8) Social skills (how to interact with humans!) pt 1

Story time!

When I was a wee bab I had a lot of social problems. I was painfully shy. I was weird: I was obsessed science and math and reading and had strange, big ideas that were far beyond my cooler, less nerdy classmates. The really tough one, though, was my complete obliviousness to all social cues. I remember talking at length to someone about a topic that I loved (probably math) and looking over at her again and again at her as I talked, thinking “if only there were a way to tell whether or not a person is interested in what I’m saying”.

People were a black box. I eventually learned to recognise tone well enough to tell when (for instance) someone was making fun of me, but I would often be unsure of what the insult actually was, because I lacked the social context. (A classmate once approached me at my coat hook and yelled “You’re gay!” at me. For many days after that incident, I would occasionally pause what I was doing to try to puzzle out how being happy and cheerful was supposed to be insulting. I got a lot of my vocabulary from old books.)

Thus began The Project. It started in earnest in grade 8, when I switched to an arts school and was finally surrounded by people for whom I felt interest and kinship. I had picked up some stuff by then, basics of tone and maybe just a little body language. For the first time, my ongoing frustration of not really knowing how to read people and situations was paired with an environment where it seemed like it might be safe to talk, and maybe even to say the wrong thing.

For years, I spent a significant proportion of time and energy on The Project: learning, practicing, and processing how to interact in every available social situation. When I consumed media, I’d memorise descriptions of body language in characters who in some way matched my mental image of how I wanted to be seen. I took every drama class I could. (I love theater, but even if I hadn’t: these classes were training me not for acting but for real life. I remember leafing through a pile of monologues to pick one for class, and feeling very strategic when I chose a speech by Nellie McClung. It was perfect: in practicing the speech, my drama teacher explained to me, step by step, how to project confidence and speak so people will stop and listen.)

I learned the physical markers of comfort and confidence and forced myself to sit and stand in open poses, despite extreme discomfort. I signed up for improv and debating to force myself to speak in front of people using my own words, and practiced until it didn’t seem scary any more. When I went to parties, I mingled. (If you are or have been extremely introverted or painfully shy, you know the special hell this entailed for me. If not, trust me when I say that this above all demonstrates my complete dedication.)

The Project was an unmitigated success. I learned a lot. I changed a lot. I worked HARD, with a single-minded dedication that could and did achieve the impossible. People who meet me now see me as friendly and confident and great with people. I have become better at social-ing than I could have imagined. I did good.



the secrets to my success (aka, totally intuitive conversational and social strategies that I had to work out cognitively)


7) Small positive reinforcements are ridiculously motivating

So I’ve been away for approximately a million years. I am not going to apologize because that’s not useful to me, you, or the continued existence of this blog. The amount of awesome I am for starting back up way outweighs any negatives from me forgetting about this stuff for a while. I would not always have felt this way, and I think this change is a really good thing.

I used to (and still do) have a lot of worries and insecurities. I have, at some points in my life, been reduced to a small ball of worries and insecurities and stayed in bed for days at a time spending all my energy trying not to cry. Those were particularly bad times, and I am very doing millions better lately, which is wonderful.

It’s been a long, incredibly difficult journey from there to here. Medicine and therapy have both been vital to my progress. [Side note: if you are struggling with depression, go talk to a professional. I know it’s scary and horrible (and a lot of doctors and therapists are pathologizing and horrible) but finding the right medication / strategies is so, so important. More on this in another post.]  My therapist in particular is amazing, and if I had to pick one thing I learned from her as the most generally relevant, it would definitely be positive reinforcements.

So the basic idea is, a lot of what people do on a day to day basis is based on immediate positive or negative reinforcements. It doesn’t have to be an actual reward – we’re talking things on the level of playing an inspiring sound, giving yourself a high five (or even a mental high five), or physically pulling your face muscles into a smile. Whatever makes you feel a tiny bit good, a tiny sense of accomplishment.

Ideally, have a different tiny reward for different tasks you’re trying to reinforce. Coming out of depression, there have been a lot of little life-upkeep things that I fell out of the habit of doing, and this technique has gotten me back on track for basically everything I’ve tried it for. I smile after I wash my hands. Brushing my teeth gets a “you did it!” and a mental high five. When I get out of bed and get dressed for the day, I get to choose one of my awesome colourful belts, and then I look in the mirror and go “yeah, I look awesome.” I’m thinking of starting saying “ding!” (in that tone that means you’ve levelled up) for every dish I wash.

At least equally important is not negatively reinforcing myself. The thing about being depressed is that for me, part of that took the form of thinking that absolutely everything was terrible:

“Oh look, I cleaned my room a bit. Too bad it’s still DISGUSTINGLY DIRTY and no one will ever like me because my room is a mess and my life is a mess and if I were a real person I would have cleaned everything MONTHS ago. Who am I even trying to kid even if my room were clean everyone would still see through it and nothing is worth doing anyway. Ever.”

I wish I could say I’m exaggerating for effect, and maybe I am a little, but if you read that thought pattern as true you won’t be far off the mark. This kind of thinking was effective in making me feel worse instead of better every time I managed a small accomplishment, and that was very, very effective in making me feel like there was no point to doing anything. Why clean up when the cleaning is more painful than staring at the mess? Of course, not doing anything came with its own set of “you’re terrible” negative thoughts.

The point of the positive reinforcements is to start to break that cycle. Taking pride in little things allowed me to start to see myself as competent, which allowed me to try bigger things. Learning to shut down negative thinking was a very long process, but I’d say it’s one of the most important things I did to get to a place where I can do many of the things I want to do and feel good about it.

Instead of looking at my long absence and thinking “why can’t I ever keep to projects I start?”, I’m going to look at this post and think “hey, this is one of my bests posts yet! I’m glad I took a break, and I’m glad I managed to come back to this. Maybe I can pick up another project that I’ve been neglecting, too.”