Am I too old to change?
At the age of 15, I stopped speaking for a whole school term. To my friends at least. I still hung out with them, I just didn’t say anything.
My quietness began the first week back after summer, and grew into absolute muteness. Like a spell spreading through my body, as if Ursula had a shell containing my voice deep under the sea somewhere. At break time, I stood in a circle with those girls, who I’d known from back when we made Barbie dry hump Ken, and felt such inadequacy and self-hatred that it weighed like a stone on my chest, like a heavy boot across my throat.
I was so convinced I had nothing interesting to say, that I said nothing. I believed that silence could, temporarily, delay my friends’ realisation that I was a loser.
I turned 36 this August, and I would love to say, as Nick Hornby says in High Fidelity, “that as I’ve got older times have changed, relationships have become more sophisticated, females less cruel, skins thicker, reactions sharper, instincts more developed. But there still seems to be an element of that [time] in everything that happened to me since; all my other romantic stories seem to be a scrambled version of that first one.” Except replace ‘romantic’ with ‘friendship’.
Many things have changed but my ability to build friendships has not. If anything, it’s worse now. My destructive way of thinking and my awkward behaviour have become embedded. I am less shy with new people, I’m a decent public speaker, but I struggle to develop new acquaintances into deeper friendships, still convinced that I’m too dull and thus become increasingly awkward as I try to get to know them. Adults are supposed to move in an upward trajectory, an arrow shooting towards wisdom, and I am getting weirder.
As I've got older times have changed, relationships have become more sophisticated, females less cruel, skins thicker, reactions sharper, instincts more developed. But there still seems to be an element of that [time] in everything that happened to me since; all my other romantic stories seem to be a scrambled version of that first one.
I’m not mute now. I speak! And I have amazing friends, who I trust and I can be myself with. I just don’t have many. This is not a state of affairs that I’m happy about, I would love to have more friendships and closer friendships, but my question is… am I too old to change?
Julie Beck has written in The Atlantic about the difficulties of making deeper connections and lasting friendships as an adult, she quotes William Rawlins, a Professor of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University, who says, “Pay close attention to the habits you’re forming, because before you know it, you have organized your life in a way that doesn’t allow for the kind of friends that you would like to have.” This struck a nerve. I’ve moved from city to city a lot since I finished my degree and I always thought I was looking for new experiences but now I have to admit that some of it may have been about avoiding deeper friendships, and the potential for them to go wrong. The classic dump-them-before-they-dump-you hooey.
I’m not dead yet, I know. I still have time and choices. I can choose my exercise, my diet, my job, my sleeping, my clothes, what I read, what I watch, where I travel, all within a certain range, depending on income and circumstances, of course. But when they say ‘it’s never too late’, it’s a half truth, at best, right? I can still learn new skills but what about my behaviour and my mindset? Are there some habits so fundamentally woven into our character that, like a bug in amber, we are trapped staring blankly out?
‘Wait!What?!’ 99% of the internet choruses. ‘Isn’t that what most of this hoo-ha with 30 ingredient recipes, ebooks, lifehacks, and cat memes is about? Learning from our mistakes and working on ourselves!?’ Well actually, most of those are part of the complex reasons that Beck suggests make it more difficult to maintain close friendships now- increased technology, job insecurity, travel. Of course these social changes have affected our interactions, often requiring equally complex coping methods like office to cocktails outfit planners, shared Google calendars and ‘igging’. The invented solutions outnumber our problems a billion to one, which creates the impression that we have control, that we can change and that all we need is grit (gee, thanks Angela Duckworth) and the right tools.
This is one of the main problems for me- managing my expectations. I am self-aware enough to realise that I tend towards the introverted, which naturally leads to a smaller friend group, but within that broad label how much can I improve or reorient?
Pay close attention to the habits you’re forming, because before you know it, you have organized your life in a way that doesn’t allow for the kind of friends that you would like to have.
The behemoth self-help industry is founded on there being practical steps to tackle any problem, but as Brian Little and his research suggests, pushing yourself to act out of your comfort zone for too long or too often has a physical and emotional cost, making you feel drained and anxious. It’s anecdotal evidence but I definitely found that when I was teaching at a secondary school, I had to push myself to be extroverted in front of my classes and with my students and, after a few years, I felt worn out. My nerves were frayed and I had little social energy left for my life outside work. So incremental differences are key, for me small adaptations work best- more meeting for coffee with a new friend than assembling a Kardashian level social schedule.
Research into genetics and personality formation in the 80s suggested that our main character traits are partially inheritable and are certainly set quite early in childhood. Although these findings are still constantly being debated, it seems likely that drastic changes to our personality may never be possible, but definitely become more difficult as we move past the physical developments of our adolescence and settle into our adult life choices. My initial question- am I too old to change?- therefore, is really a dead end. In many ways, I have been too old to change since I learnt to talk and circumstances only further set my traits during high school. I am extremely late to this party.
That doesn’t mean abandon all hope ye who enter your thirties. The self-help industry does teach us to picture success, to visualise your goal, and this isn’t such a dumb idea. Within narrower, more realistic margins, how do I imagine a more sociable version of myself? Having reduced my expectations, I looked at my month ahead and realised that I would like to make two changes- I would like more regular group activities with friends, where I spend time with a group of people, 5 to 10 people, not a crowd, a gathering, and I would like one or two more close friends that I can speak to during the day, meet for a coffee, share ideas with. Neither one of these changes seems preposterous or unworkable, nor do they require me to rewire my DNA or lock myself in a dark room weekly to recharge like a vampiric Tesla.
The other lightnight strike realisation I had when I looked at my social life was that my awkwardness around certain friends and work colleagues comes from the fact that they are the wrong people. For me, the wrong people for me. They’re perfectly nice people, we just don’t have that much in common and I’m trying to make myself fit with them, when I should give up and accept that we won’t ever be that close. It’s hard to give up on people, even as an adult. Our default is usually to blame our behaviour rather than see it as a mutual issue, a fact of life. The self-help monster has absolutely exacerbated this guilt, turning our inner voice up to 11 and making everything seem fixable. I just needed to grow a backbone, shut out some of those outside voices and be more honest about my friendships. As soon as I did, I felt liberated and started to think of ways to meet more compatible new people.
So give up on people. That’s my message. And short answer, yes I am too old to change. So are all of you. You can still make small changes though, just don’t ask too much of yourself.