Advice

WAfyWF: If you’re on the fringe of every circle, you’re also at the center

Question:

My favorite weird friend,

I am in a lot of different social circles — friends from school, work, various hobbies, sports, etc. My issue is that while they all say they love and accept me, I feel like I’m on the fringe of all of these circles. As Rachel said to Phoebe on Friends, I “lift right out.” I see the rest of the circles hanging out, having good times, etc. and it makes me cognizant of the ways I’m different and don’t really belong there. 

As a result, I’m hesitant to actually go to anyone if I need someone. And, I’ve been in a really dark place pretty frequently lately. I should be talking to my friends about it. In the not too distant past, this caused a problem with someone I view as one of my best and closest friends. I talked to a person who is really more of an acquaintance about some difficult things. My best friend found out about it and asked why I hadn’t talked to her. What I couldn’t articulate well was that I don’t care if the acquaintance views me as too much of a burden and walks out of my life. I’d be crushed if she did. Things haven’t felt quite right since then. 

I feel like this is such cliché teen angst BS — I don’t fit in, I am too nervous to talk to my friends… But, I also realize that none of this is going to get better without change and that change needs to begin with me.

So, WWPD?

– Livin’ on the Edge

Answer: 

Dear Livin’ on the Edge, 

The way you describe your social life calls to mind a “flower of life” diagram, where you see yourself as being on the fringe of every circle, but if all these circles include you, then they all also overlap, therefore they create another circle with you at the center. You are not nearly as alone as you think you are. 

In these overlapping circles of friends, there are people who really do love and accept you, and there are probably many more who would like to get to know you better. Just as much as you feel different from them, they may worry about being a little too weird or different for you. But the neat thing about friendships is that we’re not supposed to be all the same. 

When I was a kid, Reading Rainbow was on TV, and Lavar Burton talked about how through books you could experience parts of the world that were far away or even imaginary. Friends are similar. Through having friends who are different from ourselves, we can experience or at least gain an understanding of parts of life that are otherwise inaccessible to us. For example, I’m not a great traveler, but I like to be friends with people who’ve been places and done things that I’m curious about. Also, I find science really interesting but I majored in English in college, so I like to let my scientist friends inform me about whatever they’re doing or learning. My point is that the differences between us can keep us apart, but they can also be great reasons to come together. 

Focus on the areas where your different social circles overlap, and notice what those people have in common. Maybe not all of them have actually met one another, but you might identify certain personality traits that you’re drawn to, and you may even find yourself thinking, “I bet Jeff from school and Bill from work would really get along … maybe we should all do brunch together some time…” If you can, introduce your friends to one another and create new connections between your previously separate networks. This will help to define your personal social circle — the one formed by the other overlapping circles.

Give some thought to the ways you interact with your friends. All friendships involve a certain level of giving and receiving, just like all conversations require at least two sides. One of the reasons we sometimes feel disconnected from our friends is that even though we like them in a basic way, we aren’t exchanging ideas, inspiration, or other types of personally meaningful information. The connection has gone silent between us, and therefore we feel isolated. To have a connection, we have to create an exchange. I like to think of how computers on a network send out a ping to see what else is around them. You have to occasionally ping your  network and see what’s up with people. We can’t maintain a constant flow of information with everyone, but it’s good to check in and make sure the connections are still alive.

Of course, the other aspect of connection is that you also have to show up. This one is hard for many of us. On one hand, people raised and socialized femme are aggressively trained to be polite and quiet, but if we want connection, we have to offer something of ourselves — volunteer information, pipe up with an opinion, or toss out a joke once in a while. On the other hand, people raised and socialized masculine have been aggressively trained to avoid vulnerability, and vulnerability is a requirement for developing deeper, more supportive connections. It’s even harder if you’re a little on the introvert side, but don’t worry — you don’t have to force it. You can take your time and speak up when it feels right and natural. That might mean you only open up to a select group of people at first, and that’s fine. You can have a sprawling network of friends and acquaintances while only being very close with a small cluster of people. 

As for needing to reach out to someone when you’re in a dark place — I think your best friend would consider it a compliment if you trust her in your moment of need. Lots of times, we don’t need help nearly as much as we need someone to listen to and understand us. One of the things that cements meaningful relationships is providing one another emotional support. When you’re open to receiving emotional support from your friends, it’s a powerful way to create a closer connection. When you are in need of support, try to think of it as a chance to let someone in. 

It sounds like your best friend truly wants to play that role in your life, so I hope you will reach out to her and talk more about why she’s so important to you. Let her know that you find it hard to ask for help and that you don’t want to burden her. Give her permission to let you know if you ever share too much. Tell her you’re trying to learn how to connect with people in this particular way. Ask if she can be part of that learning process for you. And you may want to let her know that sometimes you want opinions or perspectives from other people, and that it’s nothing against her. Being your best friend doesn’t mean she has to be your only confidant. 

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