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.
- Certain social skills may not be on your radar at all (e.g., the concept of considering other people's perspectives).
- For other areas you may have a distorted sense of how you're doing (e.g., you fancy yourself a sophisticated, witty intellectual but most people would describe you as an abrasive, argumentative dork.)
- You may have a tendency to fool yourself about your problems and have defense mechanisms in place to protect your ego ("I'm not doing anything wrong. Everyone is just stupid and jealous of how awesome I am.")
- You may not see your social life as a priority and happily choose to put time into your hobbies instead.
- You may proudly identify as someone who isn't social and doesn't care about having friends.
- You may realize your social life isn't exactly where you want it to be, but you're not really worried and assume everything will fall into place soon enough, e.g., "Next semester will be different."
- Regarding your weak areas, you can have a tendency to not take any action and instead rely on the universe to bring you what you want, e.g., "Maybe some of the Christmas hires at my part-time job will make friends with me."
- In this stage, and other ones, you can realize you're behind in some ways, but have a wrong idea of what you need to do to address the problem (e.g., you believe the solution is learning tricks to make people like you).
- This is not to say you never get insecure or dejected at this stage, but for the most part your social deficits aren't a huge concern for you.
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.
- They may spend time with a handful of safe, understanding, long-time friends, but steer clear of anyone else.
- If it's possible, they may live at home, not work, and be supported by their parents past the point where other people their age would move out and pay their own bills.
- They may pursue a career where they can work entirely from home, like being a freelance graphic designer. It's not that they'd be in that field anyway, and find working from home convenient. Their main driver is to not have to socialize with co-workers.
- They may have a frugal, minimalist lifestyle so they can get by on less, and do things like not work for years and live off their savings for as long as possible. Again, it's not that they just value a simple, non-materialistic life. It's all in service of avoiding social contact.
- They may even purposely stay under-employed in order to get a job that requires little human contact, like being a night security guard.
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.
- You're generally unconfident and down on yourself.
- Your problems occupy your thoughts a great deal.
- You feel like you don't have the first clue about what to do to escape your condition, which naturally makes you feel worse.
- Or you could take some steps to improve your situation, but they don't amount to much and make you even more discouraged.
- Cognitive distortions and insecurities are common: One bad conversation means you're a loser for all time, one ambiguous look is interpreted as a sign of withering rejection, you just "know" all your co-workers hate you, etc.
- Your depressed mood makes your thinking more negative and pessimistic.
- You can feel so down on life and low in confidence that you don't want to try anything ("What's the point? I'll get rejected/make an idiot of myself/not have anything to say")
- You're likely to give up after small setbacks ("I smiled at them and they didn't react. I knew I was a loser. There's no point in trying to get to know people. I can't win. If I fail, then I feel bad. If I have some success, then I'll feel even worse when I just screw up down the road after I've gotten my hopes up.")
- Your mood can hinder your capacity to make improvements, because you can not feel like talking to anyone. You may get invited to a party, come up with several scenarios about how it'll be a disappointing waste of time, then decide it's not worth going.
- You can feel caught in a Catch-22 in that you need to be around people to not be so awkward, but you can't be around people because you don't want them to see what a supposed loser failure you are.
- At its worst, your mind can almost have a caged animal quality to it. One minute you feel frantic and desperate, the next helpless and despondent.
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.
- The material psyches you up, fills you with hope, and makes you feel like you can conquer the world. That's one contributor to this stage.
- You're also learning about a new area, and so are making frequent large leaps in your understanding of it compared to how you were before. You feel like a rock star for learning so much so quickly. Unfortunately you lack perspective about how good you are in the grand scheme of things (i.e., you're a beginner) and confuse feeling like a super hero for actually being one.
- Your increased confidence may cause you to take some real-world action, and then feel like you knocked it out of the park. Objectively you probably just did okay, not as well as your pumped up emotional state lead you to believe at the time.
- You may become a bit arrogant and condescending toward other socially awkward people, who you now think you're above. You might give them unsoliticed advice, as if you're an expert.
- Eventually it sinks in that just because you've read some helpful information, it doesn't mean you can 100% apply the skills in real life.
- If you hit bottom, you may do so before passing through this phase. Or you may start making progress, feel over-confident for a bit, then hit bottom after you realize you weren't in nearly as good shape as you thought you were.
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...
- This stage can happen at the steepest part of the learning curve for a particular sub-skill.
- You may have a background desperation to get past your struggles as soon as you can, which contributes to the emotional ups and downs.
- In general, you read too much into little incidents and make exaggerated projections about what they mean for your future (e.g., if you have a good conversation with someone, you conclude you're going to have a busy social life by the end of the month. If someone doesn't talk to you that day, it means you're a loser who will always be a lonely reject.)
- Having a mindset where you're looking for a magic bullet can contribute to these mood swings. You'll read some inspirational passage or seemingly profound piece of advice and feel psyched up for a day or two. Then you'll be bummed when the feeling inevitably wears off and it turns out you weren't cured after all.
- People can also get thrown for a loop when they feel really "on" in a social situation one day, but then can't seem to recreate that success again.
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.
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.
- By this time you've likely hit on an effective way to improve. Before you may have traveled down a few dead ends, but now you think you've got it.
- You've probably met some of your initial goals by this point and can thus relax a little. Your striving for improvement isn't accompanied by the urgency and desperation it was before. For example, if your overall plan is to build a rich social life, you may have met your initial goal of finding a friend or two to hang out with regularly.
- Like I said, there may still be challenges and setbacks ahead of you before you get to the finish line, but the biggest problems are taken care of, and socializing is much more enjoyable for you. Working on your issues is more interesting and rewarding now, whereas before you had to fight for the smallest victories. For example, if you sit down with some classmates, you may still want to work on your conversation skills, but you can have a fun discussion as you do so. Before it might have been a frustrating ordeal to even have a two-minute exchange with someone. Now you're tweaking little details and enjoying the fact that the worst is behind you.
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.
- The thing is you don't really know you've reached your "end" until you get there. When you're first starting off your dreams may be quite ambitious, pie-in-the-sky even. But when you get to a certain point you may realize that's where you're happy to be, and you really don't have to keep going. If you had to stay at that level forever you'd be okay with it.
- You may occasionally backslide into your old ways, but overall life is good and you have the skills to recover quickly.
- Little things that you used to struggle with are easy. You may even eventually start to lose touch with how hard it used to be for you.
- You may still have future goals or extra heights you want to climb to, but you can tackle them from a solid, calm, happy base. And they're more optional enhancements, rather than essential components of your very well being.