Bad social skills
October 19, 2015 1:19 AM   Subscribe

I have really bad social skills that are holding me back. And I'm tired of it. Need some guidance.

So to cut a long story short I've basically been living in partial isolation for close to 10 years now, apart from being around a couple of family members I stay in the house by my self. The reason for this is due to mental health problems like social anxiety, depression, panic attacks, things like that. And so I feel my social skills have eroded completely and that I no longer have a foundation to build from.

So for the last year I've been trying to put my self back in to the real would but I just can't do it, my lack of social skills just makes it to difficult. I did therapy for 7 months it didn't help, one one hour season just wasn't enough and I felt like we wear going round in circles each time. I tried group activitys but could see I was quickly becoming ostrisized because I'm so awkward and social inept. Been trying to hang out with old friends but again same issues. I've also become aware of how not aware I am, I was talking to somebody in one of the classes I was going to and as I was talking to this person I caught a glimpse of my facial expression and was shocked by how I looked, it was like a look of surprise and disgust, I literally have no idea how I'm coming across to people. And now I'm back to isolating my self in the house again which is the last thing I want or need.

So I dont have any money for more therapy or anything like that but if anyone could offer any advice on how to get out of this predicament it would be greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
This may sound weird, but for the facial expression worries:
Start a 'video journal'. Use a webcam, or smartphone video - preferably onto a larger screen.
Film yourself for 5 minutes while you chat about things you are wanting to do, or that you enjoyed recently.
Just being able to see yourself (and the not-mirror image kind of gives you more perspective), may allow yourself to see and modify on the fly your facial expressions - just working on keeping a 'friendly feeling' when in conversation. Like you're smiling on the inside, even if it doesn't reach your lips much.
If you're wrinkling your nose a lot (which is the main expression of disgust), put a bit of sticky tape over your nose at home, so you can feel when you are starting to do that and stop yourself, if that genuinely is a problem.
However, if you're not actually strongly wrinkling your nose, it's probably not as bad as you think.

Especially because, if you have anxiety and depression, then you are probably over-reading expressions of surprise, disgust, or other threatening facial expressions even in your own face. It's not as bad as you think.

Try participating in group activities with clear goals, like boardgames.
Be as kind as you can be, don't talk over people, and just do it regularly. Seriously, in any large public group there will be people with worse social skills (ie who just don't CARE they are insulting people). Socialising might be a small doses thing as you build up your tolerance.
See if you can build your way up to three group activities a week. This can include a sports team etc, where you aren't talking all that much.
Going from nothing to three may sound like a hard ask, but it will be easier to cope with any one social group when you know it is just ONE of your social outlets, not your only social outlet.

If you are feeling really awkward about your social skills, see if there is an Aspergers social meetup - go in and explain that you don't have Aspergers, but that you are having trouble with practicing your social skills, which is a common difficulty. Only do this if you think it wouldn't make you more anxious or distressed to be with people who may have much worse social skills than you, e.g. frequently changing topics back to their core interest, or ignoring what you have to say. It's a two sided coin though, individuals who have the 'most need' to practice their social skills are also the least likely to notice any awkwardness or facial expressions on your part, which may allow you to build up a bit of confidence.
The main trick is just to worry less in social situations, which is of course the root problem with having anxiety.
posted by Elysum at 1:50 AM on October 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

if anyone could offer any advice

This is all I got and it's much easier to say than do, but it's the practice that makes it work...

Think the best of everyone you meet while not concerning yourself with what others think of you.

Good luck.
posted by Thella at 3:50 AM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Different social groups. Do check for MiFi meetups, a very accommodating crowd.

As for being ostracized, were you directly asked to leave? You may be misinterpreting the social situation of general neutral as something negative.

Look at the posts about making adult friends for context, even in the best situations it's really hard due to the nature of todays society. Look for situations where there's a joint interest in something objective, a technology or hobby where there's a focus on something other than just being social. That shared interest can obviate the need for frustrating chit chat but get you into the world.

If you like science fiction or comics or books in general, groups with that focus can be a lot more accepting.
posted by sammyo at 4:44 AM on October 19, 2015

Is there a suitable regular volunteer opportunity near where you are? Does the library need volunteers? The humane society? You're thinking "but they will just hate me too", but you are probably wrong. I've done a LOT of volunteer wrangling at several projects that were gateway places for people who had just moved to town, had no friends, etc, and we got a lot of people with very few social skills. It was pretty normal to encounter a couple of people in a given cohort who came across as very odd. Honestly, one of them is a close friend of mine now - she had a very isolating childhood and some traumatic experiences and when I met her she was extremely nervous and couldn't make eye contact, plus had some trouble with knowing where folks' boundaries usually were. But we still hit it off, and the more she did stuff, the more she built social skills and felt at ease with people. You can be a funny, nice person even if you have bad social skills.

Also, in many volunteer situations, you'll be working with older people a lot - and IME, once you've had some life experience, it's a lot easier to realize that someone may have terrible social skills but still perceive the real person underneath. A lot of younger folks are still getting their own sense of who they are and learning to navigate the world, and they may not be as good at reading you correctly.

Also, when you're going to a place regularly, people get to know you and can see your human qualities even if you're still building up skills. If you do volunteer, the first few times will probably be hard. I think that's just something you need to tough it out and get through.

If for some reason you are in Minneapolis-St Paul, you're welcome to memail me. I'm not as volunteer-connected as I used to be, but I can make a few recommendations.
posted by Frowner at 5:23 AM on October 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

You might benefit greatly from group therapy. When I was dealing with bad social anxiety it was incredibly helpful to have access to a group of peers who I saw once a week for the express purpose of supporting and being supported by each other. It made me more comfortable with others and with myself.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:09 AM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, as a starter thing, what about building up a habit of going to a place where there are people and just hanging out?

I was very depressed for a year or so in my late twenties - really, life-messing-up depressed, difficult to get to work, impossible to do social things, lots of time lying in bed crying, etc. And I remember how overwhelming it could be to be in groups. One thing I did enjoy when I was finally getting a little better was just going somewhere where I could be alone in a crowd - a coffee shop, the library, etc. I also did some volunteering that was basically "we need someone to sit at this desk and very occasionally answer a question, but mostly you will just read".

What about going to the library for a couple of hours every Monday/Wednesday/Friday? Something where it's a regular, frequent part of your schedule, gets you around people but isn't too demanding?

I bet that one reason you're struggling in groups right now is that you have too much going on in your brain about being in public - how do I stand correctly? how do I say hello? What do people usually do when they come into a room? How can I control my nervousness at just being around people?....And then you're actually trying to have conversations on top of that. Your brain is overloaded. If you spend some time in low stakes environments just getting used to being around people, you can put that on automatic and concentrate on talking, and it will be easier.

I grew up in a rather weird way. I had almost no friends between 13 and 18, no friends at all to hang out with outside of school ever and literally no friends, like not even to say hello to in the hall at school, for a couple of those years. My family, though charming and fun, is not interested in popular culture or clothes, so I had no idea about most of the things that everyone knew, and I had no idea how to dress normally (not talking about fashion, especially, just 'how do I select an absolutely average outfit') and had no normal clothes anyway (mostly my mother's hand-me-downs from the seventies, and this was the late eighties). I didn't know how to talk to people normally because I never had normal conversations, and I didn't know what normal people talked about.

In college I made friends. It was rough, and people put up with a lot of awkward from me. I would say that I didn't make it to "regular adult social skills level" until my thirties. But the thing is, I was able to make good friends, because when you have a chance to hang around people, they start to see your real self, you start to relax, and what happens is that if you're a giant weirdo with no social skills, you meet some people who are sort of weird and have some social skills, and they accept you and you learn some new ways to interact with people. (My friends were all punks and nerds in college.) You don't need to go from zero to "hanging out with the cheerleaders" to make friends.

You can do this! I know you can. It will take time, and if you're like me, you'll never be totally free of awkwardness and mild panic attacks, but things can absolutely get much, much better that you have ever hoped.
posted by Frowner at 6:17 AM on October 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

the book "how to win friends and influence people" is actually pretty reasonable. not really a reference book, but worth checking out from the library.
posted by andrewcooke at 6:46 AM on October 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Charisma Myth is also very worthwhile--it offers practical tips and views charm and ease as something you can learn, which feels pretty empowering.
posted by rpfields at 8:13 AM on October 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I started doing an exercise during a rough patch. I call it 100 smiles a day. It is facial physical therapy done in a mirror. Look in the mirror while smiling 100 times per morning. Balance the muscles so your face is symmetrical and keep at it. It takes a minute and a half. The action stays as a memory as if something nice happened. Your facial muscles are back in tone to smile fully. Then work to smile more often. You can reconnect to the natural world through this facial gesture, smile when the sun lights your face, smile when you feel the wind, when you hear the rain.

While doing the smile exercise, see if you can find the expression someone described. But remember, no one gets to dictate your emotional response to them. If you looked surprised and disgusted, maybe they WERE surprising and disgusting to you.
posted by Oyéah at 8:23 AM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

as I was talking to this person I caught a glimpse of my facial expression and was shocked by how I looked

Practicing the facial expressions you'd prefer to have on your resting face does make them easier to display over time.

If you want to work on having a resting expression where the corners of your mouth are turned up, one thing you can do at home sometimes to help get in the habit is to make a nice smile with friendly eyes (check in the mirror). Relax the smile just a little, with the corners of the mouth still up. Then take some narrow masking tape and run it from near the corners of your mouth to your ears. Don't do it too often, tape is probably not great for your skin.

I found this to be very helpful for having a more symmetrical smile. I started doing it after I realized that I would think I was smiling, but I had only one side of my mouth in a smile. It helped a lot.

Look for meetups that are based around activities. There will be less to focus on all at once than if the main activity is face to face conversation. It might be easier if you pick activities that you have a relatively small interest in, so there is less riding on your interactions there. A walking or hiking group might have many opportunities to practice more verbal social skills without having to pay as much attention to facial expressions and body language at the same time.

Also, one thing that just happens in groups is that many people who are at them focus on talking with people they already know and are familiar with. This means it's very common for new people to not have much attention paid to them. It's normal to feel like people are ignoring you at first.

The Dale Carnegie book has good advice for listening to other people, but also a trap for someone working on their social skills. It's relatively easy to get very good at being a good listener, so good at it that people will end up being uncomfortable around you because they were so excited at you being a good listener that they told you too many personal details. It needs to be balanced with working on talking.

Take opportunities for short social interactions that come up in the day. If someone says hello, even a greeter in a store, make eye contact and say hello back. Say thank you, or have a nice day, whenever you get the chance. Hold a door open if someone is coming up behind you or carrying something.

If you have a dog, start taking your dog for walks where there will be people. Or if your dog isn't good with people look for a meetup for that.

Keep a record of things you've done and progress you've made. You're working on a difficult task that will take a while, and it's easy to loose sight of how far you've come and how much progress you've made.

You can do this. It gets better.
posted by yohko at 9:15 AM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Facial expressions are tricky; I have an incredibly expressive face, combined with a stern brow and big square jaw. People have told me I look 'intense.' That's just what my face does.

But here's the trick: what other people think of you is none of your business.

Maybe your conversational partner thought you looked a little scary. Maybe they thought you looked like a regular person. Either way, you can't control their impression of your appearance - so don't clutter your mental space up by trying. But I can guarantee what matters more to them is how you made them feel - were you listening? Was the conversation engaging? Were you talking about a mutual interest, and were they enjoying your passion/knowledge/perspective? And that you CAN control.

On that note, I'm going to link to two actually helpful and practical Reddit posts: one on conversation and rhythm and the other (trust me on this one) on how to go out clubbing. It doesn't sound like you're going to go out clubbing any time soon, but, honestly, the advice in this post is INVALUABLE: sometimes the best way to connect with others is to just lighten up, bring your energy up, and slap a smile on your face. 'VIBE IT UP, SON!' is an almost magical going-out koan.
posted by nerdfish at 9:17 AM on October 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

It might seem a bit silly but I still sometimes find myself falling back on techniques I was given as a hyperactive kid for moderating my social behavior. Things like:
  • When you contribute to a conversation, allow at least 3 other people to speak before speaking again.
  • Literally (but discreetly) sitting on my hands if I feel myself getting more excited/intense than is situationally appropriate. Folding one's hands in one's lap can work for people less fidgety than me. It's just a way of calming down a bit.
  • Am I trying to talk at someone or with them? Are you responding to what they say?
The point isn't to become obsessed with these rules but to maintain an awareness of how one is speaking and acting.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:42 AM on October 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

seconding the recommendation to go out to low stakes environments, if you aren't already. Buying a small coffee once a week to drink while reading a book or magazine in a coffee shop isn't a huge expenditure and it's always helpful to have a change of scene from being home alone. Don't even make it a goal to talk to or smile at anyone, just enjoy being out of the house and get used to being around other folks. Eavesdrop if you like, just to hear how other folks have conversation. Occasionally I'll make a habit of people-watching and eavesdropping for my own entertainment, and remind myself that almost everyone sounds like an idiot when someone overhears them, especially me. So it's totally fine and normal to be an idiot.

I know that you mention that you don't have any more money for therapy but my antidepressant medications cost me $9 a month. I'd had a bad experience with antidepressants 10 years before, but I'm so glad I decided to give them another shot. They give me the energy I need to attempt a more integrated, holistic approach - exercise, therapy, and better eating. I had been having some of the worst social anxiety of my life before starting them and several months after consistently taking them, I found myself able to reconnect with friends and not be so paranoid. My meds are prescribed by my GP but I keep my therapist in the loop. Now my support system is expanded to friends that I thought I'd scared away before.

Best of luck, I'm sorry that you're having to deal with this!
posted by leemleem at 9:51 AM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think this is an excellent opportunity to not be so hard on yourself.

You scared yourself when you "glimpsed" your own face (in a mirror I presume), you interpreted it as an inappropriate expression of "surprise and disgust", and this shocked you into believing you have no "social skills".

I think you should re-examine some of the assumptions here.

First, I would suggest that, while there's a bedrock of objectively defined and easily learned behaviors that qualify as "social skills" (smile, eye contact, acknowledging the value of people's presence, basic etiquette, etc), most of the category is actually subjective - in other words, some people won't like you, but many others will, and it's kind of up to chance.

Secondly I would suggest a change of focus. Not so much "how am I coming across? what do they think of me?", and more "who do I like, who do I want to connect with?" Watch the people you're interested in, and put yourself in their place. She's wearing unusual ear-rings? "Wow, where did you get those ear-rings!" He's got a beard? "I wish I had a beard like that!" You might click, or you might not, but let *them* come across to you.

Good luck and be well.
posted by Pechorin at 6:44 AM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's been a bunch of good recommendations already, and this is an old thread, but here's one bit of advice that I wanted to put out there:

If you're attending a club (and the place allows it) and you want to go from being the socially awkward guy who people tolerate to the socially awkward guy everyone looks forward to, be the one who brings food.

I usually recommend baked goods, but YMMV.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 6:06 PM on November 10, 2015

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