Friday, October 26, 2012

"Go On": An Introvert's Nightmare

I've been watching the Matthew Perry sitcom Go On over the last couple months, but I think I'm pretty much done with it. It's pretty funny - certainly enough for me to keep watching it - but I have now seen two episode that seriously angered me in how they portray the relationships of everyone involved.

The basic premise of the show is that Perry plays the host of a sports radio show whose wife has recently passed away. He ends up going to a support group for those who have lost loved ones. The support group is full of very... quirky people, to say the least, and led by a woman who really has no qualifications to lead a group of this many people with possible psychiatric disorders in anything. The characters are entertaining and generally well-intentioned, and it's clearly meant to be a "tough guy opens up his heart to lovable eccentrics" story. Occasionally I think it's trying to be a less funny, more trying-to-be-heartwarming version of Community.

However, Go On much more strongly perpetrates two horrific myths that, as an introvert, I believed for a long time.

1. Friendship with everyone in a community is obligatory.
A few episodes ago, Perry's character revealed that he did not actually consider the people from the support group friends. He had no desire to hang out with them outside of the group. They took it very personally, which I understand - it hurts finding out that someone you think you're friends with doesn't consider you a friend. However, they then decide that it is mandatory and essential that he make up for not considering them friends by... making them his friends. They demand that he spend outside time with them to get closer to them and, in the end, they even guilt him into letting each one of them drive his expensive new car, EVEN THE BLIND GUY, because they found his non-friendship so offensive.

Let's set this straight right now.

He can choose his own friends.

He is under no obligation to be friends with anyone he does not want as friends.

He can make friends at his own pace.

He reserves the right to back off without judgment and forced interaction if he feels uncomfortable with the level of the friendship.

Nobody can claim someone's friendship as a right or an obligation. There are many people I have worked closely with for years, have shared many of the basic pleasantries associated with friendship, but for whatever reason I just never feel all that comfortable around them. So I don't count them as my friend.
I'm allowed to do that.

As much as it sucks when someone you want to be friends with doesn't want to be friends with you, what you do is let it go. You accept that they've made their decision, and you don't retaliate, or pout, or decide you're going to force your way into their lives.

Do people do all those things? Of course, they do. Is it charming and healthy and heartwarming when they do? NO. No, it is not.

(Incidentally, as I said in my posts about church earlier this month, this is why I have a bit of an issue with church. Church is a forced community and implies that a good person will find friendship in that group. If I don't, or if I don't try, people end up assuming I am not open to fellowship with other believers. It's not true. I just like exercising the right to choose my own friends.)

2. Once friendship is established, boundaries are no longer necessary.
Nearly every episode features some major transgression of boundaries done in the name of friendship, portrayed as something fair and just, something that all good people would agree to. These boundary transgressions include such things as invading people's house in the middle of the night (this has happened twice - once, when they broke in, they forced him to eat him until he got sick and no longer wanted junk food), stalking people, coercing someone's longterm boyfriend to share embarrassing details about them, and forcing everyone to talk about all things private when they have no obligation to and clearly don't want to do so.

The majority of these moments happen at the heartwarming climax of the show.

Except the problem here is that it is not heartwarming because NONE OF THESE THINGS ARE OK AND THEY ARE ALL TERRIBLE FRIENDS.

I don't care if you think you're helping people, crazy therapy group. You are not allowed to decide what is best for anyone but yourself, much less to take it into your own hands to fix them against their will. The fact that he seems to begrudgingly accept this as part of the deal does not make it any less awful.

Friendship does not mean you own the rights to that person's life now. It really doesn't. They can make their own decisions, and you have to honor them. Just because you are friends with them doesn't mean you have any more right to control them. If you are about to do some big gesture that you think will fix everything, and you have a feeling they would object to it if they found out about it ahead of time, then DON'T YOU DARE just go ahead and do it. None of these "easier to ask forgiveness than permission" nonsense. I will tell you right now, if anyone tried to do to me ANY of the things they do to this guy, I would not feel loved. I would not feel safe. I would feel claustrophobic, paranoid, and unsafe, knowing that at any moment, any of my so-called "friends" felt they were allowed to show up and manipulate my life to their own satisfaction.

My friends are aware of my boundaries. They are aware of my desire for privacy. And they respect that. If they didn't, I would no longer be able to consider them friends.

Do you know how horrifying life would be if these two myths were true?

It would mean that anybody, ANYBODY had a right to control my life and tell me what I can and cannot do, as long as they claim friendship. Since I cannot reject friendship and, once we are friends, I cannot reject any of their intrusions on my life, I no longer really have any say in my own life. If my friends like, they can intervene as much as they want.

Now although this may sound like an attractive idea to some people, to me it sounds horrible and awful and if you think I'm antisocial now...

It is a little sad to me that a show focusing on the psychology of healing so deliberately ignores any kind of positive social interaction rules, focusing instead on the "goodness" of invading other's personal lives because of course you know what they need better than they do.

I can't see that group as charming and well-intentioned. I have been on the receiving end of unwanted friendship initiations, and it doesn't matter how well-intentioned it is. Crossed boundaries are crossed boundaries, and privacy is something people are allowed to have, and, except for a very, very few dire circumstances, ignoring that does not make you a good friend. It makes you a creep.

And that is why I'm probably done with that show.


  1. I've never seen a single episode of this show - I'm not even sure I've even seen a promo for it - so I cannot comment on Go On. The broader themes of friendships and boundaries, however, are ones that I've discussed and considered often.

    We're a week away from this year's NaNoWriMo and right now I only have one idea for a story: a fictionalization of my hospitalization last year for depression. It was very much the same kind of setting as what you've described, only obviously much more formal.

    What struck me while I was there was how candid and open patients were about some parts of their lives, but still very guarded about others. A patient might share the immediate circumstances that led him to the hospital or the ways in which her romantic relationship were horrible, but talking about more benign parts of daily life seemed to make people more defensive. Only some patients discussed where they worked or even what kind of work they did. There wasn't much talk about family members. Only one patient shared anything about plans to go back to school.

    Even when sharing the most embarrassing, humiliating experiences in our lives, people still want, need and deserve to maintain privacy over other parts of their lives.

    I confess: despite the fact I maintain a public blog with my real name and even though I mentioned having the blog while I was in the hospital, I only gave my blog URL to one patient. I meant to give it to a second, but got sidetracked.

    One reason why we were able to share such intimate things was precisely because those relationships were carved out by circumstance, outside the scope of our daily lives. It's easier to open up about some things to people when you know you're probably never going to see them again. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the hospital setting was effective exclusively because it established very different barriers for us as patients.

    Had anyone raised the idea of becoming "friends" outside the hospital once we were discharged, it would have made us more guarded about what we shared. We'd have been more protective, less likely to share. Maybe we could have established some meaningful friendships in the long run, but actively contemplating those dynamics would have quashed the effectiveness of the group therapy sessions.

    There was a show in the 80s starring Judd Hirsch called Dear John. It was built around a divorce support group. Similar issues played out there - cliques, resistance between some members, privacy issues - but it was a little freer there than what you've described of Go On. For one thing, divorce isn't as life-shattering as death. Being that I'm getting divorced, I feel qualified to say this. Divorce certainly sucks, but it's a "lighter" sucking than death.

    The other thing that made Dear John work was that they kept their focus on the group dynamics. Two characters might antagonize one another, but it was accepted within the group that they were allowed to dislike one another. Each group member had his or her own needs from the group, and various episodes showed efforts to meet each of those needs.

    There was, of course, a greater emphasis on "putting yourself back out there" than I'm sure you'd find comfortable as an introvert though a certain amount of that is unavoidable in the context of a divorce support group. There are, after all, really only two courses to pursue: solitude and trying again, and you can't very well try again without putting yourself out there.

    In any event, I do want to thank you for writing this piece. I've become much more conscientious of social dynamics as they pertain to introversion through what you've shared, and I find that reflecting even on something as personal to me as my hospitalization last year that the insights I've gained through you help me to better understand my own interactions with others.

    1. Your point about intimacy being possible *because* of a sort of daily life anonymity makes complete sense to me. There's a sort of bell curve that happens with me, where people on the outside edges - the ones I know the least well and the best - are the ones I feel most comfortable sharing the big, important things with. In the middle, you have acquaintances and casual friends, who are much less likely to hear any of that. Ever.

      I'm actually a fairly open person. Most introverts are identified as fiercely private, but I have no problem sharing a lot of my personal struggles, concerns, and deeply-held beliefs. Where the line is crossed, however, is when that openness is *demanded* of me. I am more than willing to be open if I feel like it will help someone else understand me better... but I get very stingy with information if I feel like the other person is simply being nosy, gossipy, or possessive - essentially, if I think, "There is no reason you need to know that." I react strongly against informational small talk for this reason - there's no reason someone I'm never going to see again and who is going to have no meaningful impact in my life needs to know anything about my family, my job, or my preferences. They only ask because of social convention, and that's not nearly a good enough reason for me to divulge.

    2. Your bell curve characterization is brilliant! I hadn't thought of it in that sense, but it really is spot-on. Your philosophy about sharing to advance understanding vs. sharing to appease nosiness also makes perfect sense.

      I'm very candid, but also very private. It can be confusing to people just getting to know me why I can be so open about subjects that the average person would not willingly discuss at all, but then clam up about seemingly benign other topics. So, yeah, I definitely get what you've described about your own approach to deciding what to share and when to share it.

  2. Can you imagine if people did this regarding romantic relationships too? "I decided we are husband and wife. So now we are. And by the way... You snore."

    1. One of the characters in the British sitcom Coupling is an incredibly self-absorbed woman. In the very first episode, her boyfriend attempts to break up with her, and this happens:

      Steve: I know I've tried to say this before, and I know I never seem to get anywhere, but this time, Jane, I am going to put it very, very simply. It's over between us.
      Jane: You want us to split up?
      Steve: Yes. Oh, yes, I do.
      Jane: I don't accept.
      Steve: What?
      Jane: I don't accept it.
      Steve: No, no, you can't not accept it. I'm breaking up with you.
      Jane: Don't I get a say in it?
      Steve: Of course you don't.
      Jane: If I don't get a say, then I don't accept it. Anyway, then my sister just looked at me and she said "no, no, no..."

      I thought of that scene a few times when writing this blog, because, yes, we find that ludicrous when it comes to romantic relationships but for some reason it's encouraged in friendships.

  3. I admit, I enjoy Go On. But that's because I approach it in the same way I approach a lot of television: I watch it in the spirit of entertainment and accept that what happens in TV land would be completely outrageous and undesirable in real life.

    I suppose it's a suspension-of-disbelief thing, and everyone has a different threshold for it. Or, should I say, everyone has different thresholds, since there are so many varied things you can be asked to suspend disbelief about. I can totally see not wanting to accept the relationships in Go On; to me it's just funny that they act that way, and I can forget about it after the show's over. It may even have depended on what mood I was in when I first watched the show, too.

    1. Oh, I'm sure the mood makes a difference. When I wrote this, I was still recovering from a few situations in which my boundaries were being thoroughly overlooked, and as I watched the show, watching the main character get treated like that just *irked* me. It's quite possible that at a different time in my life, it would have bothered me less. It just ended up not being healthy viewing for me right then.

      There are plenty of other things that I comfortably accept in TV and fiction that are terrible ideas in real life. I still cheerfully ship Buffy/Spike in the Buffyverse :)