When I envision my favorite future, it mirrors one of the happiest elements of my younger years: abundant, always-available connection with people I love. For the first eighteen years of my life, I was surrounded by a big family, an inseparable best friend, a boyfriend of the year, and my ample girl posses. Unfortunately, mid-life childlessness and single adulthood in America isn’t set up in the same people-bursting-at-the-seams way.
Plus, as I reveal in The Great Isolation Intervention of 2011, left to my adult devices, I’m a default isolator.
In the Intervention story, I didn’t get into why I isolate because the reasons are convoluted, and embarrassing. Almost two months after the Intervention, I continue to spend a lot more time with people than I used to. The anti-depression impact is significant. But spending time with people is still exhausting.
Until I expose and let go of the core causes of my isolating tendencies, this social bonanza is an exercise in stamina, and inevitably I’ll burn out, returning to my colorful, decorated rabbit hole, with the space heater and silky soft-furred little dog.
Sometimes I enjoy portraying myself as a curmudgeonly misanthrope. But in reality, most of the time I quietly love the shit out of people. I find the subtlest endearing quality in someone, and use it to fall instantly and platonically in love. (I wish I could apply that same proclivity to romantic love, but no such luck. I get crushes about once every five years, if that. This is not an encouraging frequency when one’s biological clock is ticking.)
But even with my fluttery people-loving heart, more often than not, I usually feel depleted, not renewed, by spending time with others. Here’s why: I feel ridiculously responsible for the moment-to-moment emotional well-being of anyone in my physical proximity, whether it’s my best friend or the UPS driver.
A superlative example: Recently, two friends expressed some low-level conflict in my presence, but it didn’t involve me in the least. Later, alone with one of the friends, I asked her how she felt about the tension. “It’s not a big deal; we have things like this once in a while. We’ll talk about it later and it’ll be fine.”
Seriously? Their tense moment inhabited my entire chest cavity, filling it with anxiety and irrational degrees of concern for both parties involved. This was really only a tense moment, not a gnarly fight. I’d emotionally picked up everything they’d already put down.
I share that bystander example because it’s extreme and telling, but most of the time I’m plenty busy managing my own interactions. My inner Parole Officer (P.O.) for the Department of Connection (D.O.C.) is monitoring me 24/7 to make sure I adhere to a stringent set of rules governing human interaction. If I don’t, I’m in violation, and back to the pretty isolation tank I go. (The only time my P.O. gives me some breathing room is when I’m around people who know me really intimately, like my family, romantic partners, and a few of my closest friends.)
Here are the P.O.s Rules:
1. When first greeting people, find that perky I’m-so-excited-to-see-you-voice that others seem to employ effortlessly.
2. Subtly scan people for the slightest clue of discomfort, and when spotted, do everything possible to make them feel comfortable, safe, and loved, but be very discreet with your efforts – no one likes a fusser.
3. Maintain impeccable eye contact, even if a bug flies right into the center of your iris – you don’t want people to think you’ve lost interest.
4. Reply to content with the most effusive, empathic response you can muster.
5. When people say something funny, smile or laugh longer than you actually want to, so that they feel entertaining and as always, comfortable.
6. Ask people a million questions to convince them of your interest, and do not draw too much attention to yourself. (This is the rule that comes most naturally to me – I have an insatiable interest in other people.)
7. Do not show people that you’re struggling, especially when you’re in the midst of one of those day-after-day-after-day struggles – compassion fatigue is the kiss of death.
8. If you suspect you’ve made someone uncomfortable by something you’ve said or not said, preemptively clean it up, so their discomfort is nothing more than momentary.
9. Never leave too much silence in a conversation – they’ll think you’re boring – a hideous fate.
10. In group situations, follow rules 1-9, for ALL people present, simultaneously, even if you’re not directly involved in the interaction.
11. And finally, if physical ailment or depression leaves you unable to follow rules 1-10, then by all means cut off contact. Voila – isolation mission accomplished.
I bet after reading the P.O.’s rules you want to make a date to hang out, because it sounds so relaxing to spend time with me. Actually, hardly anyone (until now) knows the extent to which this extreme meta-communication monitoring is even happening. My PR department makes sure that it’s all behind the scenes.
In fact, people like talking with me exactly because I’m a genuinely engaged listener, with an insatiable curiosity and a lavish attention span for the details of other people’s lives. Over the course of my life, I’ve been the recipient of many, long-held secrets.
It’s tricky because I want to hold onto these qualities of mine that allow me to connect deeply with people, but I’d really like to retire the oppressive P.O. who thinks I can’t connect without these rules.
Like any militant, the P.O. is actually just really scared, like a neurotically worried parent who will do anything to protect a child from hurt, but imprisons her in the process. The P.O. is scared that if I don’t work my ass off to get people to like me, then they won’t, and then we’ll really be Alone.
The well-intended but misguided P.O. ultimately craves contact for both of us but his impossible, ridiculous rules exhaust me so much that I just throw up my hands and retreat into isolation.
Lately I’ve been fantasizing about my social alter-ego: a little Buddhist monk-ish character (Pema Chodron-like) who walks into a room with nothing but her orange robe, shaved head, and peaceful smile. If my little monk character doesn’t laugh loud, or speak much, you probably won’t think she’s boring. You’ll just assume she’s wise, doling out her sage at sparse intervals. Or that she’s blissed out on something like tolerance or non-judgment. When you’re telling a story, and she’s looking at you peacefully, without saying a whole lot or asking many questions, you’ll still feel her deep interest in you. She’s perfectly happy to just sit quietly and take it all in. She’s totally comfortable with awkwardness and silences.
My mini-monkette is cool but she doesn’t have to prove anything to nobody. She knows how little we can control in life, and that we sure as shit can’t control how other people feel or what they think, even of us, especially of us. This little zen chick knows that it all whittles down to self-acceptance.
A few weeks ago, I arrived at the home of someone I’d only met once before, for a visit. (The less I know someone, the more hawkish the P.O.) I started to pull my stuff together to get out of the car, and of course so did the pushy P.O., grabbing his note-taking clipboard and the piercing whistle he blows to let me know I’ve deviated from the rules. Like I don’t know them by now.
As I was about to open the car door, I paused. I thought to myself, “Kyle, I know you better than anyone and for what it’s worth, I happen to like you as you are. I’m really comfortable with you being quiet, and not saying the perfect thing, and laughing only as long as feels natural. In fact, I happen to really enjoy your company and you really don’t need to prove anything to anyone.”
Emboldened by this unexpected infusion of self-love, I asked the P.O. if he’d mind waiting in the car. He looked aghast, replying, “Yes, I would mind very much. That’s all well and good, that you dig you, but I don’t trust that the chick in that house knows how cool you are yet, so we’ve got work to do, my little chickadee.” Deep sigh. Not quite the happy ending I’d like for this story, but I do count it as a promising beginning.