Monday, August 15, 2016

On not exuding confidence

I'm what you could call shy. Here's what happens when I am in a conversation with people I don't know very well.

  1. My joints start to feel stiff and my breath gets shallow. Everything feels hard to move and I have to concentrate on breathing normally and not clutching one arm with the other.
  2. When I have something to say, I run it through my mind several times to see if someone could misunderstand it. But by then the moment will have passed and I keep it to myself. The result is that I sit around for a long time feeling like I've been working hard at the conversation, but without actually saying anything.
  3. Eventually I realize that if I want to speak up I'll have to forgo the review process and just say something as it occurs to me. Often what comes out is indeed insensitive or ungracious in a way I didn't mean, but apologizing feels like it would just make the whole situation even more awkward (and would mean looking for another moment to interject), so I clam up again.
  4. Finally, I retreat into my own world for the rest of the conversation.

Guess which alpaca I am.

I know that this is something I should work on if I want to make new friends more easily. The internet advice on becoming more self-confident in social situations generally falls into three categories, and I can see how they would be helpful:

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

  • Practice coping with discomfort by trying new things regularly. Do something daily that's a little scary. Accept that meeting someone new may always be uncomfortable but resolve not to let it stop you.

I'm 100% on board with this idea, especially since trying new things is something I already approve of, although I'm not systematic about it in any way yet.

Fake it 'til you make it

  • Smile, adopt an open and expansive posture, and generally do what you think someone who feels at ease would do. Eventually, you'll feel genuine self-confidence.

I do sometimes "fake it" in this way—I have yet to "make it," but it does make the process less awkward for the other person.

Think positive

  • Tell yourself that people will be happy to get to know the real you. Imagine yourself interacting with people and it going smoothly and easily.

I don't do this so much, because it feels silly, but I imagine it would help.

So I have this problem, I've known for a while what I should be doing about it, but I haven't made much of an effort. Why not? If you're being charitable, you could say that I just haven't gotten around to it yet, but after some introspection I realized there is another reason:

I don't want to be confident.

Here's why: when I think about people I've met who seem to exude confidence, I have no desire to be like them: they take up too much space, they talk over me when I try to get a word in edgewise, and in general they make me feel even more like retreating into myself. I don't want to do that to other people. So I may not enjoy being shy, but I don't approve of the alternative.

Or rather, I don't approve of what I have perceived as the alternative. But here's what I realized next: Self-confidence doesn't mean being the "alpha male" in the room, someone who gets a boost by being superior to everyone else. No, it is the opposite; self-confidence is freedom from needing anyone else's approval. That led me to my third realization:

If I learn self-confidence, and feel free from trying to earn others' approval, it frees me up to pursue other outcomes for my conversations. In particular, if I value making other people feel comfortable, then I can spend my self-confidence on that, thinking about how I can help people feel at ease and safe. I can aim to have the people I meet leave feeling good about themselves if I'm not worried about whether they feel good about me.

So that's my new goal for developing my social skills: learn to feel sufficiently at ease in social situations that I can stop thinking about myself and focus on how to benefit other people.

Care to help me with this project? I have some questions for you.

  • Have you had a history of social anxiety or awkwardness? What has helped you?
  • What are some times you have really felt comfortable around someone you didn't know very well yet? What did they do to make you feel safe or understood?

Let me know in the comments!


  1. I've tried the not caring what others think solution, it's hard. I find it difficult to connect with people in general, perhaps that is really my issue. Not being able to identify a mutual interest and not enjoying the courtship that is common conversation.
    I think it's easier to connect with people that have similar passions.

    1. You're right, it is hard when there's no mutual interest! Being a math-lover often means I'm the only one in the group with interests pointing even roughly my direction, and that can be when I feel most lonely. On the other hand, I only got into bouldering by hearing from a very sportsy friend of mine how fun it is, so sometimes it's worth listening to what other people like.

  2. Oh Owen. I have thought so so much about this. As a formerly shy person who used to freeze up and go blank any time someone talked to me. In fact, the process you outlined is exactly what was happening inside of me--that awful lag and worry and self-judgement.

    Here are some things I learned:

    1. The way to get other people talking and comfortable is to ask them questions about themselves. This, if you are a genuinely curious person--and you are!--leads to more questions, and suddenly you find out all sort of interesting things about the other person and you've spent hours talking.

    2. It's actually easy to totally dominate the conversation in the above way. If you get people talking about themselves, many of them--especially people who themselves have a lot of social anxiety--can talk for hours without ever asking you anything. I have learned that I have to volunteer stories every now and again, which puts people at ease in a different way. Sometimes they want to hear about you, too, they just don't know how to ask!

    3. You have to be kind to yourself about being awkward. It sounds like some part of you is getting mad at yourself for that lag (it gets mad at me too), and the compounding awkwardness it creates. I find when I interrupt that voice, and strive to be internally kind to myself about how conversation is hard, I'm much better able to talk to people. It's funny how if you stop haranguing yourself for not doing a thing, you are much better at doing that thing.

    1. Thanks so much, Linden! One of my first mini-goals, I think, should be learning to ask questions that encourage complex responses. (For example, "Oh, you like Xs? What's your favorite X?" tends to produce more silent discomfort—people don't like to commit to a single favorite—than "What are some of your favorite Xs?", which can have a response of any length.)

      I appreciate the tip that having stories of my own to tell can put people at ease as well. Do you have a collection of stories you curate in advance, or are you just becoming more practiced at drawing from your past at appropriate moments?

      And I do think being more gentle with myself over these issues is part of the solution. I tend to flub my sentences less with people I'm already comfortable with, so I think part of the worry really is just self-fulfilling prophecy. To compensate, I'm trying to savor the conversational experiences that have gone just fine, and not just dwell on what I did wrong.

  3. Good post, Owen. Your new goal is something we can all emulate.

    While I would not describe myself as shy, I don't really like large gatherings and sometimes feel physically uncomfortable prior to them. One thing that has helped (in answer to your first question) is to take a moment to pause before going in and remember that God is already at work in each person in the room, loving them, knowing them.

    Also, meeting new people when I have someone I know and trust by my side makes a huge difference. The feeling of being unheard is much less painful when I am confident at least that person knows me, so I am more free to be myself and to listen to others. Also it's pretty rare to feel socially stranded when with a close friend!

    1. That's a really nice ritual; it seems like a great way to get your focus off yourself and onto how you can serve God and your conversational neighbor. And it sounds like it would also alleviate some of the feeling of responsibility for how things will turn out, which would be nice.

      It does make a big difference when I have Clara with me, both for the reasons you mention, and because often the large gatherings are mostly filled with people Clara loves and trusts, which makes me more comfortable too. I had a great time at our wedding, for example!

  4. I don't have much advice as I'min the weird spot of being right on the borderline of extrovert/introvert, but I do know that I seem to have an easier time with self confidence when I am practicing self care. Something I didn't really start noticing until the past year or so…
    On a more random note, Desmond sat next to me while I read this post and thought the alpacas were cows and started mooing which led to a really fun morning activity of looking up what noise alpacas make and imitating them so thank you for our new learning time of the day!

    1. Interesting how changes in one part of your life lead to changes in another... At some point I want to write a post about other "keystone" habits like that.

      And you're welcome! When I first was writing the caption, I put "llamas," but I wasn't sure, so I finally looked up the difference. Apparently, alpacas are smaller, have straighter ears, and are primarily kept for the wool they produce, rather than raised as pack animals. Learning time for me too!

  5. I used to read as shy growing up, but I think that was nonsense. A lot of people have initially read me as shy, actually, and I find it incredibly bizarre. I don't feign interest well, so I can withdraw during small talk, which could perhaps send that signal.

    Honestly, I struggle with the opposite problem. I constantly worry that I am the person in the room taking up too much space, dominating a conversation, interjecting their thoughts to tell a long story their thing made me think of. I know I've interrupted you more than once in our friendship.

    You didn't stumble upon any good advice for the opposite problem, did you?

    1. Yes, I think boredom and discomfort can look pretty similar, since they both encourage detachment from what's going on around you.

      I didn't find any internet advice about it, but the times that I do have a long story to tell, I have the same worry. One thing I like to do is to tell the shortest hook or smallest version of the story or that I can, and then see what sort of response I get. Sometimes it's a polite "Hmm" and I take it as a cue that they're not really interested. Other times, it's an engaged request for more and I oblige. But even then, I try to look out for signs that they're losing interest (looking away, fidgeting, not mirroring my expressions, not supplying the "what happened next?" questions) and try to wrap it up if I think that's what's going on.

    2. Oh my goodness, I do that! In fact, I feel like I've honed the "one sentence version of what happened" into a really fun challenge. I have a 3 minute story on "the time I saw Sir Ian McKellan's penis" or "The time I opened a door and the room was gone."


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