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.

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 Questions Produce Positive Outlook

What if there really isn’t any personal change to be achieved? No changes that will ever happen to your personality or ability to enjoy life? What if there is no lasting solution to whatever bothers you or me?

What if this is it? What if this is “as good as it gets”?

I actually mean this in a positive way, believe it or not — in that whatever one’s problems and setbacks and shortcomings might be, you should still pursue your core aspirations anyway, even if it means that your baggage has to come along for the ride.

This is my ambition in life.

This is not an original idea that I came up with. There’s a bit of it in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (especially regarding mood-dependent behavior); and whole lot of it in ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy).