Dating (and socializing in general) while awkward
April 23, 2017 1:39 PM   Subscribe

I've managed to boil my issues with dating (and relating) down to what seems to be issues with social perception, anxiety, and poor socialization as a kid. I need some concrete suggestions to help me iron out these issues so these don't continue to cause me pain.

Alright, so it turns out I'm criminally, chronically, and hopefully not permanently socially awkward, and this is probably a good chunk of the problem if my social instincts aren't leading me astray.

One of my roommates, and friends (somehow I manage to have these despite being the social bonehead that I am), approached me this morning and told me a handful of things, but one of them was that I come off as entitled and that is probably why I drive people away, and that I do drive people away.

At this point, I'm not even sure who I've driven away and what people really do think of me anymore, although apparently, people think both better and worse of me than I think they do, if that makes any sense - 'Actionpotential's a good and kind person and a smart person and has interesting things to say sometimes and may even be cute to boot, but good god, she is a giant pile of awkward and anxious and is hard to talk to and unfunny and uncharismatic as hell and that's why I don't invite her to parties much.' So I guess the best metaphor I can think of is that I'm nutritious, but not particularly delicious.
Anyway, this was pretty unexpected, but this is not the first time I've gotten a response like this; I got it in a much more (not physically) violent fashion from my former roommate (who had her own problems socially, and almost certainly has worse ones than I do from what I've seen since I moved into another apartment, but that is not the focus of this question). In particular, I seem to have a problem with either talking too much about myself or not talking remotely enough about myself when I talk to people, and not having a good handle on when and how to insert myself into a conversation and when to leave it well enough alone.

Upon reflection, it seems that this is equal parts social anxiety (which I have in spades), poor socialization (I appear to have inherited a good chunk of this from one or both of my parents, looking back on my own interactions with them), and just kind of innately being worse than most people I know at reading social situations and having the slightest clue about how I come off to others. (I have ADD and it's medicated. I'm not on the autism spectrum - I think, and admittedly, the idea of being on the spectrum inspires some massive negative emotions in me because of everything associated with it. Possibly I have some kind of auditory processing issue.)

There is a strong sense on my part, probably from the anxious, cynical corner of my mind, that if I attempt to participate in a conversation or talk about myself AT ALL or be anything but a silent, passive onlooker who smiles and nods and looks pretty and is quiet and is seen as more pleasant when her mouth is not open and speaking, I will be seen as entitled and arrogant and self-centered. I need to be able to feel that I can speak up for myself and my interests and be heard without alienating others, because it feels like the only thing that people seem to accept from me right now is me never saying anything about my own thoughts and ideas and perspectives and being, frankly, kind of a doormat.

So obviously this interferes with not just my dating life (as per my previous question), but also my social life in general. I'm already getting professional help for this stuff, but if you have any *concrete* suggestions about balancing all these competing demands (and they are DEMANDS, because it's mentally taxing as hell when you're ironing this stuff out and your friends, who are mostly younger than you are due to a feature of the environment, appear to have this in the bag), I would be extremely grateful.
posted by actionpotential to Human Relations (22 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
You seem to be putting words in people's mouths and guessing what they're thinking. Did your roommate actually say the following or are you catastrophizing?

'Actionpotential's a good and kind person and a smart person and has interesting things to say sometimes and may even be cute to boot, but good god, she is a giant pile of awkward and anxious and is hard to talk to and unfunny and uncharismatic as hell and that's why I don't invite her to parties much.'

The below seems really passive aggressive and self-defeating. You are not being silenced all your life. No one wants a passive onlooker.

There is a strong sense on my part, probably from the anxious, cynical corner of my mind, that if I attempt to participate in a conversation or talk about myself AT ALL or be anything but a silent, passive onlooker who smiles and nods and looks pretty and is quiet and is seen as more pleasant when her mouth is not open and speaking, I will be seen as entitled and arrogant and self-centered.

My experience with people who have ADD are that they are poor listeners and interrupt frequently. You can unlearn this, it just takes mindfulness, effort and practice. This doesn't mean being silent or passive, this means being curious and engaging. I'm guessing you're one of those people that "hates small talk" but this is the primary way we get to know people. It's a necessary social lubricant and you're going to be perceived as awkward and distant if you are totally unwilling to engage in it.

Concrete suggestions: ask others about what's going in their lives, and don't interrupt them. Spend about half as much time talking as you normally would and look for cues that they are drifting off. My guess is that you blow past these cues and they're frustrated that you're now dominating the conversation (thus the perception of entitlement).
posted by AFABulous at 2:14 PM on April 23, 2017 [8 favorites]


You seem to be putting words in people's mouths and guessing what they're thinking. Did your roommate actually say the following or are you catastrophizing?

That's more like what I imagine the thought is, to be honest.
posted by actionpotential at 2:16 PM on April 23, 2017


I am talky and cerebral and often pushy. I am a woman. I am in a PhD program. I am also a decade later in your future (in my late 30s).

Your roommate’s description of you as “entitled” sets off my b.s. detector because whether someone is read as “entitled” vs “confident” or “thoughtful/quiet” vs “stuck-up” is often very very gendered.

This is not to say your social interactions could be improved. It also made me wonder if you are an only child (as I am) and if you are still figuring out how to use your words with peers. This honestly took me a long time to figure out. Also learning to ask questions instead of embark upon monologues was hugely helpful for me.

if I attempt to participate in a conversation or talk about myself AT ALL or be anything but a silent, passive onlooker who smiles and nods and looks pretty and is quiet and is seen as more pleasant when her mouth is not open and speaking, I will be seen as entitled and arrogant and self-centered.

As you know it IS your anxiety that is catastrophizing conversational situations. I am glad you are in therapy. Talk about this with your therapist. At the same time, not everyone will like you. People who don't like you because they don't like visibly smart women? Eff them.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:31 PM on April 23, 2017 [9 favorites]


"There is a strong sense on my part, probably from the anxious, cynical corner of my mind, that if I attempt to participate in a conversation or talk about myself AT ALL or be anything but a silent, passive onlooker who smiles and nods and looks pretty and is quiet and is seen as more pleasant when her mouth is not open and speaking, I will be seen as entitled and arrogant and self-centered."

I think this may be the crux of your issue. When does the listening play a part? Active listening, nodding, acknowledgement of others stories and feelings, paraphrasing, clarifying, and questioning show people that you care about them before you start talking about yourself, or relating a story about yourself. It's definitely not all about being a passive onlooker who keeps her mouth shut. There's a lot more going on when a person listens to others around them.
posted by itsflyable at 2:31 PM on April 23, 2017 [6 favorites]


It's possible that's what they actually think, I certainly perceive some people that way, but it's self-defeating to assume that because it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think people think you're awkward, then you'll be even more awkward around them. I'd focus on what she actually did say - the entitlement part - and look at it as constructive criticism. She cared enough about you to actually say something; if the truly disliked you then she would have just avoided you.
posted by AFABulous at 2:32 PM on April 23, 2017 [2 favorites]


I recommend Leil Lowndes' book How to Talk to Anyone as well.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:33 PM on April 23, 2017


One of my roommates, and friends (somehow I manage to have these despite being the social bonehead that I am), approached me this morning and told me a handful of things, but one of them was that I come off as entitled and that is probably why I drive people away, and that I do drive people away.

First of all, why was your roommate approaching you? Ask yourself that.

There are two legitimate reasons for her to give you this kind of feedback:

1) You literally asked for such feedback.
2) There is some conflict that directly impacts her and she needs you to do something differently in order to get relief for herself.

It does not sound like either of these things was going on, so what is her fucking problem? Is she jealous? Have you recently gotten a compliment, gotten asked out, won a small sum of money? The vast majority of the time that I get unasked for negative feedback, the person is being an asshole because they are jealous or something.

This is one reason I hate getting compliments in public. They are almost always followed by a noticeable uptick in openly hateful bullshit aimed at me.

When other people are behaving like assholes to you, part of that is, you know, because THEY are assholes. You being socially awkward is just some good justification in their eyes for THEIR bullshit.

Regardless of what your personal shortcomings are -- and even if you are the smoothest person on the planet -- you are going to run into assholes and they are going to justify their bullshit behavior with something about you if they think they can get away with it. That is just life.

Furthermore, this description is something all women are subjected to, more or less:

There is a strong sense on my part, probably from the anxious, cynical corner of my mind, that if I attempt to participate in a conversation or talk about myself AT ALL or be anything but a silent, passive onlooker who smiles and nods and looks pretty and is quiet and is seen as more pleasant when her mouth is not open and speaking, I will be seen as entitled and arrogant and self-centered.

Now, on to actual solutions.

For me, anxiety is rooted in somatopsychic (physical/medical with mental emotional side effects) stuff. For me, low blood sugar and allergies are two big factors. Keeping those under control goes a long way towards keeping anxiety at bay. I did a paper in high school on low blood sugar. It is pretty well established that it can promote nightmares, anxiety and paranoia, basically.

There is lots of useful information about social stuff and some of it can be found in the form of books and articles. You might find it useful to look for works by/about Temple Grandin.

poor socialization as a kid
This can be helped somewhat by befriending someone older than you who can serve as a role model or substitute parental figure. I have had friends much older than me and friends much younger than me. As long as both parties are getting something out of the arrangement, it is fine to latch onto someone who can serve as a means to help you work out some of this.

It isn't actually necessary to become socially smooth in order to have a successful, happy life. I mean, make your peace with the fact that you do not have a future as a used car salesman, then start trying to sort out what you need in order to be a functional, happy, healthy adult.

Many bright people desperately need conversation in addition to good things to read. This is a legitimate need and they start getting wonky and making unintentional demands on people around them when it is lacking. If you are like this, find some means to get this need met where it is okay with the other people that you are talking too. Find a book club or a hobby to pursue or whatever works for you.

You might try keeping a journal. That might help you track when things are getting more awkward than usual and try to pinpoint patterns.

I do stupid shit like talk to myself when I am running a fever. I know the fever is REALLY BAD if I keep talking to myself when around other people. That's a good sign I need to lie low and take care of myself, because that is just a thing I do and people crabbing at me or whatever isn't going to fix it. Practice isn't going to fix it. Therapy isn't going to fix it. Getting the fever down is what fixes it.

I am not saying that will be YOUR issue. I am just trying to say that a journal may help you pinpoint patterns and go "Oh, when I miss my favorite show/haven't had chocolate cake all week/haven't talked to my sister, things start going sideways worse than usual." That can help give you clues to how to take good care of yourself so you can perform as optimally as possible in social settings, most of the time.

If you are a woman and you want a serious career, to some degree, you will just need to develop a thick skin about hearing BS criticisms from people. Their real problem is "Women aren't supposed to be taken seriously or have serious careers!" They will nitpick every freaking thing you do and claim it is a thousand other things, but, really, women are just not supposed to have minds, opinions, agency, lives, etc. How dare you!

So, I am reasonably confident that some of this is due to you expecting the world to treat you like a human being. That is just, like, Crazeh Talk if you are female. Keep expecting it anyway.
posted by Michele in California at 3:28 PM on April 23, 2017 [11 favorites]


Do you have another friend who does not live with you that you could ask for feedback?

I will say that when I was in my early twenties, something very similar happened to me and it was very, very hard. I think that the friends who approached me - who were also in their early twenties - handled it really badly, and I imagine that if they had known how much distress their particular approach caused me, they would have done it differently. So anyway - I really, truly feel your pain and discomfort.

I too am a badly socialized, talky person who means well, and I too have definitely dealt with the "Frowner is not as sweetly self-effacing as AFAB people are supposed to be, that must be because they are arrogant and bad" thing. I think this can intersect with also being too talky and not...great at being in conversations with other people - why not both, as the kids say?

So anyway. That was a difficult and unpleasant and sad event in my life. It ended up being more good than bad, but it is still a very, very painful memory.

Basically, what I did was asked people a lot more questions in conversation and concentrated on talking a lot less, even when I had something I wanted to say or had something to contribute. Sometimes this meant that I hung back a lot. It's better to hang back than to chat all over the place unless you're in a really gabby crowd. I am still not totally good at this, and I have found that it is easiest for me to be friends with people who are also pretty talky, but in general I'd say that I am acceptable at mutual conversation.

I tried to be very conscious of asking people about their opinions when I had given mine. If I'd gone off on a big tangent about something that interested me, I tried to loop back by referencing something specific that they'd said: "Blah blah blah science fiction in the fifties...which kind of reminds me of what you said earlier about gender roles, did you ever read anything that focused on the mid-century?"

Showing that you remember and are interested by someone's comment covers up a multitude of sins - if you run into someone and remember something you talked to them about before, reference it (if appropriate, I mean). "I saw that TV show you were talking about, and..." "I saw this article that made me think about what you said last week" "How was your mother's visit?" Basically, if people feel like you're paying attention, they will let a lot of over-chatting slide.

There is also some possibility that merely because you're older, you're seen as self-confident and therefore arrogant.

Whatever is going on, though, we can definitely say that you're not able to read the room enough to put people at ease. For that, I suggest that you basically ask people question about their day, their thoughts, that show they were watching, etc. People won't want to talk about all that stuff, but it will make them feel like they are seen and valued.

You will feel very artificial when you do this. It may sometimes come across as a bit strained. But the thing is, even when it's strained, you're still signalling that you want to know, and so it works anyway.

Also, as you deal with your anxiety and other stuff in therapy, you will probably discover that this gets easier because the amount of brainpower that you've been devoting to anxiety-anxiety-what-do-people-even-want will be freed up to run your regular conversations. Like, I always used to forget about people's impending visits home, birthdays, etc, and I blamed myself for being selfish and terrible. But it turned out that I was really just spending all my mental energy on trying not to freak out all the time.
posted by Frowner at 4:00 PM on April 23, 2017 [6 favorites]


I suggest throwing everything you can into managing your anxiety. Medication, meditation, exercise - whatever works for you.

It sounds like you might be a little uncomfortable with your surroundings - you mention that you're older than the other people in your group. That can make it harder to form attachments. If possible, look for other social outlets - a Toastmasters club, Meetup group, improv class, bowling league, whatever - where you'll be around a greater variety of humans.

I know and like plenty of awkward people who are caring but don't always have the most refined social graces. Happily they like me too. When you show that you care about people, they'll overlook a lot. But in my experience at least it's hard to be curious and caring towards others when you are internally freaking out, so cut yourself some slack and take care of the anxiety first.

You probably are in the best position to know whether your roommate is being catty and rude or if she genuinely cares for you and was trying to help by bringing this up. If the first, I suggest continuing to be a good and cordial roommate while spending less time with her socially. (Rule of thumb: distance yourself from hurtful people, don't try to win them over).

It's okay to be you. You do not have to be perfect to be good.
posted by bunderful at 4:25 PM on April 23, 2017 [7 favorites]


Roommate is a very kind, nice feminist dude who is one of my favorite people here. My roommate is unlikely to be the problem.
posted by actionpotential at 5:41 PM on April 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


Can you give us a concrete example of you being awkward? When these moments occur, do you yourself feel awkward as these things happen, or is it more like something you feel in retrospect?
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:56 PM on April 23, 2017


One thing I have noticed, which may be worth mentioning, is that my roommates and I have another friend who also talks A LOT about herself and does not seem to talk much about other people, at least in front of me, and she does not seem to have resultant difficulties with other people like I do.

It may be worth mentioning that she is not socially anxious like I am, is much more outgoing and a smooth talker, is a bit older, and more stereotypically feminine.
posted by actionpotential at 9:55 PM on April 23, 2017


I know someone like that, and she has plenty of friends. I think it's because she doesn't come across as anxious or awkward, just very talkative, warm and genuine.

As someone who has struggled to make friends and connections in almost every phase of my life, I cannot stress enough how much anxiety can make it seem that you have 10 things wrong with you when really it's just the anxiety. Once that's under control, you look around and realize that in fact the people around you are also imperfect.
posted by bunderful at 5:34 AM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]


How do you converse with the people that you already have a good relationship with? What do you talk about, how do you talk about it? Where did you meet these people, in what social context?

Do you find yourself beginning conversations with prevarications and preambles? Anxiety can cause people to turn conversations into near-monologues, as the anxious person tries to "sell" themselves. The other person may then subtly pull away, causing the anxious to double down, or clam up, and then the process repeats itself.

Do you perceive that you have continuing processing issues with your existing friends, or do these problems fade as you get to know them?
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:28 AM on April 24, 2017


How to Win Friends and Influence People is a cliche only because it is, in its own way, so good. Check it out if you haven't already. It's not a cure-all, but it can help you add some scaffolding. With some underlying structure, you can find yourself coasting past the anxiety death spiral.

This may only work for me, but perhaps consider the idea of treating the meeting of new people like you're an affable, conversational talk show host, viz Craig Ferguson. You're not "trying" to be their friend, you're not trying to steamroll them with your own jokes and asides. You're just meeting somebody and you behave as if the idea that they're worth hearing from is so obvious that you don't have to do anything else. Ask them questions to get the ball rolling, and then try to use jokes and follow-up questions in only a complementary way. It's not even remotely as passive as it sounds, because many people will happily and naturally pass the ball back to you, as it were. Easier said than done, but it's easier with practice, and again, it's all about giving yourself structure.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:37 AM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]


Something that helped me to get better at conversations with was a) to ask questions and genuinely listen to the answers and b) to approach every tangent I introduced as if it were a closed loop rather than a branch to a new conversation.

Example:
Me: "Hello, [NEW COWORKER OR SOMETHING]! How was your weekend?"
NCOS: "Oh, it was good! Me and my significant other went hiking on Saturday."
Me: "Neat! Good weather for it. I did the [HIKING TRAIL] once a few years back, and it was tough, but a lot of fun. Where did you go hiking?"

By bringing the conversation back around to their original answer after sharing some personal anecdotes, it shows that you're still engaged with them and interested in what they have to say about a topic, rather than treating their answer like a prompt or a springboard for you to launch the conversation somewhere else or put the focus on yourself. This may be a good technique to employ if you're worried about over- or under-engaging in a small talk situation.

Also, fun fact: Some people are just IMPOSSIBLE to have a conversation with. It's not a reflection on you or even them--sometimes two people just don't click enough to be able to keep a conversation going. It took me a LONG time to realize this and to not take it very personally or curse my own awkward when a conversation went south. If you find yourself in a weird spot, politely excuse yourself for a drink or something, go talk to someone else, and don't let it get you down!

A final parting note: I tend to come away with a less-than-stellar impression of someone if they start down a "potshots from on high" sort of path in a conversation. I'm not saying you should just lie and say that you just like everything, but being mindful of the way in which you're sharing a negative opinion about something, especially if there could be classist implications involved, can mean the difference between coming off as a normal human with opinions or looking like a Jerkface McSnobbypants. Example: "I'm not a huge fan of margarine myself" versus "How on earth could ANYONE use margarine? Gross."

Good luck!
posted by helloimjennsco at 9:44 AM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]


My experience with people who have ADD are that they are poor listeners and interrupt frequently.

I think this may be the crux of your issue. When does the listening play a part?


I am fairly sure I don't interrupt people much at all; actually, I tend up contributing to a conversation much later than I thought, often with not such good results, because I really, really hate interrupting and being interrupted, even accidentally (one of my parents does this to me constantly when we talk so I've developed a pretty strong aversion to it). And I don't really hate small talk, to be honest. I know it's a social lubricant, but I'm bad at sustaining it beyond a few token exchanges of short sentences, and the nature of the social environment here is that most of my exchanges with people I know are short except on weekends, so blessedly enough it is most of the time not too difficult.

I make an effort to ask people relevant questions, but sometimes it is hard to come up with them and the conversation falls flat, possibly because my anxiety consumes a lot of mental resources. It also seems artificial and robotic, a lot of the time; I know that's better than nothing, but it's awkward, I'm quiet, I'm not super fond of how my voice ends up sounding when it comes out of my mouth these days, and I'm consequently not very charismatic.

I think part of the problem, as well, is that it seems like people aren't saying much, so I think I end up talking a lot because it seems like the conversation flows better, at least to me.

I also have a habit of mistaking people's neutral expressions for ones that suggest to me that I'm being negatively judged.

Do you perceive that you have continuing processing issues with your existing friends, or do these problems fade as you get to know them?

I think I may have some continuing issues, although they may have faded somewhat. A good chunk of this is my anxiety; I have gone through the awful experience lately of riding the roller coaster of "The people I enjoy being around enjoy being around me, life is okay!"/"The people I enjoy being around only feed me polite insincerities but really don't want to have anything to do with me, certainly not as anything more than a casual acquaintance who they only run into every so often! All that niceness is just polite civility and they secretly groan internally when I show up in the same room!" and I'm a bit sick of getting these sinking feelings about this twice or three times a week.

I sincerely worry on a daily basis whether I am basically Amy in this post.
posted by actionpotential at 1:27 PM on April 24, 2017


I think I know someone rather like you. Two things people who get uninvited to things often overlook are fitting behavior to the occasion and customizing boundaries.

For example if you are invited to a board gaming party the expectation is that you play board games and not just try to socialize (distracting people) or halfheartedly play them very badly (not fun for anyone).

For boundaries, it can be really tough for people to understand that you need to tailor your topics and responses not only to the occasion but also to how well you know the least-known person - for example you don't just jump in about what you just did in the bathroom even though you know Fred and Jane for 20+ yrs because John who is new is standing right there with them. You gotta ease into things.

One other thing that less socially-capable people do is to assume that "can" means "want to" and they will happily volunteer you to drive them and others places because you have a car, but they don't want to own one because of the bother etc and they just can't see that for things to work they shouldn't be completely one-sided (and no, baking me a pie and having me drive to your house to return the special dish doesn't help).

Sorry if this makes you more anxious, but it does cover some of the reasons I have personally not invited people back and I don't want you to fall into those traps.
posted by meepmeow at 6:44 PM on April 24, 2017 [1 favorite]


I fully recognize it is probably impossible to specifically enumerate the extent of my awkwardness, but I definitely for the record do not do what meepmeow's friends seem to do.

Just in case you are in fact suspecting that I'm that dense.
posted by actionpotential at 6:55 PM on April 24, 2017


My honest advice would be to think about yourself as little as possible. Don't worry about your own comfort, your own anxiety, or your own need to be heard- genuinely adopt (and let's say, just for a trial period of a week, or some fixed amount of time you're comfortable with) the idea that you are the most gracious, kind, giving, other-focused person in the world. You're a literal saint. Whatever works. Adopt this persona as a sort of mask for a time.

I hear your concerns that you don't want to become a doormat. Those concerns are valid. However, in my experience, almost all social awkwardness and anxiety essentially comes from being very self-focused and not genuinely other-focused. Compassion has downsides, to be sure, but one of the major upsides is that it gets you out of your own head.

Pretend you're a journalist writing a book on your roommate's lives. Pretend you're a psychologist studying others. Whatever framework you need in order to be extremely, exclusively other-focused.

Once you've tried that, you'll know via trial and error when you have good results and when you need to be self-protective.

In my experience, almost all social interaction is actually taxing (emotionally and energy-level wise) to some extent, and if it is not taxing to you, it is generally because it is taxing to someone else in the interaction. Maybe this is just because I'm somewhat introverted or maybe that's a universal function of all human communication. But I believe friendship, to some extent, is actual work. And this is why you have to take care of yourself before you can properly interact with others, because interacting with others is genuinely depleting to some extent. If you find good friends, it's minimally depleting and there is give and take over time, but it's still there. The only way I've found to have friendship is to accept that it will be some amount of work on my part and get my "energy reserves" up enough prior to social communication.
posted by stockpuppet at 8:45 AM on April 25, 2017


You'd be surprised how many people are as bad as I have described! Sounds like you'd fit in just fine at my parties. :-)
posted by meepmeow at 7:49 PM on April 25, 2017


I think reading this thread, and a couple of other experiences I've had in the past few days, has narrowed down my problem: My social anxiety keeps me worrying more about how I'm coming off than participating more fully in the conversation, which fuels the awkwardness a lot more than any lack of socialization, and there are so few mental resources left over to devote to it and people mistake social anxiety for being arrogant or awkward all the time.

Honestly, I'm this close to getting mad at the next person who tells me I'm entitled or arrogant or rude and saying 'You try having social anxiety for a while and see what people mistake it as.'
posted by actionpotential at 7:02 AM on April 26, 2017


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