Moving past the fear of rejection and embracing the risk of being vulnerable.
This isn’t an easy post to write. I don’t have a nice list of tips for greater success or an engaging story about my kid. It’s just me, laying my heart out there for others to see.
If you look at my Facebook profile, my website, and social media feeds you would see a man with a moderate amount of success. I’m friendly, positive, and upbeat. I’m a full-time college professor with a couple of self-published books and a side gig as a lead editor here at The Good Men Project. I’ve been married to a beautiful woman for twenty years and we have an awesome kid. Most everyone who knows me would say I’m a nice guy. Life is going well.
But something has been nagging at me lately, and it reared its head again in one of my college classes recently. I was chatting with some students before class, and in the context of a completely unrelated topic I said, “I don’t go out with the guys that often. I don’t have that many close friends.” As soon as I said it, it surprised me, as if speaking the words somehow brought it from my secret thought life into the daylight of reality.
But it’s true. I don’t have many close friends.
Given the fact that I have 1,413 Facebook friends, how could that be? How could I possibly feel alone when so many people know me and apparently like me? And why do I even feel lonely in the first place?
The truth is that most of my Facebook friends aren’t true friends. They are acquaintances. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and I don’t mean to diminish those relationships. An acquaintance is someone you know because of a common interest or experience—for instance, people who are in a Facebook group, most of your coworkers, and many people at your church or other community organization. If you take away the common interest you have, there would be no basis for the relationship.
A friendship, however, runs deeper than that. A friendship transcends common interests and forms when two individuals care about each as people, not just as business contacts, clients, or some other type of relationship that depends on a transaction or common interest. I define a true friend as “someone who would visit you in the hospital.”
But even on that basis, I still have a good number of friends. A number of people whom I’ve met through masterminds and online groups have become good friends. I believe many of these people would indeed visit me in the hospital if I suddenly became ill. I also have a number of “offline” friends in the area whom I would call friends.
So what gives? What accounts for my loneliness? With so many social media friends, and even with friends in the area, what’s going on?
Here’s the answer: When I say, “I don’t have that many close friends,” that says more about me than anyone else.
In many ways, my whole adult life has been driven by the need to be affirmed by other men. I’m 41 now, but I remember back in college that I was drawn to a specific professor. I took as many of his classes as I could, even ones that didn’t relate to my major. He had a wisdom and intensity that I wanted in my own life. One day I was sitting in the cafeteria, and as he passed by, he put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a slight squeeze. This was nothing inappropriate, just a subtle gesture of masculine affirmation that I craved. It’s funny how, even decades later, you can recall things that happened in a split second.
After graduating from college, I worked at a church for about eight years. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I had a hunger for the older male staff members to mentor me and affirm that I was doing a good job. But my need for affirmation was a hole that couldn’t really be filled. When I moved from church ministry to teaching, I was disappointed because none of the older professors seemed to be interested in taking me under their wing and showing me the ropes of teaching.
I used to think that my lack of many close male relationships was other people’s fault. They just weren’t interested, didn’t have the time, or weren’t as interested in personal growth as I was.
But now as a 41-year-old, I see things differently. My loneliness has nothing to do with what other guys have or haven’t done. But it has everything to do with my fear of being vulnerable. My whole adult life, I’ve put walls up. On the exterior, I’m a caring and friendly guy. I get along with everyone. But just underneath that warm and confident exterior is an anxious little boy who is afraid to let his guard down because others might reject him.
It’s like I’m standing in front of a fancy restaurant wearing a nice overcoat. My face is pressed to the glass, watching everyone else enjoy themselves inside. The door is open and I could go in, but that would require me to really be present and known by other guys. It’s much easier to stay outside where I know the territory. But it’s getting cold out here.
What if I were to walk inside and take off my nice overcoat? Then they would see what I really look like. They would see my unmatched socks, ragged pants, and wrinkled shirt. It’s a real risk to shed your outer layers and be truly known by others.
I’ve spent much of the last twenty years trying to convey an image of success. But I think it’s time to stop worrying about my image and start putting that energy into building deeper friendships with other men—men whom I trust, and who trust me.
When you let yourself be known, there is always the risk of being rejected. But I would rather live with the risk of rejection than the certainty of isolation. It’s time to start edging out of the shadows and into the light of community and friendship.
Photo: Flickr/Matthias Ripp
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