lots of hurt feelings.

So I know what it’s like to be on the other end. And I know it’s not personal, and my reaction was likely due to a whole bunch of other completely unrelated factors.

But at the same time, it also highlighted how much of a toll isolation is taking on me. I was watching “The Golden Girls” recently and I know they were roommates, strangers before they became friends. Still, I couldn’t help but realize that I have no similar squad.

I don’t even have that with extended family. I repaired my relationship with my own mom but don’t talk with her often (and when I do, it’s almost always initiated by me.) My sister and I don’t really get along and never have. And sometime last year, my mother-in-law completely ceased all contact with me without explanation, which hurt me a lot and still does.

I don’t really know what to do about the isolation. I don’t want to go running back to hurtful friendships that were bad for me just because I get lonely. I can’t really work full time anymore due to my health. And even if I could, I’m in the untouchable “married with family” coworker segment rather than the “single and partying” contingent. I don’t know how to do online-only friendships anymore and generally find them unsatisfying anyway.

As an introvert, I’m pretty comfortable being alone most of the time. But sometimes being alone goes too far and I think that’s where I’ve landed.

Disconnecting

It’s an old saying that you can’t go back home again. But I think that’s true of more than just places: I’m finding that it’s also true of social connections and habits.

Facebook was once a huge part of my life. I posted on it several times a day for many years, regularly maintaining friendships through interactions on the site. That peaked almost exactly five years ago, when a significant number of my FB friends helped me raise money to move back here. I’ll be forever grateful for that, truly. I count it as one of the luckiest blessings I’ve ever received.

But–and there’s always a but–it couldn’t last. About a year later, I tried going off social media for Lent and sort of missed it. I went back but that had planted the seeds for discontent with shallow social media friendships.

Then, I had my weird evangelical phase, which caused several of my old friends to leave me. I replaced them with new evangelical friends from church. While having in-person relationships was far more satisfying than strictly online ones, they were also temporary, contingent on shared circumstances. When I left the church, they left me, too. So then I lost most of my online friends and my church friends.

Somewhere in there, I also deactivated my FB account and was completely off most social media for more than nine months. Now, I’m back on the site, but it’s never again been the same. I lost the ability to maintain online connections so most of the ones I still have are just based on history.

I don’t know how to maintain friendships online without face-to-face contact anymore. I don’t know how to build community through blogging or social media, both of which I used to be very skilled at. I just can’t seem to do it anymore.

When I do post something where I hope to engage with people, it just kind of falls flat. I then feel self-conscious and stupid and often end up deleting what I posted.

The truth is that I need real-life friends. But it’s harder than ever to meet them in your mid-40s, when you no longer have little kids in school and the corresponding situational mom friends.

I do have a handful of friends but they either live far away or are busy with their own lives. I don’t have the energy for high-maintenance friendships but it would be nice to have someone to go to coffee with once in a while.

A Catholic church is not the kind of friendly place to make friends, not the way evangelical churches are. I really don’t know how to meet people in person. And I really don’t like the fake emptiness of making connections online anymore; I need more.

I don’t like the way that even if you’re trying to be genuine, online participation is still essentially a performance. We tell ourselves those are real friendships but most of them are just words on a screen.

Those friendships can be real. But they’re still a poor substitute for friends you can see and hug on a regular basis.

Staying home all day just amplifies the sense of loneliness. I find that I’ve turned to my phone a lot as a substitute for human company, just looking up stuff to distract myself. But I feel like this is deeply unhealthy.

I read this really interesting article in the New York Times about disconnecting from your phone in search of a more mindful life, staying connected to the present moment. About not using your phone as a distraction from boredom.

Yes. That resonated so much with me and is what I wish I could do. I thought about trying to do some kind of “digital detox” for Lent–I’m still considering it but am not sure yet if I can do it. The biggest concern that presents is that I realize how incredibly lonely it would be.

I need a job. I need places to go. People to have random conversations with. I was thinking earlier about some silly, inconsequential conversation I had with someone, and tried to remember who it was. Then it occurred to me that it was my hairstylist, whom I saw two weeks ago. Other than my husband and kids, that’s pretty much the extent of my social contact.

I’ve always been prone to social awkwardness. I don’t keep up with pop culture and don’t know what most people talk about. But I’m becoming more withdrawn, more isolated, as time goes on. I know that I desperately need to get out of the house, see more people, disconnect a lot from my phone and the internet.

It makes me sad to think about how much of my life I’ve wasted on the internet. I just don’t know how to do anything different, especially now at this stage of my life. I’m in limbo until my kids graduate and I can get a job. Even if I get disability, I’ll want a part-time job once the kids don’t need me for transportation anymore. If I don’t work day shift, it will be better for my health but take away time from the one solid relationship I have, with my husband.

I have to do something else and I don’t know how or what. But I do think I have to be done with Facebook and most social media. Nothing good has come of it since I went back after my nine-month break from the site. My life was much better overall when I was gone.

The internet in general and social media in particular is like an addiction, distracting a lot of people (including me) from just how lonely our lives often are. May I have the strength to leave it and the courage to find healthier alternatives.