I know what it’s like to be unable to talk to people

97-talking-to-strangersOftentimes when I give advice on how to be social, I can feel people thinking, “Oh, but he doesn’t understand. I have crippling social anxiety. For me, talking to people is torture.”

And it’s true that I can’t look into your heart and know how difficult things are for you. I’ve certainly never had a diagnosed anxiety disorder. Never had a panic attack or anything like that.

But for most of my life, I found it very difficult to talk to people and to make friends. I remember that when I was a reporter at my college newspaper, I would frequently blow my deadlines because I found the thought of calling people up to be so nervewracking that I’d put it off until I knew they’d be out of the office.

When I was in college, part of the reason I took up smoking was so that I’d have a reason to stand by myself for hours without looking completely out of place. Back then, I used to go to the same parties week after week and see the same people week after week, and I’d still find myself completely unable to talk to them. The only way that I knew how to socialize was to get incredibly drunk, night after night, and pray that somehow I’d punch through the glass wall that separated me from other people. And sometimes I was lucky. Sometimes, I’d find that magic drunken state that allowed me to talk to people, and I’d briefly manage to form a connection. Because of this, I literally cannot remember how I met most of my college friends.

But once I was sober, I couldn’t remember how any of it had worked.  When I was sober, I couldn’t talk to anyone. I’d hug the wall, completely silent, or stand at the edge of a conversation without ever saying a word. And then, when I couldn’t tolerate the loneliness anymore, I’d leave. And for the whole walk home, I’d berate myself about how terrible and awkward I was.

I also had incredible trouble with basic communication tasks. Like, I had an absolute blockage about calling people up and making plans. I just couldn’t do it. Instead, I’d wait around for them to get in touch with me. And when they didn’t, I’d spend the night alone. For some reason, text messaging also made me incredibly anxious. I just couldn’t do it. Something about sending out a text just seemed so bold and so forward, and it felt like I was taking such a huge liberty with another person. I remember that it felt like a huge victory, during my senior year of college, when I was finally able to text a friend of mine to say, “Hey, want to do something tonight?” And I remember that for years, that friend was the only person who I felt comfortable texting.

I don’t know what accounts for these feelings. I think it was just a sense of unworthiness. I felt like I had nothing to offer other people, and that there was no reason for anyone to want to choose to be with me, which meant that I mainly socialized by hanging around on porches or lounges or in parties and seeing whoever happened to be around. All of which meant that my romantic life was a complete shambles. I never had any romantic relationships in high school or in college, and I didn’t go on my first real date until I was twenty-five years old.

After school, I was just lost. During the two years I spent in DC, I had basically zero social life. The only people who I regularly saw were one friend from college and one friend from high school. And whenever I went to a party, I’d get so outrageously drunk that I’d feel embarrassed to ever see those people again.

Coming back from that was a very slow process. Even during my first years in Oakland, I found it hard to talk to new people and solidify new friendships. It wasn’t until I was in Baltimore and was completely on my own that I made an effort to figure out how to talk to strangers and how to turn acquaintances into friends.

Anyway, I’m writing this down so that you know where I’m coming from. I’ve gotten in trouble before because of things I’ve written about introversion and about social anxiety, and the truth is that I’m not a doctor or a scientist, and I don’t know to what extent shyness and anti-social behavior are innate character traits. Some people are okay with being shy, and that’s good for them. But other people are not okay with it. They desperately want to connect with other people, and are stymied by their own shyness. But instead of doing something about it, they say, “I am naturally shy. This is who I am.” And I don’t think that’s a helpful belief.

Because I know that it is possible for a person to change. For me, it took many years (more than a decade), but I’ve eventually reached a place where I am more comfortable in many social situations than most people are. Perhaps I’ll never be a charmer, but I am more socially adept than most people who never had to struggle with shyness.

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