Very recently a good friend I met online several years back was giving me advice and in phrasing it said, loosely, “I don’t know what your circle is like” in regards to the people I have in my everyday face-to-face life whom I’ve known for a while and/or am comfortable with. It was met with tunnel vision and an audible: oh.
Mind you, it’s nothing I haven’t been aware of before this point, it’s a sore spot actually, but it’s not something I allow myself to think really hard about for several reasons. The ‘oh’ was in that I’m usually met with the assumption that I at least have someone I trust I can turn to when the subject comes up – and that turns me off of the conversation and hits the sore spot harder than it did in this case. The ‘oh’ moment was in that by phrasing it in such a way, that was respectful of not making assumptions, and given the conversation on a whole, that maybe I should look a little closer at my isolation or how will the sore spot ever heal?
Here is a rundown of my usual day. I go to work. I go home. On the weekend I may go shopping.
Now here’s a breakdown of my socialization within that very narrow framework:
At work I interact with a select few while I’m largely on the outside of the rest (there’s the high school airs of ‘you don’t really belong in this crowd’ or ‘I’m gracing you with my presence by talking to you right now, but I’d prefer it if you went back to your little corner’ – how much of that is my imagination and how much is reality I can’t precisely tell you). And while those who I have been fortunate enough to make friends with at my current place of employment are absolutely wonderful people I’m glad to have met and love speaking to (and 3 out of 5 of them are women of color, each of whom I’ve been able to connect with and discuss things with in different capacities which has absolutely enriched my life!), it’s not something that provides an answer to the conundrum presented by the conversation with my online friend. These people are not people I have yet to meet with outside of work, or really converse with now that I’ve taken the next step with them by connecting on Facebook.
I’m currently living with my parents and a younger sibling so once I leave my job, the fullness of my close contact with other people is with these family members (ignoring interaction with people in public places, like Starbucks obviously). And within that sphere, my sibling is the one I interact with the most, would say I’m closest to and most comfortable with. But even then I don’t feel safe in expressing myself completely to my sibling any more than I’m sure my sibling feels safe expressing everything to me (because of our upbringing, different personalities, interests, etc.).
The bulk of my interaction from day-to-day then is done in the virtual world. I have wonderful friends I’ve met online. And I have the friends (though mostly now acquaintances) I’ve met in my real life over the years that I keep in touch with on Facebook – some of whom I would like to see every now and then, but can’t because of distance. Similarly, I have a few relatives I text or talk to on Facebook regularly and visit with semi-regularly when life permits.
To put it in perspective the last time I made time to go out with a close, non-family member was in 2014. To put it further in perspective, the last time I visited with a close family member more than once over a short period of time I was quite literally questioned about it.
So that leads me to my next point on the subject, and it’s the idea that really struck me when my friend brought up the topic.
Am I unsocial? Or am I unsocialized?
Note: I say unsocial, because I’m not antisocial. I like socializing to the extent that feels right for me at any given time and am an ambivert that skews either way depending on my mental/emotional/physical health and other factors, like atmosphere. But I am currently living in an unsocial way, not socializing regularly regardless of any desire to.
The fact of the matter is I cannot, and do not, blame others for not going out of their way to socialize with me first. Sure, selfishly, it smarts when they don’t. It smarts when you feel outside of the crowd. It smarts when you don’t feel like you’re as valuable to others that they would go out of their way to talk to you, invite you to do things, etc. But it’s a two-way street and I’m guilty of not going out of my way in turn. Maybe one of my friends is in a state of mind that wishes I would go out of my way to show I’m invested in the relationship. Maybe my friends and family members who are more social eventually got tired of my saying no when they invited me to things.
In essence, I cannot blame anyone other than myself for not taking the initiative to go out and connect with people,or reconnect with people as it may be. For example, I am not active in my current church; I cannot even tell you more than two people’s names! And I’m not actively looking for a different church where I might find my views more in line with others so as to connect with people better there than where I’m at currently. I simply cannot go, “woe is me! why does nobody like me?” if I’m not willing to put myself out there a little more to find out if that’s really true or a symptom of my isolationism.
What I can do, and have done since that conversation, is ask if there are other things that can be blamed for why I don’t take the initiative rather than solely blaming myself and getting stuck in the cycle of self-loathing where this subject is concerned. In layman’s terms, I can ask: Am I someone who has not been socialized? The answer, I believe, is yes.
Let me preface my conclusion by saying, I’ve read a lot in the way of experiences leaving various fundamental Evangelical denominations and life after the fact. I’ve read all about Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) and in all of this I’ve recognized some of the very same characteristics I’ve noticed in myself as well as struggles I’ve faced in the past and am facing presently. But, as I’ve stated before, I’m in a strange middle ground in that I was fortunate enough to have escaped the most extreme experiences you can read from ex-fundamentalists yet also raised in a strict, tumultuous home where one parent – at least at that time – would have likely preferred we lived an even stricter and extreme fundamentalist life. Said parent did everything possible to promote piety by way of restriction and obedience to the law, typically via periods where we’d do things such as “clean the house” of unholy things, wake up super early to spend in time of prayer and worship, and so on – only to for things to get a little lax again.
In terms of socialization this means I feel like I had a middle ground experience in my childhood to somewhat prepare me for adulthood. I went to public school, I went to Christian private school, and I was home schooled (with Christian curriculum). I also went to a mainstream sort of church that was still legalistic and extremely Evangelical, but not one that promoted closing ourselves off from the world or all things secular (I could write an entire post on the hypocrisy and confusion of my childhood church). So, basically, I learned how to socialize with other people to, I suppose you could call it, a functioning degree. Although I’m very inept, behind, etc. and find that to be more and more so as I near the end of my twenties (and am starting to feel some of the extreme symptoms of possible RTS I’m at least able to hold my own, to some extent, in social settings and I’m able to understand how life works “in the world” so that I can navigate it for the most part in spite of my social awkwardness and sort of “other-ness”. Also I believe the middle ground has allowed me to at least have a little more autonomy than those who grew up in even stricter and/or closed off environments. I’m also able to see some of the positives in some of the boundaries that were set in place: I’m comfortable and semi-privileged, if not well-lived/traveled/etc. and I realize an environment of no boundaries can lead to damage in people’s lives too (I make this generalized statement based on the three styles of parenting, which I learned about in one of my child psychology classes in college).
But on the flip side of that socialization was the continued expectations that were set upon me as early as I can remember. I was expected to be as little “of the world” as humanly possible regardless of if I was at school, with family, or even in kid’s church! [Spoiler alert: I failed regularly as a child and I fail now.] I could have friends, but only to an extent and with approval in some cases and extreme amounts of regular questioning for the extent of the friendship in other cases. I didn’t participate in many extracurricular activities, especially those that would involve me going away (school camping trips, sports games away, etc.). I slept over at friends’ houses on three occasions in my teenage years (one I had to trick my parent into and promise not to watch Saturday Night Live – specifically – while there; it was a Friday night for the record) and I even had to fight to participate in sleepovers in a Christian context (e.g. at a youth leader’s house, at a youth group lock-in event, at church camp, etc.).
I was socialized, but socially inept.
Even with friends in my youth group, those of whom their parents didn’t take the authoritarian or legalistic teachings of our faith as seriously or whom didn’t attend church at all, I was met with the constant struggle of not being able to talk about things or relate to them because I wasn’t allowed to watch the same things, listen to the same things, read the same things, have the same experiences. They could actually read Harry Potter? Even though the pastor spent an entire October on its demonic influence? So I was sheltered on the one hand and on the other expected to do always do the right thing in light of all the temptation of interacting with peers, because if my parents didn’t know God always did and as was often quoted in my house: “Obedience is better than sacrifice” (which I’m still not sure what that even meant out of context, other than as an alternate verse to “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft” to get me to please God with my obedience to my parents’ rules or desires for me).
This strange middle-ground, where I could kind of be out there in the world, left me with a seriously internalized feeling of always being on the outside looking in, which is why I said above I never know how much of how I perceive other people’s acceptance of me is my imagination and how much is reality. (Weird by Hanson has been a song I’ve related to since the moment it came out. It has always captured the feeling I’ve had. I just didn’t understand why it made me cry on the special occasions I was allowed to listen to it as a child; I wasn’t allowed to own their albums obviously.)
So upon analysis, I believe there are other serious repercussions of that middle-ground that have affected me in a unique way throughout my life (although not super unique, since they fall pretty in line with RTS if the manifestation in itself is unique). My upbringing was strict enough to damage my ability to make friends and keep them, but all the while the temptation of companionship was dangled in front of me like a carrot that I got a small nibble of every now and then. I can’t tell you how many times I would get so upset at a friend for giving into sexual temptation that they should know better than to do and quite literally SCREAM AT THEM they were going to go to hell, end up losing the friendship (if only for a short while before they ‘sorta came back to the fold’ and I ‘sorta got my head on straight’ after the initial fearful and aggressive reaction had cooled), and then cry and blame myself for being such an ugly person who acts so weirdly over the top (subconsciously I realized my behavior wasn’t acceptable) while simultaneously blaming myself for their falling away from Christ while simultaneously lamenting the loss of another friend and how I was doomed to live a lonely life. Do you see how damaging and complex this is? I’m sure you do.
And after talking to my friend, I realize, oh. I’m definitely still dealing with those repercussions. I’m an adult now, have matured beyond that fragile girl who screamed at her friends, and should be able to make friends and live my own life. But I don’t. Looking at my post-high school life it’s not hard to see why I’ve never been able to get past this particular part of my upbringing.
You see, after high school I couldn’t rely on the friends I made in my youth to always be around – obviously part of being and adult is you have to work harder to make it work. And, quite honestly, the reason for my disconnect from the friends of my youth is that even into early adulthood – when by normal societal standards I should have been an adult able to make my own choices – there was the deeply ingrained sense of: Sorry, I’m not allowed to do that. So eventually they all moved on with their lives, did their own things, and ultimately I wasn’t able to tag along rather just watch from the outskirts (aka Facebook) even more than before. For example, I couldn’t meet up for a girl’s night out because there might be alcohol and lasciviousness (and it was unfair for them to always make exceptions for me just to include me). I couldn’t go out and do things with any of the people I met in college (because, hell, I wasn’t even able to move away from home for college to have that kind of freedom to test my wings without my parents always right there to know) or those I met at work. Dating was still frowned upon. My mother’s words were, “My prayer is that you never have to date, and that God brings you the right man the first time.” (Okay, mom.) Even if I had gone out and done things, there was fear of judgment – more from God or from my parents I’ll never know because my conscience is an entangled mess. And then to top things off my parents left my childhood church and church-hopped a little. So I had to start over and while I got to know some people during that time, I was met again with the “chill out, yo” attitude and still didn’t become active enough to really make friends. (I recall my mom even being confronted by a father at one of these church’s for being so strict and not allowing me the right to live and grow as a person even if it means making my own mistakes, after I -a young adult- said something to his teenage daughter about what I wasn’t allowed to do and she went to him in concern that it didn’t seem right, asked questions as to why that would be, etc. I recall being secretly pleased by this all the while she told me, “But I don’t agree with him at all. You shouldn’t have to make mistakes.”)
Conclusion: Life was a party I wasn’t invited to, and to want to be invited spoke of a sinful nature within me that I needed to always resist. I wasn’t supposed to make mistakes.
Thus, what happened after high school is my spirit was crushed. I was faced more and more by the real world – one where cognitive dissonance could no longer be ignored. I ended up isolating myself ever further from real life friendships because it was just easier. They didn’t understand what I was going through – though a few tried – and I didn’t understand what they were going through. It hurt too much to keep trying while also trying to hold onto my piety, or at least my obedience to my parents, out of fear of worse repercussions than losing friends. And even though I did other things in secret that would have been labeled sin and gotten me in bad graces with my family, at least they were mine alone to know about and at least I wasn’t out there broadcasting my sinful nature where my parents would find out. (Yes, these are the thoughts that go through your head in a hypocritical vicious cycle; and all the while they went through mine I punished myself harshly for giving into my sinful nature even in secret.)
It was in this way that the majority of my social life moved to online spaces where I could join communities and make friends with other people who didn’t know me, but in a profound way could get to know me better than those who have for years. Only it has also been a double-edged sword.
In some ways it’s acted as a wonderful safety net or even a cocoon in which I’ve been able to survive and grow. As depressed and lonely as I was at one point, I don’t know where I’d be as a person right now if I hadn’t gone searching for connections elsewhere and found them. I never want to lose that fully, and hope to stay connected with the people I’ve met. Only now that the butterfly is starting to leave her other cocoon (the one imposed on her), the conversation with my friend has brought up a glaring point that I just can’t keep ignoring: I’m still sadly short of people in my life face-to-face life whom I feel safe turning to for support, on a wide spectrum of things not just faith, and I’m still rather ill-equipped as is in knowing how to change that.
But that’s okay. I’m glad it was brought up. I’m glad that I took the time to really consider it. I’m even glad that I had to acknowledge the pain and loneliness, even if it hurts to put it into words as little as I’ve done here. I’m glad because it means I’ve reached another point in my journey. It’s a scary one, but understanding is half the battle.
I understand now that I have choices to start making. I can either go on not putting myself out there because of rules that shouldn’t apply to me anymore or I can start looking for small, proactive steps towards literal freedom and not just longing for it from a distance (e.g. actively finding my own church, going to more work functions, being the one to touch base with friends to see if there’s any interest still there, etc.). I don’t expect this to be easy, in fact from all that I’ve read it may be the hardest step yet and one I’d rather not do without any support at all, but I do think it’s the next step and one far too long in coming.