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Holiday Office Party Anxiety

12/19/2011 01:35 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2012

Why can't I make friends?

QUESTION

Dear Irene,

I have always had difficulty making friends, although the reasons seem to change as I get older. When I was very young (less than 10 years old), I didn't feel any bonds with other children. I was arrogant and I felt above others. I think it was overcompensation for knowing that I was "the weirdo" at school (This wasn't imagined; it was very well known!). I used to fantasize that we would all go to secondary school and I would be the normal one!

At secondary school, I made friends quickly. However, I was still arrogant and insecure until I was 14 and suffering badly from anorexia. I went VERY off the rails and trashed school rooms/ran away/self-harmed. I was a nuisance and burden to everyone. I then got into a controlling relationship with an older man, who isolated me from friends by not letting me out. I think that stopped me from being so arrogant.

I'm now 25 and I'm still having a hard time making friends. I find my social ineptness and awkwardness very embarrassing and I still consider myself a weirdo. I'm terrified people will find out "what I'm like" (I don't totally know what I mean by that) and I will be humiliated.

I have some friends but often I will ignore them for weeks because I feel like I would be pestering them. I worry that it might not look like that to them and I may seem insensitive and uncaring. Then I feel embarrassed and try to make an effort. But I haven't made new friends for seven years. I've worked in the same place for 18 months and have no friends there. I want to be friends but I feel so embarrassed when I'm around people. I'm so sure I'm going to say something weird or make them uncomfortable etc.

I always assumed I was just shy, but I recently found out that no one perceives me as shy -- including people who have known me for 15 years. This worried me, as I had always clung to the hope that if people assumed I'm just shy and that's why I avoid people then they would be more forgiving. But now I'm not sure what they think of me. However, my oldest friend tells me I'm arrogant, and since I was arrogant as a child I think it's possible.

I feel humiliated and angry at myself all the time. I want to go to a workplace party this Christmas, but the idea of standing in a crowded room on my own fills me with dread. I feel like everybody at work knows I'm some kind of weirdo who can't make friends. Why put them and me through the embarrassment? They're nice people and sometimes the worst thing is that I know they're embarrassed for me, or uncomfortable around me. I don't want to be a burden!

I do make an effort. If I'm left in a room with one person, I take a deep breath, put on a big smile, and ask as many questions about them as I can. It gets awkward if they ask about me, as I really, really don't want to talk about myself. I usually find it easier to remain quiet and let others speak, or remove myself from the room to be alone.

For years, I've always made sure I put on a big smile when talking to people, laugh at others' jokes, and try to exude "welcoming" body language even if I'm stuck for things to say. This doesn't really seem to help (maybe I'm overdoing it?) but at least I'm not telling people I don't like them. I'm also trying little "experiments." For instance, today I sent an email to the colleagues who sit with me with a photo I found funny. The others do that sometimes so I thought I'd give it a go. However, only one of the people laughed and the others just looked at me oddly. I realized later I have a surreal sense of humor and what I find funny others are confused by and vice versa.

My question to you: Firstly, what's wrong with me? And secondly, do you have any tips for me to keep trying? I don't want to give up, it does feel like I'm running into a brick wall at times, but I want to try everything I can. Also, whenever things "go wrong" in any way I can be quick to want to cut ties. I generally don't have any problems with romantic relationships by the way, I find it easy to bond with a partner and I am myself around them. It's only friendships.

Signed,
Stella

ANSWER

Dear Stella,

Feeling uncomfortable in social situations, worrying excessively about being judged by others, dreading being in large groups or social situations and having a hard time making friends are symptoms often associated with social anxiety disorder.

People with social anxiety often feel viscerally uncomfortable in the company of people they don't know well. This usually doesn't happen within the context of a close relationship with a boyfriend/girlfriend or family member. (Interestingly, other people usually don't recognize the signs of social anxiety so, they may think the person is acting arrogantly or unfriendly.)

You mention, too, that your behavior may seem weird or off-putting to other people. This awkwardness may suggest that you have difficulties reading other people's "social cues" and this too, may interfere with making friends.

Not knowing you, I don't know exactly what's wrong. However, I would strongly suggest that you consult with a psychiatrist to get accurately diagnosed. If you do suffer from social anxiety, for example, the disorder is very treatable with medication or psychological interventions.

Despite your brave and somewhat spot-on experiments, you are still having problems making friends at work and outside the office -- and these functional difficulties seem to be interfering with your enjoyment of life and your career. I admire your courage for trying so hard and your honesty in sharing your story, but I don't think these problems can be addressed without professional help.

In the meantime, don't miss the office Christmas party. Breathe deeply, act friendly, get there before the crowds when there are less people, and you don't have to be the last person to leave. You'll stick out more from the crowd if you don't go than if you do.

Hope this helps.

Warm regards,

Irene

Some prior posts on The Friendship Blog about having no friends: