I love my friends. I know I’m fortunate to have people in my life whom I care about. Most of the time when we hang out, it’s fun. My secret is: I never want to see them.
Here’s how it goes: A friend texts me “Dinner Tuesday?” but Tuesday doesn’t work for me, so it turns into a spiral of scheduling that slowly sucks my lifeblood away, takes me to a dark and twisty GCal hell, and makes me wish I never met this person in the first place. I wish there were a way to say “I like you, but I do not want to make a plan with you. I don’t want to do it Tuesday, I don’t want to do it a week from Tuesday or a month from Tuesday. I want to continue to be friends and not make plans with you.”
When I get a text or an email from a friend asking me to get together my stomach drops. Not because I hate them, but because I don’t want to make a plan. Once someone suggests a Plan, you’re hooked: I can’t say “No” without suggesting another date, I can’t suggest another date without triggering a scheduling vortex, then I look ahead at my calendar and it’s all booked up with Plans with people I don’t even really want to see, and I can’t do my favorite thing, which is to be alone.
I know the problem is me. I am an introvert who has deceived the world by pretending to be an extrovert, which means I have a lot of friends and yet I am exhausted at the prospect of maintaining so many relationships at once. I am very friendly, which makes people think I want to be friends and make Plans with them. I do that thing at parties where someone says “We should get dinner!” and I say “Yes!” when what I actually mean is “I like you, but no.” I live with my extremely extroverted wife (we’re both women, no kids) and both of our families are close by, so I have more family obligations than many of my friends, who are largely single or not near their families. And my wife is constantly making plans, which makes it even harder to bow out.
My dream is to live in a little cabin somewhere and focus on my work and never get another text that says “Drinks soon?”
I’ve tried to slowly back away. I’ve tried to say “It’s a busy time,” or “This is a bad month.” Then the next time I see that person they say something like “I never see you anymore!” and make a pouty face then I feel guilty and sad, because I do genuinely like them. I still want to be friends with them. I just don’t want to make plans with them.
Of course, if a friend is in need, I’m there in a second. In some ways, this might be my problem — I’m sort of a foul-weather friend. I go above and beyond when a friend is having troubles, but when things are fine I feel like they expect that continued level of devotion from me and I can’t keep it up.
I don’t want to lose friendships. I just don’t want to have to be watering them, constantly making plans, in a state of constant social activity. I just want to exist without disappointing anybody. I want to love people but not contort myself to satisfy their arbitrary and inflated expectations of what a “social life” is.
Am I an awful person? How do I manage others’ expectations of me? Most important: How do I say no to drinks without offering an alternate date for drinks? How do I say “Can we not make this plan?” without sounding like an asshole? Or am I an asshole? Should I just accept that I’m an asshole?
Dear Bad Friend,
I love your letter and no, I don’t think you’re an asshole. Making plans these days sometimes feels like a tedious part-time job you never wanted, particularly when more than one friend is involved. It’s almost like we should all choose how many days a week we want to socialize, color code all of our friendships according to priority, and then let some app (Let’s call it “FRIENDY!”) figure the whole goddamn thing out for us so we don’t have to do the emotional labor of deciding anything at all. Imagine, showing up for a drink or dinner without feeling like you might possibly hate everyone involved before you even sit down!
I do think the whole insane plan-making circus slows down a lot once you get past the age of 30. Adults in their mid-30s and older begin to recognize that different people have very different needs socially. Some friends want to see you once a week, some friends want to see you once a month, and some friends want to check in a lot but only see you maybe twice a year.
Personally, I’ve started making a lot of friends who I see every three months or so. We’re all busy, and we each sometimes disappear for a while before we make another plan. At first I encountered this once-every-three-month schedule as slightly off-putting and insecurity-inducing. But then I realized that most of the friends involved were very good at organizing their lives in a way that felt balanced and sane to them. They knew what they wanted, and they asked for it. And I saw that some part of me was trying to become more like them. I wanted to become a person who could want what she wants without apology.
I hear you when you say you need more time alone. But I also think you want to become a person who can state the truth without feeling bad about it. That said, how do you tell people, “I hate plans, let’s not make them”? I don’t have a great answer for you. All I can say is that most people refuse to address the big picture or tell the truth. They say things like “I have a lot going on right now,” or “Can we check back in in a month or so?” And the other person is left to guess what’s really going on.
Endlessly delaying plans doesn’t really seem like a good answer in your case. Because you’re not just trying to escape the plans, you’re trying to escape BULLSHITTING people into thinking you’re okay with making more plans all the time.
I have a lot of empathy for that desire. At this moment in history, our culture doesn’t really accommodate people who don’t want to socialize that often. Obviously, a lot of people out there want to socialize more often, but they’re afraid to ask for it. (Being single and having a ton of friends who never want to hang out can be excruciating.) But it also sucks to socialize a lot while always secretly wishing you could bail. This is why people who have kids sometimes drop off the face of the Earth. It’s not just that they’re busy around the clock. It’s that they finally have a solid excuse for never going anywhere or doing anything.
But there’s another dimension to this picture: How much do you bullshit people when you actually see them face-to-face? Because being afraid to let people down in person and feeling like you always have to be “on” makes socializing a million times more oppressive.
When I was younger, socializing basically meant bullshitting. I always felt responsible for other people’s good times. If friends at a party weren’t that talkative or had trouble talking to each other, I felt like it was my personal duty to smooth things over, make them laugh, and cheer them up. This was also my role in my family of origin, not surprisingly. No wonder I felt oppressed by my social obligations! Every time I left the house, I didn’t get to bring my own needs and desires with me.
I think you’re looking for a way to live a more genuine, authentic life. In order to do that, you need to learn how to say no without immediately apologizing for yourself. You need to learn how to occasionally opt out of your wife’s plans without feeling like a jerk for doing so. You have to learn how to guard your alone time a little more. You have to learn how to make “I don’t think I can make a plan at this particular moment” your first, knee-jerk response to “When can we hang out?” instead of assuming that you’re a jerk unless you treat every single plan request like it’s an important doctor’s appointment you have to fit into your schedule immediately.
But that also means you need to learn how to be exactly where you are without viewing it as a failure. This has been a big thing for me lately. I finally had to admit that I always tried way too hard socially and it wasn’t necessarily good for me or anyone else. I decided I didn’t want to live that way. I could just show up and BE. I could have nothing to say. I could hang back, the way other people do. I could let someone ELSE draw ME out for a change. Confident friends aren’t thrown off by a human being who can just exist without trying. And insecure friends probably need to face their insecurities without you taking care of them every second of the day.
Experimenting with this kind of thing isn’t just the selfish realm of awful people who don’t deserve friends. It’s actually the realm of mature adults who want to connect to other human beings in increasingly genuine ways. Just as it’s exceptionally hard to have good sex with someone you’re lying to, it is exceptionally hard to have a good time with a friend you feel like you have to “handle” or bullshit constantly. One of the things I love the most about being married is that I can’t hide from myself that well, because when I hide from myself I also hide from my husband. We basically have to keep reconnecting and being honest for our relationship to grow. If I’m annoyed with him or avoiding him, there’s something going on with me that I need to examine. And when I dare to ask for what I want, and I get more of what I need, everyone around me tends to benefit from that. I feel more generous with others, and I enjoy our time together much more.
You have an urge to live alone in a cabin in the woods because that feels like the only way to escape the pressures and demands coming from your friends and your wife. But you don’t need a cabin in the woods. You just need to dare to see yourself as someone who can want what she wants without feeling like an asshole for it.
That goes deeper than just friendships. I don’t even want to get into the nitty gritty of how to handle your friends, in fact, because that might throw us off the scent of a larger challenge you’re facing right now: your struggle to say what you need out loud without feeling guilty about it.
You’re at a crossroads. You don’t want to live the way you’re living right now. You want to become the kind of person who can say things like “I would love to see you, but I need to spend a lot of time alone for the next three months. I hope you can understand that. I still love our friendship and care about you, I just realized recently that I have to cut back on socializing so I can learn to enjoy socializing again.”
That’s some serious weirdo shit to put out there, I suppose, compared to what most people say. But I think that a lot of people will not only get it, they’ll respect you for being direct about it. And they might just be inspired to ask themselves what THEY really want their lives to look like, once they strip away the constant compulsion to please everyone around them. (And by the way, don’t be worried about anyone finding out that you’re hanging out with other friends during a time when you’re supposed to be spending more time alone. Obviously, unless you submit your entire Google calendar to them, they’re not going to know how much you’re juggling. Just be kind but stand your ground without trying to overexplain or justify something as complex as how you choose to spend your time.)
You already know that you’re a good friend. Being there for people when the shit hits the fan is not a small thing. So give yourself permission to be a good friend to yourself for a change. That pays off in countless ways that you can’t even anticipate yet. You’ll be better to everyone in your life once you start to make much more careful, felt decisions about what you want and how you can best show up for others without completely abandoning your own needs.
We all have to draw our own maps of the world, and honor those maps, no matter how anyone else feels about it or what kind of a maps they might be drawing. The point is for each of us to savor this life. When you savor your days on this planet, you inspire the people around you to do the same. Likewise, when you go through the motions instead of following your heart, the time you spend with your friends feels dissatisfying and half-assed. People who half-ass things tend to be bigger dicks, over the long haul, than people who just tell you directly what they want and what they can and can’t do.
So dare to stand up for what you want. Dare to say what you want out loud, in the moment. Dare to let conversations fall apart and moments become awkward. It’s okay not to serve everyone else first. It’s okay to ask for what you want from other people, and it’s okay to tell them when you just can’t give them what they want. It will make you a happier, more genuine, more generous person.
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