Question: I'm 31 and have had the same problem my whole life – it never gets any easier. My birthday is the worst time of year as any time I've invited friends out for it they say they'll come but always let me down.
In primary school I was bullied relentlessly. This progressed and, by age 13, I found it so difficult I had started smoking, drinking and self-harming. I thought about suicide every day – no adult stepped in to stop the bullying or tried to help. My home life looked very good from the outside, but it was an abusive environment – my mother only cared about "what people will think" and portraying an image of a happy home. I grew up feeling hated by my parents and felt like a burden. They constantly criticised me. This experience ruined my education as the bullies followed me to secondary school.
Here, a teacher finally stepped in and she put a stop to it. But, I was already taking drugs, drinking, smoking and rarely going to school.
I have had very close friends in the past – particularly in my teenage years – but the friendships were often unhealthy, and I'd discover rumours being spread behind my back, etc. I went through stages of having no friends at all and passed the time on my own. In my undergrad, my classmates disliked me and excluded me from everything. I dreaded summer holidays as it would consist of months spending time alone or with my parents.
In my postgraduate course, I'd grown up a lot and really applied myself. The first few weeks were fine, I actually felt accepted, but, eventually, people began avoiding me, switching groups if they discovered I was in their group, reluctantly engaging with me during class and walking past me outside the building without even saying hello, yet embracing other students they crossed paths with. I couldn't understand why.
I'm quiet, but I do try with everyone I meet. I'm a genuine, nice person and I'm just trying to figure out what the problem could be? If I was mean, rude, nasty or self-entitled, I could own up to it and adjust my behaviour, but this doesn't seem to be so simple. I'm generally positive, I'm not judgemental, I'm easy going, I'm not controlling or have high expectations. I've been to counsellors, but they couldn't help me, they just told me not to worry about it. I have been in long-term relationships, but they weren't healthy – my partners were abusive.
One of ex's friends approached me a few months ago when I was out to apologise for how horribly they all treated me back then. I'm now very nervous about getting involved in groups or anything involving meeting new people as the rejection is too difficult and it deeply effects my self-esteem. I know my problem is minuscule compared to those of other people, and I'm sharing this at the risk of sounding self-involved. I know the world doesn't revolve around me and I don't expect everyone to like me, but I had to get it off my chest because the issue is, no one ever likes me.
Answer: Firstly, well done on many issues: you are a graduate and postgraduate of third level; you seem to have overcome self-harming and drinking and you have a desire to connect and be part of a community. None of this could have been predicted from your difficult childhood and lack of adult care in your life.
We now have knowledge of how important our early years are in how secure we feel in our relationships. The best that parents can do for their children is to give them priority and offer unconditional love and affection. It seems you suffered a lack of this plus a lack of ordinary care and, to protect yourself from this, you had to withdraw any expectations from the carers in your life. This has consequences for future intimacy, whether that be close friendships or romantic relationships. You seem to have chosen people who you thought would accept you, but these were not people you could admire or lean on. If your self-worth had been more substantial you would not have settled for this.
You say your problem can appear minuscule, but the kind of loneliness you feel is almost unbearable
You say you have been to counsellors and you demonstrate self-awareness and this is a very good place to begin the change that is needed. You are experiencing extensive loneliness and while this is tough it can also push you to take the risk of connecting with others. There is a possibility that when you get beyond the acquaintance stage of friendship, you unconsciously protect yourself from rejection by putting barriers up. You are at your most vulnerable at this point of friendship. The need is to be aware of that, keep your attention on your knowledge of where the other person is at and calm your fears. It is more important to spend time with people you like rather than worry about them not liking you.
If people around you feel appreciated they will enjoy your company and return the interest and attention. The danger is that you are over self-conscious, and this blocks others from connecting with you.
You say your problem can appear minuscule, but the kind of loneliness you feel is almost unbearable. Take small steps (such as volunteering for the social committee at work) and do not be so quick to pull away from others with the idea that it is somehow your fault. There are many reasons for people to have off periods and you may be so sensitive that you that are taking them all personally. Keep your sensitivity, as this is your key to connection, but instead of pulling away, take a small step closer, eg ask how the other person is or if you can help them with something.
You might find this makes you feel very vulnerable, but it is worth the risk.
Only chose good people to be around, tolerate your fear of rejection and you will slowly move towards friendship.