As a social phobe, I have a pretty profound fear of small talk. I’m afraid that I will sound boring or unintelligent. I’m also quite afraid of awkward silences permeating my conversations. For some reason, I’m always convinced that if I allow silence in a conversation, it means I’m inherently a bad conversationalist. I worry that my social ineptitude will prevent me from making friends and forming meaningful relationships.
Obviously, these obsessive thoughts are spawned from a place of catastrophizing, self-deprecating anxieties. My perceived social ineptitude is not a concrete being; it’s just a (flawed) social perception. It’s an opinion I have of myself. It’s not a fact.
I’ve argued for paradigm shifts before when I wrote about not being so hard on yourself. This is another time for one of those paradigm shifts. Unfortunately for most of us, some of our so-called “core beliefs” are so ingrained in our psyches that challenging them with rational thinking is analogous to breaking down a brick wall with a feather. Sometimes, we need a catalyst to overturn (or even simply budge) our core beliefs.
For me, that catalyst was online dating.
As part of my exposure therapy plan from my summer therapy sessions, I had devised a list of small-talk-related situations that caused me anxiety, ranked in order of distress. Dating was near the top of the list. There’s something about sitting down with someone whom you’ve never met (or never spoken to one-on-one) and having to forge conversation that makes me want to crawl out of my skin. What if I run out of things to say? What if I’m uninteresting? What if I laugh too much, or too little? What if my eyes start watering and I look like I’m crying? What if I say something ignorant or offensive without realizing? Obsessive thoughts cloud my mind.
As the old adage goes, “Practice makes perfect.” I think dating — and more generally, small talk — is no different. The first date I went on this summer, I was terrified. While I was waiting at the bar for my date to arrive, I seriously considered just running away and pretending something had come up. But I didn’t. I stayed there, and it was a fairly pleasant time.
The more dates I went on, the easier it got. But over time, I found that it wasn’t just dating that was getting easier. I was (and still am) becoming more confident in my social skills. I may not have the best social skills, but honestly, I could be a lot worse off. I started realizing that it wasn’t always my fault if conversation died out. I realized that, even if I did make ignorant statements or ask unintelligent questions, other people were making the same sort of statements and asking the same sorts of questions at the same (or even a higher) rate.
I’ve now been on about a dozen dates this summer. And I’ve never run out of conversation; I’ve never had a particularly awkward moment; I’ve never said anything offensive. I’ve even felt at times like I was the one driving the conversation, not the other way around like I was used to. I learned that I am perfectly capable of maintaining a conversation, and also that it takes two people to have an awkward silence, not just one.
This isn’t to say that I’ve mastered my social anxiety. I’m far from that. But what I have managed is to start seeing myself in a new light. Instead of focusing on my failures, I have begun to start focusing more on my successes.
Dating may not be your catalyst of choice, but I think there is an outlet waiting for you. There’s an outlet that will teach you to see yourself in a new light. You just have to go out and find it.
What was your catalyst? Have you been able to overcome any of your core beliefs? Let me know in the comments!