What professional can identify what's wrong/weird about my behaviour?
April 15, 2013 4:02 AM   Subscribe

I have never had many close friends or intimate relationships, and i know that other people find my behaviour off-putting. But due to politeness, nobody will tell me! What profession's job is to just plain tell me what's not ok with my basic behaviour (eg voice volume, personal space) so i can stop pushing everyone away without meaning to? Thanks!

I have never had many close friends or intimate relationships, and i know that other people find my behaviour off-putting. But due to politeness, in 40 years the most information i've received is 'brittle' once and 'spiky' once. My mother claims i 'talk like a pneumatic drill' and make her nervous, several health professionals (in the UK, NHS doctors handle both initial mental and physical health diagnoses) have said things like 'you're not quite normal, are you?' as if, with a lifetime's experience only of being me, i'd know what other people were like. I'd given up and resigned myself to a lifetime of loneliness, but then i had a brainwave - every stupid job in the world is done somewhere, they have life-coaches, there has to be someone whose job is telling you what way your behaviour is weird or normal! Ace! I can't afford it now and there's no resources round here, but i'm too hungry to wait - what kind of person will actually just plain tell me what's not ok with eg voice volume, interpersonal space distance etc? I want to 'grasp' what's wrong with me, so i can easily change it. Temple Grandin did amazing things just by herself, so i've no need to give up! Thanks in advance!
posted by maiamaia to Human Relations (30 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, life/social coaches do this. The best have training as therapists.
posted by brujita at 4:35 AM on April 15, 2013

Wow. It sounds like you've had some very bad experiences with doctors (what kind of diagnosis is "you aren't normal"?). I'm happy to see you being so proactive and trying to figure these things out.

I don't know about the UK, but in the US, we have job coaches/life coaches who will help you with these issues. If you are low on cash, you might try asking at the local jobs center (maybe the unemployment office? Again, I"m not sure what they have in the UK) -- my unemployment centre offered mock interviews and critiques on interviewing skills. Yours may do something similar for free or reduced price. You might also try videotaping yourself and going over it with a friend or a job recruiter. Although job interviews are different that "real life," you might get good feedback like "you don't make eye contact" or "your voice isn't modulated." Anyway, good luck!
posted by mrfuga0 at 4:35 AM on April 15, 2013

Sounds like you may be a little intense and tightly-wound, from what you've written. Spiky, which I think is separate, suggests easily offended/possibly defensive? (Not that I think those things are terrible things to be - there's much worse exists in the world). A life coach or a therapist would probably be able to help you out with this.

How do you feel when you communicate with others?
posted by everydayanewday at 4:36 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you ever watched video of yourself in a social setting? What were your impressions?
posted by unSane at 4:58 AM on April 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Bad experiences so far notwithstanding, I wouldn't dismiss the idea of psychologists outright just yet. I used to have some similar issues (overly loud, socially tone deaf talking, rife with interrupting, off-putting in a way I couldn't put my finger one). Then I was diagnosed with plain old ADHD and a few months of therapy and medication helped me start to better understand social cues and improve upon some of the areas I had been clueless in before.

The thing to remember with psychologists is: all of them may seem terrible until you find the one that works for you. Don't be afraid to shop around. The last time I went "shopping" for a therapist, I sent inquiry emails to specific doctors briefly describing my specific issues and what approach I was looking for to treat them. I found a pretty promising person in short order.

Hang in there!
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:15 AM on April 15, 2013

Note for others who have responded: therapists don't usually give patients this kind of feedback. And I'm not sure life coaches are trained to either. As far as I know they help their clients structure their lives better.

It sounds like what the OP needs more is some kind of modern day "finishing school." Maybe a speech coach or whatever actors in theater/film use to improve their presentation?
posted by timsneezed at 5:21 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's hard to understand what you're looking for here based on the question you posted.

That said: you mention Temple Grandin. She has autism, albeit a so-called high-functioning kind. Do you think you have a personality similar to hers? If so perhaps you want to be evaluated for autism.
posted by dfriedman at 5:23 AM on April 15, 2013

Your first stop should probably be a new medical professional, specifically for an autism diagnosis. IANAD, but if you fall under the autism spectrum, there's nothing "wrong" with you that a life coach is going to fix. But in the US, if you are diagnosed with autism, you are qualified to receive additional services that will help you, and it may be the same in the UK. Don't spend on a therapist, life coach, magic bean salesman, etc., if you are awaiting a diagnosis.
posted by juniperesque at 5:39 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Toastmasters all the way to DTM level?

Acting classes at local community college?

Hiring an image/clothing consultant?

Business class focusing on culture/language?
posted by 99percentfake at 5:50 AM on April 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you want to work it out on your own, I would agree with the suggestions to record yourself. Even just recording your voice if you can't do a video.

Experiment a little when you're out and about - try out different voice volumes, etc. See what happens. Treat it as an experiment. With most things, it's best to err on the side of caution - more distance between you and other people, not less; quieter voice rather than louder.

If you've got 'brittle' and 'spiky' feedback it can generally mean 'aggressive' but it can also mean 'depressed'. But it also depends on who said it - context is important.

Your mother is too subjective to be reliable in giving you feedback because you have a close, long-standing relationship, so there will be many issues at play in her comments.

Something else to keep in mind is that normal is a vast area, not one, single point. Your resignation about your life may have been the thing that's been keeping people away, not necessarily your behaviour.

Something other people have mentioned is that how we behave externally/physically can be a reflection of what's going on internally. So pay more attention to what's going on inside you.

But, as with anything, if you want to change it, you have to be prepared to stare it in the face, see what it really is, and then work towards fixing it. That might involve a professional like a therapist or psychiatrist.
posted by heyjude at 5:57 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is such a brilliant, brave question.

You know how other people’s self-presentational problems are so obvious to everyone but them? I’m willing to bet that many laypeople in your own social circle could immediately tell you what you’re doing wrong.

The trouble is, you need to ask someone discreet, kind, articulate, sensitive, visually and socially adept, with plenty of common sense. Preferably someone not related to you, with no axe to grind or vested interest. Alternatively, some sort of drama coach or image consultant could be a very good idea. A single session would probably tell you what you need to know.

You’re probably just a nervy introvert with a few fixable bad habits, rather than a candidate for therapy.
posted by Grunyon at 6:21 AM on April 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Group therapy is what you need--the type of group in which there is a lot of interaction between the members. Your interactions with others will be visible to all (and the therapist) as will the way others respond to you.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:36 AM on April 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would be wary of the notion that all you need is a life coach or "finishing school" or a support group until an actual medical professional tells you as much. Treating symptoms before you determine what causes them is dicey at best.

Those are quite possibly all good ideas, mind you. But let's see what a doctor says first. If doctors so far have been unhelpful, try different doctors.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:03 AM on April 15, 2013

Another vote for Toastmasters. Everyone is there to improve their speech. Learning to modulate your voice, alone, makes a huge huge difference in how people respond to you. If you can't find Toastmasters, find someone to teach you that. Studying other languages in a class setting can also help because it makes you pay attention to how you pronounce things.

However, I also agree with getting evaluated for autism spectrum disorders, if only because you mention Temple Grandin.

Congratulations on having the courage to delve into all this!
posted by BibiRose at 7:13 AM on April 15, 2013

If your difficulty is just naturally poor social skills rather than something more extreme on the autistic spectrum, then this comment of mine from an earlier post might be helpful.
posted by tdismukes at 7:43 AM on April 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's a woman in my improv meetup who has a similar issue regarding friendships (or the lack thereof). She's really nice, but nobody wants to be friends with her because she says some really odd stuff, so most people simply laugh about her behind her back. Even worse, if you try showing her even the slightest bit of kindness, she takes it as a sign that you want to be friends with her or have a romantic interest and immediately latches onto you like a barnacle, destroying all your other social opportunities with her weird awkwardness. Are you sharing a bonding convo with a really cute person you did a scene with? Of course she'll bump in and ruin it with her interruption. Or have you mentioned a party to somebody else? She'll overhear and ask when the party is, as if she was invited.

The funny thing is that nobody I know would ever tell her the extent of her problems. The nice people in the group don't tell her because they don't want to hurt her feelings, and the callous people don't tell her because it's not their problem and telling her what her issues are would run the risk of making an enemy, or even worse, having her think that they're friends and start destroying their social life by broadcasting the nonexistent "friendship" to everyone within earshot. Without anything to gain, both of these scenarios are pointless risks.

If I were giving her candid advice (and I mention it because I suspect it might be relevant to you as well), I would say: ask for help from somebody you know who has a lot of friends but is blunt and callous enough that they don't mind saying hurtful things to others. People who have problems that run this deep often need some "tough love" since therapists usually try to phrase things in an understanding way and thus accidentally minimize the problem. Socially mentoring the uncool person can be detrimental to the helper's own status, so make sure that they understand that any advice or help they give you will be kept private. (Email is probably the best way to conduct this, since it involves the least time commitment on their end.) And most importantly, resist the temptation to be insulted or argumentative when they tell you something you are doing is inappropriate.

This is the best advice I can offer. Good luck!
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:47 AM on April 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

My situation was not particularly similar to yours, but when I was about 25 (and pretty darn shy) I got a job which involved me HAVING to go and talk to strangers about sensitive details of their lives (a TV researcher). I can tell you that my shyness lasted all of five minutes after that, and I had an instant crash-course in getting on with people.

So one possibility is just to immerse yourself in an environment where you need to communicate with people and get some kind of feedback on how you're doing. And also, don't overlook the possibility of just asking people for their honest opinion. If you phrase it the way that you've phrased this question (ie awesomely) I don't think anyone will be offended. I mean, either they think you're weird already, in which case this will demonstrate that you're self-aware and want to do something about it, or they don't, in which case no problem.

Nthing the above suggestions that three most useful social skills are (a) listening, and I mean really listening and (b) asking questions based on what you just heard ("How did you feel about that?", "What kind of bike was it?" and (c) putting yourself in the other person's shoes when you respond ("That must have been really..." and so on). Also, don't underestimate the power of subtle flattery, in the form of very gentle compliments that are true and not personal enough to creep people out. "You handled that well". "It's really well-written". "That was delicious". And so on.
posted by unSane at 9:00 AM on April 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just link a video of yourself talking and speaking naturally - i can tell you in less than five minutes what my specific, honest impressions of you are.
posted by Kruger5 at 9:18 AM on April 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Or Skype?
posted by unSane at 9:35 AM on April 15, 2013

What profession's job is to just plain tell me what's not ok with my basic behaviour (eg voice volume, personal space)

This is something a speech and language therapist can diagnose and help correct.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:36 AM on April 15, 2013

Your first stop should probably be a new medical professional, specifically for an autism diagnosis.

It doesn't work like this in the UK - at least, not on the NHS, I don't know about privately. All your healthcare starts with seeing your GP, who may then choose to refer you to a specialist. The only way you end up seeing a specialist to begin with is in an emergency situation - if you are admitted to hospital, or if mental health issues lead you to be sectioned/committed. It took something close to the latter for me to finally be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, rather than being given antidepressants by the GP and having them changed every time I told them they didn't work very well.

An individual generally can't just call the hospital and ask to see a psychologist, or an oncologist, or any other specialist - the GP must refer them.

GPs seem to be more adept at spotting ASD in children now, but I have heard that it is very difficult for adults to get a diagnosis, and if you do believe yourself to be ASD, it would be worth finding out from an organisation that works for/with people 'on the spectrum'. Of course, you may just be a regular if unusual neurotypical person!
posted by mippy at 9:36 AM on April 15, 2013

I have a good eye for subtle social nuances in others and I've also worked in casting with actors so I could give you some tips on improving your presentation. Memail me if you want me to look at a video of you or skype! I'd be happy to help.
posted by timsneezed at 9:52 AM on April 15, 2013

A word of caution: strangers in search of something wrong with you will always find something they think is wrong with you. It will be completely idiosyncratic to the individual, uh, "reviewer," and there will almost certainly be some hilarious inconsistency in the feedback you'll get. In one of my social circles, we've had 2-3 "charity cases" like this, and let me tell you, once you're a charity case, there will be no end to well intentioned, but poorly considered and naive advice. People are different, and social life is hard.

Are there some people you get along with more easily than others? See if you can identify general trends. Do you prefer businesslike people? Humorous people? People who keep tight schedules? Spontaneous people?

Are there particular things other people do that irritate or upset you? For example, I sometimes find that some things other people find innocuous drive me completely up a wall, and other times the situation is reversed.

Basically, before you turn to professional medicine or different kinds of coaching, it might be a good idea to develop a more detailed idea about your own personality and social tendencies.
posted by Nomyte at 10:37 AM on April 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

So, I never had many close friends and I had a really hard time in casual social situations. I found the most helpful thing to be NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) -- it has a somewhat sketchy reputation due to a crazy co-founder, exaggerated claims, and people using it for immoral purposes (I can has hook-up?) but I found it to be very useful. For me, it broke down human interaction into small bits that I could learn. I am a very literal person and I needed to be taught how to build rapport with someone, not just told to "listen to them" or whatever.

If you can find a reputable NLP practitioner or take an introductory class, that might be helpful to you. In my experience, they are not shy about telling you specifically what is working for you and what is not.
posted by elmay at 11:15 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you like books,the phrase to look for on Amazon is people skills. You can read the reviews and see if any sound like they might be helpful. I went through a bad patch of anxiety from a reaction to medication that crept on on me slowly and had to basically relearn how social cues work again. I found reading to be a low stress to figure things out.
posted by stray thoughts at 6:22 AM on April 16, 2013

Your profile indicates female/genderfuck as your gender. Might it be possible that people you're encountering are somehow annoyed or intimidated by this aspect of your self-presentation? Not everyone is comfortable with people who play with gender preconceptions.

That doesn't mean that you're doomed to isolation though, and in some places you'd have a rich alternative scene that would welcome you. In Wales you might not have the resources of a place like London or Seattle. You've started by reaching out online - I guess I'd say continue doing that. And keep an eye out for other people like yourself. You're not the only one!
posted by cartoonella at 9:03 AM on April 16, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone, and i will leave it a bit longer, but just to clarify: i'm not shy, shy people are good at intimacy, i'm a loud egotist who then regrets it! When i'm speaking, i get carried away, i'm not aware of anything around me, i'm completely possessed by what i want to communicate, but i'm bad with words and it comes out in a complete jumble that i have to constantly rephrase = repeat to make clear. I've tried not being 'caught up' in what i want to say, but then i just get bored and drift off the conversation and stare into space, daydreaming... I can't both talk and be conscious of myself, talking, a trick that seems to be normal for most people. My family say i 'rant' and 'lecture', which is why i think my speaking style may be a little too offputting for the easy formation of friendships!

On the other hand, when other people are speaking, i find it almost impossible to concentrate. I can't concentrate anyway, my whole life i'm caught up in some vivid fantasy world (not consistent, just a continuous stream of nonsense) and it doesn't stop during conversations. I've taught myself to read graduate level science books with this, despite it being difficult (it greatly enriches novels etc) so conversation must be possible. I need to find some way to remember to make eye contact, without staring at them like drilling a hole, which i also do. My family are so used to me, they automatically don't make eye contact when speaking to me because i just keep drifting off.
posted by maiamaia at 4:12 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: or, i can talk to anyone, i have a whale of a time at parties, but i can never get close to anyone. I'm that loud guffawing person in the centre of the group who couldn't express an intimate feeling without choking on their voicebox and is somewhere between intimidating and annoying with their nonstop stream of jokes and stories. I can't figure out social behaviour without the big party animal act. Like, getting out the carnival float and samba dancers for every bike journey. I can do formal, i can do any act, i'm always trying to impress everyone, but i can't do natural, partly i feel to vulnerable without the wall, partly i can't speak and be self-aware, and partly even though i can think of things to say i sort of freeze or they won't come out my mouth. Hence the looking for tricks to tone it down a bit so i can be approachable rather than 'lots of fun' and 'know everything' (the sort of thing people say about me - i don't want to appear clever, i want to seem approachable).

I think interrupting is a problem, because my time sense is all wrong - everyone else's half-way through a polite pause is my hideously long embarrassing silence, i speak very very fast yet mumble, people say (now i realise how much feedback people have given me and i haven't noticed). That too - i don't notice other people, i need to learn that.
posted by maiamaia at 4:22 PM on April 16, 2013

maiamaia - that's actually some very good self-analysis of your situation and it points to some possibilities you can work on.

One key is that your attention is focused on your own internal world. That's not a bad thing in all situations, but when you're having a conversation with someone else that inward focus is going to make it hard to really connect with them. If you can find some way to decide that at that moment you really are interested in what that other person is going through and what they have to say, it will help drive the behaviors and social skills you are trying to achieve. You're able to maintain an interest in books, right? Remember that every human being is a book with more depth and complexity than any novel you've ever read. The more you are able to listen to them (and watch them), the more you will be able to appreciate their stories. As a side effect, you'll gradually find yourself less prone to interrupt at inopportune moments or make comments which are inappropriate for that particular person.

You may still be prone to distractibility, especially if you have natural ADD tendencies, but people are more likely to be forgiving of that if they can tell you really are generally interested in what they have to say.

It's not unusual to have difficulty speaking and being self-aware at the same time. What you can do to help compensate for this is some after-the-fact analysis and planning/preparation for the next time. Pick some role-models who are very approachable and who make the folks around them feel comfortable. Watch how they behave in a given situation and compare it to how you behaved in the same situation. Make a plan for the next time a similar situation comes up - how you will emulate your role-model. Odds are, you'll blow it the first time. You'll forget, or you'll remember to try and the new behavior will feel so unfamiliar and awkward that it won't seem to work. That's perfectly okay. Keep on trying and eventually it will start happening. Maybe it will take 10 tries, maybe 20, maybe 50, but you can start to build new behavioral patterns.

Good luck! When I was working through a similar regime of building basic social skills, it took me several years of hard, frequently painful work, but the end result was totally worth it.
posted by tdismukes at 7:16 AM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

A vote for both group therapy and Toastmasters. I haven't tried them yet but my understanding is that these are situations in which people in the group specifically examine the way you present yourself (more the latter) and make others feel during group interactions (more the former), and are frank about telling you.

There's a great explanation on how group therapy can work in the "Why Group Therapy" section here: http://www3.georgetown.edu/student-affairs/caps/groups/groups.html#why

It's great that you're aware of this and able to articulate it so well. I didn't become fully aware of my own social awkwardness until my late 30s. You've made a big step forward. Good luck!
posted by lillian.elmtree at 7:44 AM on April 21, 2013

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