Mental Health

I Want You to Want Me (But Maybe from a Distance): Struggling with Social Anxiety and Belonging

Do I need to be liked? Absolutely not. I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I have to be liked.

Michael Scott

What would life be without paradox and irony? I am an introvert – that means that social interaction drains my energy rather than increases it. I have social anxiety – I worry about what others think, always feel I’m being judged negatively, and try to people please. I have obsessive-compulsive personality disorder – that enhances the social anxiety because I place impossibly high standards on myself that I know I’m not meeting and which, frankly, makes me picky about with whom I spend my time (fear of cosigning someone else’s bad behaviour).

All of that said, I do want to feel seen and heard. That is, I want to feel loved.

Now there are degrees to this. I have family that care deeply about me in that familial way. I have a small but strong core of friends who care deeply about me. I am married and my wife and I love each other deeply. We’re an excellent team and complement one another well. I do not doubt the sincerity of her feeling towards me.

It’s a specific type of feeling though. It’s one that I have seen borne out throughout my life. I recently heard her say on a phone call with her sister, “Of course he likes talking with James. Everyone likes talking with him. You’d have be not intelligent enough to follow the conversation or oblivious to some of his puns to not like talking to him.” She, and others, have used the term “charming” to describe my interactions with people. I don’t know if that is innately true or simply a matter of practise (being an analytical people-pleaser; also, is there a difference in truth there?), but I do make an effort to be charming (in this sense: amenable, engaging, and somewhat entertaining) when interacting with people. I try to make the other person feel seen and heard.

So when I discuss the central thesis of this piece, understand that it does not come from a place of overt loneliness or even a sense that people dislike me. I think my challenge is quite the opposite – I feel liked, but not in the sort of way some part of me desires. I get along with most people easily, and that forces most people into a category of, “James seems a decent person, and I’m fine having him around.” In the rarest of cases, my wife, this transitioned from colleagues to “he seems a decent person and I like having him around” to “he’s a great guy, I love him, and now we’re married.” It’s all sort of practical and pragmatic like.

Part of what poisoned the well is undoubtedly pop culture – always a questionable source of influence. Whether it was Mary (Donna Reed) fawning over George (Jimmy Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life, or the more recent Annie (Alison Brie) fawning over Troy (Donald Glover) in Community, I saw examples of unrequited love that sometimes blossomed and sometimes didn’t. The point was the depth of feeling. They did not obsess over the other person, but there was a breathlessness about the way they felt things.

The other part was very much grounded in reality though. Many of my friends from high school onward have been women, and I have seen them react to people and discuss people they like. I’ve seen it from men, too, but that was already familiar to me. My college journey was largely one of undoing gender stereotypes, one where women were not some other race with distinct thoughts and feelings but fellow people who shared them. Yes, I grew up with some very traditional notions of gender identity, such as that women were beautiful creatures men were meant to pursue for affection. As a man, I had to prove my worthiness and that would somehow convince women that I was a worthwhile partner. What I learned in adolescence is that I possessed inherent worthiness and mostly had not to fumble it.

Despite that personal growth, what I observed was perhaps the ease with which I interacted with people obliterated any passion. Anyone could approach me but, being socially anxious, I only made sustained efforts to interact with certain people. Most of my amenability started and ended with the interaction. It had the effect of leaving me feeling well-known yet invisible in the world. When people wanted something, even as simple as friendly conversation, they knew they could turn to me and then leave.

While my peers all had these deep crushes on other people and would share how much they wanted to be with them, I never experienced being on the receiving end of it. Could it be that people had crushes to which I was oblivious? Absolutely – with my social anxiety, it is not outside the realm of possibility that I actually misread others attempting to conceal a crush or communicate one indirectly as some sort of personal criticism. It’s not that interpreting their behaviour as critical would cause me to dislike them; it would convince me that I was inadequate and I would shy away feeling that it was inappropriate to subject them to my presence (essentially, “If I continue to try spending time with them, it’s harassment on my part because they do not want me around”).

My dating history is not one that reads like, “Oh my god – yes! I’d love to go out with you!” It reads like a more tepid, “Sure. You seem like a good guy. That could be fun.” Most of my relationships ended with a realization that it did not have long-term potential (I wanted to get married, but that’s an especially tall ask given everything I mentioned in the open). The one that I did not end was a similar decision, but on her part (an accurate one). Not only was it a pleasant breakup (she handled it wonderfully), but the reasons were such that I have nothing but good wishes towards her. It simply was not a good match for the long-term and she realized it first.

No passionate blow ups. Pragmatic assessments that resulted in, “We’ll be better suited long-term with other people” until I met someone well suited with me for the long term.

Despite the introversion and social anxiety and personality disorder, I sometimes find myself thinking, “It would be nice, perhaps just once, to be someone that made someone else light up, to turn their head, to draw out a longing sigh.” Again, it’s possible that I missed signs of it, but especially being friends with so many women I always felt that it would get back to me at some point if that were true. Even if it were years later; a casual conversation where someone peppered in, “You know who used to be wild about you?” Not once.

Instead I got things like my mother quipping that my brother would be the one to “knock someone up” and that I would marry them (or, more generally, step in to make sure they were supported). A friend’s boyfriend once told me that he liked me because I’m “the sort of guy you can trust alone with your girl” (yeah, we didn’t like him much either; he didn’t seem to understand where the problem was in that “compliment”). I got things like stating something, only to have someone else say it a short while later and people respond to that (to the point that it’s an in-joke with another brother to this day, because he’s acutely aware that it happens to me).

It’s not about being disliked. It’s about being liked the “right” way.

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