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Please Help Me With Basic Social Skills


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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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> 

More "Ask Anne" View Columnists

  • kay-dee

    please work at this its not all bad how do you feel about this

  • mari

    We'd make a good, shy pair! I'm an older, attractive, intelligent, educated female with similar social problems & am only now seriously trying to get past these phobias. Anne's advice sounds very good & workable & I just want you to know that you're not the only one with these problems. I also have very few friends & have wondered exactly what it is that others possess that lets them converse so easily when it's doggone hard for me- obviously, self-confidence is a major requirement. Your letter indicates you're expressive, intelligent & have insight, which should beget empathy. I can certainly confirm that, if you prepare a few simple conversational topics, many women will help you out if you strike up a conversation but become a bit tongue-tied. Good luck!

  • Lisa

    I belong to an online community of people with Asperger Syndrome and almost any of us could have written a letter just like this one. The author might like to check here and see if anything feels right:

  • Cheryl

    What you are describing really sounds like SAD. I have suffered with it for 44 years now and my mom, brothers, their children and my own son have it as well. I have not tried to get any help, scared and no med. insurance, but I HIGHLY recommend therapy. I have allowed this to destroy my life, DO NOT let it do the same to you!

  • pedblan

    I had a similar problem, but it was just in some situations. Dating was one of them. In a club or a party, I would always get really drunk, and the only girls who talked to me were the ones who had drank too.

    I think you are making a mistake when you leave dating for later. That's an essential social skill, and you can practice this one and the ones that you take for basic going out at night and trying to meet some girls. If you live in a big city, the probability is that nobody in the club knows you anyway, so you can make mistakes and other people won't really take the trouble to judge you, or at least not for a long time. Eventually, you will make it, and, even if it doesn't lasts for long, it will increase your confidence.

    Dancing might be really embarassing in going to nightclubs. What I did was introducing into my MP3 player those songs that they play in clubs or parties - trance, hip-hop etc, so I would get used to them and their rythm.

    And don't give up. There are some girls who are really snub, but let it be - you will eventually find the one thats suits you.

  • David W

    I am by no means a professional at psychoanalysis but can speak from my own personal experience.

    I too was severely shy. It was so bad that I avoided social situations all together because I couldn't talk without getting short of breath. I was really worried that I would be that way forever.

    Luckly, I befriended a coworker and we eventually became best friends and started our own business together. He gave me alot of confidence which helped alot but I was still very shy and I knew things were not right. My friend was completely opposite of me in terms of personality and that is why we worked so well togethers. He is a very social person and very intelligent as well. He started to analayze my issues and really helped me understand alot about myself.

    One of my revelations was that my mom had made me feel unimportant as a person growing up. It didn't seem like she put me first over her needs. That explained alot of my problems which helped me cope with my issues. The severity of my issues were less but they still seemed to linger.
    Just a few months ago he was reading a book on psychodynamics and told me to read a specific chapter in the book.
    It basically talks about hidden feelings that are covered up by your own defenses because they are too painful and how that manifest itself into symptoms like being shy.

    My biggest revelation was this: I realized that being unimportant was just a defense to cover up the real pain I was feeling. I realized that I was angry at both my mom and my dad. Even hating them for how they treated me. Those subconscious feelings of anger toward my mom and dad made me feel extreme guilt because I knew they loved me and did some things that were in my best interest. Because of those hidden feelings that I harbored, I avoided social interaction because I was afraid of being "found out" so to speak. Your afraid of giving yourself and expressing your feelings to other people because you tried to hide those hidden feelings. This revelation created extreme sobing for several minutes and then extreme laughing because of the relief I felt afterwards. That whole week I was on an extreme high and feeling extremely happy. I felt very compassionate and selfless towards other people and wanted to be social. Of course, I eventually came back down from the high to normal levels.

    This has helped me tremendously in my anxiety. It doesn't mean that I'm a social butterfly now but it does help me cope with the shyness which comes and goes.

    Obviously your case may be different but I think a good psychiatrist can help you look at your past to discover what feelings your trying to hide from the world.

    Hope this helps.

  • Datsu

    Come across this page by accident but...I'm only 17, and I can surely describe the difficulty to truely communicate with people who I would like to associate with. I really hate myself for not knowing what to say, especially when I meet this girl I like, I will always experience shortage of breath and my voice diminished that all I express is my awkward shocking face whenever I saw her. I really regret now that I can no longer see her. In fact, I don't time for a girlfriend, but her personality is admirable and rare nowaday, at least I think so. Anyways, interesting website.

  • B.Walker

    I also suffer from social phobias.I consider my possibilites.

    1. inspritional surrounding enviorment

    2. medication and professional help as a doctor



    5. realizing any emotition you have felt is more important that those I think on.Where my mind and spirit bond is at my soul.

    6. Prayer and take chances

  • M.

    I was quite shy and even though I didn't participate in theatre in high school I signed up for college as a theatre major. I worked backstage, building sets, working on the run crew, props, costumes etc., Being around loud, attention deprived theatre majors meant learning to be loud myself. I was able to try on personas and play behind them, to try experiencing how different behaviors felt. I think a lot of theatre majors were doing exactly the same thing. I still have some shyness and fears of what people think about what I did or said, but when I found out that there are a lot of people some of whom you'd never expect to have these sorts of issues, and I found out I'm not alone, life got better.

    "Fake it until you make it." also helped me and in social situations acting like you're the host and being more concerned about how other people are feeling/doing, takes you out of your head and puts your focus on doing something to help others. That's the best medicine. Perhaps you'd benefit from volunteering and helping others less fortunate than you.

    Good luck!

  • working at it

    You have described how I have been feeling perfectly. So I guess I suffer from SAD. It has worsen for me over the past 2 years and has basically caused my depression. Instead of trying to attack a vague subject like depression, I'm going to read about social phobias. I just want to thank you for this article. I have been suffering in silence too long. There is also a good video from a UCSD professor on youtube. Just type in Social Anixety and it is the first video. My new years resolution is to get over this damn phobia. I feel old without having the life experiences to show for it. And that makes me even sadder. It's time we all take chances. Good luck to you all.

  • Anonymous-1

    There is an entire community dedicated to helping men rebuild and learn social skills their parents and society never taught them.

  • Mary

    Wow I know how you feel. My own children and husband make me feel that way. Like I feel completely inadequate. The thing is I am also shy except with my husband. He has no patience and he really says he cares about me but I have my doubts. I have been living with no one to emotionally support me . I have been injured badly , gone through cancer treatment alone and had a brother who committed murder/suicide and went through all this alone. It is my experience that people do not want to be burdened by problems. I do what I can to talk myself up or out of feeling bad in spite of a husband who yells at me due to his inability to be emotionally supportive. I hope you have good luck in your efforts. Unfortunately for me, I just have to keep pretending all is well, and act like nothing bothers me.


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