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.)


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.


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.”