The Things That Made The Biggest Difference When I Was First Improving My Own Social Skills
Over the years several people have written me to ask, "When you were first improving your own social skills, what are the changes you made that helped you the most?" I'll list them below, with the following disclaimers:
- Everyone's situation and issues they need to work on are different, so the things that were particularly helpful for me may not be as useful for you. It's not that what I focused on is the One True Way, and once you follow in my exact footsteps your own success will skyrocket. I wrote this article mainly to respond to the people who were curious about my background.
- Changing and improving is a gradual, ongoing process. While the things below felt like they gave me bigger bursts of progress, it's not like they transformed me overnight.
- They're the things that felt most helpful at the time, and which still seem that way looking back. However, it's possible a lot of my success came from more subtle, mundane changes that I didn't really notice I was doing at the time.
- My improvement came from working on many little areas. It's not that I just did the highlights below and nothing else.
Here they are:
Starting to get a handle on my comically insecure thoughts
This wasn't the most exciting, out-of-the-box change I made, but it was one of the first, and helped pave the way for everything else. The most insecure, counterproductive thoughts used to stream through my mind, and I took them all at face value. As one example of many, I remember sitting down with some co-workers in the break room at a part-time job and thinking, "The conversation I'm about to have with them is a test of my social skills and worth as a person." Then if I felt I hadn't done well enough I'd walk away believing, "They all hate me. They're all thinking about what a loser I am."
It was an important first step when I learned about challenging these kinds of thoughts. I could then walk into the same situation, catch my distorted thinking, and tell myself, "Chris, would you get a grip? One conversation won't make or break you. And everyone has other things to think about than to pick apart how well you're doing socially." These are some articles that go into more detail about those concepts:
Taking more initiative when trying to make friends
Of all the points, this one really felt like it made an immediate, noticeable difference once it clicked into place. I didn't hang out with friends nearly as often as I would have liked in high school and university. I talked to people at my classes and part-time jobs and got along well with some of them, but when it came to taking the relationship to the next level I unconsciously had a passive attitude. I waited for them to invite me out, and if they didn't I assumed they weren't interested and that something was wrong with me. I only had plans when other people made the first move. My social life got a lot better when I belatedly realized I could show an interest in people and try to organize plans myself. I learned many people were open to being friends with me, but they weren't going to spontaneously do the work to befriend me themselves. I had to take charge and get on their radar first. This article covers these ideas:
Giving potential friends more of a chance
When I was younger I could be too picky about who I wanted to be friends with. Someone could make friendly gestures toward me and I often had a sense that I could do better. It was all based in my low self-esteem. In order to cushion my ego and reject people before they rejected me I had a false sense that I was above everyone else. I was also reluctant to hang out with anyone who I deemed as odd or dorky, because they reflected my own insecurities back at me, and I cared too much about how everyone would judge me for hanging out with them. My social life got better when I gave people who were interested in being friends with me a chance. I often found that I enjoyed their company once I pushed through my initial self-sabotaging doubts and pickiness.
Making an active effort to practice my social skills and catch up on the experience I'd missed
This one is more general. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but there was a line between when I was vaguely aware I was unhappy with my social life, but I was still half-consciously bumbling along and not thinking too hard about what the reasons might be, and when I knew exactly what my weak areas were. Once I knew where I stood, I realized I was generally behind in social experience and made it a point to be around people more often and catch up. I started deliberately approaching interactions as chances to learn, rather than as scary trials hoped I could somehow get through.
Backpacking in Australia after university
The biggest way I caught up on social experience was by visiting Australia for nine months. Once I got home a few people commented that I seemed different. I went alone, so if I didn't push myself to get to know anyone I would have been bored and lonely. I mostly stayed in hostels, where I met a ton of other international travelers. I was around people all the time. They were almost all friendly, eager to get to know each other, and looking to meet a group to hang out with, even if it was only for the four days they were in town. I made some good friends, who openly told me they liked my company, which boosted my confidence.
You can also party quite a bit on the Australian backpacker circuit if you want to, and that's something I did during the first half of my trip. I hardly think everyone has to like or care about partying, but personally I had no problem with it, and felt like I didn't get to do enough of it in college. Having the chance to do it so much overseas helped me catch up on that aspect of the social world. It helped me develop the fun, easygoing side of my personality. I talk about the benefits of traveling in this article:
Trying to become more well-rounded and have more to talk about
One day it struck me that I wasn't that well-rounded, and that it may be easier to talk to and relate to people if I had more knowledge and life experience under my belt. I made a point of trying and learning about new things. It felt like it helped my conversations in a "wax on, wax off" kind of way. I wasn't directly practicing my social skills, but by fleshing myself out I gained more potential things to relate to people over. In hindsight it's not that I had to become more well-rounded. Lots of people have good social lives with a more limited set of interests. But it didn't hurt. This article expands on the concept:
Improving my fashion sense
There's no other way to say it. In high school and most of university I dressed like a stereotypical dweeb. I wore glasses with not-especially-fashionable frames. My haircut was bland and gave people a neutral impression at best. I wore dull clothes that I didn't put much thought into. It's not that my appearance completely held me back, but it wasn't helping either. Toward the end of university I made an effort to dress better. I made my mistakes and bought some clothes that were overly flashy or dressy. I didn't become a fashion expert overnight - I'm still not one. However, on the whole my outfits looked nicer. In Australia I broke my glasses and decided on the spur of the moment to replace them with contacts. That's also where I grew my hair out at a friend's suggestion. I got a positive response to each of these changes. Again, it's not that my social life was dead before, and instantly bloomed after I changed my look, but overall people had a better first impression of me and I felt more confident. Check out this article for more thoughts:
Learning to loosen up and accept aspects of the social world for what they were
I don't know how much this affected my outer results, but it made social situations subjectively more enjoyable and easier to handle. I used to be more tightly wound. I got annoyed in settings where everyone was being loud and thoughtless and goofy, and not following what I saw as the "rules", like rowdy group conversations. A weight was lifted when I learned to go with the flow and accept that not every conversation will be calm, orderly, or intellectual, but that they can be fun in their own way. These articles go into more detail:
So those are the factors that I think made the biggest difference in my social skills when I was first improving them. Like I said, they weren't the only ones. It was a lot of small changes that added up. You could go to any random article on this site and it will have ideas in it that helped me at some point.