I used to be funny, but now I'm boring and self-conscious

What happened to me? Are my friends going to desert me?

Published February 9, 2006 11:02AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I've been plagued recently (last couple of years) by this problem I feel that I'm too smart to have let overtake me like it has: I've become extremely self-conscious, not around strangers -- I've always been good at striking up in-the-moment, nothing-to-lose conversations. The problem is with my friends, the very people I should feel most comfortable around (these people have been my friends for years and have stuck by me through all kinds of scenarios).

I used to think of myself as this happy-go-lucky, fun person who was smart and perceptive and could be the life of the party. But now my friends and I are all getting older (just turned 40) and my out-there antics aren't really appropriate anymore. It's no longer cute to be the "crazy one"; now it's about telling a good joke at a dinner party. But this self-consciousness is making me so unrelaxed that I don't know how to hang out and have fun anymore. I've become convinced that everyone can read my mind and that they all think I'm a jerk. I know these problems are all in my head but I just don't know how to shift the focus off of myself and onto others or the conversation that's taking place. It feels as if it's all my fault if the conversation is lagging or there's an awkward silence.

I really want to stop this feeling that hanging out with my friends is some kind of performance (for the record, the people I mostly see actually are brilliant and hilarious). I really do try to talk myself out of seeing it this way. I tell myself to focus on others and not listen to the nagging voice in my head that keeps score of how well I'm doing in the social situation. Then I try harder than I need to by telling some story that sort of flops and makes everyone uncomfortable.

I'm terrified that my awkwardness is going to make them not want to invite me to socialize with them anymore, and so it's this weird self-fulfilling prophecy. It's almost like an OCD disorder that I can't stop from minute to minute wondering how my friends see me, and fearing that I'm going to lose them. I just can't seem to get off the hamster wheel, or whatever the metaphor is. Any advice you have in getting the focus off myself would be greatly appreciated. I have a great trust in your perspective and opinion and hope you can lend some insights.


Dear Self-conscious,

Often things strike us when we are walking alone that we would like to tell in their full splendor: You wouldn't believe how beautiful it was to see this old rusted iron spike through a piece of square timber driftwood down by the beach this morning, and the color of the sea, a smoky pewter that reminded me of my grandmother's unpolished silver sugar pot ...

Such Proustian meanderings indeed do not make one the life of the party. Maybe that is why I have not been invited to many dinner parties lately. While you are afraid of becoming boring -- and perhaps with good reason; you see more deeply into things than most! -- I have already become boring, so boring in fact that I am practically intolerable; my wife says I frighten people with the things that I say. When their eyes glaze over it is not just boredom but abject fear, because unconsciously they realize: This is their fate too. We will all become boring.

They see in me, as one sees in a dying man, their future, their inescapable fate!

We went to the ballet last night and I felt like some Russian anarchist, longing to shoot my pistol into the balcony. But I was wearing a corduroy jacket bought mail order from J. Crew! Can you believe that? It was some kind of hideous attempt at a disguise, so that I would not look like an anarchist longing to shoot his pistol into the balcony! All it really achieved, I believe, was to tighten ever so slightly the noose of fatal boredom around my neck. I seriously need to resocialize as a sober non-punk.

This kind of antisocial attitude does not make for sparkling repartee. Nor does my growing preference for the long version. Obviously, most stories have the short version and the long version. Most people when they say they are making a long story short are actually just making a long story boring by taking out the good parts. To truly make a long story short you can usually say something like, "I was shot escaping after a convenience store robbery" or "I did three to five for manslaughter." That is making a long story short. Or you can tell the whole thing. I like to tell the whole thing. That is why I am boring.

I am interested in the details, is the thing. I like the long, somber narration; I like the bare, unadorned facts beneath which seems to hum a vast incomprehensible mystery. So your grandmother knit you that shawl? Therein rests a universe of pale shiny grandmotherly knuckles (Look at those gnarled old knuckles: as though polished ivory by time itself!) in the windowlight of an old family home, knitting needles bought at a store that long ago was paved over for Wal-Mart, hands taught by a woman -- her mother -- who was the first woman ever to cast a vote in her small and unassuming Midwestern town, in the presidential election of 1920, and you know she voted for the socialist Eugene V. Debs, even though he was in prison at the time for advocating noncompliance with the draft in World War I, can you believe that? (This is the moment at which the listener's eyes fasten with great longing on their shoes, unconscious symbols of imminent departure from the boring, over-talkative guest who has collared them in the kitchen and is rambling about the old grandmother in between piercing, revelatory insights into the ingredients of the celery dip -- could it really be canned mushroom soup that gives it that richness? But it's the sour cream that gives it the tangy bite, without which, don't you find, it's just a teensy weensy bit flat? Like it needs a little bit of salt or something? And maybe not just plain salt but a seasoned salt, a ... there you have it: Celery salt! Oh, you are the clever one. So you know how many votes Eugene V. Debs actually got in the 1920 election between Harding/Coolidge and Cox/Roosevelt? 913,664! And how did I know that? You know there's this really neat site called Wikipedia? On the Web? Have you heard about the Web?)

So, you know, if the whole idea of being a sparking dinner guest itself just seems kind of lame and 19th century, like you should have a starched collar and knickers or something, you can turn being boring into an insidious and soul-killing form of quiet social homicide; I'm afraid, actually, that that's partly what I do; I cannot stand the silence, and I don't really care, so I fill it with junk, like an old redneck pulling up to the rock pit with a truck full of couches.

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