Hello, severe social anxiety
March 29, 2016 9:39 PM   Subscribe

Thinking about some soft skills I may be lacking in the workplace (listening, speaking up, confidence), and wondering how I can improve.

I've been having a constellation of issues in the workplace since I started working full-time. My theory is that because of social anxiety, my mind is always racing with thoughts that take up too much bandwidth. Possibly because of some type of ADHD, I am always getting distracted (never been diagnosed). But for right now I'm wondering if anyone else has had these issues, what has helped.

The first thing that strikes me is that I am terrible at... listening. I don't mean I'm a bad listener; I do well in intimate relationships and I think people around me feel heard. So that's not what I mean: what I mean is that I totally suck at paying attention to people who are talking to me at work and in other professional/academic situations, like a seminar or class. My mind drifts almost immediately, and I'm so busy fretting "what to say?? what to say? how to sound smart and composed yet casual and smooth" that I am not using my brain creatively while listening.

I have a few other related soft skill deficiencies that have been worrying me lately, because I think they'll hold me back at work until I deal with them:

1) I'm terrible at speaking up, either when I know something that could help the conversation, or when I don't know something that I need to know, or when I have a point of view I think is worth exploring. I pretty much always feel like I "don't know" the answer, even if I think the answer and then wave it away, and then two seconds later someone says what I was thinking out loud... it's like if I don't "know" it enough to believe my inner voice, does it matter whether I know it at all? (This has always haunted me in math & science classes; I often have a good idea how to approach a problem but am basically frozen with a sense of everything I don't know.) I mean, it's literally at the point where I don't start things because I think "oh, is [correct answer] it? Well, probably not, I mean it's probably way more complicated... if I were smarter I could think of a better approach... I could look it up but anyone else could just think of it on the spot, ugh why can't I??" ... etc. into literally such a pointless waste of time.

2) I'm kind of crap at talking to people just in general. I think I'm hard to talk to, because I've always had a lot of social anxiety, and while I've papered over it with a pretty good friendliness routine, my essential reserve and reluctance to put myself out there will always be. Ironically I think a lot of this reserve comes from knowing that I have a somewhat unlikeable personality (INTP, occasionally strident or condescending, definitely not traits women are encouraged to have) and I hate being unliked. So I'm shy because I know I don't really like myself all that much. For a long time in my early 20s I sublimated this by being incredibly passive and shy but trying to become more physically beautiful so I wouldn't be hated for being ugly/loud. (I did not think of it in such terms consciously at the time.) A lot of people are surprised to see me around people I know well because even if there are strangers in the room, I can be very theatrical and loud and hammy. As long as I know someone is "getting it," I pretty much babble on. (It's not that I think people need to be on a higher plane to "get me," just that there are certain personality types that grok me and if such a person is around I feel much more at ease. At work it's probably extra weird, since I'm a very jokey and giggly person, and I cut it down a lot at work because it's not generally appropriate.)

3) I am just terrible at thinking on my feet. Always have been, except when I'm extremely comfortable with someone. So I know it possible for me to think fast, thus this is a function of my anxiety, but so far with all my therapies and meds, it hasn't budged.

A lot of the men I know with similar "awkwardness" quotient are either 1) extroverted so it doesn't work the same way, or 2) have really technical jobs where people expect them to be weirdos. I have a technical job too, but I tend to be nudged in the direction of "project management" because y'know, woman = supplicating smiles = people skills. But I hate my people skills and while I generally fight being tugged away from the roles I really like, I think I could do better for my own sake.

A lot of the other people I know with the INTP complex are also very smart, and love to be in control, i.e. they enjoy working for a startup or similar. I feel simultaneously like I have good analytic skills but like they are essentially useless to me in a professional environment because I can't learn the confidence to apply them well? I tend to be a much slower thinker, and I can be slow and meticulous in the workplace. A lot of people in my current environment, which tends to be highly driven, seem to just have a very high baseline confidence in themselves.

Maybe I can put it this way... as a college student, I always excelled at reading/writing literary criticism and abstract math. My professors were very encouraging. And yet, if someone asked me to publish something or read it out loud or show it to a friend, I would rather die. And if someone asked me to go in front of the class and write a proof, even for something I already knew the proof, I probably just couldn't do it. I would lack the ability to clear my mind in front of people and just think.

I used to think I was just shy, but it's starting to feel kind of pathological. Or perhaps it's the fact that the workplace is different from the classroom; you have to fight for your voice to be heard, you can't expect to passively turn in some homework and hear next week that you're the star pupil.

Anyway, this has been on my mind and bothering me a lot, after trying a lot of different new "personalities" throughout my 20s and failing to really find a real treatment. Any advice is welcome.
posted by stoneandstar to Work & Money (8 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A lot of this sounds really, really, really familiar. I've gotten a little better over the years (I'm 30 now). I would say a few things have helped:

- Toastmasters. I just finished my tenth speech and I will say, going every week to meetings, doing table topics, and planning speeches has done wonders for my in-person communication skills. Just getting a couple minutes of extemporaneous speaking every week is excellent practice for being able to continue to think even as words are coming out of your mouth, and it's been great to really be able to feel myself getting better at delivering prepared speeches, something even a lot of People With Social Skills have trouble with. I have had some tense conversations in the past couple years that I know would have left me in tears before I started Toastmasters. It kind of feels like a cult and/or a thing for weird socially awkward dorks, but I am a weird socially awkward dork, so I may as well admit it's been a great cult for me over the past two years.

- Getting experience under my belt. I think a lot of my confidence issues when I was younger were tied up in the fact that I really DID have a lot less experience and expertise than many of my colleagues. My impostor syndrome was bad, and it was bad in part because I really was faking it, often. Nowadays a lot of the time when people ask me something I don't have an immediate fucking panic attack and lose all my words...because I actually know the answer. I'm sorry that there isn't really a shortcut to this, unfortunately. I had to be at my current employer for five+ years and finish a master's degree from a very fancy place to get to this point.

- As a corollary, getting some authority. Can't do this until you have enough confidence that someone with power trusts you with it, or you have enough of a rep to be able to build a team yourself. Knowing that the buck stops with me about a certain set of things helped me stop the whole mealy-mouthed "Well gosh I think it's probably this but I reckon you really ought to ask Tim or Janet they really are the top people on this I'm still new on the team don't ya know" crap. Where I am now, there's no Tim or Janet. There's just me. I thought this would be terrifying but I actually love it in a sick, adrenaline-soaked way.

- Getting older in general. I think especially since I had a kid, the soundtrack of "YOU SOUND STUPID YOU'RE WRONG SHUT UP" that was constantly playing in my head has gotten easier to ignore. I am juggling a lot in my life and if I listen to that crap I am going to start dropping balls I can't afford to drop. I just don't have the time or energy to beat myself up about sounding dumb or making small mistakes anymore. When I screw something up I correct, apologize, and move on. It's literally the only option. I listen to "Tightrope" by Janelle Monae a lot. Still tippin on it.

- The increasing dominance of text as a primary work communication medium. It is socially acceptable to use your chat client of choice to ask a question of someone within shouting or even whispering distance, in a way it just wasn't a decade ago. One of the hardest workplace things for me is going over to someone's desk and asking them a question, or when someone does that to me. It is no longer an unusual thing to do to ping them instead, and if someone asks me something in person that I don't know the answer to straight off, I can often deflect them by saying something like, "Oh, I have a really good doc about that, let me send it to you," and that's often a more welcome answer.

I hope some of this is helpful! Feel free to memail if you want to talk more.
posted by town of cats at 10:19 PM on March 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There's a lot going on there, and a lot of good advice has already been offered. I'll add my two cents:

I am extroverted and consider myself to have good or even great people skills, but I struggle with listening sometimes as well. Pretty much in every forum where it's passably appropriate, I try to take notes. This lets me both do something with my hands and translate or summarize my thoughts so they stick more. Perhaps this seems a little silly, but have you tried listening to audiobooks or something similar so you can practice focusing more on content and focusing less on yourself?

When it comes to speaking up, I do that kind of thing all the time, though less now after I've made a conscious effort to change. First, I realized that I have to take full responsibility for choosing not to speak up when I think I may have something to offer. It sounds simple, but it really made the repercussions of not saying my piece seem much more grave (if I'm silent I'm never wrong, but I'm also never right, which is almost the same as always wrong!! For a somewhat proud person, I would rather be wrong sometimes than right never). With that sort of cognitive framing, it makes it as much a risk to shut up as it does to speak up. Another weird thing I realized both in grad school and the workforce is that people's expectations of you are almost universally lower than what you have of yourself. The world operates with MVPs and first drafts and best guesses. Even your half-baked thoughts are usually better and more welcome than you think.

Re: thinking on your feet. I'm an ENTJ and tend to verbalize my thought processes. I'm also an engineer, and work with a ton of ISTJ/ISTP/INTJ types, and have learned how differently they process information. It's not weird if you pause to think. People will be able to tell you're thinking. This happens when I interact with my colleagues all the time! There is rarely an expectation that you will be able to answer immediately and perfectly, especially if you set the precedent that this is not how you operate.
posted by AFittingTitle at 10:45 PM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Two things have helped me; making an effort to be one of the first few people who speak at a meeting so the anxiety doesn't have a chance to build and forcing myself to take notes or draw the participants as various animals saying what they're saying (I'm on a lot of conference calls.) But it keeps my mind from wandering and I usually wind up with a turtle warning about running something by marketing.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:52 PM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

There is rarely an expectation that you will be able to answer immediately and perfectly

Yeah, also this! Knowing that it's OK to say, "Hey, I'm not sure, but I can look into that for a few minutes and get back to you," has been really helpful. Can't tell you how often I've said, "Well, my first guess is x, but let me dig into the code because it could also be y or z so don't quote me on that yet."

Um, it helps if you work in legacy code hell when you say this kind of thing because everyone is thinking, "Yay, now I don't have to dig into that terrifying code, she just said she'd do it and I can go enjoy my life." Not sure what you do for a living but given the general INTP predilection for becoming the world expert on something arcane and hideous you may well find yourself in an analogous position.
posted by town of cats at 10:58 PM on March 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Practice, practice, practice.

Anybody who is good socially is good because they practiced.

Don't focus so much on INTP stuff. Or it being pathological. You're employed and probably sane. It's not pathological. It just takes practice.

Be patient. Be prepared to do work, because practice is work. Also be prepared to do things that make you feel uncomfortable and not like "you" as you know yourself now. And examine anything you do that makes you not like your personality, because that means one of two things:

1. You're operating on a false belief about the way people should behave (you're being dumb)
2. You should behave differently (you're being annoying)

I say you take on the project management position type stuff, even if it's not what you want to do. It'll force you to practice. Do it precisely because it's outside of your comfort zone. It'll be good for you, and you're presumably in your 20s, and now is the time to do that stuff. It'll pay dividends when you're old. Social skills translate across all career tracks.
posted by Team of Scientists at 1:29 AM on March 30, 2016

Best answer: I'm naturally very introverted, but I have no problem speaking up, giving presentations in front of a crowd etc. The reason is that I did drama/improv classes after school when I was a teenager and it removed my inhibitions about that kind of thing. I have to think that a similar thing would help you too, if there is some kind of adult drama activity available where you are.
posted by w0mbat at 11:50 AM on March 30, 2016

Toastmasters for sure.

Because it recognizes a basic flaw in our educational system - we are not taught how to speak in public! We assume that because we can talk to close friends and family, we should somehow be able to do the same with "other people". It ain't necessarily so.

Toastmasters provides you with a training regime, a weekly workout, where you can exercise those social skills of speaking/thinking on your feet, delivering speeches before an audience, listening and evaluating in a positive way the speeches of others.

I was a shy uber-nerd in my twenties when I joined. After just several months, I was much more comfortable inside my own skin. Now many years later, I can honestly say Toastmasters membership changed my life. It put rocket boosters on my career. I've made presentations to audiences of several hundred and enjoyed myself tremendously. It's opened doors I never even knew existed. My only regret is not having joined earlier (say, during university).

I'm still a member today for three reasons - first, skill maintenance. Second, my Club has a core of like-minded folk who've become fast friends. Third, it's a blast to see and help new members come into the Club and blossom.

One of the coolest things about Toastmasters is Table Topics. Given a slip of paper with a topic written on it, you get up before a group of people and deliver a 2 minute talk. I was stunned to see people do this with ease at my first TM meeting. I thought it was some kind of superpower. I thought these people were born extroverts. I couldn't have been more wrong. Within six months, I could (though a little halting sometimes) do the same. Within a year, I could knock it off fairly easily. It was unbelievable. What a thrill.

The toastmasters.org website has a list of clubs in your area. If you want to try Toastmasters out, take your time and visit a number of clubs. Each club has a different vibe depending on the members. Some are more formal than others. Some are lunch time Clubs (1 hr meetings), some evening (up to 2 hrs). The membership fees are very cheap considering that you're getting a weekly training session in one of the most important life skills.
posted by storybored at 9:10 PM on March 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hey there,

It looks like a lot of people have given you good advice on practicing the practical skills of talking to people. Something that jumped out at me when I read your question, though was this:

Ironically I think a lot of this reserve comes from knowing that I have a somewhat unlikeable personality ... So I'm shy because I know I don't really like myself all that much.

I'd like to encourage you to have more compassion for yourself. My shyness came from a childhood of being different (a minority/huge nerd/etc.), which made me feel like there was something wrong with me. Addressing this underlying assumption has been helpful. David Burns' book was helpful in helping me to recognize my cognitive distortions. People are generally pretty nice, and saying the wrong thing once or twice usually won't get you instantly disliked.

I guess the other thing I wanted to say is that I decided to tackle my fear of speaking in front of strangers by doing standup comedy for a few years. This made me better at doing standup comedy in front of strangers, but didn't make me much better at talking to other people one-on-one.

Anyway, good luck with all of it.
posted by Comrade_robot at 3:27 PM on April 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

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