I’ve been reading your blogs and watching your videos for a few months now, and would like your input on something. So, I’m a guy who struggles with vulnerability and opening up.
Yeah, I know. Super original. Right up there with Villains Wear Black and Elf with a Bow.
My social skills are the weirdest stat array I’ve encountered. I do pretty well in group settings with people I’m familiar with. Parties with friends, Dn\&D sessions, gaming online with buddies, family events, Socratic seminars (back in school). I’m also resident meme lord in my active friend groups. Hell, I can even handle public speaking.
Part of this is the structure. In these contexts, I can partake in the conversation as needed. I can go in, say what I want, and pull back when done. Others pick up, and it flows on. For public speaking, I don’t have to zero in on one person, and the audience’s responses are generally nonverbal. And either way, these scenarios give me time to think of what to say (even a few seconds counts big time).
However, I have trouble with one-on-one conversations. And individual small talk is tricky at my current level.
Even with family and trusted friends, I naturally close up when it’s just me and someone else. It’s always awkward, and nothing naturally comes to me. I use the bare minimum on my end to keep the conversation going, mostly listening. It takes way more mental effort than the things I’m good at, to read the other person, try to interpret their statements, then ready a response in good time. I either say very little, or I ramble with more tangents than a geometry textbook.
It’s bizarre that I can give a public speech but struggle with a five-minute conversation. Most people have at least one of those parts flipped.
This carries over to groups I’m unfamiliar with. I generally don’t like being in crowds, for instance. In both these adverse situations, my guard is always up, and I haven’t yet cracked how to get it down.
Naturally, my dating life needs a little help. And by “a little help,” I mean a defibrillator.
This isn’t for lack of trying; I have been engaging more with others individually, but the results are the same. The “keep practicing ’til you git gud noob” approach hasn’t helped; at least, not on its own. Social skills can of course be developed, but knowing what you’re doing wrong in social settings is one such skill. Being underdeveloped with it can stall the growth of the others.
So much easier to identify and learn from mistakes in things like games. “Oh, we weren’t watching our flank, and that’s why they were able to sneak around and delete us faster than a homophobic pastor’s browsing history.”
Thing is, it’s not necessarily a fear of what others think, as much as having an off-course natural response. I’m also not going to pretend to know what’s going on in other people’s heads. Is the cute new hire glancing toward me because she likes what she sees, or do I just happen to be in line of sight? No clue, and assumption is the fastest path to nowhere.
Cold approaches are off the table for the time being, warm ones not faring much better. Example: few months ago, I had two events with friends. A woman there, a mutual connection I’d met a couple times before, was there for both. I started to like her, but any time I talked with her individually, the same thing kept happening.
(Shocker, she got a boyfriend a month afterward. I’ve already moved on, and I’m happy for her.)
Thing is, I’m mostly good in life. Doing better in my health and career. I have great friends who don’t encourage or enable negative mindsets. Hell, I even have affordable housing (which may not sound like much, but I’m a Millennial).
I’m not horrendously ugly, either. If I posted a swimsuit photo, I’d probably get a lot of compliments.
…about how brave I am.
In any case, here’s where I’m at now, and I’d like to learn how to open up more.
(I can feel a “The problem you think you’re having isn’t the problem you’re actually having” looming behind me. Like Mike Myers Cat in the Hat with the baseball bat. The fuck was up with that movie anyway?)
Please and thank you,
Your Friendly Neighborhood Meme Lord
It’s not surprising that you have no problem with public speaking. Public speaking is broadcasting. It’s one-way. You’re not interacting with people, you’re projecting your message. It’s ultimately just you saying something and you’re done without the expectation of feedback or a reply.
Moreover, you know exactly what the topic is and what you’re going to say. Even if you’re just improvising or winging it, you’re almost always working from some sort of guidelines – a subject and bullet points you want to hit. And if you do a Q&A after, you can reasonably expect that the questions will be about the content of what you just said, which means that you don’t need to worry too much about what you’re going to say next.
It is, in a lot of ways, like bowling with bumpers in the gutters. You’re not guaranteeing a strike every time, but you also have the confidence of knowing you’re not going to whiff it entirely.
When you’re using the voice chat in online games, you’re not catching up with your friends, you’re strategizing, plotting, executing. When you’re playing D&D, I imagine you’re spending more time getting ready to handle puzzles or combat encounters and less time role-playing, or treating interacting with the NPCs like solving a problem. That, again, is more broadcasting.
Even when you talk about being in group settings, you’re broadcasting. When someone’s holding court – or “saying what I had to say and get out” in your case – you’re operating like a radio. It’s one-way only; you said your thing and now other people are going to jump in and say theirs.
You’ve gotten used to the broadcasting model. And it’s not really a surprise. It’s safe. It’s pre-set. You have a guide rails to show you where to go and to keep you from veering wildly off course.
Small talk isn’t broadcasting. Small talk is interacting. There are no guide rails; there’s a path that is vaguely demarcated but with lots of little areas that may or may not be trails branching off in different directions. You are working without a net, without a compass and only a relatively vague map that leaves a lot of stuff under “here there be Discourse”.
And that’s where things are tripping you up. You aren’t used to working without defined parameters, a path that says “You’re going here, expecting this, hitting these points”. Conversations go in any number of places, veer into all sorts of alleys and dead ends and unexpected directions. It probably seems really easy to get lost.
But as the saying goes: not all those who wander are lost.
Now, based on a few things you’ve said, I’m going to guess you’re a critical-path-er. That is: you like finding the fastest, surest route to the end goal. You’re trying to read intentions, guess what’s on people’s minds and get to whatever needs doing or to be done ASAP.
But that’s not how people work, and that’s definitely not how small talk works. Small talk is about not knowing; you’re using small talk to get to know somebody, even if it’s just catching up on what they’ve been up to lately. And if you’re busy trying to read meaning or intent when you’re making small talk… well, yeah, you’re going to be having problems. This is where you end up being the person who’s not listening, so much as waiting for their turn to talk.
The problem you’re having… wait for it…
…is that you’re getting lost in your own head.
(Had you going, didn’t I? Well, that’s conversation for you; you don’t always know where it’s going to go.)
You’re spending way too much time trying to analyze things instead of actually being in the moment. You’re critical-pathing and broadcasting and the disconnect between what you’re comfortable with and what you’re attempting to do is getting your wires crossed.
Case in point: you say it’s taking too much effort to try to read the person and infer meaning in what they’re saying. What if – and hear me out – you stopped doing that and just… took what they say at face value? Yeah, I know, there’s all sorts of shit about trying to figure out the “real” meaning or parsing things from tone or treating every conversation like a pair of courtiers trying to out intrigue one another but honestly? Nine times out of ten, what people are saying is just that: what they’re saying. They may not always be the best at communicating, but more often than not, you can take what folks say as being exactly what it seems. Nobody’s laying traps for you and the ones who are tend to be either glaringly obvious about it or aren’t acting in good faith anyway, so fuck ’em.
The fact of the matter is that a lot of folks over-analyze and overthink and exhaust themselves trying to squeeze every possible angle and nuance out of every sentence. But the vast majority of people you’re going to deal with are going to be very surface level. Digging for nuance and hidden meaning is only going to get in the way, because you’ll be digging for things that really aren’t there. And as a result, you’ll be expending way more brainpower and using up more bandwidth than you need, at best. At worst… well, then you start seeing things that aren’t there.
Most of the time though? The way you figure out what people are saying or meaning or thinking is to just… listen. Does that new hire think you’re cute? Well, if you just chat with her, you’ll figure out pretty quickly if it really was that you were just in her eye line… or if she’s interested in more.
Similarly, you don’t need to think of the exact right thing to say. Perfection is both overrated and unnecessary. The C or B rank answer is going to be more than sufficient than going for the S ranking you seem to think you need. When you’re talking with people, whether family, friends or potential lovers, they aren’t expecting Voltaire. They’re just expecting you. And if things get a bit rambly or go off in unexpected directions… well, sometimes that happens.
Now if you’ve been reading my column, then presumably you’ve seen what I’ve written about how to be someone people like to talk to and how to strike up conversations with anyone. These will teach you the vast majority of what you need, which is ultimately: listen more than you talk, relate to what they say, and use their answers as spring boards for new questions.
But one thing you should keep in mind is that you don’t need to be Johnny-on-the-spot with a reply. Instead, just take a moment. Maybe nod thoughtfully and make a “hmm” sound. You don’t need to fill the air with constant chatter like verbal flack because you’re afraid of silence.
In fact, being quiet for a moment before you reply is frequently a good thing. It conveys the sense that you’re actually putting some thought into what they had to say, giving it some real consideration instead of – again – just waiting for your turn to talk. The fact that you’re really thinking about what they have to say is incredibly appealing; most of the time, people don’t really care what we think. When someone takes our opinions or our stories seriously and wants to know more instead of immediately just using it as a chance to talk about themselves? Well that feels incredible.
Especially to women. Ask any woman how often folks want to know what they actually think or what they have to say, and how much it hits when someone legitimately wants to hear more and gives it real consideration.
But what about weird tangents or going off topic? Well, most of the time, that’s just conversation. What you start off talking about isn’t always what you finish on. However, you know how you handle tangents or weird diversions? You use a transition. “Wow, that’s amazing. That actually reminds me…” or “You know, funny thing…” Transitional phrases bridge the gap between what you started talking about and what you’re talking about now. Is it truly connected to the original topic? Probably not. Will anyone notice or even care? Not really. Most people know that conversations are winding, rambly things. It’s part of human nature, and we cut conversational threads all the time and jump to new ones without even noticing the change.
So my suggestion is that you get out of your head and be more in the moment. If you really struggle with being present instead of constantly thinking about what you’re going to say next, then I’d suggest finding some improvisation lessons. The key to successful improv isn’t to try to be witty or clever; in fact, those only get in your way. The key to improv is to be present and in the moment, to react to what others are saying and doing and to build on it instead of trying to overshadow them or have the right zinger or the best bon mot. And it definitely
Spend a little less time broadcasting and a little more time being in the moment and exchanging, and I think you’ll find that it comes much easier, and gets you better results. The less you feel like you have to force things down a certain path, the more you’ll be able to relax and just enjoy the journey instead of trying to get to the end.
Hello Dr. NerdLove,
I’m writing you because I’m in a situation that I never really imagined I’d be in. To give you some background, I’m like a lot of the men that write to you; I’m a younger 20-something guy who has been awkward all his life and has had zero success in love. It was too the point that I would rather stay up all night trying to figure out what was wrong with me than sleep. I should be an incel, I guess I am in a literal sense of the term (involuntarily celibate), but I just don’t have the anger in me to blame everyone else, even if it’s almost relieving to do so.
Fast forward to today and I’m nearly a completely different person. I’m relatively successful for my age, I just moved to a new city with someone who’s helped me grow a lot, and I’m definitely a bit more confident than I was, to the point that I could approach women if I wanted to. But there’s still a little bit of the old me, the part that can’t watch or read certain things because it triggers a sense of inadequacy. Deep inside I’m just still inadequate as a man.
But that aside, I’ve found that I have a problem that I never imagined I could have. Instead of feeling suicidal because no one could ever love me like so many men my age, instead I find myself having trouble finding someone I could love (a problem that I don’t think many men my age experience), and I just feel a sort of deep unease over it.
I downloaded all of the major dating apps, threw my best photos on there, and I even got some traction. That’s something I never would have been able to do just a year ago. I even go outside regularly. But I just can’t see myself ever meeting someone I can love. Someone who makes me feel indescribable feelings, or at least feelings that my rudimentary vocabulary can’t properly convey.
I did everything right. Worked on myself, just like the internet told me to. I got a great job, I’m physically active, I’m not awful looking, I have a distinct personality. And I even kind of did it for myself instead of just doing it to attract women, just like the internet told me too.
To summarize my question; What can I do when I just can’t find anyone who I can love? I don’t feel like my standards are too high, I’m not looking for anyone more attractive, more intelligent, more financially or professionally successful, or just more interesting than I am. I’m very much going with the flow, but the flow appears to have taken a left turn that I don’t know how to deal with.
Thank you for your time,
Sad-Reddit-Dwelling-Virgin-Loser no. 1235500
First of all, let’s not zoom past your progress, man. You’ve moved, you’ve grown, you’re in a new place and you’re doing things you never imagined that you were capable of. That’s really goddamn impressive, and I think you need to take a moment and give yourself some applause for what you’ve accomplished.
That’s going to be important in a second.
Now having said that, let’s define terms here, SRD. What exactly is it that you feel like you’re lacking? Is it that you’re not meeting people? Is it that the people you’re meeting aren’t clicking? Are you’re looking around and not feeling your heart leap out of your chest when you see people? Or is it that you’re seeing people you find attractive, but you aren’t allowing yourself to feel for them, because you’re afraid that they won’t return your feelings or that they’ll eventually just abandon you?
If I’m being honest, I think it’s the latter. It’s not that you’re not meeting people, or that you aren’t meeting people you’re compatible with or could be with. It’s that you don’t feel like you are “worthy” of love. You drop a lot of words like “inadequate” or “loser” and “I just can’t see myself ever meeting someone I can love“
I mean… not to put to fine a point on it but there’s your problem. It’s not that you can’t find someone to love. It’s that you can’t see someone loving you. That’s decidedly a case of having unreasonable standards… not for other people, but for yourself.
You spend a lot of time kicking yourself in the nuts in your letter, my dude, and honestly, that’s where things are going wrong for you. You’ve built up this idea that all the work you’ve done and all the progress you’ve made doesn’t mean anything. You’re still “inadequate”. Which, ok, sure, those feelings are real. But what does “inadequate” even mean? You don’t say what it is that you think you’re lacking. And honestly, that part matters because… well, in some ways, it’s the missing piece, yeah? Without the thing, that je ne se quoi or secret sauce you apparently lack, you don’t feel worthy. You don’t feel like people could love you.
But this gets right back to that Ru Paul quote. How are people supposed to love you when you don’t love yourself? Not because not loving yourself means you aren’t worthy of being love, but because you don’t feel like you can accept that other people might love you.
It’s really easy to mistake this feeling for not being able to find someone to love because you aren’t allowing yourself to be open to the possibility that it could happen. You’re putting up a wall that keeps people out. It’s understandable; you’re worried about being hurt. You feel like letting yourself feel hope or attraction to others is just an invitation to rejection. But people can’t love you if you don’t let them in. If you aren’t willing to believe in your own worth, your own value… well, why would you believe other people could?
Now, again: you don’t say what you think those inadequacies are. And I’m gonna be real with you: I’ve been doing this job for a long damn time now, and folks tend to have a wildly exaggerated idea of what they need to be “deserving” of love or to be “adequate”. So I’m going to suggest that maybe, just maybe, you’ve gotten in the habit of kicking yourself for so long that you’re almost afraid to stop. Like, what happens if you recognize that you didn’t need to beat yourself up so much?
Spoiler alert: you end up being a lot happier.
With all that being said, I do want to mention that the aforementioned Ru Paul quote gets some pushback from folks who, rightly, point out that loving yourself isn’t a prerequisite to being loveable or being deserving of love. And to be sure, sometimes learning to love yourself is also the process of learning to undo a lot of damage and lessons learned and to change your relationship to a lot of things you may see as truths. So it may help to see this in terms of “learn to accept yourself”, rather than to love yourself, and recognize that being “worthy” of love isn’t really a thing. Love doesn’t only come when you’re “worthy”. Love comes with being able to accept it from others.
You’ve done a great job with all the progress you’ve made so far. Now would be a good time to start putting that same effort, that same diligence and that same emotional fortitude into learning to accept yourself and accept that other people could love you… and to allow yourself to feel it in return.
Will this be easy? Probably not. You may well need to talk to a counselor or therapist to unpick some self-limiting beliefs that are holding you back. But as the wise man once said: nobody said it would be easy, just that it would be worth it.
(…that was me. I’m the wise man who said that.)
You’ve made a lot of progress my dude. Don’t let it all be for not. Shift your focus and keep at it, and you’ll be much happier overall. And when you do find someone who is your particular flavor…
Well, you’ll be ready for them.
This post was previously published on Doctornerdlove.com and is republished on Medium.
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