I grew up in a very small town, only a few hundred people, and we were surrounded on all sides by small towns, some even smaller than mine. It just worked out that there were no kids my age in my town, as I seemed to be in between generations. Only one of these towns had a school that the rest of us were bussed to, but most of the kids in the school lived in the town the school was in. So, it was hard for me to make friends at school, as most of them already knew each other and could hang out together outside of school, while I had to return to a big empty house in my home town each night. I eventually made a few friends in elementary school, and more in high school, but I always felt like an outsider.
As a result, I was forced to be independent and self reliant from an early age. I typically had to watch TV alone or read alone. I would take hikes alone, walking in the woods by myself for hours. There was nobody to play catch with, so I would throw a baseball up on the roof of my parents’ garage and catch it when it fell back down. I would ride my bike around town seeking some adventure. I learned to be my own entertainment. I was alone with my thoughts a lot of the time, and became a very introspective person. It was never easy. I hated being so alone. To this day, I don’t like visiting my home town. But I learned how to survive on my own, even if it was still quite painful, although I never really learned how to live with others.
While I was figuring out how to live alone, I didn’t have opportunities to develop social skills others learn early on and take for granted. I’ve tried to learn these things as an adult, but its not natural for me. I can sometimes act the role of a confident, outgoing, friendly person, and people seem to respond to it. But its ultimately just a mask I wear so they don’t see the ugliness underneath.
I was always very painfully shy. I couldn’t speak to people or even look them in the eye. I don’t know why, but I was always this way, and it only got better when as an adult, I made a conscious effort to force myself out of it (although not completely) because I realized how much it negatively impacted my life. I forced myself to do things that scared me, and I kept doing them until I wasn’t scared anymore, although I’ve never been comfortable in my interactions with others.
I’ve told a few people the following example. Saying "hello" when I walk past someone was always awkward for me. I knew I wasn’t doing something right. I would wait until someone was about to pass me before I would look up and say hello. Sometimes, it startled people, sometimes they stopped and chatted, which I certainly didn’t want. But it was always awkward for them, I could tell that. So I studied other people to see how they do it. I learned that you have to acknowledge and say hello to someone when they are say, 10 or 15 feet in front of you. Then, strangely, the convention is to ignore each other the rest of the time until they pass. Its a strange little ritual, but once I started copying that behavior, suddenly, the interactions worked! It wasn’t awkward anymore, and I actually had fun for a while saying "hello" to people in the hallways at work.
What seems to come so naturally to everyone else takes effort for me. It can be exhausting sometimes. My entire life, I have always wished I could just be normal, like everyone else, and life would be so much easier, and I would be so much happier.
So, I’ve spent most of my life focused on my needs and meeting them, because I had to. But obviously, this leads someone to be very self-centered in their thinking. I focus a lot of attention on my own thoughts, replaying past events over and over in my mind, experiencing past pain as if it is happening right now, and imagining future scenarios and then worrying about what I have imagined might happen. I burrow deep within myself, like walking down a long tunnel, the light of the outside getting farther away, smaller, dimmer. So, for example, I have to remind myself to ask someone how they are doing, because it doesn’t occur to me naturally to ask. I can have complete interactions with someone inside my own head without talking to them or even feeling the need to. My inner world seems so large and the rest of the world seems so small by comparison.
Despite all this, I do like taking care of people close to me. I think I am thoughtful and empathetic even if I am not always able to express it properly. I try to understand and help fill other people’s emotional needs, although this can be tiring after a while. Interacting with people in general is exhausting. But I find I am much more motivated to do things for my friends, family, lovers, than I am for myself.