Dear Carolyn: I am not the type of friend you ask out to dinner. I am the type of friend whose call you sometimes answer and whose invitation you accept, when I make it.
As I approach 50, I can see this very clearly. I have a handful of “friends,” but for whatever reason — my independence or my being less-than-engaging — I don’t often make it to the top of anyone’s list. I’m an afterthought, I’m a filler. I’m about to give up and accept my lot in life: I’ll always be lonely unless I constantly do the legwork, call again, make another invitation, etc.
In reading your column for years, I believe your advice would be to get new friends. But it isn’t that easy, I’m set in my ways or I’m stunted socially. If I don’t work at it, I’ll sit home alone.
All of this makes me sad. I “should” focus on the positive — if I make a lot of effort, I have an almost decent social life. But I’d much rather my phone ring, rather than leaving another round of messages, hoping one of my few friends will have a cancellation this week.
Honestly, I’m all but certain no one would miss me.
My therapist tells me I’m making myself unhappy by focusing on the process (always initiating contact), not the results (that I do get out some). Should I accept my fate in life and enjoy the results, despite the fact that the process exhausts me and makes me question my friendships?
Friendship-Lite: I’m sorry you feel like filler. I suspect there’s something less Darwinian at work — for example, that the people in your life are not terribly proactive.
I also believe that while the particulars of your story might feel familiar only to some, loneliness in general is epidemic. What you describe is so binary — either you make plans with people or you’re home alone — and it’s increasingly what social lives look like now, when there used to be more of a community element to them. You went to X and mingled with the customers/members/congregation/volunteers/teammates/etc. The splintering of institutions is particularly tough on those who aren’t naturally outgoing.
So, my answer is actually different from what you predict. I agree with your therapist on approaching the call-and-make-plans aspect of socializing but also think you should expand your efforts to introduce some form of community to your life.
Take it from someone who works out of her home — all of the ways you choose to live can be opportunities to circulate, if you make them. The exercise class you go to regularly will make you a familiar face to others there. The place you volunteer regularly will, in time, host pleasant exchanges about how everyone’s week was, etc. The small businesses you patronize will come to expect and welcome you. Choose places that align naturally with your interests, and it’ll just be an effort to live a full life vs. filling a particular void.
It still requires effort, yes, and admittedly isn’t a substitute for the friend who actively seeks you out. But for people to whom connecting doesn’t come naturally, community is opportunity — to hone skills, to meet others like you, to matter to someone new.