Auntie SparkNotes: I Have No Friends 'Cause I Can't Stand Being Vulnerable
Dear Auntie SparkNotes,
So I'm about to finish my first year of college and have managed to make zero friends. If you could pick my brain and help me figure out the cause of this I'd be much obliged.
I've struggled to make friends for a while now, but in high school I assumed it was because of the really small town I'm from. But turns out the problem is me and not my environment. I just don't feel comfortable in public or around strangers; whenever I try to make conversation I feel like I'm trying too hard, or that whoever I'm talking to is judging me or plotting to hurt me somehow. Sometimes when I walk to class it feels like everyone is staring at me and it's just really eerie. I'm just self-aware enough to realize I'm being paranoid, but I don't know how to make it stop. Going to events and club meetings and stuff like that hasn't helped at all.
The only time I'm comfortable around someone is when I feel like I have some sort of control over them. For example, my boyfriend is weirdly invested in me to the point where I could make him cry in under ten minutes. I don't, but the important thing is that I could, and that makes me feel more secure. But I have all sorts of weird barriers even with him, like, I hate sex, either because it ends up being painful or awkward or leaves me feeling too vulnerable. It's like I'm afraid to expose myself to people for fear that they'll take advantage of me. And when I have tried to have sex in the past, oftentimes I was so angry afterwards because it did feel like being taken advantage of. Now the very thought of having sex makes me tense.
The sexual problems might seem unrelated, but I feel like they're directly related to the control and paranoia issues I mentioned earlier. They're also threatening to ruin the one relationship I do have. I realize all these thought processes are weird and unhealthy, so basically I'm asking how to behave like a normal human being without going to therapy, because the idea of therapy terrifies me and I've had bad experiences with it in the past.
Let me get this straight, Sparkler: You're telling me that you, a person whose overwhelming fear of being emotionally vulnerable is the driving force behind everything she does, did not enjoy the exercise in emotional vulnerability that is seeking help from a qualified therapist?
Gee, what a surprise.
But you must realize: the reason that therapy terrifies you? That's part and parcel of the reasons why therapy would benefit you. You know full well what your problem is; your entire letter is, in fact, a long, glorious exercise in self-awareness. But that still leaves you with all these intimacy-avoiding, upper-hand-seeking, control-freaky tendencies to unlearn, and that's going to be very, very hard to do without help. Somewhere back there, you decided (or perhaps were taught) that being rejected and getting your feelings hurt is the worst thing that could ever happen to you. And all the behaviors you've adopted since are designed specifically to avoid that outcome… which is ironic, because white-knuckling your way through life, refusing to get close to anyone unless you're confident in your ability to hurt them worse than they can hurt you, isn't actually making you feel less afraid or more in control. (It is also, not for nothing, a possible precursor to behaving really abusively in your romantic relationships, which is something you need to be aware of. When you already feel good about your ability to destroy your boyfriend with a single harsh word, it's not a far distance to feeling threatened enough to actually do it.)
With that said, you can certainly try to take steps on your own toward getting yourself to an emotionally healthy place, and see how that goes. But be forewarned: you're looking at a pretty serious challenge, here. It's not just that you have to learn to be vulnerable; you'll have to overcome every habit you've developed to avoid vulnerability at all costs. You're going to have to recognize so many of your natural impulses—the ones that cause you to get angry or withdraw every time you feel like you're not entirely in control—as harmful, and to actively choose to ignore them. That's hard, especially when part of the problem is that your internal metrics for this stuff aren't working correctly to begin with.
Which brings me to this: some mental tangles are just too complicated, too deep-seated, and too woven into the very fibre of your being to unravel all by yourself. You're going to have to basically rewire your brain to be okay with the inherent risks of being close to someone—which means a lot of digging to understand just why that particular thing scares the ungodly hell out of you (and might even mean pharmaceutical intervention, if your problem is anxiety-related, which it might be.) And while soliciting a therapist's help might be a hard and scary step in its own right, it's also a step you only have to take once. Please do.
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