Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: I'm naturally introverted and anxious, and I tend to overcompensate around new people by being a little . . . frantic? Too loud? A little weird? It's just how I'm wired.
But I'd like to know how to rewire myself. Thoughts? I probably turn off people who could be good friends. When I know someone, I'm natural and funny and a really good listener, but not so with new people in social situations. At work, I'm very professional - but in social situations, the stakes feel higher.
Answer: Actually, the stakes in social situations are much lower than with good friends and at work.
Maybe feeling good socially is key to your well-being, which makes sense, but: Each individual social encounter with someone new constitutes a sliver of your life experience. A sliver of a sliver if you circulate and meet a lot of new people.
Maybe if you recognize each of these encounters as extremely low-stakes, they'll freak you out less - thereby nudging you a little faster toward your natural and funny real self.
Expecting to rewire yourself completely will set you up for disappointment, which could set you back. Instead, think of the nervous stage as the obstacle you (and most people) just have to practice clearing until it gradually gets easier. Think of it more as practicing an adaptation than making a wholesale change.
In the meantime, train yourself to ask questions, and listen. It's hard to say something weird when you're not the one talking.
Comment: The stakes feel higher to me for a couple of reasons: (a) I grew up in a very leftist home in a very conservative community and felt disconnected from my peers, and (b) when my peers were partying and figuring out who they were, I was in a fog of hospitals and surgeries and treatments for cancer. I've always been good at school and work, but socially, I feel like I skipped a step or three.
Response: I can see why you feel out of step - though please give yourself some credit for getting this far with only some garden-variety awkwardness dogging you.
Obstacles notwithstanding, the math for the value of each social encounter remains unchanged. A new person you meet represents a trivial amount of your general social well-being. If it doesn't go well, you move on. Low stakes.
Some reader suggestions:
I find it helpful in changing how I feel about something, like being anxious, to pretend I'm an actor. I can act as though I am calm and at ease. Often, attitude will follow behavior.
When I was 17, I decided to set myself the task of having a superficial chat every day with someone I barely knew. I set a three-sentence limit and extended the duration as I went on. After a couple of months, I was much better. No one is grading you, and very few are completely at ease around strangers.
Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.