When You Feel Hopeless About Improving Your Social Life
Some people who are shy, insecure, and lonely feel hopeless, pessimistic, and discouraged about ever improving their confidence and social skills or making friends. They may think they're just too awkward and anxious to ever catch up to everyone else, or that they're so inherently unappealing no one will ever like them. They might believe something about their circumstances makes it impossible for them to build a social life.
From an outside perspective many of their worries don't hold up objectively. They may believe it's too late for them to make friends, when they're 22. They might think they're too ugly to meet anyone, when they look fine, and how hot you are doesn't matter nearly as much for friendships as it does for dating anyway. They may see themselves as hopelessly awkward, when their people skills are actually decent. They could assume they can't recover from their social anxiety, when it's a very treatable condition.
There's usually nothing stacked against them that actually makes them hopeless. The core issue is they feel hopeless. They have an inaccurate assessment of themselves, their situation, and the possibility of anything getting better. Ironically, believing they're a lost cause and giving up will do more to hinder their social life than the supposed barriers they believe hold them back.
Of course, even though someone may not actually be hopeless, their outlook can still seem very true on an emotional, gut level. It's a painful mindset to be in. In one sense they may know plenty of people have gone on to make friends when they were shy, or lived in a small town, or so on, but another part of them can't accept that's how it could work out for them.
Here are some things you can do if you feel hopeless about fixing your own social problems. If you're reading an article like this it means you're not 100% hopeless. A side of you certainly feels that way, but another part thinks there is hope, and wants to move beyond that limiting headspace. Hopelessness and pessimism can be stubborn, so the ideas here may not all work for you or pay off right away, but give them a try if you can. Also, keep in mind you even don't need to become blindingly hopeful at all times, just shift your attitude enough that you're able to go after what you want.
Challenge your beliefs about why you're hopeless
As I said, feeling hopeless is based on beliefs about how a better future is unattainable. Gather evidence that disputes those beliefs.
- If you think no one can make new friends after 30, look for examples of people who have done it.
- If you believe you're too unattractive to have a social life, walk around and spot groups of friends whose looks are on the same level as yours.
- If you're sure some kind of logistical obstacle, like living in the suburbs, makes your social life dead in the water, brainstorm ways to get around it.
- If you think your shyness or social awkwardness is too severe, maybe because you're on the autism spectrum, find some success stories, or get some outside feedback on whether you're as nervous and bumbling as you see yourself.
- If you tend to jump to overly broad conclusions, like, "I invited one person to hang out and they said they were busy, therefore no one wants to be friends with me", question that distorted thinking.
When you're collecting evidence, try not to fall into the trap of emotional reasoning, where you conclude something must be true because it simply feels like it is. Look for outside information.
The point isn't to be overly optimistic and deny you have any challenges whatsoever, but to try to look at your situation objectively. You may have some factors stacked against you, but it's highly unlikely you have no hope of making friends or getting over your shyness at all. Having a social life is a realistic, achievable goal for the vast majority of people.
It's possible you'll come across something that forces you to rethink your hopeless stance, e.g., you have an aunt who moved to a new city and made a bunch of friends when she was in her forties. However, it's not unusual for hopeless feelings to be resistant to logic. You may have all kinds of evidence that your situation isn't hopeless, but your mind will find a way to brush it off with, "Well that doesn't count. It's different for me." Though maybe even if this approach doesn't completely fix your hopelessness, it will put a dent in it.
Look for things that increase your sense of hope
This point overlaps with the previous one, but here the focus is on finding things that actively boost your hope and shift your sense of what's possible, rather than undercutting your belief that there's no point in trying. Some examples:
- Sources of advice on how to overcome your social problems, like this site
- Stories of people who were in your situation who turned things around
- Advice on how to get past any practical or logistical issues holding you back, like tips on ways to save up money so you can move out of your small town sooner
- Access to personal support, like starting to see a counselor who can help you with your low self-confidence
Do things to improve your general mood
Hopelessness and pessimism can arise from feeling down overall. If you generally improve your mood you may find yourself feeling more optimistic. There are lots of options to do this, and you can pick the ones that fit you best. A few examples:
- Get regular exercise
- Improve your sleep habits
- Take time to do truly fun or fulfilling things each week, rather than passively killing time
- Set aside 20 minutes each day to do some relaxation exercises
- Cut down on mood altering substances like alcohol and caffeine
- Eat a healthier diet
Try to treat any more general depression
A sense of hopelessness and resignation is also a symptom of clinical depression. Some people who feel hopeless about their social lives are in an okay mood otherwise. They just feel it's futile to try to become more sociable or make friends. Others are depressed in general. If you have depression, your hopeless feelings, about your social life or anything else, may lift as you gradually treat it. I can't cover how to diagnose and handle that mental health condition in this little article, but tons of other sources cover the topic.
Try to act in spite of your hopelessness
Maybe you don't see your hopeless outlook going away anytime soon. That doesn't mean it has to totally hobble you. To use a common metaphor, you can bring your hopelessness along for the ride with you, rather than pulling over and delaying your trip indefinitely while you wait for it to get out of the car. Acknowledge and accept you have hopeless feelings and beliefs, but make a plan for how you can still act in your best interests. Figure out how you can still go after your social goals, and then aim to carry out those steps, regardless of how hopeless you feel at any particular moment.
For example, if you're trying to make friends you can still go to places where you could meet people, start conversations, get someone's contact info and follow up with them, and whatnot. The whole time your hopelessness may be screaming at you that there's no point in doing any of this, but just because you have a thought or urge doesn't mean you have to obey it.
Again, your hopelessness may not completely roll over in the face of this approach. Sometimes that hopeless voice is really convincing and you end up going along with what it wants. However, this mentality could still help at times. It doesn't have to be all or nothing.
Ask yourself what you are still willing to do
When you're feeling hopeless and discouraged you don't want to do much, because you don't see the point in it. Why bother when you're going to fail no matter what? Though your hopelessness may not be all consuming. You may be willing to do some small, easy, low stakes things that may improve your social life, but not be open to any bigger steps. Like you may be okay with making small talk with your classmates or co-workers who you'd run into anyway, but not with going to any meet ups where you'd have to mingle with strangers.
Sit down and make a list of all the little things you're still willing to try even though you're feeling pessimistic and unmotivated on the whole. Also, list things you're not open to right now, but you may be soon:
- Are you okay with exploring new hobbies, which may give you more to talk about in some random conversation down the road?
- Are you willing to go to public events by yourself, where someone may start chatting to you?
- Are you okay with connecting with people online in a forum for your favorite show?
- Would you be willing to get a part-time job or volunteer position, mainly for other reasons, but where there's an off chance you could meet someone?
- Are you willing to get in better shape or improve your grooming or fashion sense, so you make a better surface level first impression?
These little things may not seem like much, but they can still add up, or create opportunities to get lucky. If you have success with them you may also build some momentum and become willing to stretch yourself further.
Some people are also fortunate in the sense that even if they feel utterly hopeless and unmotivated, the small social tasks they still naturally do end up being enough to pull them out of their rut. Like they may not make any conscious effort to turn their life around, but they still talk to their co-workers out of politeness, and are more likable than they think, and eventually they end up in a job where their colleagues put in the effort of bringing them into their group.
Think about how much you're willing to gamble
When you feel completely hopeless what you essentially believe is that if you were to try to overcome your problems you'd have a 0% chance of succeeding. Though you're probably not quite that pessimistic all the time. You likely believe you have a low chance of success, not zero, but still tiny enough that there's no reason to try.
- Ask yourself, if you were to put a half-decent effort in, what do you think the odds are you could turn your social situation around if you spent a few years on it? 10%, 25%, 50%? (Don't worry about whether the odds you give yourself are objectively realistic or not, just go with whatever your gut tells you).
- If you do succeed, what would the rewards be? Really think about all the ways your life would be better.
- If you try your best and fail, what will the downsides be? Will you just go back to the life you're already living right now, or will something extra-horrible happen? Is this super awful outcome realistic, or more an exaggerated anxious worry?
- If you do nothing to change, what are the odds things will work out anyway? Do you think it's a hard 0%, or is there a chance you could get lucky somehow? (E.g., some people come along who accept you for being shy and do all the work to befriend you)
- If after a year or two of honest effort you only get part way to your goal, what's your cut off for saying, "I'm making some progress. I'm on a good trajectory. I'm going to keep trying, even though I'm not there yet"?
There's no right or wrong answer, but after considering everything, ask yourself if it's worth taking the risk of trying to go after your goals for a few years. If you do nothing things are unlikely to change, so would you be willing to spend some effort on, say, a 30% chance of having a much better future?
Acknowledge one option is to give in to your hopelessness
It does no one any good to bury their head in the sand and pretend this isn't one of your choices. Ask yourself what surrendering to your hopeless feelings would look like? Would you succumb to overwhelming despair? Would you come to accept your situation and find ways to be content even without a busy social life? Do you have other sources of happiness, like hobbies, family, or a romantic partner, that would help you cope with a lack of friends, or do you not have anything else going for you?
How do you feel as you think about all this? Does it give you a burst of grit and motivation to avoid that crappy future? Do you feel a sense of relief and comfort in not having to try any more? Does a part of you think it wouldn't be that bad to be stuck hanging out by yourself, or with your spouse? If you feel relief, where does it seem to be coming from? Is it that you'd get to avoid the nerve racking, challenging work of trying to change? Is it that you're not actually that driven to have a bunch of friends, but feel it's something you should want?
Longer term if you want a social life you shouldn't give up, and it's very unlikely there are factors which put that reasonable, attainable goal out of reach. Though in the short term it may make sense to temporarily put your social goals on hold. Maybe you're going through a busy, stressful period at work, and trying to make a bunch of friends is more on your plate than you need.
Explore your hopelessness and how it's trying to help
One way to think of hopelessness is as an unwanted, destructive, counterproductive problem. It's this irrational mindset that's thwarting your ability to get out there and solve your problems.
Another perspective is that an unconscious part of your mind is making you feel hopeless because it thinks that's helping you somehow, that it's fending off an even bigger problem. It doesn't care if the hopelessness makes you feel bad. That trade off is worth it if it prevents something even worse. This part may be operating on skewed logic, or an outdated view of how the world works, but it doesn't know that.
How could a part of you think being hopeless is useful? There are many possibilities, but here are some common ones:
- A fear of being too lively and confident - When you're hopeless you don't do much. You're passive, you're mopey, you have no initiative, you're unwilling to take risks, if you have to do something you procrastinate or find a way to sabotage yourself. Some piece of you may be afraid of what you'd do if you had more self-esteem and energy. It may fear something could go wrong socially, like you'll get cocky and make a fool of yourself. It could also be worried about you being bold in some other facet of your life (e.g., you got the message as a child that you'll be abandoned by your family if you're too happy and excitable).
- A fear of unbearable, crushing disappointment - You may believe deep down that if you get your hopes and up, really try to overcome your social issues, and then still fail, you'll feel so absolutely dejected that you won't be able to go on. Your life will become a permanent, miserable 0/10, whereas now you're fairly unhappy, but still at a 5/10.
- An excuse to avoid uncomfortable anxiety - It feels really unpleasant to be anxious, and one of our big instincts is to avoid it. Going after your social goals often involves doing things that make you nervous. Feeling hopeless and unmotivated can be a simple reason to steer clear of the things that make you uncomfortably jittery.
It doesn't matter whether these unconscious beliefs are accurate or not. If you don't even know you believe something you can't exactly question if it's realistic. However, if you can figure out what's driving your hopelessness, then once the underlying beliefs are in the light, they may quickly fall apart - "Of course, my family isn't going to reject me just because I gain some self-esteem. I see how I saw it that way as a six-year-old, but I'm in my late twenties now." At other times the beliefs will still feel true even after you've dug them up, but at least now you know what you're dealing with, and can try various things to address or work around them.
How do you explore the unconscious motivations behind your hopelessness? One way to do it is with a therapist who works within that framework. There are other techniques you can do on your own, which I'll write about soon.
Work through the old baggage fueling your hopelessness
Why is it that two people can have roughly the same social problems, like shyness and no close friends, but one is fairly certain they can get past it, and another is mired in the belief that it's all futile? Often it's because the second person has had life experiences that instilled a deep-seated sense of hopelessness in them.
Some people have had an all around difficult childhood, and it gave them a bone deep certainty that nothing is ever going to work out in their favor, that no one likes them, that people aren't trustworthy, and so on. Others may have had a few memorable, visceral moments when they were younger where they felt really hopeless about their social life (e.g., a heartless teacher told them they would never have friends because their ADHD made them too annoying). These upsetting childhood experiences can get frozen in their mind, and they still believe their "lessons" years or decades later. The fact that these lessons were never true to begin with, or no longer apply to them as adults, doesn't matter. They still feel like they did at the time they happened. A thirty-year-old may still unconsciously see himself as the hyper, irritating kid no one wanted to play with.
You can work through, or process, these difficult, influential memories that fuel your sense of hopelessness. When you've done that you'll still be aware of what happened to you, but the emotional charge connected to it will be much lower, if it's there at all. You'll be more able to deal with the world as it is right now, and not have your perception be warped by wounds from the past.