“Let them be as dissatisfied as you have been…”
“next year, say no sometimes. don’t reply. ignore notifications. cancel plans, tell people you feel sooo bad — but don’t actually feel bad. burn on a pyre the constant fear of dissatisfying others. let them be as dissatisfied as you have been for far too long.”
From the age of around 15 to 24, I’d find myself having episodes in which I’d love nothing more than the thought of saying no, making people dissatisfied and — ultimately — burning bridges. The thoughts would last days, weeks, months. They’d dominate my judgement. It was all too easy to give in to them… I’d get a short but intense sense of elation from it. I’d sit at home feeling proud that I could live without other people — my interests and ideas are greater than theirs, I don’t need them. Although I’ve always curtailed my drinking habits, I can see now that I’d often fuel those feelings with alcohol — binges that got me nowhere.
I think perhaps I secretly wanted one or two of people who I thought were closer friends to check in on me. It’s a mistake many of us make when we’re young. We think outward acts of frustration and anger will lead to somebody giving you attention. Sometimes it does, but so often it ends in silence.They won’t feel dissatisfied.
I’ve never really identified what caused those feelings. I haven’t felt them intensely in years. There was never any anxiety associated with them. I was full of and tangled with conflicting tensions and what I now recognize were insecurities. On one hand, I thought I was better than others and didn’t like what others prioritized — on the other, as a queer guy, there was an underbelly of homophobia and a barrier there. I always knew that I couldn’t be who I felt I was around them. I never had a fear of missing out but a fear that I wouldn’t enjoy what I was doing — a fear that often became a reality. I’m sure some people will think “That’s why you needed to say no. That’s why you needed to cut off” and perhaps they’re right — but I don’t think that helped me. It meant I lost contact with some people I actually loved. You can burn a bridge but you can’t control the flames. It didn’t resolve anything. A false sense of elation to mask the ugly person I was becoming. This is not self-care.
By the time I was finishing up my Masters and returning home in 2012, I only had one friend who I could hang with in person — and it was becoming harder and harder to meet up and go out. Hampered with other shit I hadn’t ever had to deal with like family illness, bereavement and trying to write a dissertation, I rarely left the house. Winter set in and I was more isolated that I’d ever been. I didn’t know it at the time but I really could have done with just hanging with some people. I’d only really leave the house to do my shopping and go for a run in the forest. I had some good friends online — people I’d love to meet up with every few months — but that was it.
Reconnecting and the problems with how we talk about friendship
Starting my first ‘real’ job in 2013, I found myself out of the house and having to socialize a lot more. It was at this point that I became acutely aware of just how maladjusted I’d become. I’ve never felt anything which I could call social anxiety, but I found it incredibly difficult to talk to anybody. I felt out of place with everyone. People would talk about what was important to them and I’d feel nothing. I became more and more aware of how social media has made those lines between a friend, co-worker, acquaintance or whatever harder and harder to deduce.
What plagued me at this point was a lot of writing and depictions of friendship. I’d read newspaper columns, watch TV shows and hear people talking about their friends with little to no sense of companionships. Friendship was always portrayed as fundamentally burdensome. Friends were people who you rarely actually wanted to see but had to keep in touch with. They were people who were in group chats and not much else. They were people you’d bump into and exchange routine “We should meet up soon” knowing it would never come to anything. What I found interesting was this was also matched with plenty of articles lamenting how difficult it was to make friends in your twenties or thirties. Article after article by somebody describing how they’d taken up a hobby or joined a club for no other reason than hoping they’d make some friends. These perspectives would blend in a kind of ironic appreciation that we so rarely get to meet people, to socialize or have anything like a friend — the kind of lazy and low-level “Modern life is rubbish, eh?” comedy you can’t escape. It masks just how harmful and insidious many of these portrayals are. Trying to find some amusement in surrender. I wanted to rebuild and start again and make new friends. I had a clean slate. But I couldn’t escape that feeling that I would always be a burden and that ultimately trying to maintain friendships as an adult is futile. We shouldn’t accept it.
After two years, I’d made a few good friends but could still count them on a single hand. After three years, I’d started to meet a few more new faces and was, for what felt like the first time in a long time, more optimistic about getting to know people. For all its many flaws, Twitter has been incredibly useful in facilitating this.
In January 2016, I left my job and decided to spend some time trying to learn what was actually important to me.
The past 18 months…
I really don’t like giving advice on how other people should live. I react poorly to being told what I should find prioritize and what I should find important. Still, I think I should probably offer a few words about what I’ve learned in the past few years.
I’m sure a lot of you know I’m a huge fan of John Cassavetes films. As pretentious as it sounds, his films really helped me learn a lot about people and something about my outlook changed. I first watched one of his films (Love Streams) towards the end of April 2016. I came out of it with a realization that it’s necessarily to love people who want to try and show who they really are, even if — like many of us — their flaws are often laid bare for us all to see. Perhaps what matters more isn’t having similar interests and outlooks to somebody but the ability to talk about and share experiences honestly.
A quote I found later in an interview was particularly useful:
…. they’ll see what they always wanted to be. And that is to be theatrical; to be wonderful; to be liked; to be friends; to have something in their life that is warmer, and to regard someone that has more guts than you do, and to be inspired by people. And I’m not ashamed of it.
I guess I’ve tried to spend the last 18 months living by those words. I’ve done my best to try and gravitate towards people who I feel are warmer than me — people who have a conviction to be who they want to be, regardless of how tough it can get. I used to be a guy who was overly focused on the pursuit of some kind of intellectual opinion over anything else. When I was a lot more immature, I’d often deride and mock what I felt was overly-sentimental thinking. I’d react badly to people who I felt were over the top, theatrical or just emotional. I realized I liked watching things unravel and seeing where things led.
“When a boy…discovers that he is more given into introspection and consciousness of self than other boys his age, he easily falls into the error of believing it is because he is more mature than they. This was certainly a mistake in my case… it was not my maturity but my sense of uneasiness, my uncertainty that was forcing me to gain control over my consciousness. Because such consciousness was simply a steppingstone to aberration and my present thinking was nothing but uncertain and haphazard guesswork.”
Yukio Mishima - Confessions of a Mask
The truth is it’s all too easy to fall into that mode of thinking. It ends one of two ways — either that ground you once thought was solid turns out to be flimsy and collapses, or you become more stubborn, harder, bitter and cold -you see only the worst in people.
Things have turned out pretty well for me since I made an effort to change. I have a good circle of local friends who I’m incredibly thankful for. I’ve developed friendships with some people that feel years old and I’ve been reintroduced to people I’d lost touch with roughly a decade ago (It feels odd rediscovering that old rapport but also an admiration for how you’ve both changed). I’ve been shown up again and again for initially misjudging people — it’s not so easy to shake off who you used to be. Being lucky enough to travel over the past two years, I’ve been struck by the kindness and hospitality of people I’ve met (many from Twitter) who I’m proud to call friends.
Maybe I’ve just been lucky. Maybe I’ve written a self-indulgent narrative of discovery when I’ve not really changed that much. Perhaps I’ll look back on this in a few years and wonder what the fuck I was thinking. I don’t know — I still feel myself slipping up sometimes. Like I’ve said, I don’t want to impose my experience on others. But please don’t give into the worst of your thoughts. Don’t think that engaging in a proxy with people ever ends well — it never does. Sometimes we need to cut off and start afresh. It can be hard to determine when that is — I know. There are of course many people I’m happy to see the back of. I’ll still do my best to hold my head down and avoid some people. But don’t be afraid to welcome new people. Be receptive. Be warm. Don’t feel like a burden.