You don't know me?
August 19, 2010 8:00 PM   Subscribe

I have a fear that people will perceive my intentions as the exact opposite of what they really are. I'm scared the people who I feel friendly towards will perceive me as hostile, rude, or uncaring. I worry that those I love the most will think I don't care. What the heck is my problem? And what can I do to straighten myself out?

I have this problem all the time. I finally had a eureka moment, realizing all the instances that share this issue, and it is all over my life. To give you examples of what I mean:

I just had a new roommate move in at school. She seems really nice, I'd love to be friends, and I know that being new to school and far from home it would be good for her as well if I were friendly.

Inside I *feel* friendly towards her. And I am trying to act that way. But I fear I come across as closed. I'm pretty awkward with new people. I'm always odd when I don't know the exact protocol for a situation. I worry, should I sit and talk and ask questions for a long time? Should I give her space and let her get settled, with conversations here and there? The outcome is always that I feel I am doing the wrong thing, in this case the totally unfriendly thing.

Another situation is my family. Whenever I visit home I want them to know I love spending time with them, and love them. But I always feel like I am not getting the message across right. I often have to work and feel like they don't know I wish I could spend more quality time with them. When I do one uncaring, or unthoughtful thing, it makes me feel like they won't understand I would do anything for them.

The list goes on and on. Why do I think people are getting a vibe from me that is opposite of what I truly feel? And why the things that I care about and am deeply invested in?

If I feel extremely kind feelings toward a person, is it likely they feel I'm cold towards them?

Thanks for you thoughts.
posted by chocolatemilkshakes to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You can ask them for their opinion on this. "Do you feel that I'm cold to you?" "Be honest, I won't get offended." "I just hope that I'm not misunderstood."
posted by antgly at 8:03 PM on August 19, 2010

yes, ask them. Get some direct feedback from the people you care about...
posted by HuronBob at 8:24 PM on August 19, 2010

Are you able to read how you're coming across to people as you're speaking to them? For example, you might say something and realize the other person isn't responding in as friendly a manner as you hope, or maybe you even catch a tiny bit of annoyance on their face. Then you can smile and say, "oh maybe that didn't come out right" or "what I meant was..." and say it a different way. This isn't an easy skill to develop, so don't feel like a social failure if it doesn't for you right away.

Also, it will help to remember that other people are more concerned with their own problems than with every nuance of your interaction. Others are more likely to remember and stress over how they said something, not what you said. If you're sincere, people will figure that out.
posted by zinfandel at 8:37 PM on August 19, 2010

"I'm always odd when I don't know the exact protocol for a situation. I worry, should I sit and talk and ask questions for a long time? Should I give her space and let her get settled, with conversations here and there?"

You say, "I'm sorry, I feel awkward -- is this a chatting time, or would you rather have some space to settle in?"

People are mostly really nice when you reveal to them that you feel awkward/nerdy/out of place/weird.

With the family I'd probably just say, at dinner, maybe as a toast, "I hope you all know how much I love spending time with you! To awesome families -- Skol/Cheers/Slainte!"

Which is to say, I guess, I don't know why you're getting that vibe, but I do know you can be more honest and vulnerable in these interpersonal situations and for the most part people will appreciate it and respond generously.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:41 PM on August 19, 2010

Not a doctor, but I'd guess your dealing with anxiety, and more specifically, social anxiety.

The suggestions above (be up front, be sincere, seek feedback about how people perceive you) are spot on, but it also sounds like professional assessment and possibly treatment could be useful for you.

I don't know the process where you are, but here the first step would be to have a chat with your family doctor, tell them what you've said in this post, and if they think it necessary, get a referral onwards to a psych specialist of one kind or another.

Importantly, you shouldn't be afraid of seeking a diagnosis. You are fundamentally better off knowing if there is a problem requiring treatment than not knowing. No-one will think poorly of you for asking. And if there is a problem that requires treatment, you're ultimately the one who makes the choices about whether to deal with it, and how to deal with it.
posted by Ahab at 10:39 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Language is imperfect, none of us will never communicate the entire meaning of whatever we're trying to say. Ever.

All we can do is try our best and hope that we're understood. This isn't license to overdo it so that you can cover the details in as much detail as detailly possible, it's a compromise. Over time the inevitable repetition of elements in your various expressions will coagulate into different kinds of consistency, one of which can be, "she likes spending time with us."

People notice this stuff, but there's no guarantee that your means of expression and another person's means of interpretation will gybe. Pulling back from my existential wankateria, you're probably doing it fine, it's just that other people might not be responding as you'd hoped they would (which is really only a sense how you would react).

I think you're on the edge about "completely opposite," though. There's no such thing, unless you rise to the level of meaninglessness that hanging the distinction on understanding vs. not understanding. As I said at the beginning, there's always going to be an element of misunderstanding. Not about facts, of course, but the stuff inside your head. So, where there is no such thing as complete communication...does that mean that a degree of misunderstanding is "completely opposite" to what you intend? It isn't for me, and I truly believe that way lies madness and you can drive yourself crazy trying to shape your expressions such that you can guarantee a proper reaction. Folly, fool's errand, etc.
posted by rhizome at 11:13 PM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think it's ambivalence. Everyone has a shadow -- thoughts and feelings we want to disavow because they don't fit in with our ideal perceptions of ourselves, or with what we think the culture permits. But we're too complex for our culture. So for every conscious impulse or desire we experience, there's also an unconscious pull to go the other way. Everyone has this. But it's easier to function if we explain our experiences and motives to ourselves as if they were straightforward.

I loved my folks, but I also wanted to kill them. I genuinely like and want to be liked by my co-workers, but some days I want to take their heads off. And even on the days when my co-worker Grant is driving me nuts, I can still appreciate something funny or smart he just said. So -- our feelings and motives are always mixed, because humans are complex. That's just how it is.

I think your discomfort has something to do with a vague uneasiness or guilt around your half-acknowledged shadow side, the darker feelings that you wish weren't there. When you're with your family and you're aware of loving them in a deep and genuine way, you're dismayed when you feel a twinge of irritation, contempt, etc. Because it doesn't fit it with what you're telling yourself: I love my family. All of your feelings are accurate all of the time. You love your family, and they can also be annoying. You want to make friends with a new person, and you can also see her potential faults and flaws.

You're an aware, complex person and your responses to the world and the other people you encounter, who are equally complex, will always be multi-faceted. No reason to feel guilty, though, about this mosaic of contradictory feelings and perceptions. It's part of what makes experience rich.
posted by frosty_hut at 3:39 AM on August 20, 2010

i feel like this often as well and have observed people who are adept at delivering their intentions as they were intended. it's quite a skill. but what i've found of people who i'm fond of is, there's actually more 'checking in' than there is anything else. i feel like the people who i feel love for are the one that ask thoughtful questions instead of offering advice or yammering on about what they must think is a contribution in a conversation. Asking thoughtful questions like Eyebrows McGee does 2 things: it says 'i see you' & 'i'm being responsive'...and isn't that what we all want?

also, my 2 extra cents, i think relationships (& building them) are an exercise of tweeking & re-tweeking. and when you get to know someone, something might happen where you'll need to re-tweek again. it's the nature of growing changing relationships & checking in is a good way to stay on course.

and yes, get feedback from people who you love. they might be touched.
posted by UltraD at 10:19 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

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