Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dismaying Story #70: Fitting in with the Crowd

Dear Andrew,

Recently I was with a group of new friends I met a few weeks ago in college. These girls have known each other since they were in diapers and my insecurity resurfaced when I "lost" them in the cafeteria. I found them eventually, and in hindsight I know they weren't purposely avoiding me, I just took the wrong exit. At the time, though, flashbacks of being avoided by friends I thought liked me came back in a flood.

Or flashbacks of coming to say hi to a group of "friends" in the morning, only to have them get all quiet all of a sudden, or, worse, to keep bashing someone who could be me, and when I ask who they're talking about, they answer "oh, someone you don't know."

I've always been uneasy in group settings. I always feel like I'm being talked about behind my back, or that I'm just tagging along and they allow me to but would rather I not be there. If I'm not invited to a party, it's like confirmation of my worst nightmares.

My reasonable side tells me to ignore these feelings because it's probably just a mild case of paranoia, but deep down inside, I have this doubt -- I could be right.

I've had several episodes in my life that reinforced this feeling, like finding an insulting note written by a supposed friend in middle school, or the time some friends from high school purposely gave me the wrong directions, knowing I would get lost in an unfamiliar part of the city.

How can I get over this and have normal relationships, and not just one-on-one? Be part of a group without constant fear of backstabbing and betrayal?

Signed, Paranoid Girl

Dear Paranoid Girl,

You have learned a fear, and there doesn't seem to be much of a mystery where it came from. You had your feelings hurt on more than one occasion and this helped you develop an insecurity about your role in social groups.

If you look back, you will realize these "episodes" occurred when you were interacting with immature people. Unfortunately, children can be cruel to each other. Adults can too, of course, but this phenomenon seems especially common when we are younger. Any sign of weakness or vulnerability on the schoolyard tends to be noticed and held up for immediate ridicule. Young folks are still very "me" oriented. There is some degree of empathy for the feelings of others, but nowhere near as much as when we mature into adulthood.

School-age children also seem to be incredibly perceptive at picking out vulnerabilities. Some kids are perceived as easy prey and get teased over and over again. You admit that you have always been uneasy in group settings. Imagine someone like that approaching a group of girls in the hallway in middle school. Would you approach with confidence? No, you would emanate insecurity. You might as well have a neon sign on your forehead flashing, "I'm uncomfortable." That is all the prompting some young people need to be catty or play practical jokes.

This is where your feelings of "I could be right" come from. You struggled with fitting in when you were younger and now you are having a hard time shaking the feeling.

The good news is that you have reached an age where your friends are more mature. Being nasty for the sheer joy of tormenting someone becomes rare in college. (And yes, I'm sure some of you could tell a story or two, but they would be the exception rather than the rule.) Your fear has now become unfounded; you are afraid of something that is extremely unlikely to happen.

Fear can be a useful emotion when it protects us from a real and present danger. If you are inside an electrical generating station, fear of electrical shock is probably a good thing, something that will prevent you from foolishly touching things. An unfounded fear, on the other hand, can be debilitating, such as a fear of lightning that keeps you from going outside even on sunny days. The probability of a lightning strike in that situation is so remote that the fear is unreasonable and counter-productive.

In your case, you are preventing yourself from enjoying normal social interactions. You are afraid your friends might be nasty and immature, but that has now become unlikely. You need to drag your inhibitions out and take a good look at them in the strong sunlight. Is your fear helping or hindering you? Does it serve any useful purpose in your life? I don't think so. It's time to start letting go. As you have more and more positive experiences with your friends, you should eventually find that this fear has gone away for good.

More than that, let's imagine your worst fear coming true. Suppose a group of supposed friends are nasty to you. How should you respond?

See ya! Hasta la vista, baby. New friends, here I come! Nasty, immature people simply aren't worth worrying about. Most adults are not like that anyway, so why spend energy on the few who are.

My point is that you would survive such an occurrence just fine. People like that can only impact your life if you let them. So why worry about it?

You need to stop giving those schoolyard bullies from long ago all that power over you. Stand up and say, "I'm not going to cower in front of the memory of you anymore! I am now a young adult. I am going to hold my head high, knowing the vast majority of people I meet will appreciate that. And to heck with anyone who doesn't."

That'll show 'em!

All the best,

A few people have already answered this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question about the challenges of being a step-parent. If you have some experience or observations related to this topic, why not join in the discussion?


  1. Oh, my goodness--I didn't write this but I sure could have.

    I moved around a lot and changed schools every year or two when I was a kid, so I got used to all of my friendships being new and relatively fragile, and transient. Then, when I was in seventh grade, I started at a new school in a neighborhood where everyone had known each other forever, and where it seemed that half my teachers, school librarians, counselors, etc., were the mothers of my classmates. It was one big pile of old friends, and I wasn't in on it.

    Worse, I have some learning & social issues [Asperger's] that made me the oddball even among people who wanted to be friendly. I swear that all the friends I have made friends with me, rather than vice versa. I still tend to drop people on small pretenses out of fear that I'll look like a fool if I press the friendship.

    Sorry, I don't have any words of wisdom, but I know how she feels.

  2. To the author of this letter: I SO wish you could live near me, and come to my apartment and hang out with us. We would welcome you to every party--even throw one FOR you on your birthday. Why do people like you always fall into the hands of pathetic losers who are so bored they pick on you for no reason because they know you already expect it? Why weren't we introduced? I believe that if you had decent friends who reinforced a comfort zone for you for long enough, that you would feel entitled to your very own place in the circle. I sure wish I could have met you some time.

    Your friend, Kirsten

  3. Paranoid Girl: See? I told you that you would meet nice people!

    Kirsten: That is one of the most incredibly supportive comments anyone has left on this site. Thank you, thank you. Your friends are lucky to be part of your circle.

  4. The paranoid girl7:07 AM

    Thank you Kirsten, this does make me feel a lot better.

    Thanks for your advice, Andrew. People are less immature now, I suppose. I think I was worried because I could tell one girl in the group didn't like me (in college) and that made me have doubts even on the people I know like me.
    I think I feel more at ease in a group setting if I feel like I have a "place" in the group, a reason to be there. Like I belong. It's harder to feel that way in a group of people who are together just because they enjoy each other's company. But I just realized I'm not really uneasy in a group that gets together to talk about linux, or to do math together, or sing karaoke, because I know I belong, because of the common interests. And the friendship part comes later. (and pretty quickly, too)
    It's harder to make friends with people who are together for no particular reason except that they've always known each other and ended up liking each other.