How to deal with people when you can't deal with people
So you've found yourself deep in the existential tunnels again. You may have noticed, when you're in there, relationships can be… *ahem*... difficult.
This applies to friendships, family, and oh my god yes romantic relationships. It also applies to that waiter you’re now convinced is judging you for wearing the same shirt twice this week.
I've realised something recently. For me, when I’m in this ‘life’s a bit hard right now’ space, it's not just that feeling crappy that makes it hard to deal with people. It's all the noise in my head that goes along with that, the judgements about how I'm feeling, the projected judgements from others.
When I'm in this space, it’s almost like I take on a whole new set of beliefs about myself and other people. A set of guiding principles to live by, from the world's worst self-help book.
I’m calling these the Guiding Principles for Feeling Totally Worthless - a set of beliefs you can rely on in those darker times to make you feel even worse, and make relationships of all kinds that much more difficult. My favourite!
You may already be familiar with some of these...
Guiding Principle for Feeling Totally Worthless #1. Social engagements are awful.
Stay the hell away from those. You’ll only embarrass yourself.
Guiding Principle for Feeling Totally Worthless #2. Your feelings are too much for other people.
You’re too sensitive, people must find that annoying.
You shouldn’t still be so sad about that break up, people are sick of hearing about it.
You’re too in love with your dog. Seriously it’s creeping people out.
Guiding Principle #3. You shouldn’t show people how you really feel.
This one pairs nicely with Guiding Principle #2. If you think your feelings are too much, you'll keep them under wraps.
Even those of us who think we’re pretty good at talking about #feelings, we still reach a point sometimes where we desperately want to hide what’s going on.
A friend of mine puts it this way. When you ask him how he is, and he says ‘I’m fine’, that’s when you should worry.
I still hide my real feelings sometimes (and I write a fortnightly newsletter about how much of a delicate flower I am). Call it muscle memory, honed through years of schooling, but those pretending tendencies are still there.
Guiding Principle #4. Don’t you think, just maybe, everybody hates you?
So how do these Guiding Principles For Feeling Totally Worthless make relationships difficult?
In many ways my friends, many deliciously disconcerting ways. Let's look at one example up close.
I can’t go to that party. But if I don’t go, I will literally lose all my friends forever.
This one starts with Guiding Principle #1 - social engagements are awful.
You find it really hard to say ‘yes’ to social engagements, because all you can focus on is how worked up you’ll get beforehand, and all the many things that could go wrong if you drag your awkward, sensitive self into a public setting.
(It doesn’t have to be a party. It could be any people-based event that’s right on the edge of your comfort zone right now. Maybe it’s a weekend away. Or maybe it’s just a phone-call from a friend that you don’t have the spoons to take right now.)
Then in comes Guiding Principle #2 - your feelings are too much for people. You think, if I’m this anxious about the party 5 days out, I’m going to be a wreck once I’m actually there. No one wants someone with this many feelings at a party.
Honesty doesn't feel like an option here
So how do you respond to this invite? You could be honest. You could tell whoever’s inviting you, ‘hey look I’m really tempted to come, but I’m currently a sensitive snail with no shell, so I’ll probably slowly circle your block 5 times before maybe coming in or maybe going home. Cool?’
(Why isn’t there a button for this on Facebook events btw?)
That honesty, however, would contravene Guiding Principle #3 - You shouldn’t tell people how you really feel.
Two completely reasonable options
You can’t be honest, so instead you say one of two things.
Option 1: ‘Great I’ll be there, looking forward to it!’ By which you mean you will literally think about it every hour for the whole week leading up to the party, wondering how you might get out of attending without looking like buzzkill.
Or Option 2: ‘oh I can’t make this one, but definitely keep me in mind for the next one!!!’ Even though let’s face it this is definitely already ‘the next one’.
In truth, these are both completely reasonable responses. If you decide to go, you’re going to have a hard time in the lead up to the party, but it might be totally worth it. If you decide not to go, you may feel guilty about being a bad friend, but get a much-needed night off.
The Guiding Principles make things more difficult than they have to be
Both options also have their downsides though, and it’s the Guiding Principles For Feeling Totally Worthless that really twist the knife here.
If you say ‘I’ll be there!’, but feel like you’re not allowed to tell anyone how freaked out you are, it really ramps up the anxiety beforehand, and makes it harder to come up with strategies to ease your way into the party (like telling the host you might leave early, which takes the pressure off a little.)
If you stay home, but don’t tell anyone *why*, you get the fear. What if they think I’m a crappy friend? What if they stop inviting me to things?
Fear of losing your friends really raises the stakes
It’s Guiding Principle #4 that really ups the ante. If you suspect that just maybe, everyone actually secretly hates you (because you turn down too many invites, or because you’re too sensitive) it’s going to make it hard to go to the party.
On the other hand, if you think everyone secretly hates you, it’s also going to make it harder to *not* go to the party, because you’re afraid you’re on your last chance with everyone.
These Guiding Principles aren’t totally useless
Here’s the thing, these Guiding Principles didn’t come out of nowhere. They’re based in some truth (that’s what gives them such a hold over us).
For instance, if you *never* make the effort and push yourself outside your comfort zone to see your friends, your friendships may suffer.
And by the same token, pretending you’re fine can be useful. Sometimes people *do* get sick of hearing you’re having a tough time. (Sometimes *you* get sick of *talking* about it!)
Sometimes walking into a room of people who have no idea you’re a sensitive kitten right now can be really liberating. No one asks ‘how *are* you? no how are you *really*??' You can just talk about whatever, while your stomach leaps and your heart races but you maybe also have a good time.
New and Improved Principles for Feeling Less Crap About Feeling Crap
The problem is, the Guiding Principles For Feeling Totally Worthless take this stuff and make it all about *you*. They make it about how crap you are, rather than just how hard, nuanced and complicated social connections can be.
*You* are too much (rather than, no one wants to talk about feelings all the time). *You* are awful at parties (rather than, parties are weird and great and hard). And that tends to make things more difficult.
Try these modified principles, for tough times. They don’t ‘solve’ the tough stuff, but they might help you feel less crap about the ways feeling like crap affects your friendships (phew that’s a mouthful).
Modified Principle #1. Social engagements are *hard*. When you feel crap, they’re even harder, but that’s also when you may need them most. It makes sense that deciding whether or not to go is difficult.
Modified Principle #2. Your feelings are your feelings. Sometimes your friends will understand what’s going on for you, and sometimes they won’t.
Modified Principle #3. Sometimes we tell the truth about how we feel. Sometimes we pretend. Both have pros and cons.
Modified Principle #4. Chances are, you are not the perfect friend. You are also not the worst friend ever. You are somewhere in between.