Help me keep my mind about me when I just want to order coffee or interview at Google
June 14, 2007 7:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm painfully shy. My mind often goes blank during social interactions. It's almost like I kind of lose myself. I'd like to find a way to fight this.

Sometimes I seem to go into an auto-pilot sort of mode during a conversation or interview, but a particularly mindless auto-pilot. One that doesn't quite seem to remember what he wanted to order, or talk about, or remember common english idioms (like ordering coffee "black", not "plain" or "straight" as I did yesterday).

I realize that anxiety is a component in this, but it often happens when the anxiety doesn't seem that great. Maybe it's just a deeply ingrained habit, or there's some component of anxiety below conscious awareness. I've been using CBT (Dr. Burns, et al), meditation, diet and exercise to combat this problem and they do seem to help with the anxiety.

Still, when the moment of truth comes and I'm facing someone, my mind goes all white-out. Help me MeFi! What advice can you give? What related experiences have you had? Techniques for remaining grounded and "present" especially appreciated. Thanks.
posted by DarkForest to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Pretend to be someone who doesn't feel awkward. View it as an acting job, and say what you think a so-called "normal" person would say in that situation. If you screw something up, just smile, laugh a little bit (even if you are dying of embarrasment inside) and say "I mean..." and then continue.

It comes with practice, and fake it 'til you make it.
posted by mckenney at 7:18 PM on June 14, 2007

Generally rehearsing likely responses to things I'll be asked helps me. Like if I'm at Starbucks, figuring out what order I want to say stuff in.

Doesn't always work though...a lot of the time I'll be all ready with my decaf tall blah blah and then they'll ask me my name and I'll have to pause and say "um".
posted by crinklebat at 7:18 PM on June 14, 2007

just smile

Oh, I wish I could put on a convincing smile at will! It just won't come when I'm on the spot. The results would be painful.

rehearsing likely responses

I've always done this, and it might help, but I think it also ramps up the anxiety to spend too much time thinking about it. Perhaps I need to work harder at imagining in some more positive sense.
posted by DarkForest at 7:36 PM on June 14, 2007

Concentrate on making the other person feel comfortable. Show them you are interested in them and don't worry about you. If you get them talking about themselves they will feel comfortable. Ask a lot of questions, be interested, even if you are not. If you find something they like, a hobby or tv show you both like or whatever, milk it.
posted by caddis at 7:39 PM on June 14, 2007

I used to be like this. I'd clam up like crazy and not know what to say. Ordering take out would throw me into a minor panic.

Then I got some wonderful advice that changed the way I related to people forever after. "It's not what you say, it's how you say it." Stop concentrating on the words or the right response. Try concentrating on conveying a feeling through how you sound. Affect a carefree attitude for a while: think Lord Henry Wotton. And just as importantly, learn to laugh at yourself.
posted by milarepa at 8:08 PM on June 14, 2007

I've been painfully shy my whole life, and my mind also tends to blank out in social situations. The only things that have consistently made a difference are SSRIs, diet change, regular contact with good friends with whom I feel comfortable and like myself around (otherwise, I tend to start believing that the zombie is the real me), and time. SSRIs in particular broke the bottleneck of thoughts and words.
posted by granted at 8:17 PM on June 14, 2007

Personally, what helped me was taking improv comedy. It taught me to trust myself and talk. It was very scary at first, but the school I went to was actually pretty used to quiet shy people coming in.

There are still some situations where I am shy. Studies have shown that shyness is situational. But it still helped quite a bit.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:21 PM on June 14, 2007

The best thing I've ever discovered for this is to stop obsessing about my own response and focus outward. Pick something about the other person and zone in on it. It doesn't really matter what it is. You just want to stop being all "OH GOD I AM REALLY AWARE OF MY HANDS, WHAT DO I DO WITH MY HANDS?!?" and it's hard-if-not-impossible to do that if you're going "What is that on his tie? Are those... golf clubs? Purple golf clubs? Huh."
posted by thehmsbeagle at 8:21 PM on June 14, 2007

Had a bit of a similar problem with interviews.
It's important to remember that when you are communicating with someone, it's better to pause and think about what to say than blurting out the first thing that comes to mind.

Repeat the question in your head.
Think about what you want to say, then say it.
Take your time, don't rush yourself.

(If you have to bulls### your way through a question, just be sure that your answer answers the entire question. If you come up with a mediocre answer that completely answers the question, use that - even though you know that you could probably do better if you had more time to think about it.)
posted by itheearl at 9:04 PM on June 14, 2007

Given your current strategy you may be trying to avoid medication, but in case you're not: taking something for anxiety for a short time may help with this. There's a chance that it could give you an opportunity to block that immediate physical reaction and be more mentally present in the situation and able to make a choice about what comes out of your mouth. It's not a long term solution, but you can use this time to teach yourself new habits.

Listen to the people around you. Most people freeze up briefly or flub words occasionally. How they handle their mistakes may be how they differ from you. Giving yourself permission to ask for straight coffee and move on can be difficult, but if you're able to do it, it takes some of the pressure off and reduces the underlying anxiety the next time. You may not feel comfortable laughing out loud at your mistakes, but at least try to laugh inside and focus on something else (possibly the aforementioned purple golf club tie) if you find your thoughts going back to it.

The more practice, the better. Go out when you don't need to. Not only will it give you a chance to practice responding to various situations and increase your repertoire of possible responses, it also decreases the amount of time you have alone to regret your missteps.
posted by waterlily at 9:10 PM on June 14, 2007

what comrade_robot said.

Also, try book reading groups, amateur theatre groups, acting classes, any kind of small interactive classes. The emphasis is on small and on interactive, you want to be forced to participate.

In other words, practice.

I was very much like that in face-to-face communication, to the point I would get heart palpitations and go into the auto-pilot mode. Sometimes I still do, but it is much better.
posted by carmina at 9:15 PM on June 14, 2007

This won't help with the spacing out, but it might help in other situations. I'll buy myself some time by asking the person a question I already know the answer to. While they're answering the question, I think about the next thing I want to say.
posted by hootch at 10:38 PM on June 14, 2007

Are you too critical of yourself when you say something you think the other person will think is stupid, weird, nonsensical, etc.? If so, perhaps you're falling into the "mind reading" trick -- assuming you know what the other person is thinking about you. It could be they're just as nervous as you are, and won't even notice if you order coffee "plain" instead of "black." Or maybe they'll find it endearing, or think it's just a creative way of speaking.

One thing that helps me sometimes is to remember that conversation is something like a river . . . it flows through lots of twists and turns, most of which will be forgotten almost immediately. So long as you eventually make some kind of point that seems to somehow relate to the topic at hand, the conversation will go on, no matter what odd thing you might say or what odd detour you may take it on. When I freeze up and go blank, I find I'm putting too much pressure on myself to "make a valuable contribution" to the "dialog" -- whereas if I just let myself ramble a bit, I'll eventually find my way back into the flow.
posted by treepour at 11:02 PM on June 14, 2007

Given your current strategy you may be trying to avoid medication

No. I take an SSRI, and have tried a couple of them. I find they can help somewhat with anxiety, but not so much with the results I get with interacting. I've tried a beta blocker with no real effect. I don't want to use any of the more addictive stuff, like xanax, so I haven't tried those.

Are you too critical of yourself when you say something you think the other person will think is stupid

My first thought was that no, I'm not TOO critical, just reasonably critical. But it strikes me now that I should really work to banish all criticism. I'm not sure it's self-criticism though as much as self-frustration.
posted by DarkForest at 2:54 AM on June 15, 2007

My first thought was that no, I'm not TOO critical, just reasonably critical.

I used to be terrified of being indulgent with myself. Thought I was better off being too critical of myself that not critical enough. But you can justify a lot of self-abuse by trying to be "reasonable" in the way you judge yourself. You gotta give it up. Be indulgent, be forgiving, be willing to let go and not care. Alcohol helps with this a lot, as does MJ. As people have said, practice really helps, but sometimes to get practice doing it right, a druggy security blanket is useful.

Anyway, you won't become an awful person by loosening your "reasonable" expectations. I used to think that if I dropped my expectations one iota then I was going immediately transmogrify into a frizzy-haired slob draped over the sofa eating fritos from the bag and tossing the crumbs at my overweight basset hound. But it doesn't actually happen.

This isn't really a response to your original question, but the "reasonably critical" reminded me of myself and maybe it's part of your problems too.
posted by bluenausea at 5:56 AM on June 15, 2007

My first thought was that no, I'm not TOO critical, just reasonably critical.

You may have a distorted view of what's reasonable. E.g., what's reasonable to you would be overbearing and hypercritical to someone without your anxiety.

As for criticism, I guess there two kinds. One is the "oh no, I really screwed up, people will think I'm an idiot" type, and the other is the "hmm, guess I could have said that a little better; I'll try to remember that next time" type. In one, you're raking yourself over the coals for an imagined infraction, and in the other you're giving yourself helpful pointers. My guess is that the social anxiety is related to the former type of criticism (which is indeed inherently harmful). At least this is how it seems to work for me . . .
posted by treepour at 7:47 AM on June 15, 2007

Practice, practice, practice. Talk with everybody. Comment on the weather with the lady in the supermarket line. Say "hi, howya doin?" to the guy you pass in the hall. Strike up a conversation in a coffee shop. Sucks at first, but it gets easier, I promise. Just do it. (Guys, it's the same thing for approaching & talking with girls...)

Personal theory: I think what's happening is that the brain is getting overloaded with new (social) information, and is so tied up trying to make sense of it all that the higher level thought suffers. Kinda like a videogame where there's all these monkeys attacking me with the eeks and the bananas and SO MUCH STUFF GOING ON OMGICANTKEEPUP but, if you play it for a *while*, you get adept at dealing with all the "stuff", and it really isn't that big a deal anymore.

As a bonus, you'll meet some interesting people, probably even make somebody's day, and generally feel more connected with the world around you.
posted by LordSludge at 8:45 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I had/have similar problems. I'm bi-polar, so can't always help the way I deal with things. But two things have helped me with the majority of my interactions.

Firstly, I keep fit (you say you exercise also), so I feel confident about how I am physically. I take care of the way I look and it makes a difference to how I feel and act. Teeth, hair, nice clothes. Look like a confident person and half the work's done.

Secondly, I have been reading, and continue to read, a lot of self-help books, listen to hypnosis stuff/meditation tapes, self-esteem builders. I started out with Derren Brown's "Tricks of the mind" and "The Game" by Neil Strauss. They both recommend a lot of things to do and other books to read, and places to look. It is a lot of work, and a continuing process, but it has helped me a lot. There's no magic answer, but recognising that was part of the problem for me. I'd get disheartened that there wasn't this huge overnight change. But over the course of a few months, I really have changed a lot, and people have commented on it.

I think you're on the right course. Just keep trying different techniques until one of them clicks for you. Or more than one. Incidentally, I didn't have much luck with CBT myself. It just didn't do it for me. Guided meditation and hypnosis tracks, on the other hand, I can't recommend enough. But again, it's a case of trawling through them until you find the style and method that works for you. I must have tried 20 different ones. What I mostly use now is Pzizz; no hypnosis, just relaxation. And I listen to some spoken affirmations during my morning workout. And the occasional meditation track depending on what I feel like. You'll find something, I'm sure of it.
posted by danteGideon at 10:56 AM on June 15, 2007

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