Imagine you’re shy, maybe an introvert, trying to connect with strangers. You go to a party and, not knowing many people there, you stick with the one or two people that you do know.
You don’t introduce yourself to new people and after the party is over, you feel like a failure, because you had every intention of doing so. You actually want to broaden your circle of friends.
You also chide yourself for the lack of people who approached you, and you tell yourself it was your shy and reserved attitude that prevented anyone from wanting to get to know you in the first place. You think something along the lines of: "Why would they want to introduce themselves to me? I'm not exactly the most out-going and spontaneous of people and I have nothing of importance to say anyway."
Isn’t it a self-fulfilling prophesy? The more you feel like you are not interesting, the less you approach others and the more likely you put out vibes to others to stay away and not even bother to try to get to know you.
It's a sore spot, to be this vulnerable. To be afraid of being rejected or found wanting by others. Yet most of the hurt is caused by you beating yourself up and talking to yourself in such negative terms. It’s not caused by others’ perceived rejection.
To avoid the pain you can avoid the situation. Eventually you stop going to parties. You come up with any excuse to just not go when you’re invited. You start to feel lonely and cut off from society and become something of a hermit.
I have a history of doing this exact behavior. Maybe you recognize it as part of your experience, too.
It is not uncommon, this pain avoidance. We're born with this instinct and we can be very creative with it. Parents do it for their children: they remove anything that could hurt them in any way. In other words, they soften the sharp edges.
I realize now that I was trying to soften my sharp edges, my less-than-perfect experience of connecting to strangers.
The imagery of sharp edges came to me as I was reading the book "The Gifts of Imperfection," by Brené Brown. I used to read it on my way into work. I recommended this book for some of my coaching clients. It's a beautiful book.
There is a chapter about creating resilience when it comes to experiencing painful feelings. Resilience, in this context, means getting through the feelings using positive responses, rather than negative ones.
Here's another example of a negative response:
Say you are ashamed about your body because you've gained weight and none of your clothes fit right anymore. As a response to hating the situation you're in, you no longer go to the beach which you used to love doing, and to help yourself feel better, you eat comfort food and stay away from sex with your partner.
Rather than doing something about the weight, you feel like a failure for not being the thin person you once were or want to be. These thoughts cause more depression-like symptoms which drain your energy.
Pain avoidance doesn’t actually stop the pain. It simply replaces it with another. What do you do as pain avoidance? Maybe you drink to numb the feelings. Maybe you go to your doctor to get medications to control your moods.
Others might be more subtle and I'm definitely one of those. My avoidance has been to simply not address it. To tell myself I can handle whatever the issue is, and to keep it to myself. Pretend on the outside like it's not even there. Hide the pain.
What Brené Brown suggests in her book is that feelings of inadequacy or a lack of confidence are part of the human experience. But those who overcome it, who are resilient, are those who own it. They are more compassionate towards themselves than those who are using avoidance or other numbing devices to deal with these painful feelings.
A different response to the same painful feelings of rejection and loneliness would work something like this:
You go to the party knowing you'll likely be shy and reserved around strangers. But when you're at the party, you acknowledge verbally or by behavior that you're socially awkward when you meet new people. Perhaps you say something like: "I'm not good at these types of social functions. I never know what to say." Or you make a joke about it: "I work in IT, so don't expect some witty repartee." The key here is to be compassionate towards yourself and you might find that there are others exactly like you, who are as equally awkward and shy. That shared experience could get you past your inhibitions and help you move on to the next hurdle, actually having a conversation together.
At the end of the day, you might not have made a close friend or even had the most riveting conversation, but you've moved beyond the barriers you saw before, the one that is based on this belief: "No one likes to talk to me because I'm too shy." You’ve now proven this isn’t true.
Your win is that you keep your sharp edges, your imperfections as you see them, without experiencing pain as a result. You work with the sharp edges, rather than trying to hide them or pretend they aren't there, such as believing: "Try to be like everyone else and you won't stand out."
This kind of bravery requires some practice, but we are capable, when we put our minds to it. Try to not soften the sharp edges.