Help me get over my self-conscious side!
December 11, 2010 9:55 AM   Subscribe

I’m half introvert (don’t need to socialize every day; do like to escape and regroup after socializing) and half extrovert. My extroverted half can be extremely social, and even, on occasion, meet people really easily—and get them to like me. But if I feel I don’t relate to people around me, or that they won’t get me, or that they are poor listeners and I’ll either have to fight for their attention or fight against their judgmentalism (on whatever subject), I get hideously self-conscious and tongue-tied. How can I change that?

Worse, I also have some health issues, which I can largely hide, but which can on occasion subtly affect my otherwise not-bad-at-all looks (facial swelling) or cause brain fog (I can think, but I can’t articulate), or cause literal tongue-tiedness wherein I actually mispronounce words.

Since I think a lot in conversation, and find actual, good conversation a kind of mental bliss, if a conversation doesn’t go well, I fret about it. A lot. And sometimes get quite embarrassed, or even shyer.

This does little to help my self-confidence. While speaking, I’ll suddenly go blank on a word, or a subject. Sometimes I’ll expect poor listening skills and be surprised when I don’t get them. So when I notice they are actually listening, I get even more self-conscious…. On occasion, they’ll ask me a question, and I know they simply won’t relate—or I can’t think how to make them relate--to the real answer, so this befuddles me too, and I tend to stumble out of it.

In the past several years, I’ve traveled a lot, and I’ve noticed that I don’t really have that many problems talking to anybody when traveling because the natural subject matter makes everything so easy: questions about their locale, comparisons with mine, random geographic observations, etc.

I think my issue is, I can be quite a good talker when I feel safe (understood, listened to, engaged), and a miserable one when I don’t. How do I thrive outside of certain safety? How do I recreate the ease of travel conversation when I’m not traveling?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I'm right there with you, on almost all of this. While I don't have health issues, I do have bad-skin days or sluggish-brain days or clumsy-tongue days.

The only advice I can give you is to breathe, to avoid alcohol when outside your social comfort zone (YMMV, but it makes my stumbling/bumbling more obvious and makes me self-recriminate more ruthlessly the next day), and to remember that almost everyone feels this way at least *sometimes*.

Your note about feeling more comfortable in travel situations is a good one - it does take the work out of searching for a topic and the stress out of wondering how they may judge you (you'll likely never see them again). But you're not on trial or on parade when you're in a conversation - the responsibility for finding mutually interesting topics and making a good impression falls on both (or, for larger conversations, all) parties involved. If I forget a word, or blank on a subject, I'll say so - this happens to everyone. I'll try to make light of it and make it an opportunity for the other person to pitch in.

I'm nearing 40, and all I can say is that I'm just as *naturally* self-conscious in these situations as I was at 14, but I've helped myself cope with it by cultivating some encouraging self-talk: "That topic went off like a lead balloon, oh well - everyone has an off-night," or "This person doesn't seem very interested, oh well - maybe I should wrap up this conversation and find someone with whom I have more in common..."

I hope this helps.
posted by pammeke at 11:01 AM on December 11, 2010

I'm not sure what to say that may be helpful, except general words of encouragement. What has helped me is putting less stake into the conversation. Talk is cheap. There is always more talk. Deeds matter more.

It's somewhat amusing, though, that "introvert" and "extrovert" have taken the place of a good dozen other words to describe one's personality in more specific detail.
posted by Nomyte at 11:05 AM on December 11, 2010

I was thinking of travel conversations before you mention them. I've traveled quite a bit too - and was going to recommend it! - and what I find about these sorts of conversations is that you learn to lower your expectations.

While travelling, there are plenty moments when you go into conversations not expecting the other person to "relate to you" (whatever that means) or to be a "good listener". You say something, they say something back, and you work out together with them in a dynamic production to see what the conversation will provide. Sometimes you'll get directions, sometimes you'll get nothing at all, sometimes you'll get a really fascinating conversation and be able to share things that you hadn't been able to share with those closer to you.

What I would suggest - and this in partly in reaction to the way you phrase your question, and partly in reaction to how I think I go about having conversations myself - is to (1) lower absolute expectations, (2) treat conversations dynamically.

The descriptions you've made of not being related to, and not expecting to be related to, are what I meant by the expectations: if you try to preempt these expectations then there'll be less weight on the conversation.

And what I mean by treating conversations dynamically is realising the ways they can be done and undone and put-back-together-again all in the coming and going of normal interactions. So, if you sometimes can't remember a word, or a subject, well, then, don't remember it! If you have a facial swelling, you have a facial swelling. What you can work on is ways of recovering from missing a word, and/or putting people at ease more generally; have a handy phrase you might come back to explaining this, or, if remembering that's difficult, a laugh, recognition and continuing the conversation are what's most important.

This also applies to people listening to you. Work out whether they're listening to you while you're talking to them - it sounds like you already do this - and if they're listening, go on talking, and if they're not then don't. Or go on talking anyway. If they ask a question and you don't trust them to respect/listen to what would be a real answer, then answer in euphemisms. (Most obvious here is "how are you?" and "good."; but if someone asks you, so, hey, "why do you do X job/whatever?" then you could say "oh, you know, lots of reasons" or "that's how things wound up" or any other of many content-free responses that continue the conversation.)

And, I hope you'll find, as has been my experience in life, that people have their own ways of listening, and people who are terrible listeners at certain points will ask you a question when you least expect it and genuinely be interested in the answer. They are probably not evaluating or giving attention to everyday conversations as much as you are.
posted by squishles at 11:10 AM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I’m half introvert (don’t need to socialize every day; do like to escape and regroup after socializing) and half extrovert.

Me too, though I skew slightly more "I" on the Myers-Briggs. I think our temperament type is balanced and very pleasant to be around, but if I feel I don’t relate to people around me, or that they won’t get me, or that they are poor listeners and I’ll either have to fight for their attention or fight against their judgmentalism (on whatever subject), I get hideously self-conscious and tongue-tied is very true for me as well.

I'd wager that most people feel at least somewhat self-conscious and tongue-tied in an environment like that, regardless of introversion or extroversion, though some "E" people seem to have an enviable, natural gift of gab.

I deal with my discomfort in a poor listening environment by trying to find common ground with my conversational partner. I also ask them leading questions about themselves that can't be answered with yes or no, but I avoid prying into their personal lives. A question like "what is the place where you grew up like?" is a good example. I tend to enjoy listening more than I enjoy talking, and people usually appreciate a good listener. I also tend to smile and nonverbally engage with the person I'm talking with.

But there are some people that are just poor communicators, and by that, I mean they don't have the social skills to have a good conversation. It sounds like these are the kind of people you're talking about in your question.

I'll give you an example. I have some relatives that I feel are judgmental, and I do feel tongue-tied and uncomfortable around them. (They're a couple. Let's call them Ms. Negative and Mr. Inappropriate).

I see them a couple of times a year, and I cope by keeping the conversation on things we agree about. I minimize discussions about my personal life or plans, because Mr. Inappropriate will give the impression that he thinks I'm incapable of making a good decision, and Ms. Negative will immediately list every worst case scenario she can think of, and completely dampen my enthusiasm. I walk away from these conversations full of self-doubt.

Mr. Inappropriate also tends to blurt out his opinions on my appearance, and that's something I just can't control. Talking to him about it makes him defensive.

I have to psych myself up before interacting with them and remind myself that this is just the way they are. They are critical of everyone, not just me, and for some reason, they think it's okay to give their opinions without being asked. Oftentimes, their critical attitude is the way they express care and concern for others. They are kind of old and set in their ways and not open to being told they are hurting people's feelings. I just accept this reality about them and focus on their good qualities and continually remind myself that this is about them and not me.

On occasion, they’ll ask me a question, and I know they simply won’t relate—or I can’t think how to make them relate--to the real answer.

This is exactly how Ms. Negative and Mr. Inappropriate are. I can't be myself around them. There are simply some people who are less accepting than others. It helps me to rehearse what I'll say when they ask me a question. I often find myself leaving a lot out of what I tell them. They are on a need-to-know basis with me, and that's okay.

I'm wondering if the people you feel uncomfortable with are asking you inappropriate questions. Maybe they're asking you things that most people wouldn't want to answer. It's hard to tell without examples, but I'll tell you what works for me.

If rehearsing a good "spin" and leaving out details that will trigger their judgment doesn't work and they persist in prying, I will flat-out tell them that I don't want to talk about it. If they're prying about a pending decision, I'll tell them I'm not far along enough in the decision-making process to discuss it further. If it's a nosy question about money or something like that, I simply tell them I don't want to talk about it or go into all the gory details. If it's about another person, I can remind them that we're discussing someone behind their back. These are not mean people, just inappropriate, and they usually back off when I ask them to.

I also know what you mean about traveling. Try to think about conversational topics that pertain to travelers and bring them into conversations at home, too.
posted by xenophile at 11:35 AM on December 11, 2010

But if I feel I don’t relate to people around me, or that they won’t get me, or that they are poor listeners and I’ll either have to fight for their attention or fight against their judgmentalism (on whatever subject), I get hideously self-conscious and tongue-tied. How can I change that?

Are you trying to change the way you act around people you're not hitting it off with, or are you trying to change the fact that you keep finding yourself in situations where you run into people you have trouble socializing with? Because I don't really think either thing can be changed. You are who you are and you're always going to run into situations where you don't have good chemistry with people. Generally I play to my strengths: if I'm in a situation where the social chemistry of the people I'm around isn't so great, I politely bow out. The answer for me is always to accept as many social opportunities as I can but minimize negative social experiences, cutting my losses, and investing in the positive ones.
posted by deanc at 12:19 PM on December 11, 2010

I pop a Xanax before socializing with people I don't already know well, and it helps tremendously.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:32 PM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's knowing when I have the energy to be a scintillating conversationalist and when not, to sit back and let others lead the conversation. Half of a conversation is listening.

It's somewhat amusing, though, that "introvert" and "extrovert" have taken the place of a good dozen other words to describe one's personality in more specific detail.

Nomyte, What are these words. I'm curious!
posted by Pecantree at 4:59 PM on December 11, 2010

You need to create an environment within yourself that allows you to feel safe. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself when you mess up. And realize that most people don't care what you say, as long as you make them feel good. They're not waiting for you to trip up, and most aren't judging you on your verbal prowess.

If you're in a situation where you don't think someone would understand or relate to the "real answer" (I'm assuming you're talking about personal information as opposed to intellectual), you don't have to tell them the truth. Make something up, keep it short and change the subject. They'll take the hint. You don't have to disclose personal information to people just because they ask.

You sound like you: a) are really worried about what others think of you, b) have a lot of distorted thinking around this issue, and c) have low self-esteem. I think therapy could really help you address these issues. I also think you should pick up a copy of Intimate Connections by David Burns. It helped me. Maybe it can help you.

Also, I think you're empowering this dynamic by labeling yourself as an introvert/extrovert. People are complex and labeling them in any way oversimplifies the human condition. Sometimes people want to be social. Sometimes they want to be alone. Sometimes they feel bad. Sometimes they feel good. Sometimes they just feel blah. You're not half-introvert/half-extrovert. You're you.

Finally, you asked how you can thrive outside of certain safety. First, accept that you are going to mess up. A lot. Second, accept that not every moment will be great. In fact, most of them will just be OK. Some of them will be awful. But the great ones will indeed be great, and totally worth the wait. Third, learn to be OK with this and enjoy your life the best way you know how.
posted by smokingmonkey at 6:29 PM on December 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty much the same way. You've really got to be nice to yourself and forgive yourself of your mistakes.

I've actually been having a huge problem with someone who is pretty much exactly like this (i.e. like me) and the reality is that a lot of this has been a timing issue for us. And unfortunately that's mostly been beyond our control. We have both tried - he has tried infinitely more than me - but it's just been hard. I'm going through some major, major life issues and he's got big problems too and I try hard to make him feel comfortable and he tries hard to make me feel comfortable and when it goes wrong, I think both of us just feel awful because we hate making mistakes.

Someone will inadvertently say the wrong thing at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and I have to remember that I've got bigger problems than this, he's got bigger problems than this, and it just is what it is. It's not supposed to be hard - and by not focusing on making everything perfect, it does become easier.

The more you realize that things are just what they are, the more comfortable you will feel within yourself.

With some days/situations/people you're going to be less quiet or more quiet and it just is. Some days/situations/people you'll trip up more - you just will. Have your doh moment for a second and then move on. You get more comfortable by doing it, acknowledging it (even if only in your own head), and moving on.

Plus - perfect is boring. Be you, warts and all.
posted by mleigh at 2:50 AM on December 12, 2010

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