Battling my inner social demons

Today after church there was a committee fair where we usually hold our post-service coffee hour. Every committee had a table set up, like a science fair with boards exhibiting the committee’s many activities as well as papers stating the committee’s important functions within the church. Now, I have to say that many committees have already made furious attempts to recruit me–they are looking for new blood and I’m one of the newer members of the church. I’ve been standing around biding my time because I am looking for that one committee that calls to me and can make good use of talents I have because I learned in a leadership seminar I attended with the UUA this past summer that you should really only volunteer for things you feel passionate about and are interested in because that will push you through the difficulties of leadership as well as make volunteering something you enjoy rather than something you have to force yourself to do.

I learned this lesson well as the treasurer for my professional organization, the STC, a few years back. While I am very good at managing money, it is not something I enjoy doing; in fact, with my own finances, the necessary boring thing I must do at the end of each week is pay bills and balance my checking accounts. So, of course, when it came time, at the end of the week, to also work on my STC bills in addition to my personal bills, it was a tremendous burden on my time, patience, and overall sanity. Also, as the treasurer, you had to account for your balancing of the checkbook to the national organization or you were were subject to audit. I learned that I prefer not to be accountable for anyone’s money but my own (which, I admit, is probably suspect and subject to audit at any time by the IRS as well, for TurboTax has taught me of new and exciting items I can claim on my taxes, thus allowing me to get bigger returns…)

So, today, I walked aimlessly around all the committee tables, dodging in and out at a distance, too shy to ask questions, afraid I’d get pressured into something I didn’t want to do. I have a lot of trouble saying no. If you’re a kid selling stuff or asking for donations, you should know that knocking on my door will get you a donation or a sold candy bar, because I’ll buy something simply so that I don’t have to deal with the social pressure of saying no. You see, I’m totally empathetic to the person who is the asker–the one needing a service–and think too much about all the times I sold Girl Scout cookies and had to walk door to door because my parents refused to guilt their co-workers into buying this stuff so that I could get the “sold most stuff” patch (every year, in fact, I was the lowest earning Girl Scout, which left me to much humiliation).

In fact, they had a sheet which you were supposed to collect at the beginning of all the tables and as you went to each table, you were supposed to get a signature proving that you stood and listened to the particular table’s spiel. Then, if your sheet was completed, you would be entered into a raffle drawing for some UU prize of great importance. I didn’t play this game. I simply followed my friend L’s husband J all around and let him do all the talking and signature gathering while I gleaned the information I needed from his conversation with the committee chairs. Clever, eh? Cowardly, yes!

I curse myself often for my lack of social skills. The littlest things make me nervous. Put me in a room full of my peers–friends, friends of friends, people I trust–and I flutter wildly like a social butterfly. I’m all the things I want to be–funny, interesting, exciting. But put me in a room full of strangers I don’t even know and I tuck myself into a little ball and rock meekly in a corner. It drives me absolutely nuts! How can I glow like a lightening bug in one situation and then fade into the wall in others? Why can’t I be the confident person I want to exude in ALL situations?

The worst part of my inability to deal with social settings in which I don’t know my audience is that I look and act like a completely nervous freak. I am sure my minister thinks I’m inward and quiet. I believe some people in my church think I’m dorky because I can’t talk without stuttering or sweating or not making eye contact. In fact, one of my dear friends recently confided to me on the phone that when she first met me, she thought I was stand-offish for the very reason that I totally avoided eye contact! She said that she couldn’t believe how warm I’d become.

I hate when I can’t act comfortable, like the person I know I am in certain settings. I want to be the same person in front of a group of strangers that I am in a group of familiars. I want to be that exciting, interesting, and funny person all the time. I just can’t hack it when I’m not comfortable. Unfortunately, the geek comes out.

So here I was, shadowing J, feeling meek and mild. I realized my entire back was drenched with sweat from the few conversations I tried act comfortable having. The room was not particularly hot, yet I was dripping. At the same time, there’s an urgency nagging me that I had to chose a committee to volunteer for because I love this church and I want to help. I wanted everyone to talk to me and give me a summary of their committee and why I should be on it. Which, really, was the point of walking around to each table and collecting signatures–the very activity I timidly avoided taking part in.

One of the music committee chairs bombarded me with their rap sheet; he’s been trying to get me to join them for the last three months and I keep putting them off. I love the music in the church and would love to take part in the decision making process over what gets played during each service, but not being a music expert, I haven’t quite felt that that committee was quite my calling. I politely put him off with a discussion about hiking and climbing and cycling. He guilt-tripped me about not joining the church on their fall Walden experience (a weekend trip for celebration and worship and togetherness in the UU way) next weekend. I told him I was having my annual bash that Saturday.

The room emptied out because the second service was beginning. J and L were still there so I timidly circulated all the tables again. People manning the tables looked at me expectantly, but I lowered my eyes quickly, removing the invitation to talk. I scurried away like a–no pun intended–church mouse. Finally, J had circulated around the entire room and came back to chat with me. I told him I was looking for the Social Activities Committee–they’d placed an ad in our church bulletin, the Thread from the Web, just a few months ago and I know the chair was still looking for reliable people to help her. Social Activities seemed to be calling me then, and it was calling me again now. I had a lot of ideas for activities that would bring people together for fun on a non-church day. I like to plan stuff. It would work great.

Except for my apparent latent fear of talking to people. But I decided months ago that I was going to work on making myself overcome my social fears and just get out there. I don’t like having traits that prevent me from doing those things I really want to do. I am considering a career working as a grief therapist–I need to be more comfortable in my own skin and not so often afraid of what other people are thinking of me. I need to make myself do things that frighten me in order to get beyond this irrational and elementary school old lack of self confidence. I will never be an effective leader unless I learn to take my interactions with people for what they are–good and bad–and accept that I can’t make everyone happy, to let go of my constant need to please everyone.

I feel like I have two hands that can help in my community, but I’m too afraid and ruled by my fears to help. At each of the tables, I saw needs that perhaps I could fill. Another table I spent a lot of time loitering around, but never standing still enough to speak to anyone, was the Communications Committee, which would require me to write articles in various publications (church and the wider district) promoting Unitarian Universalism and the activities of our church positively. I wanted to do this, but I had a fear about my writing; the pressure of proving myself or having to write on a deadline always seems like a huge time commitment to me and one I’m always afraid to pursue. I had the opportunity to do really nice writing projects for the hospice, but I passed it up in fear of my incompetency and criticism. I’m too sensitive about my writing to do anything, even on a volunteer basis, with it.

J pointed out the table where he’d seen the Social Activities Committee sign-up sheet and I completed it. Mission accomplished! That should get me started, at least. I just hope I don’t wimp out when I’m actually asked to do something, as has been my bashful pattern with all my would-be volunteer activities this year so far.

8 thoughts on “Battling my inner social demons

  1. J is very good at socializing!! I think I’m a lot like you – I try not to have to answer the door or phone because I have a terrible time saying no in a way that doesn’t come off as sounding gruff or angry or odd. I have too much empathy for others, and this has led to my losing rhetorical arguments bc. I can really see the opposition’s point as well as my own! I think that this is why, over the years, I changed my default setting to “No, but maybe later,” and I’ve been saying that ever since. If I let myself, I’d try to be everything that everyone needs: people I just met on the street, people in my classes, people in grocery lines who want someone to listen to their bad poetry, people who ramble for hours! It’s frustrating, but now I am trying to learn the art of the graceful “no thanks” and the kind, leave-on-good-terms exit. But still, this is why I can’t end a conversation elegantly: I don’t know when to stop talking. I don’t know when to go – sometimes I do it too soon and the other person surely thinks, OMG she really despises me, when I’m thinking, “I would’ve talked longer, but they looked like they were pretty busy.” Other times, I talk too damned long and I can sense the other person’s “Ok, do I need to know what brand of food your guinea pigs eat?!! Go already – I was done talking 20 minutes ago!” I can relate to the social things. Some days, I shine socially for some odd reason. Other days, some strange social kryptonite settles around my neck and I’m the biggest total social spaz you’ve ever met. One such day, exhausted from too much socializing and errand-ing, I tried to make a kind comment about the weather to a grocery clerk. “Looks like rain ..might…It’s really going to rain….outside!”He was kind, but the bagger obviously thought I needed to be supervised in the store. Argh.

  2. J <>is<> good at socializing! A real natural! He made me feel comfortable at our new UU class when they ruthless forced us to *gasp* talk to different people than the ones we came with! (I employed my “socially fearful” trick of bringing a friend to the new UU class so that I would feel less awkward… and that security blanket was stripped away from me the moment the class started!)Anyway, you and J were my first UU friends! It was our mutual love of sci-fi that bonded us. ;) But both of you are a big part of the reason I was able to feel a little more confident at the church… because I knew at least one person… even when you werent there as my security blanket in my SGM and stuff, I still knew I had at least two friends there. So that was cool.I’m glad J didn’t mind me lurking about behind him. I’d have lurked behind you but you were making your way more slowly around the tables than I was willing to go (if you lurk too long at the table, they’ll start talking directly TO you ;)I know exactly what you mean about not being able to tell sometimes if I’ve been talking too long and boring the person, and then politely exiting at the right moment. I got to talking to one of the chairs of the music committee and then someone else butted in and I should have exited but you feel kind of stupid just leaving when someone else takes over, even though you know you should leave because you’re not really a part of the second conversation. But I always feel like I need to close the conversation formally before I leave… ugh!!

  3. L, also, do you find that when you’re tired, it’s a lot harder to socialize? I’m always at my weakest and most insecure when I havent had enough sleep. That’s why the night before a big speech or leadership thing, I have to have a good night’s rest. Sometimes I wont make phone calls I have to if I’m too tired because the fear is overwhelming when I’m weak.

  4. Yes – being tired is too taxing for socializing, most of the time! I’ve heard the analogy that there are people with primarily Introverted social tendencies and those with primarily Extroverted social tendencies. Those who are mainly Extroverts (because we’re all a blend of both)actually RE-ENERGIZE by talking to people and socializing!!!!! These are the people that baffle us primary-introverts because, at the end of a gruelling day, the only thing they want to do is find people to socialize with (EEK!). I can think of nothing more draining!!For us primarily introverted people (I’m right on the border…on good days…between introvert and extrovert, so I switch back and forth), at the end of a gruelling day we need to get away from EVERYONE to recharge. We want to take a quiet walk alone in nature. We want to read a book with the front door of the house firmly shut. We want to turn out the lights and watch a movie. I think this is why Christmas is too taxing for me. I have like 30 relatives that gather. It’s exciting and fun to catch up for about 1 hour, but then I want to get the hell out!!!! I try to find an excuse to leave the gathering, and when I get back to the quiet comfort of my mother’s house, I actually sigh with relief.The only thing that changes my feelings about socializing in such a huge group is if I find a person who can talk fascinating ideas with me. Be it sci-fi, or experimental psychology, or electrical systems, I’m happy while no one butts in to make it a larger group discussion. Groups drain me like a bad battery, so I do that in moderation, or switch into my Extroverted persona for a set amount of time. Beyond that, I become exhausted and find and excuse to leave the group or conclude the discussion.

  5. I’m actually both an introvert and an extrovert. I have spent a significant amount of time as both being charged by social interactions as well as being drained by them. For me, I think I’m primarily an extrovert. I need to feel safe, though. When I’m shy or feeling inhibited, that is when my energy drains. Or maybe I’m just changing, as I’m more hesitant to want to be around people these days when I need to charge the battery.

  6. My theory is that people cycle through the E/I – I/E equation throughout their lives, and probably quite a bit from day to day. I know that, for me, after a day forcing myself to be constantly Extroverted (herding kids, herding students, accomplishing decent networking etc), I need my I time, and get downright pissy if I have yet another social thing to do. There are a few exceptions to this – I have good friends whose visits are more cameraderie and more refreshment than nerve-inducing complitated social maneuvers. Parties are horrid, to me. Too many people to focus on, too much talking, too much constant buzzing and movement….I’m a 1 on 1 type person, or small group.

  7. I think I know who J is, and no kidding, he is really good at socializing. I was at one of those tables, and talking to him seemed like the most natural thing in the world even though I don’t know him particularly well. And being at one of the tables was the only thing that kept me sane during the committee fair. I had a job to do, a role to play. If I’d had to visit each table, NO WAY. I sometimes think I’m the only UU who hates coffee hour and our shake-hands-with-your-neighbor time during services. Ugh. At least I know now I’m not the only one. Well, maybe you don’t hate it, but you probably know what I mean. On top of that, I felt like a complete idiot trying to describe my friend to you at Joel’s bidding. “Uhm…he…has…hair.” I really can be quite the dolt so I apologize for the added awkwardness I provided at the committee fair.

  8. Actually, I do enjoy the hand-shaking greeting part of the service… But coffee hour is definitely intimidating. I like the idea of it–I’d like to meet new people. But quite often I find myself standing in the corner like a dork, trying to look like standing in the corner is what I want to do.

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