the perils of being good with people
February 3, 2013 6:04 PM   Subscribe

I am the person at the party or the bar who can win hearts and minds, leave with everybody's contact info without asking for it, introduce like-minded people who are unable to hook up on their own, draw shy people out, etc. I'd like to learn how to do this in other areas of my life, without alcohol. I'd also like to learn how to better deal with some of the negative aspects of this kind of sociability.

I had a weird upbringing that made a chatty, gregarious social nature something of an imperative. It has always been something of a good/bad thing for me, though, and I've swung back and forth between the opposite ends of the sociability spectrum over the years. I'll go through phases where I am 'on', so to speak; meeting a lot of cool new people, having a packed social calendar, reveling in the general fun of getting to know a lot of new people and all their quirks and proclivities. But when I get stressed out (usually due to work, though historically there have been some shit relationship issues that contributed to this), I tend to withdraw completely. When I do that, my social intelligence and confidence plummets, and I tend to want to be a wallflower rather than have any kind of focus on me. When I do this, every aspect of my life suffers.

I also have a tendency to get 'spooked' by certain social behaviors in others, which leads me to withdraw. Example: I am terrible at rebuffing romantic advances, and I have a terrible tendency to disappear rather than be gentle and direct. The best I've been able to do has been to say I'm already in a relationship, but that recently ended, and I don't want to get into another one for awhile for a lot of reasons. Another example of behavior that spooks me is when a friend becomes too needy or demanding; I tend to put up with a lot because it's easy for me to empathize with crappy situations, and being that I usually like these people, I want to help. The problem is that I work, a lot, and my work requires that I travel extensively, and aside from that I have a large number of other obligations that lead me to have a finite amount of time to devote to other people's issues. What has happened in the past is that I'll be there for a particularly needy or distraught friend way beyond my actual capabilities, and when I try to reclaim my time, the friend gets hurt - which I understand - but I'm unable to make them understand my boundaries, which leads to a fight, and I cut them out of my life. Which makes me feel like shit for so many reasons.

Over time, the negative effects have made me very hesitant to 'turn on' my social nature. For the last few years especially, I've avoided it, preferring to focus on a few close friendships and my now-defunct relationship. Yesterday, after an incredibly frustrating and shitty week, I ended up going out to a bar and reflexively made several new friends. Now I'm getting hit with invites, which I honestly do want to accept, but I'm still bothered by my tendencies to withdraw. My few very close friends have all separately brought up the withdrawing tendencies with me - they feel it is bad for me, that it holds me back, and it limits my life. I agree with this, but I am having trouble figuring out strategies to deal with the sort of behavior in others that leads me to withdraw.

Another complicating factor is that my boss recently pulled me aside to talk to me about various work issues, most of which boiled down to: my social skills (he called it 'rapport-building') are a huge factor in my work success, but I've been slipping for awhile, which makes my coworkers less likely to want to work on projects with me. At a bar or a party it is easy to flip this behavior on; I'll have a couple of drinks and it's not an issue, and then I can leave and turn it back off. But my coworkers are a known factor, they're not my friends, and obviously I can't drink at work. Plus I have to come back every day.

I've considered something like improv classes to develop a better 'mask' for when I am feeling the urge to disappear and generally dealing with people I find annoying but have to work with. My schedule is so erratic though that a regular class would be difficult for me to keep at (though I'd make it happen if I thought it was the answer to this). I'm currently in therapy, which was great for identifying why I was withdrawing and dealing with general anxiety issues, but it hasn't been that helpful for developing strategies to deal with this. Mindfulness and meditation, while good for other stuff, haven't been much of a help either. I have grappled with depression throughout my life, but my therapist does not feel that medication is necessary at this time, and I agree with her. I don't consider myself to have a drinking problem, but I probably drink more than the average American lady (though probably in line with the average European or Australian lady). I'd consider myself neither introverted nor extroverted, but because of my upbringing and work I am more prone to being alone than not.

This was a really difficult question to ask, because I feel like an arrogant jerk describing how naturally adept I am at this sort of thing, and I think this is also the reason why I've struggled with dealing with the negative aspects of it as well. I know that part of the answer is to learn better discernment in terms of who I actually connect with, but this is also difficult considering how easy it is for me to build rapport with people. I don't want the answer to be 'be more Russian about this' (ie, be distant until I know I can trust someone to be a worthwhile friend), but sometimes I suspect that is what I need to be doing.

tl;dr I am looking for strategies to avoid withdrawing from social contact when I get stressed out or have demoralizing interpersonal conflicts. I am also looking for strategies to develop my social nature more without the crutch of drinking.
posted by par court to Human Relations (11 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I hope this doesn't sound like I'm dogging you - but it sounds like your being social with your coworkers isn't the issue so much as your work content. Or rather, it sounds like you're hoping your social mask will allow you to better skate with your coworkers. Am I misunderstanding?
posted by FlamingBore at 6:10 PM on February 3, 2013

Response by poster: @FlamingBore: it's a fair question, but no, my boss was very clear that my work quality was not the issue. My job is project based and we all get to build the team we work with; the issue was that several coworkers felt that I was unapproachable on some issues.
posted by par court at 6:13 PM on February 3, 2013

Ahh. Okay - that makes sense.

I feel for you. In many ways I struggle with this as well. I don't have a quick, or heck, even a long term fix for this. The only way I was ever successful was simply to remember that there's something I like about just about everyone - it's just a matter of finding that thing. If I can find that thing about someone I don't particularly care for I can try to focus on that during the interaction.

Hope you get some more substantial feedback and suggestions.
posted by FlamingBore at 6:17 PM on February 3, 2013

Best answer: I am VERY similar. I make friends wherever I go; I am naturally and easily social (after an introverted childhood). And people often get hurt when I withdraw after giving too much. (I don't drink a lot, though.)

Here's what has helped me, although YMMV. I just accept that this is a part of me, an awesome part of me, and try not to stress about it. If you treat people well, and they are too needy/get hurt/etc., then you aren't emotionally compatible. Nothing wrong with them or you -- it's just not a good match. If you feel the urge to be super social, that's great. If you feel the urge to withdraw for a few days at a time, do that. You are not required to hold back, and you are not required to engage. Do what feels right for you.

I think the drinking is a separate issue that you can address in a variety of ways... try to cut back/down, see if you have addiction issues, change your habits around going out, drink more sodas intermixed with drinks, only drink in certain places/times, etc. That could be another AskMe question.

I think the work issue is also separate. Be professional and polite with your co-workers, but you don't need to engage them personally *or* avoid them. Just try to keep to a middle ground. Ask your boss for more detailed feedback on the kinds of things that are at issue and work on them, not as part of changing your personality, but just so that you can be more effective at your job.

Feel free to memail!
posted by 3491again at 6:49 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For some reason I'm personalizing your question, and then converting it into electric car terms.
You sound, to me, like a plug-in introvert. You can get charged up, and then socialize and charm the pants off of people, seemingly free of cost. But then, after you've been exhausted, and the bill for charming people comes due (further contact, getting to know someone) it's a bit much, when all you want to do is put your head down and work, or focus inwardly. (gas engine kicks on). But somehow, you need a pretext to absent yourself from social doings, and recharge the battery.
I don't have perfect advice as to how to get your work to serve as an excuse to withdraw, but it sounds to me like you really need that or any other avenue, for yourself. But the primary thing is not to expend your energy needlessly, without prior evaluation of costs and benefits. Good thing is you make a lot of friends, but better thing is that means you get to pick and choose.
Back to the electric car: any expenditure of outward energy comes at a cost, so just husband it carefully. Don't deal with narcissists, drama queens, or anyone who takes more than you're getting back. People are amazing and can strengthen you in many ways, but you need to be choosy about who you let into your head and a bit selfish about what you're getting out of it. This is especially true when you can just go to the bar and make many new friends without trying.
The world is your oyster, when you're on, so make your friends the rare plucked ones that really make a difference to you whether you're on or off.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:08 PM on February 3, 2013 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I am not socially adept and gregarious like you, but I do know something about burning social bridges. I've read your question through twice, because at first I was thinking perhaps you didn't have any truly close friendships - that part of the problem was a lack of chosen family to help you after a breakup. But it seems that you do have close friends (you only need two or three, really!) and that they care enough for you to try to give you advice on this rankling problem. So the problem is more that you're afraid of committing too much to what you perceive as a light friendship - that when a new person has a problem that you can't fix, you'll drop out of their life rather than commit to them?

Have you considered that your large circle of friends is a resource? Or rather, your ability to form a large circle of friends. People like you are what I like to call "nodes", as in, if I know you, I as an introvert suddenly gain possible access to dozens of new people. Instead of burning bridges with a problematic acquaintance, have you ever tried helping them forge a connection with somebody else that you also know? This has to be done carefully - you can't just hand off an annoying person to somebody else, but it is a way of doing something for the other person that they couldn't do for themselves. This isn't a solution to your problem, but it might be a way to help ease you from burning bridges completely to healthily letting people fade in and out of your life. It's a skill to hone, one only you can do, and it has the benefit of strengthening the other social connections that support you tangentially.
posted by Mizu at 7:09 PM on February 3, 2013

Best answer: I know you what mean about not wanting to turn on a social nature. It always leads to certain expectations, especially emotional expectations, that i might not be able to handle. This has lead to a great deal of withdrawal from me.

I don't have a lot of advice, but I don't think a better mask is the answer. The point is that your outward behavior doesn't match your internal feelings already. That's why you have to withdraw. You need to make your boundaries more firm, not ignore them, if you want to avoid the extreme of withdrawal. It doesn't surprise me that you have more trouble with work people than with others. Others you really can just ignore - work, if you act like a certain kind of person, you do have to back it up day after day after day.

For me, the answer is basically that I am a tough person to get close to, and people do eventually sense that even though I'm nice and enthusiastic; if they're cool with sticking around, eventually we usually do get close. I conserve my emotional energy so that it's there for myself and my loved ones. I will turn it on in a low-stakes situation, because it's definitely pleasant, and there isn't a need to get involved any further - but I don't do it all the time. A mature, circumspect person understands that insta-bff relationships often aren't that deep, absent some cosmic connection, so won't ask too much of someone right away; consider it a warning signal if someone really does get offended. They're fine people, but that's an issue you can't fix.

Not a diagnosis, but you might find some interesting material reading about "covert schizoids". Improv classes are always good for pretty much any social issue.
posted by decathexis at 7:11 PM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I can identify with a bit of this. I have a social anxiety disorder that, without conscious management on my part, restricts my ability to create and maintain professional and social relationships significantly. But I found, as a teenager, that if I drank a bit too much and turned the volume on my voice up a little and cocked my hips a little more and made every joke that occurred to me and touched people's arms and made eye contact and made dirty jokes and teased people, suddenly I was surrounded by crowds of people wanting my digits and wanting to make out with me and wanting to be my friend.

The two extremes were too far apart. The anxious, social awkward me got way too nervous too quick, didn't have coping mechanisms for feeling lost/out of place/lonely/unaccepted/etc in a social situation. The gregarious, extrovert me had a bit of a not-healthy relationship to alcohol, was kind of annoying in situations besides 4am dive bars, and was attracting all sorts of people I didn't necessarily need in my life.

This has gone on for years, but what's really helped for me is:

-leaning coping mechanisms for the onset of anxiety attacks and/or feeling insecure/unsafe/nervous/unhappy in public

 I used to flee, lock myself in bathrooms and cry, drink too much, etc. 

Now I remove myself from the situation and fuck around with Twitter for a bit, confide in a friend who I know has also dealt with anxiety issues (there are LOTS of us), do breathing exercises, remind myself that a very select group of people I know and trust on a family/best friend level love me unconditionally, etc.

-find a happy medium between the two extremes

I satisfy the introvert part of me by spending time alone in my house, making sure all my dishes and laundry are clean, that I have cute little lunches packed for myself at work and clean work outfits folded up to that my life feels less stressful and hectic, especially if I know I'm going to be staying out late and drunk other nights.

I spend nights watching Netflix with my boyfriend, or just friends who live close to me and don't have a ton of money either and are happy to watch Sordid Lives and drink IPAs and shoot the shit on the couch.

I do CBT guided relaxation exercises. If I had a shitty day, I wind down by following a progressive muscle relaxation recording that is meant to relieve body and mind tension. I'm crazy cynical and have very little patience for white light and new age flute music, but the album "Guided Relaxation for Teenagers" by Edna Reinhardt comes highly recommended for making yourself melt into a warm pool of buzzing, lovely, warm feelings in bed.

In addition to bars and parties, I find healthy, constructive ways to utilize my powers of rallying & riveting people. I have a bike gang, we make little products, we partner with other organizations and companies, we write articles and do events. I ended up being ringleader-what Mefi's Own misskaz called "Queen Bee"-partly because I've never been scared to stand on a bar stool, holler at everyone, and make myself the center of attention. All the other girls put in tons of work, just as much as me, and it's totally a partnership. But my people skills-the same ones I use past midnight at the bar to charm strangers-get used to send out tons of emails reminding everyone of what we have to get done, and do a lot of the social media promotion, and be the person who stands on tree stumps and hollers the rules at our races.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:38 PM on February 3, 2013 [13 favorites]

You say the issue was that several coworkers felt that I was unapproachable on some issues.

I think you may have two different problems: 1) finding a balance in your social life and 2) being easier to work with.

Being unapproachable doesn't suggest that you simply withdraw. I've worked with plenty of withdrawn, quiet people and I have had no problem approaching them when I needed to. It sounds like you must have had negative reactions to certain subjects at different points that have made people uncomfortable dealing with you - maybe related to people you say you find annoying? If you haven't already, ask your boss for more concrete examples of why people think you are "unapproachable."

Your problem of withdrawing from your friends is difficult. I'm a big withdraw-er, without much of a fun side to balance it out. I have found, however, that however much I may enjoy being alone there comes a point where it becomes a negative thing. When you spend time with friends, what does it look like? Do you often go out drinking and stay out late? If this is the case try different, more energy-efficient ways of being social - coffee, sharing household or creative projects, going for walks, sitting on the couch watch movies and not really talking much. Hell, phone calls even. Also try smaller groups. One-on-one is much easier for me to handle than a group when my energy is low.

Since stress seems to be the trigger point for this behavior, you might look at just addressing the stress, and see if that helps. It could be that your withdrawing is more of a symptom and less of an issue to treat.
posted by bunderful at 9:03 PM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was thinking that this is less of an introvert/extrovert thing but more of an issue about boundaries and feeling sure enough to enforce them. I also hate conflict and will do anything to avoid it, and I think that may be part of what makes you want to withdraw. Often times, the conflict is all in my head and I would be fine to just state my position and let it go, and often, no one has a problem with it. I suppose it's a form of people pleasing, trying to take care of people even if it's at your expense. It'd be good just to recognize when that's happening and take care of yourself. Imagine that you are able to just state what you are thinking, what you need, and that it's perfectly fine to do so.

I don't have specific advice but I think it's a matter of recognizing when it's happening and just practicing saying what you really need or want. For me, sometimes I have to think about people I know and admire who do this well.
Rebuffing romantic advances:
Instead of thoughts like "why won't this guy leave me alone...take a hint?"
You: "I had a fun time last night but I don't think I want to go out again."

Needy people:
Instead of thinking this friend needs you and sitting on the phone for two hours going over your friends' terrible boyfriend woes...
You: "I'm so sorry to hear about that and I'd like to chat more but I'm having a rough week at work. Maybe next week we can catch up." (And then only call if you want to, or keep to whatever level of friendship you want.)
posted by biscuits at 10:32 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you gregarious when you are drinking alcohol and not gregarious when you are sober? Plenty of people are like this and struggle with being 'charming' when they haven't had a few drinks.
posted by jasondigitized at 11:56 AM on February 4, 2013

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