I am a 27-year-old female. I was sexually abused on several instances when I was very young (and raped on one of those occasions). I've otherwise had a stable upbringing and have fantastic parents, but I never received any help for the past abuses and kept everything to myself until last year when I began seeing a therapist after a series of stressful events. As you can imagine, growing up I experienced long stretches of depression and anxiety, and I always felt that I was different in some way. I've also had trouble establishing and maintaining relationships of any kind but never really understood why or the extent to which my past was affecting my behavior.
It was only when I started dating fairly recently that I realized how difficult it was for me to fully reveal myself to others and trust that others would accept me. I receive a decent amount of interest from men, but it is usually short-lived. Things tend to fizzle out when I become extremely anxious and insecure, which in turn make me very closed off and avoidant, and by this point men realize (I assume) that there is something not quite right or normal about me.
My therapist helped me a lot and I've learned how to become more vulnerable, to show others what I feel (which was a critical missing component in many of my relationships), to reach out to others first, and let go when things don't work out. I'm far less depressed now and more open to others. But nothing has changed in my ability to form or foster relationships. I still can't trust that others will accept me, let alone feel attracted to me and love me despite my flaws. I don't know what it will take to get there. And often I feel like my problems are so deeply rooted that I don't even want to burden others with the task of dealing with them.
One of my biggest fears is that my friends and partners will find me boring. This is the greatest source of my insecurity around people. I'm shy and not particularly expressive or articulate, even though I do feel things very deeply and have a wide range of interests and hobbies (I am an INFJ if that helps). Playfulness is something entirely foreign to me, but I see it in so many others and berate myself for not being like them. All I can think about is how I've closed myself off from so much all of these years, being afraid of people, especially men, that I don't know how to be interesting and fun and laid back. How does one learn to be fun and interesting? I know this is mostly about perception. I go out and try to do typically fun things, but nothing I do makes me see the world in a fun and interesting way. And on the rare occasion that I do experience euphoria and joy, it's hard to communicate this to others, even if I try. I usually come across as very flat and dull.
I'm still young. I want to be full of life and full of interesting experiences, and I want to share this with other people. Why is it so hard?
Looking for Zest
Dear Looking for Zest,
I don't think the way you are is a problem. I think the way you are thinking about the way you are is a problem. I think you are looking at yourself through the eyes of others whom you don't really know, and you are finding yourself wanting in their eyes.
There are things we do sometimes when we have been harmed gravely and too young. We turn on ourselves. We imagine that the world disapproves of us when really we disapprove of the world. We do this I suppose because to disapprove of the world before we have achieved a radical and lasting separation from that world is intolerable to the childlike and still-forming ego. It is intolerable to our sense of identity to say, "I hate this world," because we are not enough different yet from the world. Inside we are still children. We have not yet lived on our own in the woods. So we do not yet know that we can. We think we need the kindly regard of everyone. We are afraid to have enemies. We think harmony will save us.
But harmony and being agreeable did not save you when you were too young to resist. And it will not save you now. Being yourself will save you.
You are actually pretty OK.
Apparently you are unable to become a robotic drone mindlessly doing things other people find fun and exciting. Apparently you're not a neurotic, hollow, self-hating person who smiles at the right times and laughs at the right times and goes home hating herself. Apparently you can't abandon your natural humanity.
Apparently you think this is a problem.
Maybe it is a problem. But I don't think it's your problem.
There is nothing wrong with you. You have been harmed and you have survived. Yes, evil has been done. But you are alive and well.
Your therapist may seem to be telling you to become more vulnerable. Not to second-guess her but you also need to become stronger and, in a sense, ironically enough, at the same time, more closed off! -- not closed off to yourself but opaque to others. That is, you need to be able to be opaque to control the boundaries of what can be known and not known about you, about how you can be touched and not touched and who has the permissions in these areas. In order to feel safe while being vulnerable you must master the art of having boundaries and saying no.
So do not misunderstand the pop psychology things you probably hear on the television about being vulnerable. You have been vulnerable plenty. You need to be strong. You need to be comfortable with your own aggression, because you need to protect yourself against the predations of the world. That means stop asking for validation from others; instead, give this validation to yourself.
This column is going to be longer than usual and is going to include some things that seem like disconnected bits and other things that seem like they have the wrong punctuation but I am doing it on purpose. I am conceited enough to think I know what I am doing. But you don't have to read it all.
So anyway. What I wanted to talk about was this idea of being vulnerable with people. You have to know whom you're getting vulnerable with. Especially if you have been victimized sexually you need to know that you have some control over your own body and over the situation, and you have the right to set your own limits, and if you go out with somebody once or twice and that's not enough time to feel comfortable, well, that's fine.
Take as long as you need.
If somebody needs all this explained, well, it's the ABCs of civility. Some people don't know that. And of course people in their 20s are horny all the time. They want to get it on right away. So there's that.
But you can handle this.
You say, "I go out and try to do typically fun things, but nothing I do makes me see the world in a fun and interesting way." That is funny. Of course you don't enjoy doing typically fun things. Typically fun things are boring.
You are not boring. You are just in the wrong parking lot.
Random notes on your condition:
When are you happy? Are you happy baking? Are you happy reading? Are you happy in a restaurant eating fish? What about shopping with your mother at Wal-Mart? Doing a crossword puzzle?
Do you like to acquire bits of knowledge for no apparent purpose? Do certain phrases or observations of people's dress and manner stick in your head but you don't know how to express it?
This is your world. What is going on in your consciousness is you. You are a gift. This is who you are.
Please: Trust your judgment. If you are indeed an INFJ then you have a rare gift and it is not in the realm of hidee ho aren't we sailing along in breezy fashion in our sorority soiree everyone smiling Crest White teeth and happy. That is not you.
If you are lonely seek out a female friend with whom you can exchange confidences. Talk with your therapist about your loneliness. Tease out the strands of thought that lead to your loneliness; for instance: You think you cannot be authentic around people because your authentic self is not interesting enough so you try to act like they act but don't do it well enough to be interesting so they find you boring and later you hate yourself.
Something like that?
Also: Typically fun things are torture for Sheldon. Do you watch "The Big Bang Theory"? Do you think it's funny? Do you think Sheldon is funny? Do you think Sheldon would like to do typically fun things? You and I are like Sheldon. Doing typically fun things is torture and we don't do it well and later we feel like stabbing ourselves.
That's why God invented loser cliques -- so people like you and me would have places to smoke.
Do you smoke? Neither do I. I used to. I had to quit years ago. I still identify with people who smoke because they get to do something a little bit against the rules that takes the edge off and they get to do it together. You don't have to talk much when you smoke. You just draw in the smoke and that is a form of language. It says, I am slaking my neurotic hunger in your presence and you are slaking your neurotic hunger in my presence and in this we are together. Smoking together on the last car of a train or on a pier or beside a building: Nothing need be said.
Do not fully reveal yourself to others. That's not your job. Your job is to locate yourself in the space. Your job is to regard the other person honestly and take note of whether you are interested or bored or frightened or intrigued, whether you feel happy or sad in the presence of this other person or this group. Your job is to preserve your interiority while in public, and to remain alert to your own impulses. If you have the impulse to flee, take note of that. Take notes. It may mean that this is not your scene. Or it may be that this is so truly and intensely your scene that you dread losing it or not being able to fully remain in it, so that it is easier to flee than to settle in and do the work. The work means learning. If this is the theater and it is where you want to be, then learning the skill and becoming a part of it, not by smiling and being all hidee-ho but by mastering the intricacies of the craft.
There is a craft that draws you. I sense it. There is a craft that will fulfill you. It is most likely a personal craft, not solitary but not social, something with the hands perhaps.
Yet more random notes:
I never feel the urge to flee when I am in an art gallery or museum. Even when it is time to leave, I leave slowly. But when I am in certain social gatherings or professional "environments," I will often feel the urge to flee. Is this a bad thing? Should I apologize? No. I do not think so. I think that much of life is like that. Most places I do not want to be. I am a reluctant and troublesome child with specific requirements and so I am rarely at ease except sitting here writing, smelling the garlic of the spinach lasagna that is soon to appear, looking at the floor where the technician left a small threaded part of the coaxial cable connection that looks from this angle like a beautiful gold ring.
Learn to be strong enough to be alone and be OK with that.
If you are lonely find a friend. But do not try to be an extravert.
All college should include a week in the woods.