Stages You Can Go Through As You Improve Your People Skills

I've observed that people can go through different stages as they work past their social issues. I'll lay them out so you'll have a better idea of what may come up for you in the future, and to possibly make you feel better if you currently feel stuck in a bad place.

The obvious disclaimer is that no one really goes through concrete, isolated phases in a concise, tidy order. They're just a way of illustrating general ideas. The actual process varies between people and is much more disorderly and blurred together. Not everyone will go all the stages either (e.g., if your people skills are half-decent you may only experience later ones). Certain things may not apply to you. You may experience aspects of several stages at once. You may be in different stages for varying facets of your development (e.g., for most social situations you're in a later stage, but are in earlier one for a tricky area).

Here they are. (Also, after writing them I found they fit that classic progression from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence fairly well):

The Blissfully Ignorant stage

This describes a lot of awkward people in high school. This is when your social abilities are lacking but you're not all that aware of it yet. I'll note that even at this stage, there may still be areas where you're doing okay. It's not necessarily that you're a total social failure in every way possible. It's just that on the whole there are a lot of skills you could tune up.

The Giving Into Your Anxiety, Comfort Bubble stage

This can happen to people who have more intense social anxiety. They go through a period where they totally buy into their anxious urges to create a cozy comfort zone and avoid the social situations that make them uncomfortable. They may feel like this is truly what they want for themselves, or they might realize on some level that they're making compromises to keep their symptoms at bay.

The Insecure, Down In The Dumps phase

At some point you'll start to transition away from blissful ignorance or avoidance as the magnitude of your weaknesses hits you. You realize your social skills aren't as good as they could be, and that's making you miss out on important parts of life. This stage is characterized by depressed feelings, from mildly mopeyness to being really, really down. You may never experience this stage, and instead jump into the later ones, or it could be relatively mild or short-lived.

The Hitting Bottom stage

This doesn't happen to everyone either, but many people who have recovered from their social ineptitude remember a specific time where they feel like they hit bottom. The difficult nature of their situation just hits them all at once and they crumble. It may be triggered a particularly tough social failure, or just the realization that their up-until-now half-hearted attempts to change won't work.

As rough as it is to go through at the time, it's often an ultimately positive experience, because you can finally start on a path to seriously improving yourself. You now fully realize where you stand in life and that you need to do something about it. You'll often start tackling your problems in a more dispassionate, systematic way.

The Temporary Over-confidence phase

This may come up when you first start getting serious about making changes and find some advice that seems really helpful. For a while you can think that just because you've read the information and understand it intellectually that you're actually skilled in real life.

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The Rocky Ascent, Mood Swings stage

This phase occurs when you start seeing some initial results, and are committed to improving, but your weak points are still holding you back, and it will be a while before they're out of the way. You're moving toward to a place where you'll be over your problems, but the ascent has a lot of ups and downs. The biggest characteristic of this stage is swinging moods. One day you'll be doing fairly well and you'll feel super human... Then you'll get rejected or have a stilted conversation and you'll feel moody and discouraged... Then you'll feel fired up again and like everything is going to be A-okay from here on out... Then you'll feel like it's all hopeless again and that you're backsliding...

What makes this stage so emotionally trying is that when you're in the middle of it you can't see the larger picture. That's why little things that are quite trivial in hindsight seem to carry so much importance. Whether someone says 'hi' back to you when you greet them isn't a big deal at all, but at the time you don't know how relatively important or unimportant it it, so you blow it out of proportion.

What helps is having a realistic idea beforehand about the path ahead of you and the progress you can make. If you know you've still got a year or more of work ahead of you, you won't get so freaked out if you're not magically cured overnight. It also helps to pull back from your day-to-day battles and focus on your overall growth. In the grand scheme of things you're slowly creeping upward, even though within one day or one week your fortunes swing wildly. Think of a stock that fluctuates a lot in price but still ends up being worth more at the end of every year.

Related: Why Can Your Confidence And Social Skills Fluctuate So Much?

The Coasting To The Finish Line phase

You reach this stage when you feel like you've gotten over the hump and things are finally starting to click into place. You may still have a lot of work to do to get to the level you want, but it doesn't feel like such a grind anymore. If you continue to put in the time you know you'll get there sooner or later.

The Temporarily Swinging To The Other Side phase

When some people finally get the hang of previously unpolished skills, like being able to mingle and have fun at bars, they'll spend a while really exploring that new side of the social world and their personality, before settling back into a routine that's more in line with their true temperament. A guy who's a cerebral homebody by nature may get better at partying, make a bunch of shallow night life friends, and go clubbing every weekend for a year, until he gets it out of his system, realizes his old tendencies are fine, and switches to going out only occasionally.

When people do this, they're partially just excited by the novel new opportunities they've opened up. There may also be an element of their wanting to prove to themselves that they can be that outgoing party person if they want to be. Sure, it's not the healthiest motivation, because not being a party animal doesn't make you a lesser person. But they have it regardless, and it's not doing a ton of harm.

The End (Sort Of)

There's never really a clear end to working on your social issues - you can always improve further - but one day you'll get to the point where you've more or less got the life you want and you don't need to dwell on how your interpersonal skills are doing every minute. You can hang out with your friends and have a good time without really thinking about how you do it.