Help me learn to talk about myself.
August 25, 2015 3:36 AM   Subscribe

I’m really bad at talking about what’s going on in my life with my family, on both the trivial and profound levels. This is really starting to hurt my relationships. Please help me learn how to do it.

Questions like “so what have you been up to lately?” or “how’s grad school going?” make me freeze like a deer in headlights. The best I can generally do is something like “not much” or “OK” and then move the conversation on because I simply can’t handle it. I also have no idea how to give people an update on what has been going on in my life.

Example 1: I recently spent three full days with my extended family, and couldn’t volunteer a single thing about what I’ve been doing since they last saw me, what’s new, what my plans are for the future, nothing. When people asked, I found it desperately uncomfortable, and like I was groping for random things to say and then I couldn’t say them so they came out garbled.

Example 2: my dad is one of those people who writes and sends out the family newsletter every Xmas. I don’t recognise myself in his newsletter any more, its like he’s writing about an entirely different person.

Example 3: I put off calling my mom because the thought of having to give an account of myself makes me anxious, and I feel like even when I try it comes out all wrong. When I call her I feel prickly and defensive about my answers to her questions.

This is bothering me because I feel like it’s gradually estranging me from my family, and I love my family and I want them to know what matters to me. I don’t have this problem talking to my friends – while I generally don’t volunteer much about my life, I am happy to do it sometimes, and I don’t feel defensive.

Is there something I can do different? Is there a way to break this pattern?
posted by Gwendoline Mary to Human Relations (12 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
How about getting a diary (the paper kind or the livejournal kind or whatever suits you)? If the issue is not feeling quite comfortable with the narrative of your life, maybe reflecting on it by yourself every now and then would help.

Otherwise, are they on Facebook? Seems like this is the kind of thing Facebook was invented for. You can write trivial stuff on there and your family members might or might not see it, so maybe that would make you feel less pressure to come up with something satisfactory in the moment. And if they make snippy comments about it (is that worrying you maybe?) then you have plenty of time to think what to say about that.
posted by emilyw at 3:49 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Approach it like doing a media interview or a speech. Come up with formal talking points for yourself before going into these interactions. Maybe start with three, for example:

1. Big thing that has happened in your life recently (vacation, taking up skydiving, getting a puppy)
2. A recent interest (reading books by only women authors, making high-tech paper airplanes)
3. Something food related (You Won't Believe This Amazing New Kale Recipes)

Then try to pro-actively hit the talking points before they start asking you questions (and then ask them questions instead). This keeps the conversation on your terms, and while you don't have to struggle for topics you still get to share things that you are doing.
posted by aaanastasia at 5:09 AM on August 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

Yes! Before you head into situations with this kind of small talk, decide on a thing or two that is going to be your stock subject, even if it is the boring-est, most mundane thing.

"How's it been going?"
"Lovely. I've really been enjoying eating breakfast lately. You know, I'm only grabbing a granola bar before work, but there's been something about it lately that just makes me happy. Do you ever feel that way about breakfast?"


"Tell me what you've been doing!"
"I've been doing lots of browsing the internet! Sometimes I find really neat things, but then there are days when all I want to do is look at cat pictures. You know, the other day I read a thing that was just a list of about a hundred old celebrities and what they're doing now? It's not rocket science, but there are times when it's just so satisfying to relax and read about something that's of no importance whatsoever. Do you ever do that?"

The key is that it doesn't really matter what you talk about. You just need to have one or two things pre-planned, and then lob it back to your interlocutor. Then, once you've relaxed a little, you can respond with less anxiety to the rest of the conversation.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:26 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

(That is, the talking about the mundane parts can be a warm up for talking about the things you really care about. They get you over the hump.)
posted by ocherdraco at 5:28 AM on August 25, 2015

Are you dealing with depression? The way you phrase your question, as well as your examples, makes it sound less like you are unable to describe what's going on in your life, and more like you are feeling a deep unease at how you perceive your life, making it impossible to describe. Which (for me anyhow) can be a pretty big symptom of depression.

The straightforward answer is honesty. When people ask how things are going, you say how they are going. "This week I did Y" or "I am having a problem with X," or "Just hanging out this week, nothing special" - just the facts of what you did. Small talk, no stakes. Don't think of it as people expecting a State Of The You (even if they are), just see it as an easy lowball question that you can answer because out of the last 24-168 hours you certainly went somewhere or ate something or learned something.

But if you're having trouble articulating what you did, when you actually did a thing (went to a movie, started a new class, switched dry cleaners, whatever), then maybe you might want to consider therapy. If there is something inside you that is deeply unsatisfied with your everyday choices, then even just describing them can feel like a personal failure. And that's something therapy can help with.
posted by Mchelly at 6:01 AM on August 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

Do you feel like your family would judge you, or give you ill-founded advice? Does comparison to the Christmas-letter version of yourself make you anxious?
posted by yarntheory at 6:46 AM on August 25, 2015

Like Mchelly, I think you would do well to consider therapy. This doesn't sound like a situation where you just don't have much going on and can't think of things to say - when you're feeling like a "deer in the headlights" and "desperately uncomfortable" because people ask about you, it's worth asking yourself what might be driving that. Speaking from personal experience, as a child I learned (without really realizing it) some pretty long-lasting lessons about safety in being secretive or ignored, the absolute importance of keeping my feelings to myself, etc, and I'm still working through these many years later. For years I would get actively angry and panicked when people - ESPECIALLY people I'm close to - wanted to know more than superficial things about me, and I can see now how much of that is tied up in the 'survival tactics' that I had to use as a kid in a chaotic environment.

In the past, I had tried all sorts of tips to 'force' myself to talk about things, but they never really helped on a long-term basis - that underlying, inexplicable panic was still there. Working with a therapist to identify and work through my no-longer-needed 'survival tactics' has been immensely helpful in removing the block between my inner world and the people I care about - again, I would suggest you at least consider whether this would help you, too.
posted by DingoMutt at 6:56 AM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

I agree that practicing some answers in advance can really help. Think of a few neutral events or subjects and work out a basic script that you feel comfortable with, then run it in your head a few times on the way over.
posted by prefpara at 7:25 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have you tried talking to them more often? I sometimes find it's weird to try to condense a month's worth (or three months') of what I've been doing into a coherent narrative, but "Here's what I did this week" (or "today") feels much easier.

I'm a therapist, and I've noticed it when clients drop way back on frequency with their sessions, too. Someone I'm seeing weekly generally will have a ton of information about their activities and interactions over the past week that we can discuss and work on. That generally extends to someone coming in every two weeks, though it's sometimes requires more digging. Clients who drop back to once a month tend to get stuck between wanting to talk about the more recent stuff but feeling like they should only talk about the "big" stuff that happened, but they usually have trouble remembering more than the last week and a half. Which generally is fine for my professional purposes, as a once-a-month client is someone who's stepping down and out of therapy, so it's a good way to convince them they're doing well enough that they don't need to keep talking to me, but given that you do want to keep talking to your family members, maybe you could try moving to more frequent contact and seeing if that helps? (And, as emilyw says, Facebook is a low-stakes way of doing so, too, if phone or in-person contact isn't possible.)
posted by jaguar at 7:25 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

(Not that there's anything super-magical about weekly or every-other-weekly contact -- I just used those as my reference points, since I'm most familiar with those levels of contact!)
posted by jaguar at 7:26 AM on August 25, 2015

Keep a little list of things that have recently happened and one of things you are planning to do. Keep those accessible and use them as cheat sheets when you talk ot people on the phone. Practice talking about the things on your list on the phone (when nobody can see you checking your list). This will a) give you stuff to talk about, b) let you practice talking about yourself. Once you've practiced a bit you can try applying what you have learned in your next in person encouters with family. Check your lists before you walk into the house. Repeat as necessary.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:35 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

in my experience, this gets easier with practice. so don't sweat too much the idea of talking about"deep things". just share the bland details. the rest will come with time. i've made lists before, too, as koahiatamadl suggests (on the back of business cards!)
posted by andrewcooke at 10:14 AM on August 25, 2015

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