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Please Help Me With Basic Social Skills

Question:

Hello! I am an over 30 year old man, and i have not only never even kissed a girl in my life, but also have no way of creating friendships, that deserve that name. My social skills fell back during kindergarten time, but i was already a teenager, when i identified the problem and started working on it, till now with minor success. I know more or less all literature on dating, small talk, social skills etc. at least to the point, that when i pick up a new book, i can confidently expect it to contain nothing i have not already read somewhere else (Those books have the ugly habit of becoming the more vague, the more important and basic the topic is). Most of those books greatly emphasize practicing but that is pointless, since i cannot create the situation, where i can practice. Even when i am in a group of people, that stays together for a longer time, i find few opportunities to communicate. So the unidentified mistakes i make are likely in the "more basic than basic" region, that book authors find unnecessary to cover, because anyone does that automatically right anyway.

While i cannot expect you to get out your crystal ball and magically see, what i do wrong, i do have some questions, whose answers would help me greatly (especially by making me able to experiment without having to fear serious or lasting consequences).

  1. Most books on the subject emphasize being willing to take the risk of temporary embarrassment. Short of erasing other peoples memories "men in black" style, how do i make embarrassment a temporary thing, or at least a thing that does not spread and gravely and permanently affect other peoples standing with me?
  2. How do i avoid embarrassment in following situations (or make it a temporary thing) a) I approach someone and show the intent to talk, but then run out of things to say. b) For a prolonged time i am the only one in the room who is not talking or doing anything. c) I involuntarily stare at someone in a weird way (which happens often when i am nervous) d) I get visibly nervous in a situation where that is not appropriate and leads to theories and chatter.
  3. My constant loneliness has caused a nervous breakdown in the last few years, and that has forced me to drop out of my job. When the topic of job comes up, how do i change the topic without making it obvious, that there is something to hide?
  4. How can i turn off inappropriate sexual attraction or at least make it invisible? (i reserve dating itself for later, because it makes no sense, unless i have already mastered much simpler social tasks. For now sexuality just gets in the way of what i am trying to do)
  5. Simple: How can i look confident and at ease, when i am not? (You might say, i should rather ask, how i can genuinely BE more confident and at ease, but i know a billion great answers to that question and they all fail in real life)
  6. How do i hide sadness? I often get sad and angry about things, that would be only minor disappointments if i had a normal social life. I think i hide that very good, but sometimes something slips through and makes my loneliness obvious to others. How do i prevent that?

Thank you!

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Answer:

I’m going to try to boil down your many questions into just a few because otherwise I will be overwhelmed trying to respond. The basic problem you are having can be restated, I think, by saying that you are quite socially anxious. You find even basic social situations to be quite anxiety provoking. Your ability to work has been severely affected, as has your ability to have a satisfying social life. You see this problem as a developmental one. You never learned the skills you needed to learn when you were young (when your peers were learning these skills), and now that you are older, you are embarrassed and ashamed to not know how to behave.

There is an anxiety disorder known as Social Phobia which may or may not fit your situation, but which I think you might do well to read up on. Social phobia is basically a disabling social anxiety which can be specific to a single area of life (such as public speaking) or more general. There is help available for social phobia. Symptoms of Social Phobia are available here, and some information on treatment is available here.

Help is available for Social Phobia and related conditions. Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy (CBT) is probably the best approach for you to look into, but there are also combinations of CBT and medication therapies, as well as purely medication therapies that may prove helpful. Generic information on CBT is available here. Self-Help information on CBT techniques is available here.

It may be true that you find socializing so difficult that you have few opportunities for practicing your missing social skills, but there are other alternatives you can explore. Among other things, a CBT therapist can offer you the opportunity to role-play some of these anxiety provoking situations. You would role play yourself and the therapist would role play the part of the person you are wanting to interact with. Role play is not a perfect simulation of real world interactions of course, but it can be surprisingly effective. Role play offers you the opportunity to rehearse social skills a few times in a safe environment before trying them out in the "real world". It also offers you the opportunity to get used to the anxiety that you may feel when practicing such skills in the real world. The more familiar you become with the feelings and sensations of anxiety without needing to run from them, the more they will cease to have power over you.

Several of your questions have to do with how you might avoid feeling embarrassed. There is no simple answer to this sort of question, because feelings are not easy thing to turn on and off. There are a couple possibilities to think on however.

Embarrassment and it’s brother emotion Shame are fundamentally relationship emotions, meaning that they cannot occur without a person feeling embarrassed in relationship to someone else. The person feeling embarrassed is often embedded in a particular point of view that makes them susceptible to embarrassment. This point of view is perhaps best summed up by the following sort of observation an embarrassed person might make, "What does that other person think of me? I just know they are thinking poorly of me". The embarrassed person is worried that the other person is judging them negatively. Psychologists sometimes call this a "fear of negative evaluation". If you can become conscious of the bias or point of view that comes with this sort of thought, you can begin to turn it around. Socially comfortable people don’t dwell on whether others are judging them, for instance. The point of view they walk around with can be summed up as, "What do I think about other people?" Confidence flows more easily from this sort of reversal of perspective. You will not likely feel comfortable trying this new perspective on for size at first, but if you practice it, it will become easier.

A second way to handle embarrassment is to distract yourself. Watch TV, read a book, surf the net, go to the gym and exercise vigorously, or engage in something you like to do which is immersive. As you cease to ruminate on what it is that is bothering you, you will cease to feel embarrassed. The feeling may return, of course, but at least you will have had a nice break for a time.

My advice for handling situations where there are awkward silences is simply to admit that you feel an awkward silence. If you are feeling it, chances are likely that your conversation partner is feeling it as well. Most people hate silence and someone will start talking about something after a few minuets of silence if you wait long enough. But really, there is nothing to be ashamed about if you feel anxious when meeting someone new. It is a normal kind of feeling, even if it isn’t something most people put out on their sleeve for discussion. Admitting that you are feeling a little anxious humanizes you to your conversation partners. If they are decent people who are worth talking to in the first place, they will help rescue you by saying things like, "me too! I get anxious too when there is silence", or perhaps they will simply offer something new to talk about to end that silence. If someone attacks your vulnerability they are essentially insensitive idiots you don’t want to converse with anyway and now you know to avoid them in the future.

Part of the art of conversation with strangers is to maintain appropriate boundaries. It is not expected that you will automatically volunteer all sorts of intimate information about yourself just because someone else asks you for that information. If you don’t want to talk about your employment situation, it is okay to say something like, "you know, I’d rather not discuss that right now". You can say this in a kind way, and people who are kind themselves will get it that this is something sensitive and they will move the conversation on to some other topic. Someone who presses the point is insensitive and probably not worth spending further time on anyway. Knowing how to set boundaries is part of a set of skills known as "assertiveness training". You can read more about assertiveness training here. That information is an excerpt from our self-help book "Psychological Self-Tools". You might find it useful to read the entire thing. The starting point for that book is here.

You want to "hide sadness" and appear "confident" when you are not. I don’t know that this is the right way to think about how to become more confident. Confidence is a sort of courage. If you ask a person who does dangerous things that require courage, "Are you afraid when you do those dangerous things?", that person will likely tell you, "Yes" (if they aren’t lying). Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the decision to go on and do the thing you think is dangerous in spite of the feeling of fear. Since you do perceive social situations to be dangerous, for you it would be a courageous act to admit to someone you want to get to know better that you are nervous, feel like you don’t know quite how to behave, and wonder if they might give you some feedback. You obviously don’t want to ask this of some random stranger. You have to suspect that there is a possibility that the person you admit this vulnerability to will respond positively to you, but it is a legitimate thing to think about doing. When done with a little finesse, admitting to minor vulnerabilities has the effect of drawing decent people closer to you, because they will want to help you, first of all, and second of all, they will feel free to admit their own minor vulnerabilities to you. This is social reciprocity in action.

<p>The key word here is &quot;finesse&quot;.  You don't want to blurt something out if you can avoid it, (although when you do that, it typically is not the end of the world).  Working with a therapist in role-play is a good way to practice a little finesse.  </p>    <p>There is really a lot of hope for you, I think.  All of this stuff is something you can learn if you can get over the hump of asking for help of the right people.  A CBT therapist would be a good starting place.  Good luck to you.  </p> 

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