Somewhere between 5 and 6, the little girl, who used to hide behind her mother’s skirt afraid to talk to people began to feel differently. Perhaps after being an only child for 6 years, I started to get restless, or curious, but I was definitely lonesome. I knew I had to take matters into my own hands, so I started to make friends everywhere I went! In fact I started to play a game with myself called: How quickly could I make a friend? Little did I know that I was laying a foundation to build a support system for myself.
Looking back I realize that at 6, and for most of my pre-adolescent childhood, I was the only Indian kid or colored kid around, but that didn’t stop me from reaching out. It didn’t even dawn on me, until someone would point it out. Someone being other kids or adults. Unfortunately, the minute someone would out me I’d feel a sense of guilt, like I was a stranger or a stowaway. I knew the relationship would never be the same again, and at the time I didn’t think I could change someone’s perception about me. So instead of pushing people to change, I’d just go and figure out a way to make new friends. Sometimes older kids, sometimes younger, and even a few trusted adults, who fascinated me. To me it just didn’t matter, I had only one agenda item: to find someone to play with and maybe listen to my zany stories.
As I got older, I got smarter about reaching out to people. I could easily start to tell who’d be open to being my friend and who just wouldn’t be able to tolerate my differences. I embraced being an outsider, and learned how to work within those constraints. I fundamentally knew that I needed friends, and I was also deliberate about how I reciprocated within a friendship. I never wanted the other person to feel like they were getting the short-end of the stick. I learned to become a limb person (someone who goes out of their way to do things for others), and I taught myself to not have expectations that they’d be the same. I’d learn to rest in the comfort that the universe would bring good people my way.
I initially thought that this strategy of making friends was silly, but something I just had to do to combat my feelings of loneliness. Especially since I began in a situation that was extremely isolating (growing up as an Indian kid), and then cultivating a habit of thrusting myself into them such situations as an adult: pursuing engineering, working as the only female engineer on teams, and now being an entrepreneur. I was a bit fearless in the groups I joined, but it took some time and effort for me to overcome the anxiety of being rejected, worrying about burdening other people, or thinking that I had nothing to offer in return.
It’s also easy to think that people won’t understand, or that no one gets you. It’s true that you might have had an experience that someone cannot relate to exactly. But you won’t know unless you start the conversation. Even those who may not be able to find the right words to respond can still be good listeners.
So to all the Eleanor Rigbys and Father McKenzies out there, here is my sincerest advice: you have to build a support system. It’s not something that happens over time, and even if you are more of an introvert it doesn’t mean that you cannot. Here are some small steps:
Don’t turn down invitations. Too often we make excuses like, “I’ve got a lot of work.” Or, “I need to take care of the kids.” Figure out how to get the work done earlier, and find someone to take care of people or things that need to be taken care of.
Figure out if you’re a group person or a 1-1 person. Some people cannot handle groups. They actually start to feel more isolated in a group than being by themselves. When we think of how to build a support system, we often forget that sometimes less is more. If that’s the case, then instead start by limiting yourself to meeting just one or two people at once. Or if you feel that 1-1 is too intimidating then hang with the group!
Realize that anxiety and loneliness is worsened by being alone. When you’re by yourself you have no alternative but to continue the line of negative thoughts. Break the cycle by being in a group, sometimes even being in a crowded cafe can help.
Start conversations in friendly settings. I know you’re afraid of befriending an axe murderer. So if you’re not quite up to the level of making friends with strangers, start in settings that you feel safe. Even something as simple as, “Man that yoga class sure was hot, no?” will get you a response.
The other person doesn’t need to be perfect. There are people we’d all love to be friends with, but sometimes those people are just unavailable. Find someone else who cares and has the time to spend with you and invest the time into cultivating a friendship with them. For the longest time growing up, I had to hang out with my baby brother, who couldn’t even talk… He was a terrible playmate when it came to playing house or school, but man he sure made a great dog! He’s my oldest best friend 🙂