Lonely Louisa Asks:

I really, really hate myself. I have no social skills and extreme social anxiety. Most people aren’t willing to be friends with someone like me because of that & other factors that I have NO control over. I’m trying my best to be nice to people, but nobody wants to be my friend. Do you know how to make friends when you’re socially incompetent and very anxious?

Dear Lonely Lousia,

Struggling with mental health issues in friendships and relationships is hard and unfortunately far too common. Having lost more friends than I can count as a consequence of my anxiety, and having struggled with issues with social skills and anxiety for a long time, this is certainly something I have a lot of thoughts on. I am not going to give you the standard “if you want to talk to someone, I can be your friend.” Quite frankly, I think we both recognize that kind of insincere friendship of convenience – or need rather – is not what you really want. I assume you want to be able to find and retain meaningful connections with people, but also just to be comfortable with casual acquaintances. The following advice is based on my own experiences and observations as well as the experiences of a few others I am familiar with; hopefully you find something useful and relevant.

The short answer is, there is no easy solution or magic pill. You have to work on yourself and work out your issues, either with a therapist or on your own. You sound like you have underlying issues that lead you to self-sabotage; the best piece of advice I can offer is to consult a mental health professional for help with managing anxiety and its symptoms. Consult them and take what they say seriously. It’s easy for people, especially high-functioning individuals to want to turn therapy sessions into a cat and mouse battle of wits, and yes, we will outsmart, outmanoeuvre, and deceive the therapist most of the time. This is not helpful, lying to people, especially doctors rarely is; if you can’t help yourself then don’t filibuster them, just manoeuvre and at least observe their tools, learn from them and apply it to yourself outside sessions. Above all, don’t hate yourself (easier said than done, I know). You have a “handicap” compared to your peers: doing your utmost to overcome it certainly doesn’t make you any less than them.

This may not be pleasant to hear, especially from an anonymous column of text but are you sure you have “NO control whatsoever” over those things? We often have more control than we think. Rome wasn’t built in a day and for most people friendships can take a while to develop.

The only way to overcome anxiety and fears about interactions with people is by limited exposure and therapy, much like if one has a fear of snakes or spiders.

Social skills are also learned and groomed by doing. Practice. The key to improving your social skills is micro-interactions. If you get a coffee or have any kind of interaction, just be nice and friendly (just casually nice mind you, otherwise it can give people the wrong impression). The hard truth is that you won’t become friends with most people whom you meet. Go to parties or online events (@ForTrinstudents on IG is a College-affiliated support channel which has a solid slate of events) even if you don’t want to participate, watch. All mammals learn their vital skills by watching others of the same species. You might not consciously realize all you’re learning but social skills are essentially learned by Osmosis  more than conscious effort, as the ability of humans to rapidly adjust to other cultures demonstrates. If you like, it can help to think of yourself as an immigrant to humankind, who needs to acquire their culture and social norms, which do vary extensively. Once you’re more comfortable in a context, try practicing, integrating. Just try things out; these people won’t be your friends likely. And that’s okay. I struggled at university my first year; what helped me was going to parties and pub nights for clubs, knowing I would likely not meet any of those people ever again. It makes these interactions lower stake, and thus less likely to trigger your anxiety. I know this is not always helpful when others ask it, but try asking yourself “What’s the worst that could happen? Could this damage my life if I don’t let it.” Ultimately, try to regret (and hence worry) less – you’re playing life one hard in terms of social skills. Don’t be dispirited. What seems normal for others, like singing karaoke and going on a date, can be a triumph for us. 

If you have a trusted friend, talk to them, try to pick up what they do. Otherwise, just watch any people you admire socially, and any friends you do have. Consider reading some books on charisma (I enjoyed The Charisma Myth, available as an audiobook on Audible by Amazon as well as elsewhere), as the techniques inside them can really help even with less formal contexts and managing social anxiety.

Lastly, very few people these days have good social skills. The fact of the matter is that small-talk and good conversation are lost arts (and so are politeness and civility), and most people are starting to interact with real people the same way they do online. Frankly, the best advice I can give you? Spend time with old people (Outside COVID!). Not only is this a great chance to connect and learn from the older generation, most seniors are only too happy to have someone listen to them and keep them company (especially given how unfortunately isolated our elders are). Spend time with your grandparents or volunteer at a retirement home. These interactions are easier in a sense because you’re just naturally not going to feel as much pressure to make friends and potentially meet a romantic partner. The only thing you really need to bring to interactions like that is an open mind (a genuinely open mind, free from “OK Boomer”isms), something that is valuable in any social situation, honestly. You can judge people (or even better not) when you’re not with them. Quite frankly, I have a better relationship with nine out of ten of my profs (especially the older ones) than I do with my undergraduate “peers” — an incidental perk of practicing this kind of skill. Remember, you’re not lame for doing this kind of thing; in the past society had much closer intergenerational relationships. 

As concerns meaningful connections, there is little I can offer you other than a caution and a promise. Not everyone you meet, not every friend you make will be someone you’re close to. You can’t force emotional or platonic intimacy and doing so sabotages that connection. There are plenty of people like you. You will find others who think like you, who believe what you do, and who have the same energy as you. You’ll find friendships and maybe even a partner with whom you build each other up. You’ll find someone who values you for you, because of all your similarities, and because of all your differences. Don’t settle for less. Nevertheless, don’t force connections or discard those you don’t think conform to it; people wear masks and conceal who they really are for a thousand reasons. It can feel like you’re slowly dancing and edging together until you find that moment you start to really connect.

As a few final notes, don’t be so hard on yourself (and doing so just makes you more stressed). If you want to genuinely improve, don’t force change instantly. Instead set yourself a one-year plan or the like, with gradual goals to slowly and steadily improve. It sounds like you have some other issue, which I can’t give you advice on, but things are rarely as unmanageable as they seem. Yes, they may seem vast and impossible, but there’s very few things the human mind cannot overcome or at least manage given the right supports, which we fortunately do have at Trin. Are you happy with who you are? We often project our own problems onto relationships with others. While wanting human contact is natural, remember, being happy with others, and the validation of others is a supplement, never a replacement for your own self-esteem; you have to value yourself. As a final reflection, try to be someone you would be friends with yourself. “One must be a friend to have friends” as they say.

Alternatively, instead of working on yourself, you could just pick up a fringe hobby or ideology/activism and make friends that way. Common experiences especially those viewed negatively by others are a particularly potent bonding agent. ¯\_O_/¯

Sincerely, 

Auntie


PS: I’d also use my platform here to offer a gentle reminder to the Trinity community to be more understanding of each other. We all face stress and anxieties and process – or don’t – differently. No way is superior to another, be that reflecting, joking, crying, throwing yourself in your work, talking, or reading, (so long as it doesn’t take over your life in turn (although excessive drinking is probably not as healthy)); some people struggle to find ways that work for them, and manifest this stress into their interpersonal interactions. We all should be more understanding of each other’s idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.

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