Conversation is not a trial

It happened a long time ago.

Me: “Hi”

Her: “Hi”

Me: “You saw me coming this time, didn’t you?”

Her: “Yep. I saw you. I knew you were there.”

Me: “Darn. I was gonna sneak up on you again.”

Her: “Uh-huh. I’m looking for you now.”

Me: “When I snuck up on you earlier, your face turned red – like you were blushing.”

Her: “Oh… Your face is red, too.”

Me: “It is? Really. Oh my.”

Her: “Yep.”

Me: “Oh wow. I guess I’ll have to work on that. Don’t want to let it show…. I was gonna talk to you again, a while ago, but you were over there… on the tray line… unloading the belt.”

Her: “Oh, yeah, I was over there.”

–(Pause for an awkward silence…) —

Me: “Ok. Well, have a nice weekend.”

Her: “You too, have a nice weekend.”

Painful. I’m a grown man and talked like a clueless little kid. I hated myself over this conversation (if you could call it that). I beat myself up like that easily-chagrined character that Chris Farley used to do.

Let’s throw some responses at it, and see what sticks…

(1) But we all have to start somewhere. By definition my lack of experience may not satisfy the first woman I’m with, and maybe a couple more than her, but in the process that’s how I gain experience too. If we had to wait till we had experience before hooking up, no one would ever get together. It’s not magic, and I too can have it.

(2) I once read a comment on a blog: “As far as artificiality, most human behavior is artificial. If you’re saying anything other than, ‘Hey, you want to fuck?’ you’re being phony. And it’s OK.”

(3) Social interactions don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to wait till I have just the right personality or in the ideal mood for social interaction to occur. If everyone thought that way, they would hardly ever do or say anything.

(4) (I screwed up) — Maybe. So what?  Was I doing so much better the way I have been? Not interacting can be a screw-up too. Maybe withdrawing from social contact messes things up, too. It’s not necessary to be alone just because I’m not perfect.

(5)  I’m not on stage, I’m in the audience. It’s okay to be like aw-shucks, a newbie, honestly curious, experiencing situations and people, as if I haven’t before.

(6)  Consider the possibility that, in the process of talking without trying to be funny, your sense of humor just might come out anyway.

(7) Failure is something you do, not who you are.

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.

Can’t Compare

Negative thought:  feeling I don’t measure up (socially in particular) compared to others.

Rational Responses (me):  Comparing myself to someone has no objective impact on my personal worth one way or the other. It affects only my emotions, not who I am. The only person I should compare myself to is me. There will always be someone who’s better than me at something – so what? Some people just have more skill than others. I don’t want to demand that another person not be so socially attractive. Getting down on myself won’t change them and just damages me. As long as I believe my social worth is measured by how others are there’s no way I can win, because no matter how socially adept I become, someone will always be better — there’s a few billion people out there who are more socially talented than me.

~ ~ ~

A related idea: “We don’t blame ourselves if we don’t know how to fly a plane or perform surgery when we never learned those skills. Likewise, there are communication skills, and relationship skills that make life move along better. They’re not taught in school and often not at home either.”

Richard O’Connor, Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You

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.

 

Big Deal

Everything’s such a big freakin’ deal to my amygdala. Time and time again I have to talk him off the ledge. Like this:

  • Maybe it’s really not such a big deal. Sure, my emotions are big, but that doesn’t necessarily make the situation big.
  • Maybe the way I’m thinking and feeling right now is under the influence of some stupid old cognitive-emotional pattern in my brain, rather than a true assessment of what’s going on.
  • In most situations the stakes really aren’t very high. Most interactions and situations are just normal, and they’re not evaluations.

 

Rational Responses to Social Guilt

Not everyone will even understand what I’m writing about, in this post. Too bad. But that’s all right.  If you’re someone who feels your life is sh*tty, failing, stuck, lonely, and every moment seems to bring a fresh alarm for your amygdala or another mistake over which you’re beating yourself up, maybe you’ll get some value from these responses. They help me just a little, but that’s better than nothing and better than hurting – sometimes the best you can do is to undermine your negative beliefs just a little, rather than completely overcoming them.

The following are things I’ve tried telling myself regarding the worry and guilt I often feel when I think I’ve screwed up an interaction or made people uncomfortable or said something awkward: 

Scribbling my thoughts down on my CBT worksheet
(Image from the film “2046”)

# I’m not a mean person simply for not wanting to visit with someone when I’m busy. Anyone would be annoyed when they’re busy and someone or something interrupts.

# Not smiling doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s hard to smile when you don’t feel happy, so don’t force it. Usually it’s hard to fake a smile anyway, like when posing for a picture.

# You don’t need to hit it off with everyone in order to have value as an individual. I can be friendly with someone without having to be friendly with everyone. (As a cognitive therapist once told me, “there are people I know, who are good friends of my wife, but I’ve always had a relationship with them that is somewhat superficial. And that’s okay. You don’t have to bare your soul to everyone you know.”)

# For many people, important social relationships come outside of work.  The work-place therefore does not have to be the sole source of fulfillment for them. It doesn’t have to be that way for me, either.

# Even if I were outgoing and happy most of the time, it still might not provide others with what they want or make them feel good.

# Not wanting to be someone’s close friend doesn’t necessarily mean you dislike them.

# Since when is everybody supposed to be in the same emotional state at the same time? If you’re feeling good, and talkative, you can speak and act without prior approval from others and without depending on what kind of mood they’re in if it differs from yours.

# Just because you don’t share somebody else’s interests it doesn’t mean you’re boring.

# A small move along the withdrawal/participation continuum might be to initiate (or respond to) a casual conversation with someone at work. Or at least being aware that the situation might arise, so that I don’t feel so taken by surprise that I avoid the interaction…. Or simply saying “Hi” to others. I’ll remind myself I’m not doing it to achieve anything major, but simply to be a little less averse to interaction – not in order to become Mr Sociability, but to get used to those times in which I must interact to get along (and they will come up).
[I wrote this last one just to remind myself that social opportunities may come up at sudden, unpredictable times, so if I’m in my head, preoccupied with something else that’s on my mind, the suddenness of the situation won’t trip me up and make me feel regretful or guilty over my reaction to it.]

All right, that’s enough for one post. I don’t want it to become a tl;dr post. I got a lot more where those came from.

Negative thinking: I hate it when that happens

~ 1 ~

NEGATIVE THOUGHT:
I’m running out of time to change my life. If I don’t change things soon — get a career, hobbies, friends, a woman, etc — it will be too late and my life will be an empty waste.

RATIONAL RESPONSE:
There will always be time to improve things in your life. Even in my old age, I could find friendship, meaningful things to do, and even romance. Maybe these feelings of worry aren’t a dysfunctional thing at all — maybe it’s just my heart telling me what I really desire.

~ 2 ~

I wrote this back in the summer of ’04, before the deep depression that struck me that summer had yet struck (the second of three major depressions I went through in a four-year period; yeah, ouch, I know; depression’s a bitch).

It was shortly after I’d seen a nationally-prominent sleep specialist. I’d thought I was seeing him to help me with insomnia. Ahhh, no.

Instead, he peppered me with personal questions about my lifestyle, hobbies, social activities, relationships, etc. I was surprised by the whole line of questioning. It was as if he was honing in on my social anxiety struggles (which I hadn’t even mentioned). He emphasized the point that the older a person gets the more crucial it is to have social interconnections and involvement with others (true’nuff). It was as if he was indicating to me that my sleep problems were due to social anxiety and this lack of social connections*.

Yikes. When you’re shy and avoidant, the last thing you want to go through is exposure. I hate it when that happens.

Of course I had little to tell him in response. I should’ve been able to describe my history of shyness and withdrawal, but with the mood that this exam had put me in, it didn’t even occur to me.

I hate it when that happens.

Looking back on it, he was simply being assertive and straight-to-the-point, and I guess I was thrown off balance by it.

I hate it when that happens.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t return to him. He did however prescribe something for me — Lexapro (as it’s called in the U.S.). Bad idea. I think it made me nearly suicidal, as some anti-depressants have a risk of doing. That is, I think it raised my ability to take the initiative before it had any effect on my mood. So I felt deeply depressed and I enough drive to take action on it.

But I’m still here, so you can tell how that episode turned out.

Be vigilant with new meds, boys and girls, is the lesson.

* I disagree with that diagnosis in my case, fwiw.