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Ask HN: I'm a really lonely college student. What can I do?
6 points by jteb on Feb 11, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 5 comments
This is the last place I had thought of, but here I am. I'm a CS student in my third year of college, I'm 19. I feel old, I spend most of my time alone, and I feel as if I have no motivation for anything. My college experience has been, honestly, brutally disappointing; I just look around and see my peers having the time of their lives, finding opportunities, spending time with friends. I feel as if I'm not part of this community of young, interesting, capable people.

Worse still, I have no single person to tell these things to. I used to, but one by one they have left. I'm scared about being like a black hole...was my attitude the thing that led them away? I don't want to fall into that ugly spiral of negative thoughts, I don't want to be the person nobody wants to talk to, but I'm afraid I have become that guy. I deeply wish to be a cool, interesting person to be around with. This is so hard! I feel that before I had something to offer to people, something that made me interesting. I feel as if I've lost that.

I’m currently in counselling, but the therapist keeps telling me I should keep talking to at least one stranger every single day. I don't see it working, and it drains me physically, mentally and specially emotionally. I have no way of letting this out - I can't cry. Tears simply won't come out.

I constantly ask myself how could I -and why the hell I can't- connect and surround myself with the people that I would like to be with. Those, with which I could make projects, play music, stay up all night chatting, have the adventures people in college are supposed to have. It's just so difficult for me to even analyze what I'm doing wrong, or what I'm supposed to do. Everything is so confusing, and getting worse by the day.

Hope this hasn't been too long. I just have to let this out. Any word of help would be very welcome.

I found college completely crushing, especially because I'd built up wild hopes for it as an escape from my unhappy childhood. I don't have any easy answers, but here's some of the tools that helped me:

- Exercise. I know, it sounds dumb, especially when you're depressed and have no energy, but it's an incredibly effective way of hacking your brain chemistry. Run, swim, bike, hike, just pick one and pour all your frustration, anger, and sadness into it.

- Get a hobby. I spent a lot of time worrying about being interesting to others, which guaranteed I wouldn't be. Being interesting is a many-body problem with lots of unknowns, but being interested is way more solvable. You can figure out what you like a lot more easily than you can guess what might make other people like you. Don't rule something out because it seems dorky, I guarantee you'll find other people who enjoy it too, even if it's Lego or collecting old maps. It's surprisingly hard to understand what you actually want though, especially if you've been focused on what other people think.

- Beware of magical transformations. I got married at 19, driven by an overwhelming desire to completely change my life to find happiness. It didn't work. I also took a lot of drugs. That didn't work either. I saw people get pulled into cult-like religions or extreme political groups. Drastic exterior changes don't alter who you are, you'll still have the same problems, no matter what anyone tells you. Focus on boring incremental improvements, like exercise and hobbies. I hated that idea, because I was in love with my life being dramatic and the basic stuff seemed so mundane, but it's what ended up making a lasting difference.

I doubt I'd have even listened to my present-day self when I was 19, but I hope there's something in there that helps you. Life really does get better.

Definitely second petewarden's suggestions 'exercise' and 'get a hobby'. You do not have to join a gym or anything. Exercise can be something as simple as going walking for an hour with your iPod (or equivalent). No matter what the particular exercise, the fact is that it will usually get you out of your own head for awhile.

Aside from those I would suggest maybe reading Party of One [1] and/or Quiet [2], as they bring to light very well the fact that mainstream society unfairly and illogically looks down upon those who prefer aloneness. Being surrounded by laughing groups of sociable people has a way of making anyone not involved feel like they are missing out on something or that there is something wrong with them, when this might not be the case at all.

Props for such an honest post; and I hope you feel better soon.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Party-One-The-Loners-Manifesto/dp/1569...

[2] http://www.amazon.com/Quiet-Power-Introverts-World-Talking/d...

I was the same way in college, and slowly developed my social skills since then. The truth is, as with myself, you didn't develop social skills along the way growing up. It's not like everyone starts at zero in college and some people click. Also you skipped grades and had less in common with your peers your whole life.

But now that you recognize a need, you can start working on it. The best way to do it spend time with the same group of friends. It's hard to develop social skills with people who pass by. Find a hobby that not only you like, but where you like the people doing it. This is the time to make some life long friends.

Also, this is the best and easiest time for you to find a nice girlfriend. It will be 100x harder to find a good match after college. A relationship will develop your social ability like no other. You will probably fail a lot, but you HAVE to try now. Don't worry about finding the perfect one. Make a fool of yourself. In the future you will regret not trying much more. I know I have.

It's going to be a lot of trial and error. No getting around that. But try to stay true to yourself and you'll get there faster.

good for you to have the courage to say this. seriously, it takes guts to do so. feel free to pm if you wanna chat, just recently graduated college myself and have been on both sides of this coin.

edit: realize don't think there is pming here. i'm my username at gmail on e-mail.

First: HUGE kudos for posting this. That took courage.

Next, this is going to be a bit long. Apologies to all for that. Like Mark Twain said: if I'd had more time, I'd have written a shorter letter.

My name's Chris. I have a handful of close friends, and an amazing wife. And every single night I fall asleep filled with overwhelming gratitude for that. Because I know I could just as easily be completely alone. My friends have done the lion's share of the work staying in touch. I have a more balanced relationship with my wife, but that's what love has done for me: I want to make that woman happy more than anything, and that just washes away any barriers between what I want and what I actually do.

Like I said: lucky.

All this is to say: I don't think you and I are so different. I have trouble feeling emotionally connected. For me, it takes work, and some conscious effort, even with friends I've known for decades.

Okay, so. About not being able to cry. It sounds like you spend a lot of time and energy trying NOT to feel things. Trying not to feel lonely, not to feel discouraged, etc. The crazy thing about emotions is that you can't pick and choose what you suppress and what you let out. It's all or nothing. So clamping down on all the negative stuff is going to keep all the good feelings down too. So it makes sense that you're numb to good stuff like camaraderie, friendship, emotional support, etc.

And keeping a lid on all that emotion is exhausting. No wonder you sound tired.

Letting in all the good in life starts by opening the door to all the shitty emotions, too. That can be a bumpy ride. You're already seeing a therapist, and that's awesome. (Me too!) Don't give up on that. Medication can help. If your therapist suggests it, do it.

(But: SELF-medication is worthless, and masks one problem with another. I've avoided that trap, but I've seen it up close and personal. Trust me. Don't go there. Like the old joke goes: "...now you have two problems.")

But here's the payoff: as overwhelming as all your negative emotions feel now, that's how big all the good stuff is going to be. HUGE.

If the "talk to a stranger every day" exercise isn't working, then change it up. Therapists say talking to strangers is easier because it's low-risk. Odds are you won't see that person again, so it's no big deal if the conversation is uninspiring. But it sounds like that's part of what makes it discouraging for you: you want to make new friends, and you feel like talking to strangers isn't going to help you establish those kinds of friendships.

So change it up. My therapist told me to keep a "gratitude journal," where every day I write down something that makes me happy. I thought that was dumb, so I did it my own way. Instead of writing it down, I took a photo. After a few weeks, I was constantly looking around for cool stuff to take pictures of. And habitually looking for the good in my day was exactly what the journal was meant to achieve.

Point being: the talking to strangers thing is a suggestion. If it's not working, change the rules so they work for you.

My suggestion: join a group that does something that's exciting to you, but new. For me, it was Krav Maga class. I was bullied as a kid, and so confrontation was REALLY uncomfortable, physical confrontation doubly so. Krav shook me out of my usual habits, and let me establish casual friendships with the guys in the class over time. It was a different kind of low-stakes social interaction: instead of being sure I'd never see someone again, I was sure I'd see them again next time, so I didn't get self-conscious, and I didn't think too much about evaluating how it went. It was just a bunch of guys and girls having fun together. And being in a class gave me a certain comfort level: I knew that if I didn't feel like talking that night, I could keep the small talk to a minimum and nobody would mind.

But don't just take my suggestions either. Figure out what works for you.

Let's talk documentation.

Check out a book called, "How to Talk so Kids will Listen, and Listen so Kids will Talk." It pretends to be a book about skills for raising kids, but it's actually about really listening and connecting with people. It is AWESOME.

My other go-to book is called "Practical Programming for Strength Training". It's about weight training (y'know, with barbells & stuff), but the principles are incredibly broadly applicable. It's about finding what works and what doesn't in pursuit of any goal. (Plus, physical training has gotten me through the toughest times in my life. There's nothing like getting physically stronger to make me feel emotionally stronger.)

And I'm currently reading a book called "The Inner Game of Tennis". This one pretends to be about how to learn tennis technique, but it's actually about letting go of judging yourself, which is a skill worth having.

And finally, I'll share something that I learned in my years trying to reconnect. There's a really bad old song that talks about "if you want me to be closer to you, get closer to me... if you want me to love only you, love only me." I'm not a fan of the song, but there is some serious wisdom in it. Connection works the opposite of how I thought it did. I thought that people would be interested in me and my life if I made myself and my life interesting. But it's the opposite: you make friends by being interested in THEM. You draw energy and support from a friendship or romance by GIVING to it. You best improve your own life by working to improve the lives of the people around you. It's all inside out.

Fight on,


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