Being Aware Of Less-Healthy Motivations For Working On Your Social Problems

Everyone who wants to improve their social situation has motivations for doing so, and I think some of them are more healthy than others. I don't know if "healthy" is the exact right word for it, but I couldn't think of a better one, and you probably know what I'm getting at. I'd say the ideal motivation for wanting to work on your people skills is that while you accept yourself on the whole and think you're a fundamentally worthwhile person, you want to eliminate some specific weaknesses you have, because you think it will lead you to have a more enjoyable, fulfilling life.

However, in many people having weak social skills goes hand in hand with a poor self-image and all kinds of other mental baggage. When they decide to change their social situation their motivations can be influenced by factors like low self-esteem, a lack of self-acceptance, believing negative messages from society, over-compensation, and having an unrealistic idea of what gaining more social success will lead to.

Below are some common less-healthy motivations people have for wanting to tackle their social problems. Many of them are similar to each other. If any of the below apply to you, don't feel you're flawed or that you failed in some way. Our fallible human minds just tend to settle on them. Also, many of the following motivations aren't that, that bad in the grand scheme of things. All things being equal it would be better if they weren't there, but they often aren't especially harmful. Even if they're misguided, they can still propel you to make a lot of positive changes.

People tend to grow out of them as well as they start to experience more success. Also, compared to other areas, people don't tend to go that far off the rails when they have the wrong reasons for wanting to turn around their social lives. For example, someone will often get into much more trouble if they have self-hating, over-compensating reasons for wanting to make a ton of money or rack up a lot of sexual conquests. In the end, even if some of the motivations below aren't that crippling, it never hurts to have more self-awareness about what makes you tick.

Wanting to change an aspect of how you socialize because of negative messages from society

While I think things are slowly becoming more accepting, there are still many negative, inaccurate messages in society about certain interests or styles of socializing. As I was saying, I think if someone decides to work on their social skills, it should be because they see a practical benefit to it, not because they've falsely been told all their life how screwed up they are. I don't think you need to disregard every message you ever get from the outside world, but you should at least weigh what you hear instead of blindly accepting it all at face value.

Let's take playing video games as an example. There's the outdated stereotype that anyone who plays games is a basement dwelling virgin. If someone was a gamer, and they took an honest look at their habits and concluded, "I probably do play too much. It's keeping me cooped up inside. I use games to distract myself from my loneliness, and they allow me to avoid confronting my anxiety around people" then that would be a valid, internally motivated reason to try to cut down. However, if someone's gaming wasn't interfering with their life, I wouldn't want them to stop playing just because some out of touch people think it's a dorky waste of time.

Another example would be the belief that there's something wrong with anyone who isn't super-outgoing. Again, if someone was more reserved, but they could see some tangible benefits in trying to become more chatty and open at times, that's one thing. But no one should try to change just because they've absorbed the narrative that they're a weird loser for having their own preferences for how they like to communicate.

Feeling you won't be a worthwhile person until you improve your social skills

Being socially awkward can obviously make life more painful and isolating. However, it doesn't mean you're a fundamentally horrible, broken person. Just because you sometimes feel shy around people or say the wrong things doesn't put you in the same category as, say, a war criminal.

While setting out to boost their social skills, some people tell themselves, unconsciously or otherwise, "I'm a total loser because I'm awkward. Once I get over that I'll be worthy as a human being." There's nothing wrong with disliking your social weaknesses or the problems they cause. However, the whole premise of that quote is wrong. You're not currently a complete loser just because you're not as socially savvy as you could be. And improving your communication skills won't suddenly make you a worthwhile person. Some of the scummiest swindlers are likable smooth talkers.

Feeling you totally have to get away from your flawed current self

This point is similar to the one above. Here someone has a certain image of what their faulty current self is like, and they feel they won't feel happy or satisfied until they've changed into a totally different, unrecognizable person. They may attach a negative label to their current social self like "geek", "nerd" or "loser". While there's nothing wrong with wanting to evolve away from an older self that makes you unhappy, the problem with this mentality is that it tends to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In an attempt to change one small aspect of themselves someone may also try to take on additional traits and interests that aren't a good fit for them.

For example, someone may see their current self as a "geeky loser", someone who's socially inept, and who also likes dressing up and taking part in historical reenactments. There's nothing wrong with that hobby, but in their eagerness to disavow themselves of everything they used to be, they may turn their back on their old friends and pastimes. They may try to spend time with a new crowd who they have little in common with. It's fine to want more friends or self-confidence, but you don't have to also toss away all the things that just happened to be in your life at the same time as your awkward phase.

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Designating a particular type of people as the arbiter of your social skills and your overall worthiness as a person

This point sometimes ties into the above one. While viewing themselves unfavorably, and wanting to move away from their current selves, someone may also hold up a certain group as being the epitome of social success, and therefore the judge of their value as a human being. They might place so much importance on this group's opinion because they were rejected by them in the past, and now want to win their approval to "even things out". They may also be influenced by skewed messages from society about which groups are better than others. For example, a college student who sees himself as a "nerd" may view frat boy types as being at the top of the social ladder. On another level he may dislike a lot of what they represent, but he still believes that their way of doing things socially are superior to his.

This example student will work to become what he thinks frat bros are like. He'll try to think like they think. He may turn his back on his old interests because he "knows" frat boys wouldn't approve. Everything he does is to unconsciously make himself more acceptable to them. He thinks that if he can become the kind of person that frat guys would want to hang out with, it means he's finally arrived and his social problems are behind him.

Now if someone was working on their social skills and wanted to try some traditional frat boy interests or behaviors on for size, there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that. People don't need to force themselves into rigid either-or categories. Someone who's into anime may find they also like going to parties and playing beer pong. However, there's a difference between experimenting or adding new facets to your personality on your own terms, compared to feeling your self-worth depends on conforming to an arbitrary group's standards.

Feeling you have to "show" certain people

Once again, this one sounds a lot like the previous point, but the intent is a bit different. Above the idea was to mold yourself to fit the criteria of a loose subculture, and making that the measuring post of your improvement. Here the motivation is to grow socially so you can throw it in the face of the people who used to reject you. This may include particular individuals (e.g., the five mean popular girls at your high school), or just a general group who stands in for the kind of people who wouldn't have wanted anything to do with your awkward self. You know your motivation falls under this heading when you have daydreams of having changed and seeing people's shocked, envious expressions when they catch a glimpse of the new you. Maybe the fantasy involves running into people on the street or making a triumphant return to your high school reunion.

The downside of this type of motivation is that you're putting your self-esteem into other people's hands. Whether you realize it or not, you're also letting them dictate the tone of what changes you make. You're improving yourself in a direction that would rattle those particular people, and not necessarily moving to a place that would make your personally happy. For example, a woman who was an ugly duckling in high school may try to turn herself into a superficially hot Barbie doll type, to "show" all the guys who made fun of her. However, deep down she may have been happier to go more in the direction of becoming a grungy musician. A final issue is that if you actually run into the people you want to "show", they often won't give you the reaction, and sense of closure, you're looking for.

Feeling you have to gain a massive amount of social success to make up for your years of awkwardness

This is classic over-compensation. If someone fails at something for a significant amount of time, or during a period in their lives where they should have been doing well at it, they'll often feel they have to be extra-successful in order to make up for their previous losses and restore their self-esteem. Someone who's had social success their whole life may be happy with a handful of close friends, and think nothing of it. A guy who ate lunch alone all through high school may feel he has to become the center of his college campus and date everything that moves. A formerly awkward person may also fear falling back into their old ways down the road, and think the only way to avoid that happening is to completely overshoot their goals, just to be on the safe side.

Putting too much emphasis on external validation

This is another classic one that can apply to all kinds of areas. People can get feelings of validation and approval from both internal and external sources. For example, an artist may feel internally validated by enjoying the creative process for its own sake, and receive external validation from steady sales of her work. In the social world internal validation could take the form of enjoying your friends and connecting with people, while not worrying much about how your social life looks to others. Someone could be externally validated by having lots of friends, being in the "right" clique, being thought of as fun and popular, being constantly contacted and invited to places, and having people listen to their suggestions.

There's nothing wrong with liking external validation in moderation. Hardly anyone is a monk who is completely internally driven and unaffected by what other people think of them. However, you can run into trouble if your self-esteem is poor, and you're trying to prop it up by basing your entire sense of self-worth on external indicators of success.

There are two problems with doing this: The first is that since your self-esteem can't stay upright on its own, you need constant boosts of external validation to keep it propped up. As soon as that outside praise goes away, you're back to where you started. The second is that you end up wanting more and more, and because your self-esteem isn't being generated from within, nothing will ever really be enough. There's always someone receiving bigger signs of external recognition than you are, and you'll take that as a sign that you're not as worthy as you thought you were. One weekend you get invited to three parties and feel amazing. The next you try to organize a movie night and no one wants to go, and you feel like a loser. You go to class and five people say 'hi' to you on the way there and you feel like the man, then someone more popular walks by and you suddenly feel like you don't measure up.

Chasing a vague vision of total social success, which you think will make your life perfect

When people are insecure or unhappy with an aspect of their lives they'll sometimes unconsciously construct a happy, but unrealistic, vision of what their life would look like if they were totally over their problems. They imagine that once they've gotten to this place all their problems will cease to exist. The rub is that this end goal is often nothing more than an ill-defined daydream. For example, someone who's lonely and socially clueless may conjure up an image where their life is perfect because they're so popular at a party that everyone is coming up to talk to them.

Of course, no one's existence ever suddenly becomes effortless and pain-free once they reach a certain point. If someone is fundamentally insecure, no amount of external success will make them feel whole either. As I mentioned at the start of this article, this type of motivation is fairly harmless. It's just a slightly naive fantasy that many people grow out of as they get closer to their fictional goal and get a more realistic idea of what the terrain is like.

Wanting to become high-status and popular so you can be mean to people the way they were to you

If you were picked on you may imagine there's a feeling of power and satisfaction you'd get from being the one dishing it out. You might think it would feel great to be the in-demand aloof person who gets to flick everyone aside, or make snarky comments all day and get away with it. It's not the most admirable part of human nature, but there is a thrill in the idea of getting to indulge your jerkish impulses and not face any consequences. I also understand how someone could see it as balancing things out to get their turn as the nasty popular kid. But assuming you reach this goal, any rush you get from being mean will be fleeting, it won't erase the scars from your past, and you'd just be spreading your pain around to people who had nothing to do with how you were mistreated.

This article covers similar ground, but is focused on reasons people can regret trying to improve their social skills in hindsight:

Why Some People Regret Trying To Improve Their Social Skills