Dear Carolyn:

I am a 21-year-old college senior. I have always had a large number of guy friends, and many of my closest friends are guys. My problem is I never seem able to break out of that "one of the guys" role. My girlfriends say I get stuck in the "friend zone," and my best guy friend says my standards are too high. For my part, I have a hard time believing any guy could like me enough to want to date me. So what do I do? I am often frustrated when I find someone I like a lot because I "know" it won't amount to anything (judging from past experience).

The Best Friend

Let me guess. You . . . hang around guys because you feel safer around them, that groups of women will be tougher on you (with the exception of a couple of female friends you really trust to "get you")? And you count on your "one of the guys" role to make yourself feel down-to-earth/fun/cool? And you tell yourself upfront you're unattractive because that's easier than hearing it from guys you care about? And you put yourself down all the time to show others you're aware of this and, hey, you're okay with it?

It's a theory.

Even if I'm off on the specifics, I'm sticking by this: You're telling everyone what they should think of you, before they even get a chance to think it -- and that's not a role or a zone or standards. That's a defense against rejection.

We all feel vulnerable somehow and all put up defenses. But you've got your defenses so high you're at risk of starving your troops. Look what you've told us. You've taken your "past experience" as proof that you're unattractive and so to keep that secret from others, you try to pass as "one of the guys."

Problem is, nothing fake ever truly passes -- nor can anyone get truly close to a fake, leaving you alone in a roomful of friends. And, horrors, writing to me.

Stop. Take a deep breath. See yourself making comments or picking outfits or choosing friends or charting a career or even ordering drinks according to your assumed "role," and just stop. Instead, take a wild chance on being yourself. Say or wear or choose what you really want. People will like you, people won't like you, life will go on.

It really can be that simple.

. . . Unless there proves to be a more stubborn underlying issue than immaturity, in which case I'd talk to a pro. (End of advicey disclaimer.) What it won't be, necessarily, is quick. You'll need guts and time and practice to learn to distinguish when it's your fear talking, and when it's your true desire. In the meantime you're going to feel awkward and maybe even be awkward; a given, I suppose, when you're listening to voices in your head.

But any collateral humiliation is worth it. Once you can hear the difference between their two voices, you'll be able to heed consistently, and then trust, and then grow to like, and then show people what's so attractive about, the voice you'll know as your own. Better than any front, no matter how tough it is.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or tellme@washpost.com and join Carolyn's live discussion at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.