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How to be human: friends, family, and everything in between

How to be human: friends, family, and everything in between

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. After IGN, she completed her PhD in sociology, but so many people mixed it up with psychology that she figured she might as well get back into giving advice. You can write to her at

Hi Leah,

I'm an 18-year-old guy who got out of high school this spring. I had a rough last couple of years which ended with me moving into another family's house a year ago. I've barely talked to my family since. But I'm writing to you about something else. The last time I had what I consider a friend was in about third grade. I'm okay around people; I can make jokes and have little conversations, but I really don't know how to hang out, especially with just one person. I'm always worried people will change their mind and stop liking me when I do something particularly not cool. Do you have any advice that could help me go somewhere with people and just like hang out with them?


A dude that isn't actually named Kui Lonson

Hey Not-Kui Lonson,

I'm so sorry to hear about the rough time you've had. That sounds hard and intense. I'm glad you had a good place to move into, and I hope you have someone to talk to, like a therapist or another trusted adult, about everything that's going on.

As for your question, here's the crazy thing: it's not as "something else" or unrelated to your family as you might think. Sure, third grade and 18 are many years apart, but I wonder if everything that went on with your family wasn't going on long before that. Because the kind of worry you're telling me about doesn't come out of nowhere!

We're all insecure in one way or another

Don't get me wrong, we're all insecure in one way or another, and a lot of us worry about what people think of us, and about how we make and keep friends. It's especially normal to feel that way when you're in your teens or 20s, but hell, plenty of us feel it in our 30s and beyond. Here's something else I want to reassure you about: everyone worries about doing something uncool and then having everyone change their minds.

That's the thing about friends: they're specifically the people you can be uncool around from time to time. You can even, on occasion, be a jerk, as long as you own up to your jerkiness, apologize, and try to do better. Making those kinds of friends is hard. It's hard enough to make the kind of friend you can just hang out with on an occasional afternoon! I get it. A few years ago I actually made the decision to work on friendships, so I would have friends of both kinds, because I was in a place in my life where I really didn't have either.

But NKL, even though I think you can do this, I'm worried about you, what with the family trouble and this. It sounds like that worry comes from somewhere, and as much as I want you to learn how to make friends, I want you to put that worry behind you so you don't feel plagued by the fear of "what if they stop liking me?"

This is my advice to you, then. First, I want you to find a therapist. I know, it sounds very uncool, but it's not. It's super important and actually very cool. Find someone who you can talk to about what's going on in your life, with your family and all, and about why you get so worried people will stop liking you. Therapists can be expensive, but if you go to college you can find one there, and if not a lot of therapists have a sliding scale, to help people who can't afford it.

Seeing a therapist can be super important and actually very cool

Second, I want you to work on friendships like this: What's something you really like doing? Are you into video games? Sports? Gardening? Playing music? Running? Find a place where people are doing that. Better yet, find a place where you can volunteer your time, like at an animal shelter or at a place that helps make lunches for the homeless. I want you to go out and do something you enjoy, or something that makes you stop thinking about yourself while you're doing it. You'll meet people who are doing the same thing. Focusing on that rather than on just hanging out will relieve a lot of the pressure. I think you'll make friends who have common interests, and are probably pretty cool (while still doing uncool things sometimes). At some point, one of you — maybe even you! — will say "You wanna go catch a movie?" or "Hey let's go on a run this Saturday." It might take a while, but it will happen. And when you do that, remember this: it is totally okay to be nervous. Don't get upset at yourself for that, or let it make you more anxious. Your worry over people not liking you is totally normal. Be okay with the fun parts of hanging out, and don't worry too much about the parts where you feel like you're not being cool. That's how we all are.

Hanging out with just one person isn't easy for a lot of people, but having a foundation, like your common interest or your shared volunteering, will help you. And talking to someone about what's going on with your family will help you over the long term. You got this.


Hey Leah,

My little brother is 19 years old. He's currently in school to be a stenographer and lives with my grandmother because his father and stepmother take advantage of him whenever he's not at school (think Cinderella, except the Ball is a Court of Law). I grew up with my grandmother and found a job at 18, stopped going to school due to finances (didn't want to take out loans), and have been working ever since. I make enough to be considered upper-middle class, but not enough to live comfortably in New York City.

So here's the situation: with my rent, my bills, helping my grandmother out, and on occasion my mom, I'm tapped out. Now that my brother lives with my grandmother, she's been helping him with his Metrocard and food money, thus increasing how much help she's asking me for. I'm willing to take that on, but I don't know how I will be able to without being REALLY broke at the end of the month.

Now here's the question: how do I tell my brother to get a job? When I look at him, I don't see the drive I had at his age. I don't see the ambition. He just stays home and goes to school. I want him to be more active in his life. I've already come to terms that he won't be as quick to leave the house as I was, but he's just so ... complacent. I want him to get a job so he can pay for the things he needs, which would help everyone involved, but he has no interest in getting one.

I fear that by bringing it up again, it'll make him feel like no matter where he goes, someone is making him do something he doesn't want to do. I know my grandmother will always take care of him, even if it means going without food for herself (she did it for me when I was a kid).

How do I handle this? How do I push him toward being more independent, without pushing him away completely? I love that kid, and I want to be the help I needed when I was his age, but I can't do everything and be everywhere.

(P.S. being poor sucks)

Thank you.

Hey Being Poor Sucks,

The first thing I thought when I read your letter was: this guy is awesome. I mean, I don't know you. But what you've told me is that you're a good human who's built a great life for himself despite less-than-optimal circumstances, and you're also kind and supportive to those you love. Plus, you're somehow smart enough to not then turn around and go broke living in NYC. Thank you for being out there in the world!

Your brother is lucky to have you. Not just because you support him financially — although that's a huge part of it — but because of the last two paragraphs of your letter. Even though he's different from you, you get him, and you want to be supportive of him and of your relationship. That, more than anything, is what comes through — and if it comes through to me in a letter, I know it comes through to him.

But of course, your brother is 19. Even if he knows this about you, he might not know it, not in the way that it smacks a lot of us in the face when we turn 30, or when we realize "Shit, I wish I'd appreciated my mom / dad / brother / sister / grandma / life more when I was a teenager."

A lot of being a teenager is about figuring things out and learning how and where to set boundaries

[To all my readers out there who are 19 (or younger!), I don't mean this in a negative way. There are a lot of you who are great communicators and good listeners. But a lot of being a teenager is about figuring things out and learning how and where to set boundaries. Sometimes you set them in ways (or fail to) that aren't helpful. You close yourself off or open yourself in the wrong directions to the wrong people. It's part of figuring yourself out.]

BPS: Even though you were out working and making your life when you were his age, you still remember what it was like to be 19. You were figuring things out. You probably weren't the greatest communicator, or listener. You wanted to be who you were, not who someone wanted you to be. And then, the older you got, the more you were able to listen, to see when people were trying their best even when they weren't doing a great job, to appreciate what people had done for you even if you'd been unable to see it before.

The older you get, the more you're able to appreciate what people have done for you

I want you to see this not as you telling your brother what to do, or making him feel put upon, but helping him. Your brother isn't as driven as you in the same ways. He's not the kind of person who does whatever it takes to make a life for himself, even if whatever it takes means not going to school, working jobs he's not crazy about, doing things that are probably not in the "I love my job" or "This is my dream" category. That's okay — we're all different.

I say this from a place of knowledge. My parents are a lot like you. They didn't have much money, so they spent their lives working hard and saving to build a really incredible life for themselves — and for me. When I was 19, I was in college. I got a part-time job maybe over winter break, maybe during the summers. But that was it, until I graduated. Even after that, my parents were always supportive of me no matter what. I am deeply grateful for it, but I don't think I realized how grateful I was until I got older and realized what I thought was them being jerks, or being too overprotective and overbearing, was them loving me and doing their best. I also think it would have been better had they been less supportive. Crazy, I know, but I look at my friends who had to be more responsible for themselves, financially and otherwise, and I know for sure they had a head start on being confident in their independence.

We all grow up in different ways. We all have different things we're grateful for. I know your brother is going to grow up and be grateful he had you. I know that even if he gets mad, he'll eventually figure out that "pushed" is not the same thing as "pushed away." As hard as it might be, as much as it might strain your relationship for a little while, pushing him gently to be more independent and responsible for himself financially is the best thing you can do besides love him for who he is.

We all grow up in different ways. We all have different things we're grateful for

So that's how you handle this. You sit down with your brother and you tell him you get it. You get him. Then you talk with him, not talk at or talk to. You say, "Hey, I know you don't want to hear this, and it's not a fun conversation for me either. But we have to have it because I need your help. I'm proud of what you're accomplishing in school, and I want to support you in doing that as much as I can. But I'm at the limits of what I can do. I need you to find a part-time job. Let's talk about some of the options."

You also need to get your grandma on board. She will undoubtedly continue to support him, although I hope she doesn't go without food. But you need to make sure she knows you're not making him quit school, you just need him to pitch in, and you hope she'll support you in that.

Your brother isn't like you. That's okay, but it also doesn't mean you need to let that complacency you see run wild. Your brother might get mad at you. But you will give your brother something he will one day be grateful for, which is the gift of helping him learn how to be an independent, financially stable adult.