When you fall into a rotten mood, it’s easy to feel as if you need the advice of a shrink, or even just a wise friend. There’s something a bit disingenuous about that, though. In truth, you almost always know better than anyone else what you most need to do to improve your situation. Accordingly, I’ve lately been asking myself a series of questions, beginning with, “What would I tell a close friend who was in the same situation?” This proved most effective this past Sunday.
Sunday morning I was thoroughly depressed. I felt hopeless and helpless by 4:00 a.m., and typically my mood starts out at its peak and deteriorates from there. I managed to keep my wits about me, though, and I did think to ask myself the magic question. The answer was simple: If a friend told me that she was feeling the way I felt, I would cuddle up to her and tell her that I loved her and believed in her, and that she was important to me. In short, I didn’t need a list of 29 Things to Do on a Rough Sunday — I needed a human connection.
I wish I could say that I thought of a friend who would do that and burned up the phone lines calling her for help. In fact, the only people in town who would do that for me are my mom and dad, and I felt too ashamed to ask them. So I resorted to my next magic question: “What is the problem here, and what can I do right now to change things?” Because, you see, part of my misery stemmed from the conviction that nothing would ever change, and that I would live a gradually dwindling life ending in a death that would pass completely unremarked. I love my cats, but I never forget the fact (or urban legend) that they would begin to eat me as soon as they got hungry.
Seriously, though: I’m haunted by the thought that when my great-uncle Bob and my paternal grandmother died, we didn’t hold funerals. That’s partly because they both were atheists who wanted to be cremated, but it was also because attendance at either event would have been thin at best. They were brother and sister, of course, and they both had been politically and socially active. My grandmother attended two Democratic Party conventions as a delegate, and knew two Presidential candidates and one Supreme Court Justice during her day. In the end, though, they were both terribly shy and proud, and they couldn’t bring themselves to take the simple steps needed to keep them from living their last years in terrible isolation. My great-uncle did actually kill himself (I’ve written about him in my blog).
Their fate demonstrates to me that it is possible to shrink away from human contact entirely, with tragic results. Therapists often act as if the worst never happens, and your problems stem from a negative mindset rather than your true circumstances. This is real life, though, and actions do have consequences. In my case, I can see myself becoming so isolated that any family members who survive me decide to skip the funeral. If I continue to act as I’ve been acting, that’s a likely outcome.
After entertaining this diverting thought for an hour or so, I pulled myself together and tried to define the problem in the most concrete possible way. I set out this month to improve my existing relationships, but that’s a pretty foggy goal, and I find myself hard-pressed to measure whether or not I’m actually meeting it. In order to come up with something more measurable and attainable, I needed to revisit the roots of the problem.
One clue stems from something that annoys me about self-help books. They’re based on the assumption that you’re stressed, depressed, anxious, whatever, because you don’t have time to meet all of your social commitments, what with the constant demands of your spouse and kids. I’m sure this is a common difficulty, but it’s not mine, and I’ve been very frustrated recently just trying to find a book that acknowledges my reality. At work, I’m overstimulated and overwhelmed, but once I get home, I’m lonely and, at times, bored.
I think this problem is more common than people like to admit. Technological overload is not the only modern problem; one that’s just as characteristic and serious is the breakdown of social ties. Plenty of people are estranged from their parents and siblings and dependent on the Internet and long-distance phone calls for much of their social contact. After all, the more frequently you move, the more friends you leave behind, and for the shy among us, it’s very hard to establish a “support network” (I hate that phrase) in each new city.
Rather than dwell on demographics, though, I needed to define precisely, practically mechanically, what keeps me from connecting with people. I think it’s this: I don’t really know how to befriend people, or even how to make conversation in a lot of situations. If my coworkers are gathered around eating birthday cake, for example, I have no idea how to join them gracefully, and I imagine them all falling silent when I creep up. I find the idea of asking a likely coworker to get coffee with me puzzling, to put it mildly, and I know that it’s not as simple as blurting out an invitation at a random moment.
So clearly I need to start with something basic and concrete. I wonder, I thought, if there are any books on how to make friends? I need some sort of primer on social contact that will take me through step by step so that I can set simple goals and enjoy immediate success. Though I was sure it would be no use at all, I went to the bookstore to look for such a thing. To my surprise, it exists: business consultant Debra Fine has written an excellent book called The Fine Art of Small Talk.
And, strangely, reading it really, really helped. The suggestions are detailed and practical, and now I feel like I can set goals and reach them. The problem isn’t, “No one cares if I live or die.” Instead, I’ve reframed it as a skill that I’m lacking that I can develop if I simply apply myself. So I read the book and set a goal (smile and meet the eyes of 10 people at work every day for three days, and pick four conversational openers to have at the ready). I still feel pretty dragged out, but I genuinely feel some hope.
I’m happy to note, too, that yesterday I met and surpassed my smiling goal easily. I also deployed my small-talk line. I was chatting with an engineer, one of the few people who comes to my office to talk, and just as the conversation lagged, I thought to ask, “So, are you working on any New Year’s resolutions?” That revived the conversation nicely.
Love to all.