This post describes the alienating feeling of ‘normal’ friendship from the perspective of someone (me) who scores highly in having traits of Asperger’s Syndrome. It seems to me that the empty feeling of normal friendship is something felt also by a small percentage of people who, unlike me, don’t have traits of Asperger’s Syndrome. I don’t know what to call this other group of people, but I think that we share something in common both in terms of our gifts and struggles in life. It’s like we are outsiders who don’t belong anywhere, and we only feel truly happy, connected and ourselves when we meet others who are similar to us. However, the problem is that there don’t seem to be many of us around. This may be why life is often felt to be lonely for people like us – the outsiders. Even when trying to make friends and meet people, the connected feeling we yearn for is often elusive–no matter how much effort we put into cultivating friendships.
I also want to add here that just because I meet someone who has Asperger’s Syndrome or traits, that doesn’t mean I will necessarily feel a sense of connection with them. This is because many people with Asperger’s or Autism are too closed off to connect with anybody. To find that sense of connection with another person, both people have to be open and receptive to it.
Before I begin the post I want to give some definitions:
‘Normal’ Friendship – enjoying the social company of people in general. Playing a social character role. Being similar to your friends and agreeing on the same views about the world. Sticking together and being a group. Your friends having certain expectations of how you should be. Friendship is conditional and quickly withdrawn for any small transgressions. NOTE: this kind of friendship is hard for me to describe since, to be honest, I have only ever ‘acted’ this kind of friendship or seen it from the outside.
Connected Friendship – someone with whom you feel open and free. Someone who is usually only in your life for brief periods of time or lives far away so you don’t see each other often. Someone who accepts the crazy or weird parts of you and may even like you more for having them. Someone with whom there is an internal and/or psychic feeling of connection. Someone who quickly forgives and whom you forgive in return. The dark side of this kind of friendship sometimes is that boundary invasion can happen – the friend can be too bossy, clingy, demanding, or in your thoughts too often. Generally, there is instant recognition between you, and you are open and free together from the beginning. Most of the times when I have met friends like this, it happens in unusual situations and outside of any friendship groups I may be in. You are attracted to this kind of person like a magnet.
Empty Friendship – when you know people and see them socially, but feel no sense of deep connection with them. No matter how much time you have spent together being social, you never reach the joyful and contented feeling of being open and free with them. These people can be friends of friends, work colleagues or casual acquaintances you meet once in a while. They could also be family members or even relationship partners (not advised). It’s possible to learn how to interact ‘normally’ with such people and to play the role of friends with them, but the inner feeling of connection and recognition that you yearn for will never be there. Interaction with such people is a kind of acting – going through the motions of socialising, but not feeling it on a meaningful level in your heart. Your empty friends may like, appreciate, respect or approve of you but still you won’t reach that connected feeling with them. For this reason I don’t think the difference between connected friends and empty friends is merely a matter of having their approval and/or being liked by them.
Typically at university, people make a group of friends in the first year and then stick with them all the way through until graduation. They form such intense bonds through this experience that in many cases people stay friends for life with the people they met at university. This wasn’t how it worked out for me. Every year of university was quite different for me. I used to think the reason I didn’t make particularly close friends at my home university was because I interrupted the friend-making process by going abroad to study in Amsterdam for a year. When I came back to England, I had to start again from the beginning, because everyone I knew had graduated already. I reasoned that one year isn’t a long enough period of time to make close friends; so I thought that was why I didn’t make any friends in my final year of university–friends I felt really connected with. Although I knew enough people to have a of social life of sorts that year, on the inside I felt quite lonely most of the time.
After finishing university, some of the people I knew from there moved to London. At that time, I began to see these people more often. I was waiting for that moment to come when I knew these people well enough that I would really enjoy being friends with them. However, I kept spending time with them only to discover that the connected feeling never developed. For a while, I kept hanging out with them, because I thought that it was better to ‘be social’ rather than stay home alone. I also thought that if I kept going to their parties, I would eventually meet other people I really liked and felt connected with. No matter how much time I spent with these friends, the lonely and disconnected feeling I had inside never changed or went away. It wasn’t my most gracious moment, admittedly, but one day I realised there was no point to keep hanging out with this group of people anymore: it really felt as if I was banging my head against a brick wall. So I disappeared and never contacted them again. I was able to disappear in this way because I felt no sense of connection with them; I didn’t think any of them would even care.
I mention the story of my failure to reach that connected feeling I yearn for with friends from university because I am now able to look at that story from a different perspective. At the time, I couldn’t understand why spending time with those people took me nowhere closer to feeling connected with them. I had the connected feeling with a few other people in my life, so why not with them? I was putting in effort to be friends and my social skills were okay, so what was going wrong?
As I reflect now, I think I could not reach the feeling of connection with those friends from university because of my Asperger’s traits and my outsider status that comes along with that. I think due to the different wiring of our brains or perhaps even our feelings, there isn’t a strong enough sense of sympathy between the insiders and the outsiders for them to ‘get’ each other. It’s like they use the same words but speak a completely different language. It doesn’t seem to make any difference how much I try to change myself so that I can fit in; reaching the connected feeling with the so-called insiders remains elusive. Being friends with such people, although not fake, is very much like acting and never fulfills the soul.
When seeking to ‘make friends,’ I discovered that an insider person will generally lead you to more insider people with whom you are unable to establish a deep feeling of connection, no matter how hard you try. This is why it feels like banging one’s head against a brick wall when trying to make friends in the normal way. The ‘normal’ way, it seems to me, is simply going out there and trying to meet new friends through the people you already know. If the people you already know are insider types, they will bring you towards more of the same empty feeling with different people. On the contrary, if you happen to have just one outsider friend with whom you feel a sense of connection, this friend will generally lead you towards other people with whom you feel the same kind of connection.
The trouble with making (or indeed finding) friends who are also outsiders, like us, is that many of us are wounded and disillusioned when it comes to friendship. It may even have come to the point where we have stopped trying to make friends and have accepted our loneliness as a way of life. I think some of us even give up the search for connection very early on in childhood because the state of alienation we feel is so extreme: in this way a whole lifetime can pass in the disconnected state.
If we do find each other as outsiders, being friends is unlikely to be all rosy – we often invade the boundaries of each other by being bossy or clingy. Sometimes we may also invade the thoughts of a friend by being on their mind too much.
For myself, I have come to cherish the brief moments in my life when I experience that connected feeling with a friend in person (in the same place at the same time). These moments are few and far between for me, and they have been as long as I can remember. The friends I have this feeling with are scattered, living all over the world, and our paths seldom cross. In the rest of my life, apart from those few deep connections, I am in the process of learning to let go of my expectations with ‘normal’ friends and to accept the absence of the connected feeling.