Loneliness activates some panic reaction in us. We don’t sit back and think, “Hmm, what do I do?” In fact, we often don’t think about it at all. That’s because the implications of loneliness (“I am so worthless that nobody could possibly love me”) are so catastrophic that if we were to confront them, we’d need to destroy ourselves.
For this reason, our response to loneliness is often driven by instinct. Most commonly, this leads us to cling to whatever group of people we can possibly find. Often, this is the first group of people we stumbled upon when we came to a new city.
Personally I hate foreign travel, precisely because of the sense of loneliness, but I have a friend who loves it: she’s spent years living in Argentina. And not on a study abroad sort of deal. She just packed up and went there. And during her travels she always seems to form magical and intensely meaningful connections with people.
So I asked her, “What’s your secret? How do you do it?”
And she said, “Well, the main advice I can give is: if you don’t like a group of people, don’t hang out with them.”
I laughed, since that seems sort of obvious, but she clarified that oftentimes when you land up in a country there’ll be other expats there who’re also terribly lonely, and you’ll gravitate to each other. But now, because you’re together, you’ll have closed off the space into which somebody new would’ve come. The main thing, she said, was to dare to be alone and to trust that something good will happen.
Years passed before I realized how true this advice was. It’s a really hard thing to explain, because on some level it’s not intuitive. How can having friends prevent you from making other friends? Sure, this group of people might mostly spend their time talking about football and office politics, but they’re nice, aren’t they? And they seem to really like me! Why should I give up on what’s basically the only pleasure in my life? And it’s not like I’m in an exclusive relationship with them. Surely I can find other people at the same time.
And the reason is…well…it’s basically a matter of time. Oftentimes these groups of people are closed-off, self-sustaining bodies that fulfill all the emotional needs of their members. Thus, they have activities often enough that they’re gonna fill up a lot of the time when you could be meeting new people. Secondly, finding new people is uncomfortable. It makes you feel really bad. And if you’ve got this other group to fall back upon, you’re gonna do it.
Which isn’t terrible! Not at all!
But…it’s self-defeating in the end. Because if you don’t really connect with these people, you’ll never become close with them. And they’ll sense it. Over time, you’ll have to work harder and harder to stay connected with them, and you’ll still be left with nothing, except you’ll also have wasted years.
What a sad image! So that leads us to the first of (what will hopefully be many of) my general principles.
General Principle #1 — Don’t hang out with people who bore you, or who you, for whatever reason, don’t really click with. In this case “good enough” really is worse than nothing.
(Note, I’m not talking about getting rid of toxic friends. That’s something different! I’m talking about ditching people who, although they’re perfectly fine, are just not your people.)
Okay, so now that you’re considering dumping this group of friends, I’m gonna get more into the specifics. But one thing you might’ve noticed from these three posts is that I always talk about friends in the plural. Isn’t that weird? I mean most people aren’t greedy. They don’t want to be social butterflies. They just want a few close friends. And, for this reason, most friend-making advice is geared around making a few close friends (“Find someone you like. Invite them out for coffee. Sit awkwardly with them for an hour. Go home and cry into your pillow because it was so awkward. Then do it again.)
I think that’s bullshit, and that making friends one-by-one is a terrible and self-defeating idea. Tomorrow I’ll talk about why.
[Note: This blog is part of an ongoing series on making friends, which I call “The War on Loneliness,” and I’d love your input. Share your own stories, experiences, and feelings in the comments! Or if you want to be more anonymous, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please let me know if you have any questions you want answered. And if you like this, consider sharing the link. Or click through to the Medium or WordPress versions and share or recommend that instead.]