Moving past social anxiety
October 5, 2009 7:25 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone else feel like an imposter? I often have a hard time building relationships with people. I can be polite and make small talk with other people, but I struggle with making friends. I struggle with social anxiety which is part of the problem, but how do you move past it and build relationships with other people so that they are genuinely interested in getting to know you better?

This is the part that is the most tricky for me. I'm good at being polite and making small talk, but talking about things past this is where I really struggle. For most of my life I've always gone with what the other person wants to do and I've followed obediently. The problem is that I don't know how to lead in a friendship. I frequently worry about the fact that the other person I'm hanging out with is getting bored. I don't know what to talk about most of the time beyond small talk and being polite so I'll rely on meeting my friends and hoping that they have something interesting to talk about. Some of my friends from the past that I still hang out with enjoy having conversations when we have a drink and that's fine. I guess the problem is that I don't understand what the next step is with talking to people that I've just met. I think that a lot of people become disinterested and think that I don't have much going on in my life due to the fact that I don't know what to talk about. Perhaps this is true, as most of my hobbies are solitary activities such as reading and working on the computer. However, I also enjoy going to the art institute, museums, and baseball games. I'm sick of being so unsure about what to talk about. This is one of the reasons that I don't date very much as I can sense that the person I'm with feels bored. A lot of the times, I feel bored as well but I don't know what to do about it. I've been seeing a therapist for a while and we talk about the social anxiety being a problem, and I'm trying to get past it, but I just don't know what to talk about. Any suggestions/ideas?
posted by Garden to Human Relations (13 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
I'll make one quick comment which is: feeling like an imposter at one time or another is a symptom of being human.

Obviously if it happens enough for you to feel it is a problem, then it is a problem.

Suggestions (apologies for the triteness): find ways to make your individual activities social. Not all the time, just sometimes so you get used to forming interactions around something you're comfortable with. Take a one-time interest course with other people at a local gallery or museum, or go to a reading at a bookstore with social time after. You have something definite to talk about, but a very good lead into practicing a few deeper conversations, asking people about themselves. Asking someone an open-ended question about themselves is a guaranteed way to continue a conversation.
posted by variella at 7:38 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was you, like literally exactly like you. What changed my life was spending time around theater people and comedians. I am not an actor myself (too scared!), but I began doing tech stuff for theaters. In general, the actors and comedians I've met are both friendly and... heedless of certain boundaries (in a good way). They acted however they wanted without worrying about what people would think, and they were honest with me. Those people are not my only friends anymore, because they really changed the way I look at the world and made me a million times less self-conscious.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:40 AM on October 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

how do you... build relationships with other people so that they are genuinely interested in getting to know you better?

Most people really want nothing more from their friends than a genuinely interested, nonjudgmental ear. Show others that you really care about their lives and they'll do the same for you.
posted by chalbe at 7:42 AM on October 5, 2009

Nthing "this is the human condition" message above.

We're all dancing through social conventions that our actual society and upbringings stopped preparing us for about fifty years ago. As such, we're all sort of stumbling around to find the middle ground between Emily Post and actual, real people manners and conversation.

And the first hump is the hardest for lots of folks. I know I find the initial introductions and small talk the most difficult part of meeting anyone. Once people disarm, and I relax myself, everything gets easier.
posted by rokusan at 7:56 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Times had a great article about this a couple of years ago, they called it Imposter Syndrome.
posted by hermitosis at 7:57 AM on October 5, 2009

Best answer: I agree this is the human condition as well. I also feel like this when making small talk, and I do not suffer social anxiety disorders of any kind. Instead of changing it, I have just resigned myself to the fact that if I don't find someone interesting after some of conversation, what's the point of being that persons friend? I don't need 700 friends who are nothing like me, and might be bored. If I see someone on a regular basis, such as a co-worker or friend of a friend, and our small talk is interesting due to compatibility, friendship has always seemed to follow from that with no extra effort. If the small talk feels constantly forced, it makes me feel phony, but I assume the other person does as well.

My tactic is this. You say you like baseball, for example. I do too. If I am making small talk with a person who doesn't seem like a jerk, I might say, "Hey did you see the Phillies game? Ryan Howard is on a streak." They will either confirm or deny they enjoy baseball. Next in the conversation, try "Read any good books lately?" or "Did you see the new Monet exhibit?" or another topic you might enjoy discussing which engages their personal opinion on a past time you enjoy or a subject you are interested in. If after three tries, either the same conversation or three different ones, you have not one thing in common, I just give up. It's not phony to try and find common ground with another human, it's just a part of life.
posted by itsonreserve at 8:20 AM on October 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

I have this problem too. I usually try to navigate it by asking the other person a lot of questions so that I don't have to do very much talking. I love being able to pick brains, so this is fun for me (albeit avoidant).

How to get past it? I think you just have to jump off that scary scary cliff. Find out what happens if you don't go along with what the other person wants to do or talk about. Open yourself up to the possibility of being embarrassed. Figure out what *you* really like to talk about and what really floats your boat. Then, pursue a conversation of that topic with the other person. Or, if it's a level of intimacy you want out of the conversation, or an emotion, or a laugh, pursue that. Go into the interaction with a particular aim, and don't be afraid to chase it down.
posted by kitcat at 8:51 AM on October 5, 2009

Do your own thing. Pursue your passions. If you get into it enough sooner or later you're going to bump into someone who is really into it too. Then you won't be wondering what to say, you'll be staring at your watch saying,"Geez! Have we really been talking for three hours?". Trust me.
posted by stubborn at 9:26 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used to be horrifically shy and had similar problems to the ones you describe above. I was cripplingly socially anxious throughout my teenage years and found it extremely difficult to make close and lasting friendships.

I eventually sorted it out, through a couple of methods. Some of them I wouldn't necessarily recommend (drinking heavily during social occasions), some of them worked well. The two things that I'd definitely recommend that worked for me were doing a lot of voluntary work, and moving into a large shared house with a lot of social-yet-geeky people.

With volunteering, I started out by working on a helpline for people who were undergoing crises or needed emotional support. It was sort of a Samaritans-type thing. There was a fairly long training period which emphasised listening skills, non-verbal communication, and non directionality. It cured a lot of my lingering social paranoia and made me feel a lot better about talking with people, because I had a mental 'rulebook' I could refer to in conversations. In moments of social paranoia/anxiety I used to drag out my training and start asking a lot of questions, pay attention to my body language, made sure the other person felt like I was listening to them. Asking lots of questions is really the best thing you can do when you're talking to someone: absolutely nobody gets bored talking about themselves, seriously. (Although whether you get bored is another question!) Additionally, lots of voluntary work has a social aspect: volunteers will go to the pub together, or go out to get pizza, that kind of thing. You mention you like art galleries and museums- loads of local galleries and museums look for volunteers. If you're working with someone in an area of common interest it becomes surprisingly easy to have lengthy, and then eventually quite deep conversations.

One of the other things I try to do is talk less about me and more about things I've read, or plays/films that I've seen, or interesting things that people I know have done.

Due to unavoidable circumstances, about six months ago I moved to a city where I knew basically nobody. My partner lived over an hour away and I'd left all my friends behind in another city. I'm a tiny shy geek, so this was a nightmare. I had to force myself to go out and do things and meet people, which felt a lot like rebuilding my life all over again. So I got involved in local left-wing political activism, volunteered backstage at a local community theatre, and found local people online who were in similar situations and wanted to hang out, go to the pub, go to gigs (I found them via OKCupid, of all places.)

You say you're speaking to a therapist about social anxiety and related issues. Have you thought about possibly joining a local support group for people undergoing the same problems?

Having typed all of that-- I think stubborn and kitcat in the comments above me really hit the nail on the head.
posted by somergames at 9:35 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

The fact that (as of now) 14 people have already favorited your post should be an indicator of how common this is.

Something like Facebook could be a good middle ground in this kind of situation. It reinforces what we call weak ties, which are (more or less) the connections between acquaintances who know and like each other but don't necessarily pal around 24/7. The cool thing about weak ties is that they have the capability of exposing you to new and interesting ideas, people, activities, etc. precisely BECAUSE they're not as strong as those ties you have with closer friends. You hang out with your closer friends because they're like you and like the same things, but with the weak-tie friends you like them enough to appreciate the things that you don't necessarily know that much about.

So if you use Facebook, it's a good way of just getting in practice with 1) keeping in regular contact in ways that don't require deep thought, like e-mails, 2) making side comments that show you are friendly and interested but aren't "oh, hey, I know everything about you, even though we didn't hang out in high school" and 3) being exposed to different ways of communicating. And then one day you might see someone post something and say, "you know, that sounds fun; maybe I should go, and we can chat."

I know I sound so confident about this method even though I'm one of those people who suffers from the same problem :P Just remember how many people around you are probably just trying to fake it 'til they make it... like you. And that's not a bad technique, either.

My dad once told me that he had given a huge keynote training speech of some sort and a woman had come up to him afterwards gushing, "You were so great! I just watched you and said, 'Boy, now THERE is a guy who's got his act together!'" Meanwhile, he'd thought he'd bombed and didn't relate to anyone. He and I share a lot of the same ADD tendencies, so this was doubly ironic.

Your perception and the reality of the situation can be miles apart. Everyone's in the same boat; remembering that can help us to be more compassionate and not worry so much about how scary it might be for us. You're going to be okay.
posted by Madamina at 9:47 AM on October 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

I used to have the opposite problem, I would be uncomfortable with silence, and then talk just to fill the void and sometimes reveal too much about myself. I didn't want to monopolize the conversation, but felt like someone had to fill the silence...

Then I started being aware that if I would be quiet, other people would eventually speak up, and then I could just ask them follow up questions on that, and not be a conversation monopolist.

I started a new system for small talk at social occaisions, before going out, I would write in my journal ahead of time about interesting topics, and then I would just stick to those. Maybe you could adopt this strategy. Make a list of things you feel confident talking about, and refer to it before going out.

I suggest things that everyone can relate with - travel, pets, movies, children, childhood, anything funny that has happened to you recently. Good luck!
posted by Goodgrief at 12:26 PM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think metafilter is filled with imposters.

If you're ever stumped for what to talk about, the easiest way out is to ask the other person something about themselves. People love to talk about themselves. Most of my activities are fairly solitary as well, so I try to have a broad sense of what's going on in the world at large, so I can bring up the tsunami in Samoa or the recent G20 summit or Madonna's appearance on SNL. You don't need to be an expert on everything, and you don't need to pretend you know everything. Be curious about things and people, and remember that the person you're sitting across from almost surely feels like an imposter as well.
posted by desjardins at 3:32 PM on October 5, 2009

Volunteer. Working with people on a project or cause you both feel passionate about is a great way to get to know them better on a real level.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:44 PM on October 5, 2009

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