Personal growth is a real son of a bitch. At an early age, I realized that I people liked me more if I entertained them. Sometimes that was through singing, sometimes through jokes. Whatever it was, they smiled and laughed and cheered me on when I did that. In the background of that, as a kid and teen, I would be consistently bullied and abused at home by my older brother. I wish it was the normal older brother stuff you hear about, but if it was, it wouldn’t be a point of reference for this story. Eventually even my abuser would cheer me on and encourage me as an entertainer, but when it came to my likes, personality, and values, it was back to bullying and abuse. That pretty much sealed my fate.
So for the next few decades, that’s how I valued myself. My personal value and worth was determined by others. It felt normal. The few times in my later teen years I allowed myself to be vulnerable and let my needs be known, I was essentially told I was too much and I put that wall up even higher. Throughout my adolescence and adulthood, if things were getting into a place that might expose some part of me, I would crack a joke or give advice, taking the focus off of me. This was how I presented myself in friendships. I am here for you and don’t worry about me. I don’t need anything or anyone. It’s fine.
Later in life, in my 30s, I started therapy, got sober, and changed my thought patterns around a lot of things. I found out that some of the toxic ways I was seeking out attention was directly related to my desire for emotional intimacy with people. I wanted to feel validated, but in a real and authentic way and not just in the way someone will tell you temporarily if you pay them or entertain them. That never lasts and I wanted real emotional intimacy. This was compounded during the Coronavirus pandemic when I actually realized that my identity was completely defined by these tools of entertainment for others. I only played guitar and sang to get the attention. My sense of humor and jokes, a very well-crafted defense mechanism, were just there to make others laugh so I knew I had an admirable quality. I cannot tell you the validation I felt when my graduating class of over 460 people voted me Class Clown in High School.
As I did my personal growth journey, I began to pick up on my friends’ friendships. They all had these relationships I didn’t. There is a specific group of friends, all guys, who would go from deep conversations about fatherhood and health scares right into dick jokes. It was seamless and they were so comfortable doing it. Another group of friends would hang out with me and we would discuss current events and other surface bullshit and then I would find out later that after I left the conversation was about therapy and childhood experiences. Everyone was being vulnerable and intimate without me. I was the common denominator. I wanted that.
So, where is all this going? What’s the point of your crazy rambling, Justin? The point is that I have grown. I have done the work. I know who I am and what I like and I know that I am sensitive and emotional and intelligent and creative. I know how to do things that make me feel good with zero regard for whether or not other people think it’s cool or valuable. I know what I am looking for in a friend and this is where I run into a wall. I don’t know if you’ve ever changed your entire way of thinking about yourself and gone from thinking you’re worthless to thinking you are actually super talented, fun, and a great person, but trying to be that new person with the same people is a difficult task.
Determining that I would not be able to redefine myself with the people that have known me as one thing for the last 20 years, I accepted that I had to branch out. At nearly 40 years old, I had to make new friends. Insert the emoji of a gun against the head of a smiley face here. So, how do I do this? No, literally, how? I’m asking! I had a couple opportunities right in front of me that I have now tried to take advantage of. One is a newer friend who likely only knows this new version of me. We’ve hung out one-on-one once and it was great. I’m still learning what the balance is in conversation, though. Like how much of the time you’re talking with someone needs to be deep intimate conversation and how much can be the more shallow talks about movies and books and stuff? This is a tough one. I know it varies person to person, but it feels like I am trying to figure out a formula and still secretly afraid of putting too much out there and pushing people away while at the same time afraid of not putting enough out there and winding up in the same spot I am in now. It’s fucking exhausting. I cannot in enough words tell you how tiring it is trying to figure out how to be yourself in a way that is comfortable for you and also hopefully attractive to others.
Another point of access I have is that I am in school. That’s where friendships happen, right? It seems like it would be the easiest place, anyway. In addition, I am in grad school, so I already know that everyone I’m in classes with already has a similar interest as me. Also, since it’s grad school, there are more people closer to me in age and that’s good because being a 38 year old finishing undergrad was NOT like that. So, in my intro class, the first class of the program for everyone, I addressed the class and said “Hey guys, I know we are all first year students in this program and we will likely be seeing each other in other classes over the next X amount of years, so I just wanted to throw my contact info out there and start networking with you now.” This has resulted in a couple developing friendships, which is nice and they have potential, even though they are younger. They are also almost all women, which is fine, but a trend I’m sure my wife would love to see change a little bit.
I should probably mention that, too. Making friends with women is easier for me. Always has been. I am a sensitive person and I hate a lot of typically masculine things. I don’t watch sports, I don’t feel comfortable publicly objectifying women, I don’t do gyms. All of the surface shit that bring guys together I don’t do. Not to mention that grabbing a beer is also kind of off the table since I quit drinking (with the exclusion of establishments that have a good NA selection). Meeting men is an entire level of difficulty. Men are not typically emotionally intimate and vulnerable beings. An issue I will be covering on a future podcast episode with an expert on the subject.
The next step I decided to take, in an effort to really open myself up to possibilities, was to quit one of my D&D games. I was playing two D&D games: one in-person every 2-4 weeks and one online every Friday night. Realizing that I wasn’t going to make any deep friendships with people who are specifically avoiding personal connection and I wasn’t opening myself up for hang out opportunities by being busy every Friday night, I left the online game. This was two weeks ago and things have escalated quickly since then.
Last week, I asked Erica if she would be okay with me joining Bumble BFF. I wanted her involved because there isn’t a separate app for it and if I’m downloading a dating app, I’m getting my wife involved, you know? She said she was cool with it and then before I could even download it, I got featured as someone seeking new friends on the Instagram account iamthirtyaf. They have over 2 million followers and my inbox was suddenly filling up with people messaging me to see what I was all about. Unfortunately, almost all of them lived on the other side of the country, but one was local and newly local at that, so she was looking for new friends, as well. We messaged back and forth a bit and then made a date to meet up in person. I haven’t met up with someone from the internet since my days of using Craigslist when I was single.
Before I met up with my new Instagram friend, I did end up opening a Bumble BFF account. I was surprised by how many people were on it. I suppose my working theory is that a lot of these people used dating apps and this seemed like a natural way to do things. I cannot seem to get in that mindset. I feel so embarrassed being on it. There’s also a level of shame. Like, I’m such a fucking loser, I need to join an app in hopes of making friends. The good news is it’s very gender restrictive, so it’s only men making friends with men, but just like dating in my early twenties, I can message back and forth all day, but how do we meet up. I don’t drink so the easy invite is off the table. I have a couple good conversations going about similar interests and stuff, but then what?
All of this culminated in last night and this morning feeling really lonely. I feel like such a hapless fucking loser trying to make friends and all of those old feelings of self-doubt are right at the surface because I’ve never had to put myself in this vulnerable of a position before. How does this work? Why is this the route I have had to take? I’m not seeking advice, but more documenting this experience and hoping to revisit this post in a few years and laugh while hanging out with my friends.
…or I’ll delete it well before then.
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