How to quit being an unwilling asshole?
July 13, 2011 7:21 PM   Subscribe

Tell me how to be yourself when your 'self' is terrible.

I've recently been readmitted to college, where I spent three years sleeping in (and have the grades to show for it).
My last try was over a decade ago, and while I've had my time in the working world since then, the intervening period
hasn't been positive -- bad job experiences, pretty severe depression after an incredibly bad breakup, medical issues,
financial problems. Eventually I decided to make an effort to try to get back on track, which is where the re-admittance to uni comes in.

Here's the thing -- I've not had a lot of social interaction with people in the last several years outside of my SO
and one or two close friends. Before my last episode of major depression I was known as outgoing and extroverted (sometimes unpleasantly so) with a tendency to speak out-of-turn, irrespective of whether or not my input was sought. The cliche of the "blowsy woman" fit me pretty much to a T.
Despite my evident lack of social graces I had a fairly large cache of social capital, all of which went out the window when I stopped getting out of bed or bathing for days on end. I essentially headed into the other extreme, cutting all contact with my social circle, my family, and my colleagues and becoming an introvert. I'm in a much better place these days thanks to years of therapy and medication,
but I find myself worried about going back into the social world again -- in jobs I was always polite, but underneath that there was a feeling of impatience that would eventually boil over into rage, never expressed outwardly because I'd developed a fear of conflict (and a fear of being rejected) -- but now that I'm trying to be a college student, especially in a field where "working the room" (in a sense) is considered a pillar of my discipline, I'm nervous about either being too quiet and unassuming just to avoid conflict with others, or interjecting my opinions/thoughts/anecdotes where they are neither requested nor appreciated. And it would be nice to make new friends, but I feel like I am a polarizing sort of person which turns people off. I want to be 'myself' but I feel like my 'self' isn't something that anyone would want to be around. It's as if I don't know how to be friendly, even when I want so badly to be friendly.

TL;DR: Is it possible for me to fix my unattractive personality and make friends with other people?

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I think this might the second time this week I've had the same glib response, but have you tried therapy? It sounds like you have some pretty solid issues to work through.
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 7:24 PM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'd second a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy. It sounds like you have depression, which is treatable, and I think addressing that will help take care of the traits you dislike about yourself--your lack of motivation, anxiety, crankiness, etc.

your self is not terrible. your self is sad and frustrated right now, but these are temporary (albeit lingering) conditions. Therapy can help you with these symptoms.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:32 PM on July 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yes to therapy...and maybe foster the attitude that this is a "do-over".
What an interesting experiment this might turn out to be--
Going to University with a little more life experience and a good idea of how you want to present yourself to others.
posted by calgirl at 7:47 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ok, problem #1 is not that your 'self' is terrible but a) you have conflicted ideas about 'self'; b) you have problems moderating your projected emotions and/or expression. This isn't 'self', it's just... issues. Everyone has those. Makes people interesting. We always are who we are, but sometimes we are in a bad place. That is, you don't suddenly become introverted/extraverted: you exhibit those traits for various reasons, and some traits are more healthy for you to exhibit and lead you to feel more comfortable. Those are your 'real' traits. So if you exhibited traits that made you dislike yourself or have others be uncomfortable, in a very real way that automatically means it's 'not you' but is something you're going through. Like, when you were blurting things out-- you had impulse-control issues, but this symptomology isn't 'you'. It's a method of transmission being wonky and needing tune-up for smoothness and consistency.

You don't need to worry about what kind of person you are in the 'judging' sense, and perhaps if you need help with that (aside from therapy), practice 'not judging' others. Practice simply listening to people and 'absorbing the room' (people-watching) as well as individuals. It's easiest to know what to say when you listen, observe body-language, etc (there are books on reading people). When people want to talk about something, they make it clear-- you ask a question, and they run with it. They smile, their eyes sparkle, they're engaged. It's usually pretty blatant. If they're uncomfortable, they'll frown, clam up, cross their arms, turn slightly away, squint, fidget, etc. So 'getting along' is basically listening to these cues and letting them 'drive' your responses; forget about who you are or aren't. It's not about you; whether you're great or horrid, it doesn't matter. This is why sociopaths are popular, right? Basically no one has to know even if you *are* awful (though you're not). Often it's the awful people who're most easily popular ('cause they're the manipulative types). But you don't have to manipulate, just listen. Working on your self-esteem is a long-term project; for now, just pay attention to people a little more.

I know you said you want to 'be yourself', but this-- while positive-- can also be a stumbling block. I'm not saying you should fake it-- I'm not even saying you *could* 'fake it' if you should. I'm saying that yourself isn't something you need to worry about, 'cause it's always there-- you can take it for granted, and focus on others' cues, and it'll be there for you (your self, that is). In some ways, it really is that simple: being a good person is-- in large part-- not trying. If you can muster a sincere concern for others' thoughts-- not to agree, but to listen-- that's it, done. Doesn't matter if you're secretly Kubla Khan-- you've arrived at a big part of being a good person.
posted by reenka at 7:50 PM on July 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

Just pretend to be the person you want to be - all the time, every day. Eventually you'll find that you've become that person. And stop focusing on your past and what you're "not" and think instead of what you're "becoming."

My granddaughter said the reason God put a person's eyes on the front of his face instead of the back is because he wants the person to look ahead instead of backward; out of the mouths of babes...
posted by aryma at 7:53 PM on July 13, 2011 [9 favorites]

On the therapy option, the universities I've been to had pretty good counseling services that were free for students. Even if you just use your appointment as a reason to get up instead of sleeping in, that helps. If you go to the student health office on campus they may be able to arrange for you to start seeing someone.
posted by Net Prophet at 8:06 PM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

In addition to therapy, I am just going to go out on a limb and recommend yoga and meditation. Because I have found they can help you sort of 'step outside' and look at your thoughts and emotions *before* you act on them. Which is often a lifesaver, socially. I think that cognitive behavioral therapy may have some of the same goals. But the added bonus of meditation, at least for me, is extra compassion, which you can also have towards yourself, even if that's stretching the traditional definition of the word a bit. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but you might try it if you feel even a little bit inclined.

As to the other stuff, you sound like a good person to me. And a lot of people are happier having fewer, more high-quality friendships than a ton of less meaningful ones. I'm like that, anyway.

Good luck in school! Don't forget that what you have done by getting back there is a really huge accomplishment and you can be proud of yourself for it---many people never get as far in their education as you have.
posted by ferngully at 8:12 PM on July 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Go to your university's counseling service and talk to a counselor there. I would ask them whether they think group or individual therapy, or both, would be a good option for you. Group therapy can be a good way for you to improve the way you interact with other people.
posted by grouse at 8:28 PM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sometimes I convince myself to just shut up. Go out and only say one or two things, limit my Facebook posting to once a day, etc. It never lasts, but it seems like a good idea.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 8:41 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

This might not answer your question, but I think the self is more abstract than the term suggests. Anyone who's experienced or witnessed being a child, and suddenly coming into a new circle of people, knows the pressure to fit in doesn't even have to be consciously acknowledged. During that time, before one gels their values and priorities, and expects consistency of themselves, the logic of a hairpin turn into a new personality isn't deeply interrogated.

I've read an articles about mirror neurons, hypothesized to be the cause of empathy; this one suggests that self-awareness is an empathy turned inward. The persistence of self a continual act of self-observation. Maybe I'm misapplying, overreaching in my layman's understanding of the theory, but it's an interesting way of looking at it. If you consider that mimicry is innate, even if only on a virtual level in one's thoughts, then many actions become reflections of another influence.

Coming to the point, it's a very appealing idea to dig deep into one's self, and will the continents of personality into new positions, but our tendency to follow the path of least resistance is stupefied by an infinite panorama of possibilities. We do what we know; what we were taught; the first thing we did that worked. Not only is differing from this path difficult, it might require methods literally inconceivable from one's current position.

I don't think it's fair to expect yourself to change, and become perfect, in advance of socializing. There are people in the world that will bring out the worst in you; whether they incite combativeness, or enable and amplify harmful tendencies. There are also people with the opposite influence; who bring out the best, or at least the better, in your personality. While it's hazardous to expect some unwavering transformation into your ideal person, the company you keep will affect how you think, and in a sense, your personality may meet them halfway.

Go out, meet new people. Do things that interest you. Socialize, and pay attention to how a person's presence affects your own thoughts and behaviors. Do you feel better around them? Defensive? Eager to please? There will be people who will hang out, yet still, on some level, not actually like you. Sensing this is upsetting, but they're too passive-aggressive to give you cause to tell them off. Be aware of this, and don't be afraid to drop them and move on.

If you act any differently around different types of people, it can show you that [1] you're not as static a thing as you'd thought, and [2] that there are people that may like you for whatever traits endure. I'm not saying to change for other people; this is a self-demonstration you can pursue for your own edification and benefit.
posted by evil holiday magic at 8:51 PM on July 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Two books I like that might be helpful for you:
  • Mindset - Talks about how you approach problems as growth opportunities rather than referendums on yourself. Carol Dweck does a much better job of explaining than me, so check it out.
  • Learned Optimism - Good compliment to Mindset, and much more than just telling you to think happy thoughts.
It'll take some work, but it's well worth the effort.
posted by tenaciousd at 9:00 PM on July 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Not everyone is nice, polite, and appropriate all the time. If they were, the world would be a boring place. We need a few people willing to speak out and say things that most people are unwilling to say. I myself am an introverted, "nice" person,, yet I love having more outspoken friends and secretly feel thrilled when they push the envelope. Sometimes they go too far, but at the same time, sometimes I go too far in not speaking up and saying what's on my mind. What I'm trying to say is, it's always good to be respectful of others, but lots of people will like your outspoken personality the way it is.
posted by bearette at 12:40 AM on July 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Yes, as an introvert I love extroverts - love being around them, even when I feel overwhelmed with them. Me feeling overwhelmed by them is *my* issue and I have, unfortunately, not always been able to deal with it as best as I'd like. But, if people consistently keep showing up where you are, that means they like you.

Reframe being a polarizing person (if you are indeed one - this is merely your perception of yourself) - at least you know who likes you and who doesn't. Cutting to the chase in life is, IMO, infinitely better than stuffing around not knowing which way is up.

Your irritability probably stems from the suppression/repression of you - you need emerge in your own life.

If you feel you're being inappropriate, apologize and/or model your behavior on others you admire socially.
posted by mleigh at 1:56 AM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

1. There is no single entity called "self" that you can be, that is either terrible or wonderful. You can be terrible at some things and wonderful at others and there is no subset of these things that defines you as a person and no set of things you're wonderful/terrible at that can be weighted to define you in preference to another set of things you're wonderful/terrible at. This is what is meant when we're told not to judge people. It's not meant esoterically, rather, it's pointing out that no-one will ever have enough of the right information, or enough discernment, to rate an entire complex human being. So, the first thing to do is stop rating yourself and stop rating others.
2. I think you could start with the power move of always saying less than necessary. While you're doing this, become a very attentive listener, asking prompting questions, and looking at people's eyes while they talk to you so they don't conclude from your silence that you're not interested in them. This is not the end goal, it's just to start you off.
3. Get more therapy. If you're already in therapy, show the therapist this question.
posted by tel3path at 6:32 AM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've always thought that "be yourself" isn't as good advice as "be true to your self" is. It's too easy to use "I'm being myself, and if people don't like me for that, too bad!" as an excuse to be inconsiderate, sloppy, demanding, inappropriate, or otherwise ignoring the situation at hand. Being true to yourself is a longer-term proposition, upholding a mission statement of "this is who I am" rather than a short-term "this is my natural response to this stimulus". Think who you want to be, and how you want to be perceived, how your actions affect other people and their perceptions of you, and whether those resulting perceptions line up with who you genuinely are, at your core.

Not "I am loud and extroverted, and those people who say I'm too loud just aren't accepting of who I am", not "I am loud and extroverted and I shouldn't be, I'll shut up and feel awkward", but "I am an extrovert who likes conversation, and people who think I talk too much probably have different conversational styles that I should adapt to and be considerate of when I'm around them - then they'll see me for who I really am, someone who likes to spend time talking with other people."
posted by aimedwander at 7:23 AM on July 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Have people not read the part where she said she has been in therapy for a decade?

I would say practice mindful listening, and possibly just mindfulness in general... There are good mp3s here:

When you get better at really listening to people, it helps with the urges to bulldoze them over in the middle of their speech. I would meditate on the reality that there is no such thing as a bad personality - even the people who seem to be loved by all annoy someone. If it's just a matter of degree, then who's to say the opinion of the masses is often correct? We sure see evidence to the contrary.
posted by namesarehard at 9:32 AM on July 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

I struggle with this. I'm a late 20s woman who has been in therapy for over a decade with ongoing depressive episodes. I feel I constantly have to market only the good parts of myself to others or else I'd have no hope of anyone liking me. My "bad parts" faced a lot of neglect and rejection in my early childhood, and I'm working on that. I try to be a polite, helpful, upbeat person, but like you, a lot of rage simmers in me when I'm in that mask for too long. To boot, I've hit another bottom lately, and have regressed back into sleeping through my mornings. I take it as a sign that my body is still struggling to understand something that terrifies it.

I was always polite, but underneath that there was a feeling of impatience that would eventually boil over into rage, never expressed outwardly because I'd developed a fear of conflict

In my parents house I was not allowed to express any rage. The abusive repercussions were simply too terrifying to risk. So I learned to suck it up and stuff it down. It's easy and it works... for a while. Then I get a depressive episode, I'm back bed, and back in therapy.

I have my ideas for why my story has this playing out in it, and I am seeking more proactive therapy. I believe that finding pride in my neglected self, and removing the shame that my parents taught me whenever I tried to express that authentic self, will help convince my body that it doesn't need depression anymore. I also have to work on identifying my true sources of rage vs. my triggers for rage. Until I get into the therapy, right now I am trying to bring light to the neglected parts of my self that are still angry for being left behind/out. The part of me that wanted to play music, to make art, to be spontaneous and expressive... those parts are all finally getting spoiled BY ME. Sometimes I think a lot of the rage I feel is their rage for how unfair it was that I could not enjoy those things when I wanted to as a child. It was not safe for me to.

Ask yourself this instead: Is it possible for me to cherish the strengths and weaknesses of my un attractive personality and be friends with myself?
Trust me, it is an awesome personality if it got you through whatever you had to survive to get to where you are now. That's what I think the scars of depression reflect: pieces that got left behind that are WORTH looking back for.
posted by human ecologist at 11:37 AM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I also recommend therapy, and specifically a therapist who can act as a life coach, and teach you some social skills.

Recognizing that your public self is not who you want to be is a major thing, and you are to be congratulated. Work at being your best self, read articles and blogs on self-improvement, like Dumb Little Man.
posted by theora55 at 3:23 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

[few comments removed, quit fighting.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:23 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

It doesn't say that she's in therapy, just that she's been in therapy. Group therapy can be quite different from individual therapy, and I think she should talk to a therapist about it.
posted by grouse at 10:22 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

how about exploring meditation? Its given me this new found sense of patience and kindness I've never felt before. Sharon Salsburg's new book/CD has a good lovingkindness meditation and Tara Brach's podcasts have been life-transforming for me in this regard. Also you need to know you are a good person. Know it to the core.
posted by dmbfan93 at 4:54 AM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Listen, there is no "who you are" outside of what you value and respect, and therefore, want to be. Be the person you want to be. That's the secret to liking yourself.

Liking yourself is the secret to other people liking you.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 7:31 AM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I also notice that you say your popularity shut down after you withdrew from your social scene because of depression - not while you were out there being what you describe as "unpleasantly" extroverted.

Now, I wasn't there to experience what it was like to interact with you, and I'm going to take your word for it that you have insight and this isn't solely your depression talking. If there's any truth to what you say, then, congratulations for wanting to curb such putative unpleasant behaviour as you may have displayed. I've known some jerks who are overjoyed to just bop through life being jerks and hurting everyone in their path.

Now, clearly you're going to have a hard time loving your neighbour as yourself, because you hate yourself. Stuff like that will take work to overcome and not one of us MeFites is qualified to do it. Do you think your therapist is being any help with this? May I reiterate my suggestion you show them this question?

In the meantime, I might suggest some acting training. Not because I think you should "fake it till you make it" because I don't believe you do want to fake it. I think you want to be a genuinely nice and respectful person and have that show in your outward behaviour. The reason I suggest this is because I think it can help to do things from the outside in as well as the inside out. If you can act as if you're less impatient, for example, that might gradually become more true.

Also, get a copy of Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour so you have a template for being polite in any given situation. IMHO you will feel a bit better about the other stuff if you know you are always doing the basics.
posted by tel3path at 2:08 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

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