Have you ever had a fear of strangers?
August 25, 2009 10:40 AM   Subscribe

Have you ever suffered from a general fear of strangers? What did/do you do? Read on for more info.

I don't know what you'd call it (and it might be useful to avoid classifications), but nearly all the time I'm balanced on a knife edge between being totally accepting of strangers, and being prejudiced and cynical about them. I know this is a defense mechanism, but I feel it is holding me back socially.

Have you ever had this? What do you do to combat it? Is it possible to get to a stage where you can be totally cool with all kinds of strangers?

I'd like to avoid theories and/or diagnosing in this thread. Let's just keep it to practical, useful advice if we can. Thanks.

Remember you can always message me privately if you don't want to chat here.
posted by humblepigeon to Human Relations (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A few years back when I was going through some counciling and my psychiatric nurse asked me "When someone cuts you off in the grocery store, you..."

"...dont go back to that grocery store... well at least not when it is busy or I might run into people."

She stopped in her tracks. I was serious. I seriously avoided conflict with inconsiderate people and had an adverse reaction when forced to encounter them. I, as such, removed myself from the situation. So we talked, I took some stuff for generalized anxiety, and I forced myself to sort of deal with it.

Now I go when I need to, but it takes a fair amount of deep breathing, and I go in with a plan to get what I need and get out as quickly as possibe. I still try to minimize this by going in principally at odd hours, but I am better able to cope rude people.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:53 AM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

but nearly all the time I'm balanced on a knife edge between being totally accepting of strangers, and being prejudiced and cynical about them.

Neither is an effective way of dealing with strangers. The key is to keep in mind that they are strangers and you don't know much about them. They could be good, they could be bad. I think it may be that you wish to be relieved of this fear and so you sometimes are totally accepting, often when you might want to be less trusting.

Your fears describe real potential problems, but you overestimate their impact on you. Keeping this in mind will really help.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:02 AM on August 25, 2009

Maybe realize that there's no such thing as "strangers" -- they're just people you don't know. They're not strangers to everyone; they're friends, family, and coworkers to other people. Lumping them into the category of strangers is just a way of creating artificial boundaries in the world that promotes an adversarial point of view.
posted by proj at 11:03 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I guess this depends on the stranger fear we're talking about here. I'm going to assume you are talking about strangers at a party or other social setting, and not being able to trust them or their intentions (as opposed to the fear of physical harm from random strangers on the street or other such qualms).

The best way to get over this imo is to acquire data on the problem and solve it through induction and generalization. Don't assume what people intentions are. Observe them, ask them (indirectly), and more often than not they'll tell you. People in general are usually more than happy to talk about themselves and as long as you are sincerely interested (for research or other purposes) in what they're saying you should have no problems developing leading questions to figure out what they're interested in and hence, what their motives are. Meeting people slowly, with a group of friends you trust is a good way to do this if you're more naturally timid. Often times you can find people hanging out on their own, dying to talk to someone. Over time, as you learn about more and more people you'll figure out that all people are essentially the same, and have relatively similar motivations. Once you figure out those motivations, understanding how that results in their actions can become simple. Be careful not to read to much into things though, as each person is also a complex individual. You won't know everything about a person, but it might become easier to tell if they are putting up a front or acting against their wishes. Once you get a feel for how people generally behave, it can become easy to spot people who behave disingenuously. You won't have to walk the knife edge anymore because you'll have a fairly good idea of which side people fall on.

That being said, it's best not to trust too quickly, but after 10 or so minutes with someone you should usually be able to rely on your judgment. It can take years to really get to know someone (especially people who are less comfortable with others), but determining their intentions doesn't have to take nearly as long.
posted by scrutiny at 11:08 AM on August 25, 2009

This might feel like fear internally, but it actually sounds like you're just anticipating not liking them. If you happen to be projecting that when people first meet you, you might be skewing your results before any genuine interaction even happens.

I don't think its unhealthy to be a little skeptical with people before you get comfortable with them, but I agree that actively trying to be more open-minded from the beginning might help (though as scrutiny points out, not at the expense of your gut instincts.)

Your question reminded me that now is as good a time as any to reread this AskMe comment.
posted by juliplease at 11:13 AM on August 25, 2009

I've found the answer to this is to get better at small talk.
posted by rhizome at 11:18 AM on August 25, 2009

Is your mindset at all correlated to your mood? I find with myself and others that we often project our internal state onto our expectations for others.
posted by dualityofmind at 11:51 AM on August 25, 2009

I really don't like meeting strangers. I HATE talking on the phone. I haven't got a real answer, except that I am somewhat introverted, and I just don't like it. My husband is very extroverted and loves meeting new people, loves talking on the phone. We are just different. But it sort of ebbs and flows for me, and some times I am more okay with it than others. If I really want something, like to meet someone, I make an effort to do so.

Here is how I handle itotherwise. If it is for work, I do it, and actually I do it quite a lot. I have to meet with groups of people, monthly, for my job. I know that I don't really like to do it, but not to the point where I try to get out of it. If it was excrutiatingly creepy, or holding me back, I would get a different job or go to therapy.

In my off time I do what I want, and that means not meeting people. I will talk to my family on the phone if I have to, but mostly that is it.
posted by chocolatetiara at 1:00 PM on August 25, 2009

This is pretty much the definition of social anxiety. You should find some resources for it like this book and consider seeing a doctor if it doesnt get better.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:50 PM on August 25, 2009

Act like a host. Act like your job requires that you should make the person comfortable, or obtain information from them. Try volunteering at a Library or a Museum, where you will assist people to find stuff.

Read etiquette books from the 1st half of the 20th century, there are timeless courtesies. Don't draw attention to yourself thru boorish and inappropriate behavior.

Observe the behavior of people who have "good social skills"-- in movies, TV, or real life. Imagine how you would describe their actions in writing. Imagine the same person in other circumstances. What rules or patterns can you discern?

Shy people are hyper-sensitive and hyper-self-aware. Stop thinking about yourself. Pay attention to the other person, instead of monitoring your inner dialog. When you feel heightened pulse rate or other signs of anxiety, remind yourself to breathe, and shut off counterproductive internal negative feedback loop.

Try Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
posted by ohshenandoah at 1:53 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is it possible to get to a stage where you can be totally cool with all kinds of strangers?

By "cool," do you mean liking everyone? If so, I think that is unrealistic. Some people are just assholes and the most you can do is tolerate them. There are just some things you should not be accepting of - assault being a hyperbolic example. If by "cool" you mean "equanimous," then yes, I think it's possible.

I'm not understanding exactly what you have trouble with. I have agoraphobia and panic disorder, and that often takes the form of not wanting to be around people, even people I know and trust. I have a fear of meeting new people to the point where I laid awake most of the night before the 10th anniversary meetup. But I went anyway. It's a far cry from my college days, where I would hardly leave my dorm room for days at a time. It's not clear from your post if this is what you're dealing with.

nearly all the time I'm balanced on a knife edge between being totally accepting of strangers, and being prejudiced and cynical about them.

Also, I don't understand this statement at all. Are you saying you flip back and forth? Some real-world examples would be helpful in answering the question.
posted by desjardins at 3:08 PM on August 25, 2009

I was with some friends and we all went into Starbucks together to get drinks. I was fine. That is, until I had to pee. I was terrified - stomach cramps, shaking - to walk in alone and across the store to the bathroom. Same with being by myself in a grocery unless I had my mp3 player with me. I thought everyone was staring at me, and although I knew they weren't, I couldn't shake the feeling. Is that the sort of fear of strangers you're talking about?

Or do you mean going to a party and possibly being chatted up by someone you don't know?

What helped me get over the "everyone's looking at me" vibe was to focus on my task. I need milk, eggs bread... milk, eggs, bread... so I'd be so absorbed in what I needed and not forgetting that I paid no attention to people. I used to force myself to go places alone, and people watch. Watching them made me feel less visible, and over time I became more confident.

As for the chatting up - pretend. Practice small talk when you're alone. Sounds silly, but it helped me enormously.
posted by caveat at 3:13 PM on August 25, 2009

If you're at all open to meditation, you might try the Metta Bhavana guided meditation by Bodhipaksa (nice Scottish accent! on "Guided Meditations for Calmness, Awareness, and Love") or some other person's interpretation of the Buddhist loving-kindness meditation.

Basically, it's a structured meditation in which you genuinely wish specific people well, from a person like the cashier at the corner grocery who you don't even know to friends or relatives that you're angry at. It has reduced my cynicism and crankiness in everyday life.
posted by PatoPata at 3:40 PM on August 25, 2009

This just sounds like social anxiety. Check out therapy to work on your internal stuff, and gradual exposure (practice) to work on social skills.
posted by mpls2 at 5:58 PM on August 25, 2009

Probably everyone remembers, if they can call it up, that fear ( or terror) of a going to school for the first time, or to a new school when/if their family moved, or going from familiar elementary to unfamiliar middle or high school, and then, possibly to university. It's very specific: you are nobody; you don't know where anything is or where you are supposed to go; nothing is familiar; nobody knows you; you don't know anybody. It's like being cast adrift without a lifeboat. I think your feeling about strangers is closely connected to this sort of feeling.

I had to go through that more than most people because my family moved more than most. I was lucky, because I had a really strong family unit, and because, for an introvert, I'm unusually assertive when need be. But I have had, and continue to have, a life history of having to constantly meet and live among strangers. I'm fairly used to being viewed as "exotic" for whatever reason (not because of being an ethnic minority... it's more like being from the north, and Catholic, in deep-south Baptist-land, for example, and sometimes just from being from anywhere else; currently, I'm an actual continental foreigner where I live).

I have quite conflicting feelings and reactions about this. I can be terribly strong and confident in some ways, yet I can also be pretty much agoraphobic and self-socially isolating. When I am the latter, it's basically because the whole idea of concerning myself at all with what other people might think about me is exhausting and dreadful. This is when I'm most like my new-kid-entering-a-new-school mode. It's not something - some idea - that came from nowhere; it's something I had to face quite a lot as a child, and which, as an adult, I sometimes choose to close myself off or protect myself from. Because I can. Because I have the power to say, well, I just won't do this or go there. It's not necessarily a mentally healthy way to go, but in some way it almost feels like taking power back for myself, in reaction to when I was a child and had no choice.

Think about the times in your life when you had no choice, and how that might intersect with the idea of strangers, and fear. It could be medical, or it could be a brief but shattering period of being lost, or something much more common/ordinary, like my story. Or something entirely different. Whatever your bothering/frightening and conflicting feelings are, there's a great chance that they were established at some point when you were a child. Both of us could probably do with a lovely long period of quality psychoanalysis, but failing that, we can try to sort out and understand ourselves as much as possible.
posted by taz at 6:10 AM on August 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

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