Handling Feelings Of Frustration And Discouragement As You're Trying To Improve Your Social Skills
It's tough when you're not where you want to be socially - when you're shy, awkward, or lonely. You can feel frustrated and discouraged when you're actively working to improve in these areas, but still not getting the results you want.
One aggravating part of trying to fix your social life is that the results are partially out of your control. One day it seems like you've finally put a dent in your anxiety and low self-esteem, but the next they're back as strong as ever. You do everything right to meet new people, but still not find anyone you click with. You may be stuck in a small town with nothing going on. You can have demoralizing false starts, like hitting it off with someone at a party, then learning they're moving away next month.
Below I'll give my suggestions for getting through these demoralizing periods. I'll assume two things are a given:
- You know you can't give up entirely, even if you have days where it's tempting.
- You're doing your best to solve any practical problems that may be blocking you (e.g,. reading up on skills you're missing).
With those two points established, here are some ways to take the edge off the painful emotions of frustration and discouragement themselves.
Acknowledge your social situation is difficult at the moment
Sometimes when we're insecure and lonely, and down about our lack of success, we'll try to dismiss or minimize it by telling ourselves, "Come on, stop whining. My situation isn't impossible. Plenty of people my age live in this city and manage to make friends." Sure, your circumstances may not be insurmountable, but you are struggling to build a social life right now. It may be due to bad luck. It could be that you still haven't found the right angle to tackle your anxiety. It may be that you're unintentionally making some mistakes. Either way, you've hit a tough patch. It's okay to acknowledge that.
Accept you're feeling discouraged
Another way we may write off our feelings is by telling ourselves, "Suck it up. Don't be so weak and emotional. So you still have some social anxiety. So you haven't made any friends after a few months. Don't fall apart over it." Struggling socially, and not seeing your hard work pan out, is legitimately upsetting and discouraging. It's okay to feel that way. You don't need to make yourself feel even worse by beating yourself up for having that reaction. No, you don't want to soak in your discouragement and frustration so much that it paralyzes you, but it's understandable to be in that headspace to begin with.
Give yourself some space to feel your frustration and discouragement and let it naturally pass
It's common for people to feel unpleasant emotions like anger and disappointment, believe they're terrible to have, and try to instantly squash them. They'll try to distract themselves, think happy thoughts, do some sort of relaxation exercise, or even use alcohol or drugs to change their mood. Or they'll prematurely go into problem solving or self-analysis mode.
There are times where it's appropriate to try to suppress or adjust your emotions. For example, hiding your anger when your boss makes a condescending remark, or doing something to pick up your spirits just enough to get some important chores done. However, if you're on your own, and having a reasonable emotional reaction to an event in your life, often the best thing to do is just let yourself feel your feelings, and let them run their course. If you're frazzled and dejected after a bad night out, sit or lay down, clear your mind, and let yourself feel your frustration for a while. The emotion is uncomfortable, but a lot of its energy should dissipate if you stay with it. The process will be easier if you don't judge yourself for feeling upset and angry in the first place. Again, we can add a second layer of distress to our emotions when we criticize ourselves for having them.
Going forward, try to go into social situations accepting that they may be frustrating or discouraging
Disappointing experiences are easier to handle if you know ahead of time they may happen. They hit harder if you're blindly optimistic, then something goes wrong and catches you off guard. The idea isn't to be a giant pessimist and assume every interaction will fail horribly. It's more to approach them with the mentally of,"This might not work out. Things won't swing in my favor every time. But if it doesn't pan out, I can live with it."
Try to keep in mind that you have plenty of time to build a fulfilling social life
This point isn't trying to say, "You've got lots of time, so you should have no bad feelings right now." It's that sometimes when people are struggling to make friends or improve their social skills they cause themselves extra stress by believing they have a time limit. For example, they may think if they don't figure everything out by the time they're done college then all their opportunities will dry up. It's never too late to build a satisfying social life. Even if it takes you another six months of searching, you can find a group of friends. Yes, you might feel down and frustrated at times during that stretch, but at least the chance to turn things around never goes away.
Examine your beliefs about what your current lack of results means
When disappointing things happen to us we can draw inaccurate conclusions about what they mean, which makes us feel even worse. It can help to objectively analyze these thoughts to see if they contain any cognitive distortions. Doing so won't magically make all your discouraged feelings disappear, but it can reduce them. Here are some ways cognition distortions may show up:
- Fortune Telling - "There's no point in going to this party. It's going to be a waste of time." - You can't know for sure how it will turn out, especially if you're actively working on the issues that cause social events to be difficult for you.
- Catastrophizing - "I'll never make any friends. I'll be lonely for the rest of my life." - Just because things aren't going your way now doesn't automatically mean you'll never be happy.
- Over-generalizing - "That meet up was a dud. Meet ups don't work." - One so-so meet up doesn't mean they're all useless.
- All-Or-Nothing Thinking - "I didn't charm everyone I talked to at my new job, so I'm still boring and awkward." - There's a huge spectrum between Totally Awkward and Ultra-Charismatic. Falling short of perfection doesn't instantly cast you onto the other end of the scale.
- Mind Reading - "They could totally tell I was feeling insecure. They hate me." - You don't know that. It's possible they liked talking to you, and couldn't tell you had some hidden self-doubt.
- Emotional Reasoning - (While feeling upset) "I just know I'll never get over my shyness." - Just because something feels true in the moment doesn't mean it's objectively correct.
Being aware of your thinking patterns doesn't only apply to unhappy or pessimistic thoughts. Being unrealistically optimistic can also set you up to feel disappointed later on. Give your thoughts some scrutiny if you're telling yourself things like, "Once I sign up for that art class all my problems will be solved" or "I had a good conversation with my neighbor yesterday. My shyness is cured." You're aiming to think in a balanced, realistic way, not be blindly positive.
Use the usual general tools for keeping for your mood up
There are many ways to keep your overall mood up, whether you're feeling lonely and discouraged, anxious, depressed, or so on. Again, doing these may not single-handedly alleviate those feelings, but they can turn down their volume. Every little bit helps. Some of them are:
- Getting enough sleep
- Getting regular exercise, even if it's something light such as going for a walk
- Getting out in nature
- Not using too much caffeine, alcohol, or weed
- Making sure to eat enough, and eating fairly healthy food
- Taking some time everyday to relax and unwind
- Trying to get enough sun or Vitamin D every day, especially if you live in a cold, dark climate
- Doing some relaxation exercises, whether it's breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, gentle stretching, listening to calming music, etc.
- Going to a therapist or support group to talk about things that are bothering you.
Do what you can to otherwise live a fun, fulfilling life
If your social life is going to be slow for now, at least have a good time in other ways. Don't accidentally fall into a pattern where whenever you do something outside of the home, it's only to go to a meet up or class where you may meet some friends or practice your conversation skills. That can feel like work after a while. It can also tie your sense of happiness too much to the ups and downs of your social efforts. Spend some time doing fun things that are just for you.
Get what social contact you can
You have a sense of what your ideal social life looks like. You're working for it, but aren't there yet. In the meantime, do what you can to get at least some social contact. Go to meet ups anyone can attend. Sign up for a class where you'll get to interact with your fellow students, like improv comedy. Catch up with your co-workers. Have brief, friendly interactions with strangers.
These little doses of social contact may not be exactly what you're looking for, but they'll keep you going. To be fair, at times they may make you feel worse, because they remind you of what you're missing. But on balance I think you'll feel better if you get some regular contact, even if it's not perfect, or it occasionally causes you to feel down. That's better than totally isolating yourself.
Take a break if you'd like, but don't let it go on for too long
If you're really feeling beat up by your unsuccessful attempts to improve your social situation, there's nothing wrong with taking a week or two off to recharge your batteries, focus on other things, and just enjoy yourself. Don't feel you have to be a relentless self-improvement robot. Hopefully you'll find you have fresh motivation to be social once the time is up. However, try not to let your vacation go on indefinitely. The idea is to take some time off, not lapse into reclusiveness and avoidance. It can be useful to schedule a social activity you'll do once your break is finished, so it's always clear in your mind you'll get back to it.
Consider seeing a therapist if your discouraged feelings are really intense or cause you to act in harmful ways
The suggestions above are for someone feeling a typical, mild to moderate amount of frustration about their social life. Sometimes those feelings get more powerful and risky. Working with a professional be appropriate if any of the following apply:
- When you get discouraged the feelings are so strong they knock you out of commission for days. You're so agitated or despondant that you feel terrible, you don't eat and sleep properly, you can't concentrate at work, and so on.
- You get so upset you feel compelled to do risky or unhealthy things to make yourself feel better, like getting drunk, spending too much money, binge eating, etc.
- When you get frustrated you do impulsive, self-sabotaging things like deleting all your acquaintances off social media, because in that moment you're sure it won't go anywhere with them.
- It feels like your current social struggles are calling up painful, unresolved baggage from your past. For example, whenever someone cancels on you at the last second, you almost feel as if you're being abandoned by your father all over again, and take hours to come down from that.
- You get so discouraged and hopeless you start thinking of suicide, even if they're passing thoughts you don't think you'd ever act on, such as, "What's the point? It's never going to get any better."