Unable to distinguish small talk from intimacy

House, M.D., was right. People don’t change.

I haven’t. My core personality traits, the ones I’ve had as long as I can remember, are still with me. I noticed it once last week, and again today.

House is not happy

A dim memory…. When I was a boy, I was at a family get-together with all my cousins on my mom’s side of the family. We — the kids — all piled into a car in the driveway. It was packed with us. All boys. I was seated in the backseat. I was one of the younger ones, probably only six or seven years old. A cousin in front turned on the radio, turned it up loud. Then they all started swearing. Just various miscellaneous cuss words. That’s what I remember. Memory being what it is, maybe they were actually talking and having conversations, not just shouting out individual swear words. But that’s all I remember. Poor little virgin-eared me. I was frozen stiff by the whole thing. Self-conscious and not knowing how to behave I felt as if I didn’t fit in.

Fade out.

When I was a teen, some of my friends, one in particular, did lots of sexually explicit talk — jokes, insults, comments about girls, the normal typical stuff. I, being the socially awkward and restrained guy, just stood there usually, often letting my mind wander (perhaps a form of avoidance). This one friend, the “one in particular”, had a knack for noticing the quirks of others, and he would notice my reaction, my awkwardness. He’d say, “Oh yeah, that’s right — you don’t like girls.” It wasn’t true. If anything I liked girls too much, and pedestalized them. But along with being shy and socially ill at ease in general, around these kinds of situations I was even more reticent. (Another habit he had, in junior high, was when we were in the library he’d sneak into the small kids story-time area and dry hump these big angular cushions that were spread about.)

Cut.

New scene, the present day. Today, in fact:

At work I’ve had to assist in enrolling employees in a new id card system. My carefully maintained avoidance of social situations taken away temporarily. Amazing how it still affects me.

On top of it being very boring, it set off some of my worst triggers: In a social situation, in which I was the one having to lead things. Unable to escape without causing a scene (at heart I’m a male drama queen — a drama prince?). I was trying hard to speak clearly but still garbled lots of words. Trying to act casual and simultaneously worried that I was acting too smooth and not real enough. Usually not having anything to say, however (in terms of small talk), and that had me worried that I was making others uncomfortable.

While watching the people around me conversing and laughing and teasing…. It’s like being the paralyzed kid stuck in his wheelchair and condemned to watching all the other kids run around and play, wishing he could join in the fun, if only he could make his legs move, but he can’t; in my case, it’s not my body in the wheelchair but my personality.

Riddle: Which came first — the social anxiety and withdrawal or the social mistakes and rejection?

This is the part where those of you reading this who are blessed enough to be at ease around people will feel like commenting “You just have to relax and not worry so much. It’s no big deal!” Well, duh. So, you are correct, actually, but your advice can’t help. If people like me could just relax, etc, then they wouldn’t call what we suffer from a “disorder”, would they? That’s the whole point, when your own inner voice won’t let you be a normal, warm human being.

Anyway.

My supe making fun of what he said was my midwestern accent (doubtful: I haven’t lived there in over 30 years). Having to sit next to a security guy I didn’t know, just the two of us there at the desk for long stretches — you all know what I mean? Being stuck with just one other person and you don’t what to talk about but you feel compelled to say something, anything, so that they don’t think you’re stuck up, or so that they won’t catch on to how inept you really are? (A feature of AvPD: not just social anxiety but a constant effort to conceal the anxiety, to conceal your embarrassing defect from others.)

And then the other guys around me talking about the hot girls in our office as the girls came by to do their enrollment. Not quite flirting with the girls — HR is watching you! — but coming alive and doing more small talk with them than with others. And also I noticed how many of these coworkers know each other personally and well and share with one another. It actually came as a shock to me. It’s also amazing to me how casually people can talk to each other, joking and bullshi++ing and clowning around (verbally) with each other.

Most men don’t care about your heels

A guy who seems like a muscle head, douchbag, player type, talking about a local astronomy club (!) with a guy he works out with. I was confused by that.

The guys going cuckoo over the new girl whose face book page said she was a model. I felt like the left-out guy again, because although she has nice legs, other than that she’s not particularly hot, with an ordinary face and zits across her forehead. (“But she’s 19! omg!” … um, so?). And then “Charlize” walking past with a couple guests, and she goofing around with muscle head guy. “That’s it, you guys are terminated”, she says. And he says “I’ll terminate you.” And she thinks it’s funny. Surprise. And I got depressed — which really means I just got jealous but suppressed the feelings.

A psychological parrot.

And that old, old, old pull I get, that nagging weight on me to have to talk and act like whoever I happen to be around. Unable to distinguish between small talk and intimacy. Between friendliness and friendship.

Don’t mistake what I’m describing, please — it’s not a conscious thought or any sort of belief that I learned: it’s a form of hyper-sensitivity and over-responsiveness to the vibes of others. That’s my dirty little secret — on the outside I look like aloof and unemotional; on the inside all there is, is emotion and it’s in charge of me but itself under the control of what’s going on around me. It makes you feel like you have no boundaries, you’re totally permeable, and it’s sly and stealthy and pushes you around before you’re even aware of it. And that’s why we withdraw and we avoid and we keep to ourselves — not because we’re antisocial but because we never learned those boundary skills.

The whole thing is wearying.

Were it not for the miracle of modern psychopharmaceuticals I’d be either a blubbering mess tonight or engaging in some self-defeating behavior like junk food or porn.

But, this wasn’t that big of a situation. You’re taking it too seriously.

You’re right.

That’s why it’s called a “personality disorder.”

If social interaction feels threatening

The following is a mashup of rational responses I have written to myself over the years, regarding the feelings of perceived threat I’ve dysfunctionally experienced in social interactions.

  • Most interactions are not about power or control. They simply aren’t. Even disagreements aren’t necessarily a power struggle – especially not over personal control.
  • You needn’t wait till you have just the right personality before allowing human relationships to occur in your life. Most interaction isn’t something to be gotten right or wrong.
  • Hi just means Hi. Maybe they’re not acting friendly with me in some effort to get personally involved in my life.
  • Maybe he/she is not a threat. Maybe they’re not trying to change me but to communicate with me.
  • Why should I have so much riding on what a stranger thinks of me (and temporarily, at that)?
  • You don’t have to know exactly what someone’s personality is like before you can interact with them.

Lovable by Definition

“I’m too screwed up for people to accept me. There are too many things wrong with me to be liked or loved.” — Me

Rational Responses / Challenges:

1 Okay, so, how many things wrong with me would be an acceptable number, before I’m ‘right’ enough to be worthy of friendship or intimacy? What am I supposed to whittle it down to? . . . .The reality is that there are lots of screwed up people who have relationships – therefore that’s not really the issue. Maybe you’re just telling yourself that stuff in order to avoid dealing with the fear of rejection.

2 My self-worth and happiness cannot be dependent on what others think of me, since all those other people have different standards, likes and dislikes, values, and opinions; and I’d have to become a chameleon in order to match them all.

3 To be unlovable means no one can ever love you.* How likely is that? If even one person loves you, you are lovable by definition. Go ahead: deliberately try to inspire love and affection — how would you go about accomplishing it (how could anyone go about it)? Trying to do so would probably drive most people away.

Do you approve?

 

* Cognitive Behaviour Therapy: an A-Z of persuasive arguments, by Michael Neenan & Windy Dryden.

 

Haven’t met enough people yet, have you?

  • I probably haven’t met enough people (there’s 7 billion of them out there) to conclude that I can’t get along with anyone or that no one would like me. Maybe I’m really not that bad a person.
  • Instead of predicting that I’ll be dull, incompetent, unlikeable, etc — how about I let others be the judge of that? (And they’re not really “judges” anyway!). Maybe, possibly, quite a few people already are willing to accept me, whether I change or not, and whether I do something to “earn” their acceptance or not. It’s possible that many people will feel friendly toward you regardless of how you perform.

The Real You

A couple more of my old negative thoughts and beliefs, and responses to them….

Belief:  People wouldn’t like the real me. I don’t fit in with normal, social people.

Response #1:  Maybe it’s possible that some people already are willing to accept me, whether I change or not and whether I do something to “earn” their acceptance or not.

Response #2:  I might be able to handle a little more socializing than I realize. There might just be more safe and welcoming situations out there than you know of. You have the right to participate in activities that interest you and to decline those that don’t, without feeling weird or guilty…. If someone approaches you and talks to you, just accept it for what it is – maybe they’re interested in you, or maybe they’re bored, or maybe something else, some other reason of their own. It’s not unsafe, it’s normal.

 

I am “Tim Gibula” and will get over it

Anxiety-Ridden Man Rightly Ashamed Of Every Single Thing He Does

I don’t read The Onion, but wow this one is too good to pass up. Somebody over there really understands what it’s like:

…sources close to Gibula told reporters his perpetual anguish over his words and actions could not be more justified, as all of his missteps—ranging from minor lapses of politeness to his overall slightly disappointing career trajectory—are immediately perceived by those around him as evidence of his inadequacy as a human being.

“Tim’s the kind of guy who is forever second-guessing his behavior, as if the people in his life are constantly scrutinizing every single move he makes, and he’s completely correct about that—we are,” said Paula Ramirez, a coworker who admitted she can barely look at Gibula without a medley of his most embarrassing moments replaying in her head. “Anytime he’s been petrified at the thought of social interaction or obsessively reexamined something he’s said, his fears have been entirely reasonable, given our nonstop monitoring of his behavior.”

A few days ago, I screwed up at work, and this is exactly how I reacted, going into the downward spiral of embarrassment and beating myself up and extending this harsh judgement to my entire life.

In addition, hundreds of slight acquaintances who may have only encountered Gibula once or twice claimed they were able to draw clear conclusions about his entire personality from the fact that he….”

I’m cutting off the quote right there, because you can just supply whatever it is in your own life that you feel ashamed of and fear everyone else would reject you over.

As a matter of fact, I once came up with a rational response for those times that I fretted over encounters with “slight acquaintances”, or even complete strangers. It’s simple: 5 minutes from now, will that person even remember me? Almost always the answer will be No, even if the encounter was pretty bad.

Here’s another saying I once read: You wouldn’t worry so much about what people think of you if you knew how seldom they did. (I’ve seen this attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, yet Dr. Phil claims his father used to say it. Well, maybe Phil’s dad heard it from the first lady.)

(Realize that this is how shy people with low self-esteem go through the day, every day. It really sucks. That’s why social anxiety disorder and avoidant personality disorder are called disorders in the first place.)

The good news is that reading this story has gotten me out of the funk I’ve been in for the past few days. I feel more ready to get on with things and quit moping.

Go read the whole piece.

Hat Tip: The Social Phobic

 

Rational Responses to Negative Self-Talk

(First in what will hopefully be a series).

At home I have piles and stacks of worksheets on which I have practiced cognitive therapy for myself. The basic idea is to record one’s automatic thoughts during an emotion-causing situation, and respond to them. I mean irrational, self-defeating automatic thoughts, i.e. negative self-talk. Then you try to respond (on paper, at first – and boy am I good on paper, a paper tiger of CBT am I) to those thoughts, not necessarily with positive self-talk (this isn’t Stuart Smalley stuff) —

Minnesota sent him to the Senate

— but with rational, objective thinking.

I’ve got so much of this stuff in storage, some of it quite good imho, I figure I might as well share some of it with the world, and maybe a reader will find something of value in it.

These are my actual thoughts and my responses, edited for clarity.

Of course, YMMV.

~ ~ 1 ~ ~

Thought

I’m supposed to like this person. If I don’t like them, it means I’m cold and a mean person. I ought to enjoy the company of others, and if I don’t it means there’s something wrong with me.

Response

It would be nice to like lots of people, but you can’t just flip a switch. Liking someone, or enjoying their company, is something that has to come on it’s own, you can’t force it. Maybe it’s that so much of my mental resources are being used up by anxiety and pessimism and the effort to control my emotions, there’s no room for feelings of liking to arise. It’s going to be hard to enjoy anyone’s company when you’re all knotted up with anxiety.

To not feel lots of liking or excitement about someone doesn’t mean you’re bad. After all, I don’t expect everyone else to be all gaga over me.

Enjoying someone’s company, or even just being amused by them, does not make you obligated to become best of friends or get really close to each other. It’s all right to have one without the other. There are varying degrees to how well you get to know a person.

~ ~ 2 ~ ~

Thought

Why aren’t I interacting more with people? Because it’s not going to go right. It’s not going to go well at all. Things are going to happen to upset me.

Response

Am I exempt from having negative experiences? Even if I were to “recover” [i.e., overcome shyness and avoidance] and get better, I’m still going to have some shit in my life. It happens to everyone and it’s normal. By attempting to live my life avoiding painful experiences, I’m winding up with a life that isn’t “going right”, isn’t “going well at all”, anyway!

~ ~ 3 ~ ~

Thought

I need to know the right way to behave, what’s expected of me, so that i can give people what they want. But I don’t know how. I don’t know all the of usual, expected kinds of behavior in life. I don’t know what’s valid and what’s invalid.

Response

As long as you base your happiness and success in life on anticipating what others want from you and trying to fulfill it, you never will be happy and you never will have success. Maybe there is no “right way” for you to behave in all situations. Maybe there’s no magic formula for being the person I think I ought to be.

It’s not as if I am outside of life, outside of the world, waiting and watching for the perfect situational aware and/or the right mood to hit me, before choosing how to conduct myself. That’s an old fantasy of mine, and it’s inaccurate.

It’s often very difficult to know for sure what others want from you, anyway. Maybe most people aren’t as demanding as I’ve assumed. Maybe they’re not looking for you to fulfill their expectations to the degree you’ve assumed. Maybe you don’t have to know what they want at all times, and maybe the uncertainty isn’t all that threatening after all.

Maybe there’s nothing “valid” or “invalid” about me — just a big, messy human mix of thought, feelings, and behavior, just like anyone else. I am never living 100% right or 100% wrong.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There you go. That’s just for starters. Like it or not, there’s more where that came from.