Help! I need friends/socialization/stress relief
June 9, 2005 10:14 PM   Subscribe

I am not good at interacting with people, making friends, or handling stress.

Until I was 18 I spent most of my time avoiding my parents so I wouldn't get beaten for one reason or another. I took a lot of long walks and spent a lot of time alone. Over the first years of college I learned how to eat in public without breaking into a nervous sweat. That's probably the last big development in my socialization. Society confuses me. Hectic, loud, full of symbols that I don't know the meaning of--exchanges between people that mean something to both people but nothing to me. I'm confused, irritated, and intimidated just going outside.

I don't know how to interact with people beyond the basic "please" and "thank you." I tend to offend people, not on purpose but just from thoughtlessness. Society in general seems like a foreign civilization. I don't have many friends (one in town, who's currently very busy writing a dissertation) and don't know how to make any. I feel like I could use a Complete Idiot's Guide to Damn Near Everything. Manners doesn't cover enough--even small talk, or how to handle being smiled at without almost breaking into tears.

I've seen a lot of psychologists over the years but I don't know if I should take one now. I had a job I hated for seven years and then I quit after a big pay cut. The last interview I had, halfway through it the interviewer quit making eye contact. I doubt I'll be getting another job soon. I'll shoot myself in the head before I go back to that last one. I've got enough money for another year or so, without a psychologist.

I need some stress relief, but I hurt my wrist in a wreck last month and so most exercise is out of the question. Weight lifting, boxing, bike rides--can't do it. I can barely open a jar.

I need some new form of exercise. Jogging hurts my wrist. Walking, even for hours, isn't doing it.
I need to learn how to interact with people.
I need to learn how (and where?) to make friends.
I need someone to talk to.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (35 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Quick suggestion before I've got to crash for the night...I know it tends to get trotted out as a new, hip diagnosis every time this sort of thing comes up, but as the father of a child "on the spectrum", you should really talk to someone who specializes in Asperger's syndrome.

Not that you necessarily have it yourself--there's no way anyone could tell from a brief description--but folks with Asperger's tend to deal with _exactly_ the same sort of social confusion you're describing, where social skills that seem completely natural to most people are completely confusing. It feels like being tone-deaf in a world of musicians.

Whether or not you've got Asperger's (and you may be dealing with something completely different), any therapist, doctor, or whatever who's familiar with that condition is going to have a pretty solid handle on how to help someone who's socially adrift learn to integrate themselves, no matter what the underlying cause.

My kid's only 5, so it's a bit different for him, but he goes to regular sessions where he basically learns to play-act through a lot of imaginative and social situations. To him, it's just a play-date, but the therapist is continually looking to help him develop and push interaction skills that the other kids in his kindergarten take for granted, and it's helped enormously. For someone older, I'm sure the approaches are very different, but there have got to be programs in your general area that are meant to establish safe, supportive environments for you practice socializing with other adults, and getting over understandable stress you're feeling.

"Asperger's" isn't necessarily the label that applies to you, but it should be a good hook to help point you to resources that are meant to supply exactly what you need. Good luck.
posted by LairBob at 10:40 PM on June 9, 2005

Could some of the problem be that you have this image of your self as an outsider and project that to such a degree that anyone who comes in contact with you only has the option to treat you as such? I would also second the Asperger's symptoms.

When I was I high school I had an image of being a complete bitch. Some of my best friends said this was their inital impression of me even before I said a word, something about maybe the way I hold myself or maybe I just have one of those angry faces. I also came across intimidating to a lot of people because i'm a 5'11 girl. I made a point one day to start smiling more, even though in general I am not a happy person, and try to initiate conversations more often. The best way to come across as friendly and approachable, and an easy way to talk to a stranger, is to compliment them on something no matter what it is. This, along with just smiling as often as possible, has really worked for me. I know there are also books out there on "how to make friends" that have some really good concepts in them. It will be extremely uncomfortable at first, but practice makes perfect with all things, this included.

Feel free to email if you need an ear. EllyMae at Gmail
posted by Ugh at 10:48 PM on June 9, 2005

You are obviously very smart, and like me you overthink EVERYTHING that you come in contact with. I was told at a young age that a high IQ is a gift, but its one sided. There is also a concept called a social IQ, and without this alot of intellectuals do not know how to act. Reading about how to act is only a detriment for the person with a high IQ. I would suggest just throwing yourself into situations. Go to the bar and go talk to any girl you see. Girls at bars are there to talk to guys like you. The more awkward you think you might feel in a given situation, the better therapy it will be. If you start convulsing and throwing up during your first experiment, at least you'll have tried it out. The first is going to be the hardest. The second time, and its going to be hard to convince yourself to do it again, will go smoother than the first. Keep going out. Friends will come, but action is required. Go out and get drunk, talk to people, you have shit to say, everyone does. Take chances. There is really nothing to lose. Do not spend your life caring a great deal about what people think of you during their first couple of minutes of interaction. Good people recognize good people, even when they don't come off so great in the beginning. I don't have any advice on excersise, hopefully someone else will. Maybe you just need to start screaming into your pillow. Go outside and piss somebody off, pop the bubble. Im sure you know that it is an anomaly that a species like humans even exist, take an existential standpoint. You really have the freedom to do whatever the hell you please, go do it. Right now.
posted by pwally at 10:52 PM on June 9, 2005 [2 favorites]

I had a shitty childhood too, with antisocial parents, and so ended up spending most of my twenties "bringing myself up", figuring out most of the things people usually learn in childhood. I'm in my early 30s now and doing just fine. I don't know how old you are, but I just wanted to point out that for people in our type of situation it can take longer to become a fairly calm and well-adjusted adult, but if you work at it you can almost definitely do it.

One thing that has helped me with this issue is to know that everyone has awkward social situations in their lives sometimes. I used to get too hung up on my social failures such as an inability to blend into a certain group, and discounted the successes I did have. When I reversed this thinking and realized "hey, it isn't possible for things to go right every time, but I did have a pleasant chat with so-and-so today and a nice ice-breaker remark with someone else," I found that the successes started coming more frequently.

For exercise - recumbent bike or swimming with a kickboard at the Y?
posted by hazyjane at 11:10 PM on June 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

I know it tends to get trotted out as a new, hip diagnosis every time this sort of thing comes up, but as the father of a child "on the spectrum", you should really talk to someone who specializes in Asperger's syndrome.

This sounds more like a massive case of social phobia to me - the way I'm reading this, the fear is primary, and the confusion secondary. If you seek psychological help try that route, too. Until then, if I'm right, advice of the sort pwally's giving is going to be overambitious. The poster can barely deal with being smiled at.
posted by furiousthought at 11:29 PM on June 9, 2005

I doubt you need anyone to tell you that there are not go to be any quick or easy answers for these issues. My simplistic assessment of your situation is simply that your parents failed you catastrophically. As children we have little recourse but to look to our parents for social instruction, for sense of self, to provide an environment of safety and security where we can learn to be ourselves. Your parents did the exact opposite of this and made your childhood a constant choice between alienation and solitude or chaos and abuse. It is not surprising (and not your fault) that you did not learn the skills of positive interaction with others.

So what do you do with yourself now? I don't think you can escape the need for ongoing therapy in the long term. I think your desire to conserve your resources to avoid getting trapped in another job you hate is reasonable. Consider lower cost resources such as community clinics etc. which might offer counselling on a sliding scale. Because you do not have your full-time income at the moment it is completely appropriate for you to take advantage of these sorts of resources.

Another thought that occurs to me is to seek something like a group for adults who experienced abuse as children. Individuals in this situation would be in a unique position to relate to your feelings, and some would probably relate to your particular sense of alienation and inability to relate to ordinary social situations. The degree of resources available to you will depend on the sort of place you live in. If you are in a small town you may need to look to the internet for relevant resources, though I think stressing actual in-person interaction would be of greater use to you.

I think it is harder to make friends as an adult even if you do not have difficulty with social contexts. My best advice is that friendship often arises from shared interests. Seeking social contexts related to interests/hobbies you have (or would like to develop) might provide the context for meeting new people. In addition, I think in these sorts of situations people are more forgiving of our personal foibles or social deficiencies due to the shared interest.

Swimming is often referenced as a low-impact physical activity. If you joined a health club (I know, money again, but there is no point saving it just to be miserable in your room) you could also probably get advice on working around your healing wrist. Also, I hope you are getting some medical advice if your wrist has been bothering you for a month. Physical Therapists can do amazing things. Again, if you have no income, look into medical assistance.

This may be off base, but if you don't have a pet it might help with day to day coping (this keeps occurring to me as the cat comes to pester me for foolishly paying attention to the magic glowing box instead of his furry magnificence). Animals takes us as we are and have a fundamental honesty of being that has always helped me get along. I also think it is fundamentally beneficial to care for something.

Finally, there is the issue of work. Since work is a necessity, part of your strategy needs to be thinking about what kind of work and working environment you might be happy in and how to achieve that goal. Being in a situation where you were unhappy for so long must have made you feel out of control and pessimistic. If you focus on the idea that you deserve and have the capacity to find work that will satisfy you, and work on plans to realize that goal, it could help you develop a more hopeful attitude towards the future.

These are a lot of things to be dealing with. None of these thoughts are total cures or solutions, but I hope there is some value in them. I've struggled with depression and alienation (not to the degree that you face) my whole life, but I have found that by focusing on the things I want, believing that I deserve them and can achieve them, and working consistently on manageable, real goals, I have experienced tremendous fulfillment in life far beyond what I once thought possible.
posted by nanojath at 11:29 PM on June 9, 2005

For the exercise, I was also going to suggest swimming. Or maybe yoga?

The problems you mention all feel like such huge things to tackle that it seems that they can't be encompassed, but the trick to that is to do what you did in college, with eating in public: set a series of smaller, specific goals. Just begin with one item, maybe to find a volunteer cause that interests you that will also put you into contact with people, or perhaps to join a special interest club, or take a class in something. That goal would be merely to get involved in one of these things - no other requirement. Later, perhaps the next step would be to make an effort to have a brief-ish friendly conversation with one person from the group. And, etc.

Another thought that occurred to me is that you seem very able to present yourself in an articulate and interesting way online; I'm wondering if you can find an online friend in your area (via some sort of list/friendster/whatever), with whom you could establish some sort of relationship before meeting in person. This would probably go a long way toward soothing that transition between "total stranger" and "friend".

Finally, knowing a little more could of course help to offer more specific ideas, so if you want to email me, please don't hesitate. I'm not any kind of professional, but I can be a friendly voice that may be able to come up with an idea or two, or just chat a bit.
posted by taz at 11:43 PM on June 9, 2005

I don't know. This doesn't seem to make much sense. You're at least 25 (18 + 7)? You held a job for 7 years, paid rent, saw psychologists, and have enough money to last a year. You're doing a hell of a lot better than most. Really, you haven't done that bad at all. Your image of yourself as a complete social failure doesn't really ring true. But even this false image will dictate how others see you. If you persist in seeing yourself as an lonely outcast than... It might do you some good to (a) stop thinking about yourself so much (b) do something that'll make you feel good about yourself (c) bring you into low-risk social situations. So you might reconsider not having a job. Jobs force people to socialize themselves and align their personal interests with the interests of a group. Consider finding a job, but one that's very low stress. Even if it's just stacking books at a library, that's a start. These things have a way of working themselves out. All you have to do is take the first step.
posted by nixerman at 12:03 AM on June 10, 2005

On excercise: try yoga, Pilates (that was designed for dancers with injuries), or swimming. The first two can be found on VHS or DVD, so you're not stuck in a class full of strangers.

This sounds like a learned social phobia, instead of an organic one - if that makes sense. I have no idea if that's even possible, but that's how I'd approach it.

For widening the social circle, I'd suggest meeting people online. The internet is perfect for those of us who are socially inept, and the icky-skeevy-axe-murderer stigma is pretty much gone by now. There are tons of networking sites (a bunch of good ones were linked in the "how to meet geeks" discussions on AskMe) that aren't just for dating. I've noticed that us introverted types are picky about the company we keep - why waste time around someone who doesn't mesh well with us, when we can get useful things done alone instead? - and it's easier to find out about a person's politics, opinions, etc., this way. There's also the part where you can edit what you say before you say it, which helps with learning how to interact.

If you're willing or able to take care of a pet, dogs are a great way to get exercise, get out of the house, and meet people. They're usually quite friendly and people like them. They're also perfect mood boosters. It's very hard to sit around and brood when there's a small, friendly animal whonking a toy into your leg and asking if we can please please please go do something fun now.

I don't have any kind of professional training in this, just my own experience in similar places (with the exception of Real Jobs - I'm still a student). If you'd like a person to talk to or bounce ideas off of, Anon, my email is in my profile.
posted by cmyk at 5:00 AM on June 10, 2005

As for the job interview, I wouldn't let that get you down. I'm reflecting on some of the ways I behaved as an interviewer, and loss of eye contact just meant that the candidate wasn't for me, and it was time to move on. No hard feelings, but I could have communicated the "no fit" feeling better.
posted by jon_kill at 5:25 AM on June 10, 2005

re: asperger's, isn't one of the signs of that meant to be not even really 'getting' that you're not getting it? This guy seems perhaps even overly aware of the connotations of interactions. I'm not sure I'd have noticed a loss of eye-contact in a job interview - maybe it would be more obvious than it sounds to me, but I doubt someone fitting the asperger's label would notice that, anyway...

Making friends as an adult isn't easy for most of us, by the way, especially in a world as fragmented as this. Finding people with similar interests is a good idea. Support groups are a good idea for getting used to some social contact.

It sounds like the unstructured-ness of social contact is part of what makes it so upsetting to you; perhaps taking a class or maybe going to see a nerdy lecture, or doing something where a)people are more likely to be reserved and b)there is already some structure, would be a possibility...
posted by mdn at 5:58 AM on June 10, 2005


I think you've got a ton going for you and although you're presenting it as if you need a full overhaul, you really just need some touch-ups here and there. You have a strong work history, a proven ability to make and keep friends (even if not too many), you're articulate, smart and motivated to change what's going on with you. All of those things lead to the real possiblity for change.

I do have some advice based on what you wrote and how you wrote it, take it for what you will:

1) You should get a job. Jobs are mostly about all of the things that you are concerned about. They involve social contact, even friendships, stimulation, esteem-building etc etc. Interviews may be hard, and you may want to read some Ace The Interview books, but I would suggest getting a job. Since money is not an immediate problem, you could consider a job in a place that you would not want to necessarily make a career-a bookstore, a good independent video store, a computer store (?). The advantage of these kinds of places is that if any of those things are interests of yours you are likely to meet like minded people. Alternatively, go back to school for another degree.

2) Consider therapy again, but only for what it can get you now. I know (believe me I know) how easy it is to dwell on the past, but the question now is what are you gonna do about your future. It's never too late to have a happy childhood, and if you enter therapy you should think about having that happy childhood now. Don't rehash old stuff, go in with a list (in your head is fine) of things you want to have change in your life, ways you want to feel, be and act different, and talk to the therapist about how you can do that. Talk with the therapist about how you will know things are getting better (any good therapist should be asking you that anyway). Theoretical orientation does not matter AT ALL, although I would avoid people who want to talk about your past too much. Early change predicts later change in therapy, so if nothing is changing, talk to the therapist and maybe quit, switch, something. You should find help from a good therapist in less than 8 session, which you can then use to think about whether you want to continue. [Some good books about how therapy works that I think would be particularly helpful for the problems you describe are: The Heart and Soul of Change, The Heroic Client, The Great Psychotherapy Debate; these are not self-help books but may help nonetheless.]

3) You need to get out and do stuff, as painful as that may be. Consider getting a dog, going to the dog park, and TALKING to people there. I didn't mention it above, but group therapy might be a good idea, if only to get you interacting. Join a book club, check local independent bookstores for groups that are open to all comers. Pursue an non-solitary hobby. All of these things may seem artificial, but so is anything that you start to do, so get over that. Going to school is artificial, but you learned a lot there. Take a cooking class. Go out and be around people as much as you can, even if you are not interacting with them. None of this needs to happen yesterday, you can take steps, but the goal is to get out of your house and interact. Think of it along the lines of the "Park far away from the entrance and walk/take the stairs/mow your lawn" school of increasing personal fitness. Any little bit helps, but if you really want to run with the big dogs you're going to have to put in hard workouts at some point.

4) Read this article about small talk. [WashPo link may need reg or bugmenot] This is a really good primer. Practice it. Small talk counts, it's really easy to do because it's all about convention and asking other people questions, and it helps immeasurably with interaction.

5) You don't have a job, so walk hills. Quickly. Do repeats on one hill if you have to. You should get your heartrate up and hills will do it. If you need to, walk steps instead. The local college will have steps in their stadium if youlive in a flat place.

6) I don't know where you live. I live in Baltimore and have a lot of therapy resources that might be helpful. For that, or anything else, feel free to email via my email in my profile. Confidentiality assured.
posted by OmieWise at 6:10 AM on June 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'd join with Nixerman to observe that anyone who can keep a job for seven years is very unlikely to have social deficits that would verge on the pathological, as you describe yourself.

Rather than suffering from personality problems, I'd say its more likely that you're depressed from being out of work aggravated by your injury now keeping you from being able to exercise. Enforced idleness can make a lot of people terribly blue, particularly if they've been in the habit of being busy and elevating their pulse.

The best thing you could do for yourself would be to find a gym with the recumbent cycle machines (the LifeCylces that look like rowing machines with the seat with a back and the pedals in front, rather than beneath). The hand-and-wrist stress is essentially zero, and you can vary resistance and duration of workout to achieve any blend of cardiovascular and endurance demand that you need.

[on preview] and, yeah, get a job. I'm of the school that more or less any work is probably better than not working, particularly for people who don't have a rich social life or hobbies to keep them busy. ..
posted by MattD at 6:14 AM on June 10, 2005

mdn writes "re: asperger's, isn't one of the signs of that meant to be not even really 'getting' that you're not getting it?"

Very possibly...again, my point wasn't that I thought the poster necessarily had Asperger's, just that resources like any therapists or programs that are geared to dealing with Asperger's might also be good resources for him to check out. Even if he wasn't a fit for the specific program, they should be able to point him in the right direction for where to look locally for more help.

As a broader point, though, Asperger's is often taken to be a much more black/white thing than it really is in reality. The media descriptions of "Aspies" tend to focus on people and kids who are almost completely dysfunctional, socially, with very flat, emotionless aspects and a complete inability to read other people. That's really the extreme, and most people who are dealing with it are much more complex.

It's perfectly possible for someone who has Asperger's to pick up on a lot of different social cues, without being able to pick up on all of them, and to be able to understand they're _supposed_ to transmit social cues, without easily understanding how. (For example, my son is constantly saying "Excuse me! I want to tell you something." when he wants to interject, because he has a hard time communicating that through body language, and when he tells a joke, he'll just ask "Was that funny?" because unless you laugh really obviously, he doesn't trust his ability to read your expressions. He's a very funny, affectionate kid, but he just has a hard time with the subtle details of communication and interaction. He certainly picks up when you don't make eye contact with him, but his answer is often to put his hands on your cheeks and try to make you look at him.)
posted by LairBob at 6:19 AM on June 10, 2005

Asperger's Syndrome is just that, a syndrome, and thus suffers from many of the problems associated with syndromes and their diagnosis and use in medicine. It's defined by a non-specific and shifting set of symptoms open to multiple interpretations and conclusions. This is not to say that it does not exist, or that people are not affected by it, quite the opposite in fact. But it is no surprise that there are a wide range of [sets of] behaviors that qualify to constitute Asperger's Syndrome.
posted by OmieWise at 6:24 AM on June 10, 2005

LairBob said: "Asperger's is often taken to be a much more black/white thing than it really is in reality."
Bravo. I was going to mention Asperger's Syndrome when I read the FPP but I see it has been pointed out already. It's definitely a possibility to be looked at.
(take it from me, medically diagnosed with Asperger's and definitely not in that severely dysfunctional fold)
posted by rolypolyman at 7:07 AM on June 10, 2005

Hectic, loud, full of symbols that I don't know the meaning of--exchanges between people that mean something to both people but nothing to me.

IANAD, but that sounds a lot like Asperger's to me. Whether you have it or not, it seems like you could use some professional help. I think the hard part is finding GOOD professional help. Not all psychiatrists/psychologists are created equal.

As far as stress relief goes, how about yoga or meditation? Or maybe you could jog if you got a splint or something for your wrist.
posted by callmejay at 7:16 AM on June 10, 2005

You know, I can't talk much about these social issues (I'm painfully shy sometimes, and ridiculously self-conscious), but what I can talk about is what a few people mentioned: a pet.

Even if you're slightly considering it, I really, really think that you should get one (provided you're not allergic and your living situation allows). If you've never had one, it might feel kind of bizarre at first with another living thing in the house, but after a short while, the furry bugger will wriggle his/her way into your heart, and you won't be able to imagine not having them around.

If you get a dog, this is a GREAT way to make conversation with new people. My sister has a dog, and she's the one who usually does the walking. But this past Thanksgiving, the weather was decent, so I decided I was going to take the dog for a walk down to a local park. It helps that the dog in question is super-friendly and had to "say hi" to nearly everyone we passed, but I've never talked to so many people that I didn't know (since the time I worked in retail and was kinda forced to). It allowed me to make pleasant small talk with people I've never met before, and if we had nothing to say to each other, the conversation would drift back to the dog.

Also, all the pets we've had have come from the local pound or signs saying "we have kittens and can't keep them!" so you don't have to spend a lot of money. In fact, I'm convinced the animals from the pound/shelters kind of "know" that you rescued them, and they'll love you forever.

If you really don't want a pet, don't get one. But, like I said above, if you're even slightly considering it, go for it.
posted by AlisonM at 7:33 AM on June 10, 2005

With regards to yoga, a LOT of yoga poses put a lot of weight on the wrists. (I actually had problems with my wrists when I first started yoga, because they weren't very strong or used to so much weight.) If you work with a qualified teacher you could probably modify the poses to work for you, but I wouldn't just jump into a VHS tape without supervision if your wrist is an issue.
posted by occhiblu at 7:51 AM on June 10, 2005

occhiblu beat me to it - I think most yoga self-led/tape/commuinity classes are going to be way too heavy on the plank position type poses where you have to support yourself on both arms. You can probably modify most of those poses so you support yourself on your forearms/elbow instead but you'd be best served with a decently knowledgeable teacher who can help you modify the poses to suit your injury.

This assumes the nature of the injury will let you rest on your forearm, of course.

I concur with some above posters about finding jobs with high social content. Starbucks, while I despise their coffee, is a great example. Plus their health bennies are great - my retired RN mother works at one and it allows her and my father to have health insurance of a quality she and my father could never manage purely out of pocket as retirees. No idea what their mental health coverage is like

Social skills are, for a lot of us at least, just a matter of practice, practice, practice. Many people pick it up instinctively at a young age but others like myself and apparently you need to make a concerted effort. Like learning anything or simple exercise the initial steps are often hard and painful but it does get easier, even if it may never become fun for you.
posted by phearlez at 8:14 AM on June 10, 2005

By nature, I am introverted and shy -- I suspect I may have Aspergers, though I've never been diagnosed. Yet I teach for a living, and I also act and direct (theatre). I was TERRIBLE at both when I started, but I forced myself to persevere. I think everyone is correct here who says you have to MAKE yourself interact with people. It doesn't have to be big interactions at first. Work on meeting people's eyes as you walk down the street -- but FORCE yourself to do it. If it freaks you out, stop for the day, but then force yourself to do it again the next day. It will gradually get easier.

One thing that worked for me -- silly as it sounds -- was to make a game of it. I would set goals (today I am going to meet ten people's eyes and not look away before they do; today, I am going to get ten people to smile at me; today, I am going to start conversations with ten strangers...)

Some people are born with a gift for understanding others. I wasn't. Yet I now regularly help other people do just that. When I'm directing plays, I help the actors understand the psychology of their characters. And, of course, I must be very quick and expert at reading my actors and students. It's funny -- I always get praised for how insightfull I am and how good I am with people.

How did I get this way? It was totally mechanical. I didn't understand people, so I made it my life mission to overcome this defect (even my choice of occupations relates to this). I read every psychology book I could get my hands on (scholarly work and self-help), I studied people, I read a lot of character-based fiction. Now I am sort of an expert on people in the way a Frenchman can become an expert on English literature. I'm good with people, but I'll also always be a bit of an outsider -- which gives me an interesting perspective.

[By the way, when I first started down this path, I was helped by Eric Berne's books (i.e. I'm OK, You're OK). Berne's model of human nature is over-simplified but compelling (it's awesome for fiction writers), but the over-simplification makes it a good starting point.]

Also, don't be afraid of "putting on an act." For years, I held myself back from interacting with people, because I hated falseness and realized that I would be pretending to make smalltalk with them -- or whatever. But ALL social interactions are, to some extent (some of the time), an act. If you keep acting, eventually the act will sink in and become real. And in the meantime, give yourself the permission to act.

Of course, there was a time when I would have said, "fine, act. HOW should I act? Make smalltalk? WHAT ABOUT? I can't come up with topics!!!" Eventually I learned that it doesn't matter. The point of smalltalk isn't the actual information being communicated. It's the meta-message of "I find you interesting enough to talk to." So you can free yourself to talk about complete drivel: that's a nice tie you're wearing; it sure looks overcast today; etc.

Finally, in these threads I always notice a bunch of people coming forward, admitting that they are shy. And yet most of you sound like really intelligent, thoughtful people. I would love to hear more about you, your lives and interests. Would anyone be interested in email exchanges. We could put together a mailing list and all contribute to it when we feel like it. I would be happy to take the lead. Anon, if you want, you can email me, and I won't even know that you're the one who started the thread. Anyone else is welcome to email me too. I will send out a mass email to everyone who does, telling you whatever dumb or profound thing I'm thinking of, and you can write back. SHY PEOPLE UNITE!
posted by grumblebee at 8:39 AM on June 10, 2005

LairBob... and anon... I just thought I would throw in my own "my son is on the spectrum, too". When he was very young, he couldn't communicate at all. Through extensive special ed (starting full-time at age 3), he has grown and assimilated pretty well. He starts high school in the fall, and hasn't received special help since starting middle school. He doesn't always "get it", but he tries. (Some other MeFite with Asperger's described it as creating an artificial personality, almost like an operating system shell, in order to fit in; I think my son is kind of like that.)

I guess my point is that conditions on "the spectrum" are NOT static. My son has gone from total non-communication to high-functioning. Anon- the fact that you can recognize your issues bodes well, I think. One thing to remember is that even though your "apartness" appears to be acute, it is not uncommon for others to have that same feeling to some degree; it's part of the human condition.

Might I suggest a couple of things: One, is get involved in something you care a lot about. Volunteer for a charity, take a martial arts class (my son has benefited tremendously from Tae Kwon Do) or some other class, join a faith community, take music lessons, etc. This will give you regular practice in interpersonal relationships. Two, in doing this, try to identify a mentor to whom you can speak about your feelings, primarily a friend that is accessible. The reason I suggested a faith community is that many clergy have some level of training in counseling and may be helpful in getting you up to speed socially.

There is no reason to give up; there is every reason to believe that things will get continually better. Hang in there, work at it. Don't worry about the setbacks... an old rock lyric goes:

So you feel your life's become a catastrophe
It has to be
For you to grow, boy.

It is by stepping outside our comfort zone that we advance. Go for it, tiger!
posted by Doohickie at 8:39 AM on June 10, 2005

Oh... and Tae Kwon Do can help relieve stress. If your wrist is bothering you, tell them and they can probably work around it. Although punching and hand blocking is involved, most of the class is involved with kicking.
posted by Doohickie at 8:43 AM on June 10, 2005

As a broader point, though, Asperger's is often taken to be a much more black/white thing than it really is in reality.

well, that's because "Asperger's" isn't actually anything "in reality." It's a label given to a set of characteristics. It is not a virus or an injury or a predeliction for physical problems; being "diagnosed" with it does not tell you anything further about you. What it does is provide a name for the sort of personality you have, and reassure you that other people also have personalities similar to yours. But it is only a way of categorizing behavior; it does not provide any deeper insight.

All of which is to say, I think these kinds of tautological diagnoses become less useful when they become more broad, because by a certain point practically everyone has ADD (for instance). And I think there's an unfortunate tendency for people to think that having a name for the behavior they exhibit therefore means a)it's unchangable & b)it makes them special. Neither of these is true. obviously some things are easier and some things are harder for different people, but the limits are flexible, permeable and you yourself have some amount of control over them, so setting things down as definitive "symptoms" of a syndrome can be counterproductive when you're dealing with moderately normal folks.
posted by mdn at 9:06 AM on June 10, 2005

Try "How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships" by Leil Lowndes,

You have to wade through his gushy writing, but the advice is dead center.
posted by KRS at 9:10 AM on June 10, 2005

Fantastic advice in the thread!

If you are going to go back into some therapy, I'd suggest you do it in a group setting. Group therapy can be great for learning and enhancing social skills - really it's much better than individual therapy for that, because in a group you have the opportunity to have interactions with others, and then you can talk about the interactions and get feedback on what you were thinking, how you came across, etc..

Grumblebee's comment made me remember how much acting classes helped me over my interpersonal awkwardness when I was younger. When you're acting it's so liberating! The script and teacher tell you how to behave, and you get to try on different ways of being with others - and it feels like it's not you, but the part you're playing!

Enjoy this gift of a year you have - use it well. Good luck!
posted by jasper411 at 9:17 AM on June 10, 2005

First let me say I worry somewhat about the apparent eagerness to ascribe a syndrome to your situation. I don't know enough about either you or Asperger's to dismiss it, but I do worry about it. The symptoms you describe sound familiar enough to me, it's just that you seem to have been struggling with them for longer than a lot of us do.

I like grumblebee's post a lot but I'd add a couple of observations. First, as you may be realising from the replies here, plenty of people have experienced what you describe at various times in their lives and to various degrees. In my own case I remember a brief period of being a cheerful enough little kid and then as soon as I started actually looking at things, people, life... and thinking about them, I entered what you might call a state of permanent "WTF??" I became massively shy, nervous, withdrawn and afraid of life; and of people. I started getting horrendous nightmares and what today they call "night terrors" but back then (the sixties) they called "Doctor, I think my kid is a bit mad, please prescribe lots of really heavy downers for him. Thanks."

This went on for quite a while. Certain aspects of my personality ameliorated it somewhat: for example, I used to get incredibly interested in certain topics and pastimes and had a tendency to get over-excited about them, so that would sometimes trump my shyness and I'd find myself merrily babling away to people about astronomy, magic, aeroplanes or whatever. Of course, at school this would result in much piss-taking, so it became something of a vicious circle, but my point is that distraction can help. Try to find things which grab your interest and attention so that the tendency towards self-consciousness and over-analysis of your interactions and perceptions is pushed back.

Secondly, people are weird. Life is baffling and strange. Human interaction is often fraught with complexity. Don't think there's anything strange about you for feeling that way. The trick is to find ways of dealing with it, not in attempting to feel differently. Many useful suggestions have been made. Finding people with shared interests is an obvious but good idea. But mainly, once you recognise that we're all in this odd, puzzling situation - once you truly register that - it becomes easier to interact with others - even those happy souls who don't seem to understand how bizarre life is; and they are! That's what worked for me, anyway. Smile if you meet someone, talk trivia, say "Hi there. God, aren't the roads bad today? Still, at least it's getting warmer." And so on. Mindless? Banal? Sure. But it's just household lubricant - the jet fuel will come later if things work out between you. And if not... doesn't matter. That's the third thing to realise. You won't hit it off with everyone. You won't hit it off with most people, quite possibly. It doesn't matter. We meet so many people in this world and the vast majority just float past on different paths. Only a few stick, and ride with us. That's how it is. No need to agonise about how every one of these encounters goes. Just make pleasant small talk if moved to do so, and don't expect earth-moving events in response.

We're all in this zoo together. Some of us had bad childhoods, some of us are struggling with poverty, or disease, or broken hearts, or phobias, or weird looks... we're all damaged in some way. Recognising this helps build affinity and empathy. And when you start to empathise with others it becomes much easier to interact with them.


I need some new form of exercise. Jogging hurts my wrist.

Maybe swimming (you might need to do it one-armed or no-armed, I guess). Cycling? Could you do something like soccer if you had your damaged wrist splinted and strapped, maybe?

Try not to be defeated when it doesn't go well. Just keep plugging away, being you, talking about what interests you. And listen. Listen to the other person. I mean really pay attention, especially when they're talking about what interests or moves or angers or excites them. That's when you might start seeing resonances and parallels, even if only indirect ones. Good luck.
posted by Decani at 9:19 AM on June 10, 2005

Fantastic answer, Decani; you put so much truth into those few words. I won't carry on with the accolade - but, damn well done!
posted by taz at 9:37 AM on June 10, 2005

For a few months I attended a support group for people who considered themselves social phobic. Often I'd look at some other members and think you're not shy, you're not backward in the same way I am, some of you hardly ever shut up. Some were notably awkward in diverse ways, but at least half the attendees didn't seem - to someone observing their interactions - any less social than your average person on the street. Some fell in love with the label, even became evangelistic about spreading awareness of this syndrome that explained their world to them.

But even if they didn't seem awkward to me, internally that was the way they viewed themselves. Maybe a part of overcoming social insecurity is to recognize that most other people feel to some degree similar insecurities, even if they are able to carry themselves more confidently. Someone who can empathize with the discomfort of others - whether it's easily apparent or not - might be less passive in their interactions, more likely participate on a equal basis rather than seeking a subordinate reactive relationship.

That Post article on small talk is good, but it might be more difficult for many of us who don't have the bearing of Bill Clinton. Because society often seems foreign to me also, I can be guilty of classifying others into factions and heirarchies that will exclude me, rather than seeking commonalities or maintaining curiousity about the experiences of others.

Being active in employment or other activities that interest you also probably helps, as you'll be less anxious to enter conversations where your response to questioning might now too often be "oh, nothing".
posted by TimTypeZed at 9:51 AM on June 10, 2005

I would set goals (today I am going to meet ten people's eyes and not look away before they do; today, I am going to get ten people to smile at me; today, I am going to start conversations with ten strangers...)

Ten...! Jesus. Overachieve much?
posted by kindall at 10:16 AM on June 10, 2005

Well, I often failed with ten, but I like to push myself. Besides, I would count a couple of sentences exchanged in an elevator as a conversation. Even "how are you doing? Fine." was a conversation. It was a breakthrough for me.
posted by grumblebee at 12:00 PM on June 10, 2005

Secondly, people are weird. Life is baffling and strange. Human interaction is often fraught with complexity. Indeed it is. Both grumblebee and Decani have wonderful advice upthread.

I suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder and your symptoms, anon, point to it as well. Our backgrounds are vaguely similar too: abuse (of all sorts) and neglect.

The only way I've become better at dealing with society is through sheer stubborness. I make myself chat in grocery store lines, I force myself to smile at people, I force myself to make that necessary phone call. It has worked to some extent, enough that I managed to get married (never dreamt that would happen).

Instead of jumping into a job, try volunteering at something that interests you (library, animal shelter, etc.). Yes, you're still having to interact with people but, at least for me, it's less horrifying.

My email is in my profile.
posted by deborah at 1:20 PM on June 10, 2005

derek (at)
posted by angry modem at 8:01 PM on June 10, 2005

The way I see it, there are two approaches to the fundamental problem. The first one is the one you've asked for help with and the one that most of the comments here address: how to deal with social situations better. The second is simply to become comfortable with yourself the way you are, lack of social acumen and all, and avoid the situations that bother you as much as possible for now. Dealing with people is often a load of useless time-wasting rubbish anyhow, although the exceptions do tend to make up for it. By paring down the number of kinds of situations you have to deal with, you can master them, and then perhaps you can expand your repertoire a bit. This will probably be a lifelong process. Just a couple months ago I realized, while out with someone rather more socially sophisticated than I, that I still have a few more skills I'd like to pick up.

I have found reading psychology books to make a big difference in my ability to deal with people. Kiersey's "Please Understand Me," with its Jungian (Myers-Briggs) personality analysis, is a good starting point for getting a handle on the basic things that motivate people, conveniently divided into sixteen basic personality types. Real people don't fit 100% into the pigeonholes and you must allow for that, but I found it quite helpful in understanding why I didn't get along with some people: they really do think like aliens, constantly making important life decisions based on nothing more than feelings -- and there's worse, much worse, you won't believe what's going on in some people's heads. Ratey's "Shadow Syndromes" is also an interesting read for understanding how mild, non-pathological forms of "classical" mental disorders (e.g. depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, etc.) can shape personalities. Really, just read as much as you can about the mind and people, you'll probably find it fascinating. Hell, even Gray's "Men are from Mars..." is a place to start as long as you realize that the author's painting with an extremely broad brush and don't take his generalizations too seriously (though Tannen's "You Just Don't Understand" is better). OTOH, maybe it's best to leave the man/woman stuff for later.
posted by kindall at 8:32 PM on June 10, 2005

Everyone's advice here is so fantastic, most of what I intended to say when I clicked comment would just be redundant.

Have you ever thought of trying some sort of etiquette type counseling? I am not sure what the specific term is, I used to see write ups about one in the South Florida Business Journal. From the write ups, I gathered that it was like a Henry Higgins type service for the Eliza Doolittles of the world. Perhaps a few sessions to learn typical social behavior in most situations would help you to feel more comfortable with people (until you find your own strategies).
posted by necessitas at 7:43 AM on June 11, 2005

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