Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Hi, Carolyn: I have a teenage daughter who lacks self-esteem. She’s always had difficulty making friends, but over the course of several years, she now has a great group of girls to hang out with. Her problem is that she is afraid of being left out. She says yes to every activity and invite, even if she doesn’t want to go.
For example, the other day they decided to watch a movie. My daughter wasn’t interested, but she sat through the whole three hours! Instead of saying “I’m not really interested in this movie and am heading home – text you guys later,” she missed dinner, came home upset, started beating up on herself and then the tears came.
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Please help her just by treating such incidents as necessary and mercifully low-stakes lessons in managing friends and friendships, and in managing her own sense of self.
She thought at the time that catering to her friends to stay in their good graces was more important than actually enjoying the movie — then, after it was over, she realized that her time would have been better spent on something that interested her more. OK! And oh well. Good thing to know for next time. As the person coaching her through this, you can remind her that true friends will still like her even if she skips the occasional movie — and that a few wasted hours are a pretty small price to pay for a useful lesson.
That’s how we all figure out whether to say yes or no to invitations (or whatever else), by the exact same process of trial and error.
Since she is stuck on making the same error right now — and since the error both stems from and reinforces a shaky sense of self — it’s also OK to remind her that people don’t magically get confident about making these decisions. It involves some risk and therefore some discomfort. When she wants to say no but fears the consequences of doing so, she is facing 1) an incredibly common challenge and 2) the very challenge she needs to take on right now.
Even people who have spent decades trial-and-erring these decisions can still pick wrong sometimes. Normalize this for her — not (just) to build her up, but because it’s normal.
She has some friends to learn on, that’s a great start. She is coming to understand more about who she is through her experiences with these friends, that’s the appropriate and useful next step.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.