Worst. Idiosyncracy. EVER.
April 3, 2007 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Help me let my guard down.

As hard as I try to maintain a positive outlook, I find more and more that my natural tendency is misanthropy. I tend to size people up before I even meet them, and my assessments usually fall somewhere between "This person is way too awesome to want to have anything to do with me" and "of course this jerk is going to judge me on all the wrong criteria." Feel free to have a good laugh at the fact that I'm prejudging people in a way that assumes they're prejudging me. It'd be tragic if it weren't so damn funny.

I'm reasonably certain my self-esteem is about normal, as much as something like that can be described as such. I generally have a fairly high opinion of myself (like, I know I'm intelligent), and I'm aware of all the places where there's room for improvement (I could stand to lose a few pounds aroud the middle). So the problem doesn't seem to be what I think of myself as much as my expectations about what other people will think of me.

A few examples: If I talk to a random woman in public, I usually feel like she's (a) assuming I'm hitting on her, and (b) already come to the conclusion that I don't have a snowball's chance in hell with her.* If I engage in some project that requires technical acumen of some sort, I tend not to look for help if I need it, since I assume anyone who has any useful information on the topic at hand will laugh at me, Comic-Book-Guy-like, for not knowing what they know. If I send my resume in for a job, I assume the HR staffer who looks at it will say something like, "Hey Madge! Get a load of this weirdo!" Even if I seem like a good fit for the job. If I play sports or a board game with a group of people, I feel like everyone is (a) comparing my skills with those of the people around me, and (b) coming to the conclusion that I'm mentally and physically inept. When I meet new people at parties, I have to fight the feeling that they're not just waiting for an excuse to leave.

(I know, consciously, too, that this is a pretty self-centered mindset, and that people probably don't spend this much time thinking about me. The problem is, I'm having a shitload of trouble internalizing that.)

Socially, I generally tend to do OK, despite this. I have a decent circle of friends, and I know for a fact that some of those friends actually hold me in really high regard. But I also know that I'm cheating myself out of a lot of fun, a lot of rewarding relationships, and a lot of opportunities. I'm sure I subtly advertise this to people who spend enough time around me, too. So it has to stop.

I'm not a "law of attraction" person per se, but I do believe that you tend to find what you expect to find in the world, because your expectations make you unconsciously seek it out. So: How do I let my guard down?

*FWIW, I have a great girlfriend, so I usually don't care much what my chances are with a given woman. Having a girlfriend also means that I never start a conversation with a woman with any intention other than having a conversation.
posted by hifiparasol to Human Relations (19 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I can't help, I'm afraid, except to say that I've much in common with you're description. though the girlfriend left some time ago And will follow this thread with interest.
posted by Grod at 7:58 PM on April 3, 2007

I am very interested in this thread, too. I see this in myself a lot - I'm hyper aware of how people react to me and I am very rarely at ease with anyone, because I'm afraid of them thinking I'm stupid or uninteresting or whatever else, and it takes awhile for me to be convinced that they actually enjoy my company. I struggle to be myself and not become who I think they want me to be, but it's like I still can't let my guard down enough to just be myself from the get-go. (And I, too, see myself as a generally intelligent, easy-going person.)

I wish I had some advice for you. But I just want you to know that I think you're in good company.
posted by inatizzy at 8:13 PM on April 3, 2007

Get some solo time. a few weeks.
posted by longsleeves at 8:19 PM on April 3, 2007

This reminds me of me. I seem to do best when I'm able to get out of my head and just interact. I would bet you do too -- that's what happens when you're with your close friends.

If so, that should tell you that the negative "mind-reading" thoughts are bullshit 99% of the time. Worse, I think that when one is caught up in them, they actually can have a negative impact on the interaction -- e.g., the other person can tell you're feeling a little weird, and that makes them feel a little weird. Then you notice that they're feeling a little weird, and this just reinforces the negative thoughts.

I think it's basically a matter of catching yourself telling negative things to yourself -- then correcting those negative thoughts with something more rational. Another thing that might help is to think of the other person as feeling just as awkward -- or even more so -- than you. Even if she/he doesn't look like it, some people are good at covering it up -- you never know. If you assume that you're both on the same "level" with regard to shyness/awkwardness/etc, that can help take the edge off.
posted by treepour at 8:23 PM on April 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm not so sure you have high-self esteem. It really sounds like you have low self esteem. Automatically assuming you are going to be rejected/laughed at/ ignored or made fun of by every stranger you talk to is not a sign of high self-esteem.

Other than that, all I can say is that if your worst fears do come true — if that chick you talk to in line at the store really does freak out because she thinks you're hitting on her — who the hell cares. You'll probably never see her again, right?

The answers in this thread, which is about learning to be more carefree, may help you too.
posted by Brittanie at 8:28 PM on April 3, 2007

I have this problem too, and the most helpful thing I've found is this quote from the program fortune:

"You probably wouldn't worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do." - Olin Miller

If you remember that as a mantra, it will significantly cut down on the paranoia; maybe you'll be able to accept that a lot of social interaction is founded on minimizing friction and damage to everyone's self-image. In other words, other people aren't thinking how dumb you are, they're too busy worrying that you think they're dumb or they forgot to shower or their spouse is gonna leave them or hey, doesn't that car over there look nice, wonder how much that baby would cost.
posted by nasreddin at 8:31 PM on April 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

Best answer: i was reading about a study where it was shown that if two strangers exchanged deep personal information, they felt closer and were more attracted to each other than when they talked about the weather. i think for women this probably comes as a "duh" event, but for the men running the study, this was apparently newsworthy. anyway. mars/venus.

i would suggest opening up to folks (not like, "hey, i was raped when i was six," of course, but "this reminds me of the first time i ..." or whatever). once you start putting yourself out there, a) whoever you're talking to will probably respond in kind, and b) you'll feel closer to that person, even if they don't reciprocate, and will project that comfort.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:48 PM on April 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm reasonably certain my self-esteem is about normal

I must disagree. You can be rationally aware of your intelligence, but this isn't associated with rationality.

This has nothing to do with letting your guard down. Essentially, the symptoms appear to be "I see a pretty girl and imagine she is rejecting me." Well, we got somebody getting rejected, but who is doing the rejecting? The only participant in the conversation. You.

So the next step is "Why am I walking around imagining all of these pretty girls rejecting me?"

Why would one deliberately think this way? It is painful and takes up a lot of unneeded time and energy.

For me, at least, the answer is: "Because there is something else I don't want to think about."

So when this happens to me, I just think of something that is happening to me that daythat I might actually not want to think about.

After about three minutes of thinking about what I don't want to think about, it all goes away.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:26 PM on April 3, 2007 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I believe that nasreddin nailed it. Generally, people are not spending the bulk of their time in a compare 'n' contrast analysis of every action of every person around them. They meet you, sum you up in 15 seconds, and if they're still hanging there with you, then they probably think you're okay. But mostly their internal monologue is more likely to be along the lines of "Did I set up the Tivo to record Lost tonight? Should I go to the dry cleaner tomorrow? Are those Swedish meatballs over there?" And not "Dear God, this person is a wretched freak who is only 54% as awesome as I am."

But at any rate, perhaps you could benefit from the Mametian wisdom expressed by Gene Hackman in the movie Heist. He noted "I tried to imagine a fella smarter than myself. Then I tried to think, 'What would he do?'" So in social situations, just think of a fella more popular, self-assured, and rico/suave than you, and ask, "What would he do?"
posted by Midnight Creeper at 10:15 PM on April 3, 2007 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: This isn't really a matter of my having low self-esteem. Maybe it's lower than I think it is, but not to a degree I think is statistically significant. The problem is in how I relate to people. I tend to assume the worst: That people aren't seeing the real me, or that the people I interact with have apply a different (and weirdly high) set of standards to me than to others.

A person with low self-esteem can't imagine why anyone would like them; I feel like I live in a world where people don't see the good things about me.

It's really good to know I'm not the only one, though! :)
posted by hifiparasol at 10:26 PM on April 3, 2007

Best answer: I have similar thoughts and have been reading about this sort of thing for a while. (IANAD).

Fear of (and presumption of) being judged by others is one of the primary symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder, also known as Social Phobia.

Generalised social anxiety disorder typically involves a persistent, intense, and chronic fear of being judged by others and of potentially being embarrassed or humiliated by their own actions.

See also here:

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. (DSM-IV),1 describes social phobia as an intense, irrational and persistent fear of being scrutinized or negatively evaluated by others...

I'm not saying you have this disorder - I'm not sure I meet all of the symptoms myself, and you probably don't either - but things like this often affect some of us in a less "disorderly" way.

I don't have any answers either, but there are books on Social Anxiety that might help. I'll be following this thread for advice too.
posted by mmoncur at 10:34 PM on April 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

BTW, hifiparasol, responding to your last comment:

I'm not sure self-esteem has anything to do with it either. My self-esteem comes and goes, but even when I feel great about myself I have the nagging suspicion that others are missing my good qualities and judging me negatively.
posted by mmoncur at 10:36 PM on April 3, 2007

Best answer: I feel ya.

I'm thinking it's gifted-underachiever syndrome. You have lots of innate ability -- intelligence, or some other talent (musical? writing?) but you have always been (in your own eyes, at least) a slacker. You could be so much more, so much better, than you are -- other people who don't have half your ability work much harder and get there. Wouldn't they resent you? Look at this guy -- he thinks he's better than me because he's so smart, but what has he done with it? I think this is common for people who were tracked "gifted" in school: to feel that they aren't doing enough, that more is expected of them than of everybody else.

Of course 99% of the people you encounter are thinking about America's Next Top Model, not you, as noted above. Besides, once you leave school, people just don't think in terms of your potential -- except maybe your mom. So there really is nothing to expect from you, beyond what you choose to give them.

PS -- People love you if you are obviously pretty smart in general but don't know what they know. If you ever don't know something -- from a particular word to a band to a computer function to a thing on the news -- throw the guy a bone and let him school you. It is flattering to him, and he will like you for it. Don't we prove this every day on the green?
posted by Methylviolet at 12:17 AM on April 4, 2007 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Some useful advice I've seen in a number of contexts: Fake it until you make it. So, if you meet someone, and internally you're having a hard time believing that they'd like you at all - pretend they like you. Act as if they like you. Sooner or later (the theory goes) you will find yourself starting to believe it.

It's easier to change your behaviour than to change your feelings.
posted by emilyw at 2:16 AM on April 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Strangest advice I heard, and which I believe actually works, is to silently say, "Peace be with you" to every stranger you meet. Say it in your head. In other words, you're kinda blessing them. But this doesn't have to be religious. It's like you're wishing them well, and hoping things go well for them.

The advice goes on to say that, if you do this, extraordinary things will start to happen. I wouldn't go that far, but it helps me a little.
posted by humblepigeon at 3:52 AM on April 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you have zero self-confidence (not the same as self-esteem). The only way to build confidence is to take risks and succeed, so I'm guessing you're also risk-averse because you're scared of failure.

Is this comment from personal experience, or is it another one of those things you know is right, but have problems internalizing? Because from what you've described here, it sounds like you could gain a lot from the advice in that thread also.
posted by chundo at 7:43 AM on April 4, 2007

Remember: they're too busy having the same worries you are to critique you (or they're calm and too calm to critique you, or they are critiquing you because they have personal issues).

http://lojongmindtraining.com/ Read Pema's commentaries or get her Start Where you are. Try putting yourself in their position: would you want to be approached by you? If so, they probably would--we're all more alike than different in our humanness.
posted by Furious Fitness at 7:55 AM on April 4, 2007

Try alcohol. That's what its for.
posted by tjvis at 10:54 AM on April 4, 2007

Best answer: Here is a suggestion with binary beneficiality. When someone is talking to you, stop thinking and just look at their face and listen.

A simple lesson, but one that I, for instance, didn't learn until 20+ years into my life. I learned it from a very good friend of mine when I found myself unnerved at how closely he was paying attention to me as I was talking. Which, after a brief flash of localized stage fright, caused me to feel very warmly toward this person. And also caused me to become very sensitive to the fact that I often spent the time when I should be listening to my friends talk focused only on what I wanted to say next, and basically waiting impatiently for them to be done talking so I could begin.

So, for you, to put this into practice will a. give people the impression that you sincerely care about what they're saying (and you will, because you will be trying hard to do so), thereby causing them to feel warmly toward you, and b. since you will be focusing intently on listening to this person and making them feel listened-to, you will not have room in your brain to worry about what this person is thinking of you and all of that other mental detritus that goes on and keeps us from enjoying what should be simple and pleasant interactions.
posted by Darth Fedor at 2:20 PM on April 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

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