X and Y are interchangeable in the following sentence, and could be substituted with get invited to parties, make friends, network my way into a job, feel confident in an interview/annual review, meet the One, get laid, be confident on a date, etc.
“I can’t do X because I don’t have Y, and I don’t have Y because first I need X!”
It’s never a straightforward statement like that, because in the mind, it’s not that cut-and-dry. That would be embarrassing. That would be death. That would negate any reason to talk about it.
But if you’ve been tempted to summarize a lonely smart guy’s complaints in a one-liner like that, you’re not alone. There’s something about his reasoning that makes it both flawless (a perfect circle) and flawed (why are we talking about this, if no part of you wants a solution?)
What to do?
Hate the Pattern, Not the Parts
If I were to share a piece of advice with you, the empathic friend of a lonely smart guy, it’d be tongue-in-cheek: dare to hate.
Not the person. Not the parts at war within him. Not even the way it makes you feel… but feel free to vehemently dislike the pattern you see him stuck in. Admit to yourself you don’t like it one bit.
You don’t want to hate him, his life, his loneliness, or the brilliant mind that painted him into this corner in the first place. You want to be his bridge, his way out, right?
Well, ask yourself how long you are willing to let this remain the way it is, and you might just discover a veneer of pseudo-patience thinly veiling an urgency and a panic of your own: Do you want your empathy to change his situation, right here, right now?
You’re Suffering Alongside
It is so hard to suffer alongside a loved one who has a repeating pattern. It’s hard especially when he oscillates between doing nothing about it, and then suffering from having done nothing about it.
You’re a very good friend if you catch yourself feeling relieved when he “shrugs it off” every so often and declares he’s fine… even if that leaves you vulnerable to him falling back into the hole again.
You’re even further along if you notice a faint sense of suspicion whenever he’s in a good mood and you hope (but don’t dare suggest) he’d do something about filling that hole. Something besides shrugging off the bad mood and feeling good for a while. Perhaps you’ve suggested he go network a little, write a dating profile, or call an old friend while he’s not in the dumps… but he doesn’t.
You’re a very loyal friend, indeed, if you’re thinking “I knew it wouldn’t last!” when he inevitably falls in the hole again. I want to give you a golden sticky star for every minute you don’t actually say it… because you haven’t been invited to be his know-it-all nag, have you?
(It’s a thankless position. Don’t volunteer.)
What’s Your Role?
It can be exhausting, and a bit mind-numbing, to go through the same pain over and over. And the recipe for frustration is when things that affect you, are not in your control. And it’s hard to see a way out if the pattern only seems chronic when despair is present, but on other days, both despair and the pattern are forgotten.
It’s frustrating when a friend doesn’t see the opportunities you see. And oscillates between believing nothing could possibly break the cycle, and “there is no cycle.”
It may feel wrong to play dumb, but with a guy whose system is wired to never be the dumb-looking one in any conversation –especially about feelings – you might be amazed at what happens when you volunteer for the role.
Check: Does he hear the panic you hear in his voice?
Does he sense the pain you sense him suffering?
How You Ask Matters
If you ask whether he hears the panic in his own voice as a yes/no question, that can come off as having a garden path in mind for him, as if there is a right/wrong answer, or as if you’re playing a ‘me vs. you’ mind-game.
“This may be a silly question, and you can dismiss it if it’s doesn’t make you curious as well, but a part of me is wondering whether the tone and pace of your talking just now is from some kind of panic, or despair? Is that outlandish, or can you help me find a better word for what that is?”
Maybe he’ll answer “gloom” or “overwhelm” or “frustration” or some such. Use that word!
“Ah, frustration. It IS frustrating, what you’re describing: ________! Does it make any difference that I’m here and I hear your words and the frustration in your voice, and I’m not running away? What effect am I having, if any?”
See, a smart guy’s inner system can be very cleverly wired to sense when “having feelings” could lead to being compared to others and found inferior/weak/inarticulate/undesirable, or when anything said subliminally reminds him of nasty implicit cultural messages like “it’s not constructive to have feelings; just buck up/suck it up/buckle down and bury/fight/flee/hide/mask all feelings… don’t have any.”
A Truce Will Set Him Free
To free him from the CONSTANT implicit cultural pressure he feels to “be smart,” even for just a minute, he’d need someone like you to
💡 dare to engage in constructive discourse, even while showing obvious insecurity in using feelings-vocabulary,
💡 be okay with yourself being in a beginners mindset and not having all the answers,
💡 not ask questions in yes/no format so there’s no sense you have a garden path in mind you’re leading him down.
To do that, you may have to get some space from any part of you that sees the pain and panic as a problem to be solved. You may have to ask yourself to refrain from pointing out his “opportunity” for change and just be with him.
Can you satisfy yourself by truly doing what you may have assumed you’d already done well;
♥ deeply befriend the pain and panic,
♥ find out what they prefer to be called, and
♥ sit with alarmed aloneness — recognize and repeat that it’s lonely, even as you’re right there, breathing alongside.