You Take My Breath Away... Help, I Can't Breathe...
January 11, 2009 8:14 AM   Subscribe

Help me deal with high stakes situations without turning people off and giving myself headaches.

Sometimes I feel like an extrovert with the skills of an introvert. When I am relaxed and comfortable with people, I can tell jokes, tell stories, have great intense or silly conversations, argue well, and just *engage*. I like who I am at those moments. I wish all of life could be like that.

Unfortunately, whenever I am not relaxed - in most new or high-stakes situations like meetings with the boss, meeting strangers, dates - I am the exact opposite. If I want to make a point, I can't remember any of my arguments. If I try to tell a story, it comes out stilted. If I'm with a guy I really like I'll suddenly be unable to think of any topic of conversation I could possibly bring up. I just generally go quiet.

What frustrates me the most is not what I do or do not say itself - it's the body language I can't control. I cross my arms, I can't meet people's eyes, my voice becomes soft and I speak fast and clipped. I sometimes have problems eating beforehand, because of butterflies in my stomach/nausea, and I frequently get headaches after (I never get headaches otherwise). By this point something that was supposed to be fun or at least exciting is now completely aversive and I just want it over with.

Example 1: I recently went out on a date with a boy I like. We've been friends for a little while and when we've been with our friends I've felt very comfortable and able to be myself. But when we went on a date, I suddenly couldn't meet his eyes or think of very much to say, and by the time the evening was over, I had a headache. This is a constant problem for me - it is probably part of why I have never dated anyone, or hooked up with anyone when I wasn't drunk.

Example 2: I have a really great job with a very kind, encouraging boss. But I'm kind of intimidated by him - he's fairly famous in our field - and so whenever he asks me casually how I'm doing or how my weekend went I find myself freezing up and giving a very rote and unfriendly sort of answers.

I doubt that this is uncommon - maybe it's just an exaggerated version of what most people go through. And most of the time I am absolutely fine. I have some amazing friends and can small talk at the checkout line with the best of them. But I'm worried that in these specific instances I'm not leaving a good impression - at best, people must be thinking that I'm kind of uptight and boring, and at worst, what if they think that I'm not interested in them or invested in the situation - when that is the exact opposite of how I feel! I'm constantly shooting myself in the foot.

So, HiveMind - have you ever gone through this? How did you cope? What are some steps I can take and things I can do to help myself here?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like a bit of situational social anxiety and like you might have some self esteem or issues with people you think have more power or control than you do. Talking this stuff out with a therapist would be a good step in figuring out why you behave the way you do and learning some techniques to help you deal. Everybody gets nervous and shy at some point, but if it is affecting your ability to date, have relationships or function properly in the workplace, then I think you should go get some professional help.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:12 AM on January 11, 2009

I remember my Dad taking Dale Carnegie classes when I was young. It seemed they did a lot of exercises centered around public speaking. My Mum says it really brought him out of his shell and he went on to become a fire chief. He also joined and eventually headed up local civic groups like Lions, Rotary, Masons and so on.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:19 AM on January 11, 2009

Lower the stakes. Give yourself permission to fail. On my first date with my husband, I told myself that this was going to end horribly, and thus I might as well be completely myself. Surprise, he liked me for exactly who I am.

You're putting way too much pressure on yourself. Recognize that it's not inherent in the situation. You do fine in low-stress situations because your expectations are low. Keep them low and you'll do fine.
posted by desjardins at 9:38 AM on January 11, 2009

I've often felt and reacted the way you do, and the thing that has helped me the most is to realize that many people also feel the same way. It's fairly normal, and if you can recognize that fact, it will alleviate a lot of your anxiety. Try not to focus on your own feelings and reactions so much when you are nervous. Watch the other people you are interacting with, and you will begin to notice their nervous tics as well. Also, do not let this stop you from doing the things that make you nervous. Nervousness is a reaction to a new situation - once you've done it a few times, it becomes far less scary. Eventually, you will find that most situations are ones that you are somewhat familiar with (going on dates, talking to your boss) and you will be able to accomplish them without a twitch.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:12 PM on January 11, 2009

Yup, you've got social anxiety. I've been helped some by group therapy and anti-anxiety meds, but cognitive-behavioural therapy didn't do anything for me. My anxiety's somewhat more severe than yours, but manifests similarly. Check out The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook.

Other folks I know with similar problems have been helped out by exposure therapy, and in some cases, pretty extreme exposure therapy: karaoke, Toastmasters, stand-up comedy lessons, and the like.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 12:35 PM on January 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding social anxiety. I have the exact same symptoms, though not to the extremes of headaches and stomach butterflies. But arm-crossing, avoiding eye contact... yeah, it's anxiety.

If you must, on a date or other one-on-one situations, confess lightheartedly that you're nervous/shy/synonym in that kind of situation. Don't make it a big deal, just laugh and admit it. Most people will say it's okay and help you along in conversations. Worked for me a few times.

And remember! Other people can be just as nervous/anxious as you are. So you're not alone.
posted by curagea at 2:51 PM on January 11, 2009

It took me forever for anyone to explain this to me but you don't have to look into someone's eyes the entire time you're talking to them. Making eye contact initially and periodically and looking in their general direction works too. If you want to look at their face without their eyes, the eyebrows or forehead is the best bet.

Sometimes it's also good to know the flaws of the person you're dealing with at the time. It helps me with my anxiety when I know that I'm sitting across from an actual person who makes mistakes like me and not a Terminator who's waiting for the first signs of weakness to strike.
posted by Pseudology at 4:23 PM on January 11, 2009

I can't remember any of my arguments. If I try to tell a story, it comes out stilted. If I'm with a guy I really like I'll suddenly be unable to think of any topic of conversation I could possibly bring up. I just generally go quiet.

So, make written notes of your arguments. And don't try to tell stories. And tell people that you're really focused on the [new business project / first date / etc.] and you're a bit nervous, but nevertheless you're really pleased to be involved in the [whatever].

And what the others said above.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:11 PM on January 11, 2009

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