Don't Be Hard On Yourself If Your Social Skills Progress Is Slow And Inconsistent At Times
If you struggle in social situations odds are you're pretty hard on yourself. You may do things like beat yourself up over small mistakes you make in conversations. You may also hold yourself to overly high standards when it comes to improving your people skills and self-confidence. You might have set an expectation that once you decide to change yourself that you should make nothing but smooth, steady progress. If you hit a snag you're quick to blame yourself, see yourself as weak, get down on yourself about your lack of discipline, and so on.
That mindset is unrealistic. Working to overcome your social anxiety and awkwardness can be stressful enough. You don't also need to think you're a failure for not being a flawless self-improvement machine.
Like with many areas, trying to improve socially can be a slow, unpredictable process. If it was possible to quickly and easily turn things around you would have already done it by now. There are real barriers to changing socially, like:
- The raw unpleasantness of doing things that make you anxious
- Lack of time
- Lack of motivation
- Good old laziness and procrastination
- Inborn brain wiring that makes socializing harder to learn for some people
- Mental blocks around accepting certain strategies or advice
I'm not saying all this to be discouraging. I just want to give you a realistic idea of what to expect, so you don't unnecessarily kick yourself if you don't fix all your problems in two months.
The good news is even if it's not ultra-easy, it's possible to significantly improve your social life. Even getting 30% better may make a big difference in how happy you feel day to day. And there are times when progress will feel fun and come quickly.
Problems and setbacks you may face as you work on your social skills and confidence
In no particular order:
Being slow to get started
- You put off making a change that's clearly good for you. It takes a while for you to fully talk yourself into it and move forward (e.g., to start facing your fear of going out alone; to start living an overall healthier lifestyle).
Change just taking time
- Your baseline mood or worldview takes time to change, even if you're doing everything right and using every tool available. If you've struggled with anxiety for years, you can't switch to being calm and levelheaded in a week. It simply takes a while for your brain to rewire itself. If you've seen other people as cruel and judgmental since you were in middle school, your view of humanity won't shift after a handful of pleasant conversations. Your mind will need more counterevidence than that.
- You still get nervous about a situation even after facing your fear of it over and over. All the exposure is making it easier little by little, but it's a gradual process (e.g., getting practice at public speaking).
- You make the same mistakes many times, even though you know better, before you more or less stop doing them for good (e.g., you can't keep yourself from interrupting people in conversations).
- You repeat the same unhelpful patterns in your life and relationships. Again, you know better, but it takes a while before you can completely change your behavior (e.g., you tend to pull away from new friends after a few weeks, because you're sure once they get to know you better they'll reject you).
Not getting concepts right away
- You come across a concept several times, and intellectually know it makes sense, but it takes a while before it really, truly sinks in (e.g., the idea that resisting your anxiety makes it stronger, while truly accepting it takes its power away).
- You still don't fully grasp a topic even after going through several books, websites, videos, or podcasts about it. The subject is complex enough it will just take a lot of time and research to fully understand (e.g., the many strategies for managing anxiety).
Not accepting techniques or concepts right away
- Other people tell you something useful over and over, but it doesn't get through to you. Then one day you "discover" the concept for yourself and it sticks. For example, you keep hearing that staying in the present moment can help with anxiety, but you dismiss it as being too new agey. Later on you're feeling nervous in a conversation and decide to shift your focus away from your worries and really concentrate on what the other person is saying. It helps and you get on board with the idea.
- You reject useful techniques at first because something about them rubs you the wrong way (e.g., you find breathing exercises boring).
- You initially disregard useful techniques because you have misconceptions about how they work (e.g., you think learning to logically question your anxious thoughts is about trying to deny reality and be mindlessly positive, when it's really about learning to take a realistic, balanced view of a situation).
Not using concepts or techniques effectively
- You simply misapply a helpful concept and don't get as much out of it as you could (e.g., you try to face your fears, but do it in a haphazard style that reinforces them, rather than doing it in a systematic, gradual way).
Adjusting goals and priorities
- You pursue one goal for a while, then realize it's not what you really wanted, and you have to take the time to start over on a new one. E.g., you try to be that person who's friends with everyone, because that's what society has told you is important. You eventually realize you've made a bunch of superficial acquaintances and don't actually care about being popular. You decide to instead try to make a few close friends who you're truly compatible with).
Chasing false leads
- You put a lot of energy into looking for a magic pill that will fix your problems quickly and easily.
- You spend some time following well-intentioned, but less-helpful methods (e.g., repeating affirmations to yourself to try to improve your confidence).
- You'd like to be able to work toward a goal or skill more often, but don't get enough opportunities due to factors outside your control (e.g., you want to meet some new people, but there's not much going on in your small town for the next few weeks).
- You temporarily put your social goals on the backburner in order to focus on other areas of your life. For example, you've got a big project at work; you've just had a kid. (This reprioritizing may be legitimate, or a rationalization for procrastinating.)
- You have a good run of steady progress, then have a setback and backslide to your old level of functioning. You spend a while in this state before trying to improve again. (E.g., you work hard to get out of your stale comfort zone. Then a romantic partner rejects you, and it feels so terrible you lose the motivation to keep pushing yourself for a few weeks).
Taking a break
- You've been chipping away at your social anxiety for months. You've made a lot of progress, but it's mentally taxing work. You just want some time off to relax. There's nothing wrong with a well-earned break, as long as it doesn't go on forever.
These obstacles are frustrating, but they're just part of the process. They happen to everyone. They're the kind of thing that when we see them slowing down someone else's progress it's easy to think, "Why don't they just get over it already?", but it's not always so simple when they affect you.