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The Back of My Mind December 5, 2010

Posted by monty in Uncategorized.

Every time I start this thing up again I turn it into a big production.  This is patently stupid because A) I think about two people read this with any regularity, even when I’m putting up a few things a day, and B) my fidelity to blogging has been sketchy over the years, and it’s only getting worse as I get older (although I will admit that my quality control is improving; I just resisted the urge to make a now out-of-date Tiger Woods joke at the mention of fidelity).  So, no fanfare.  Here we go.


Something happened to me between the approximate ages of 22 and 35 that turned me into someone who’s not just uncomfortable in social settings – no, I’m now completely inept in them.  I have yet to reach Rain Man levels of social incompetence, but at the rate I’m going, it’s only a matter of time until I turn into a gambling savant and start babbling incoherently about daytime TV (substituting, I guess, Judge Judy for Wapner).

I didn’t always used to be this way.  In elementary school I was sort of a show-off, with the poor conduct grades (do they even give those anymore?) to show for it.  I discovered fairly early the value of getting a laugh, and I exercised that particular muscle early and often.  That continued into junior high – I was fine with people, I liked the spotlight, and I don’t remember suffering from any unusual degree of shyness.  In high school, thanks to my R.E.M. albums, I was all hopped up on self-righteous rebellion, so I turned into another kind of loudmouth.  And in college I was steeped in improvisational comedy – most of my friends were, too, and being “on” was sort of an expectation.

But now?

Well, here, let me set the stage.

A few weeks ago I attended the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference.  Every year the Scholastic company hosts a free Thanksgiving-style dinner, and it’s become tradition for folks from my old university and National Writing Project site to rendezvous here.  Somehow I ended up at our table (and these were huge round tables, where talking to someone who wasn’t seated directly next to you involved shouting and sign language) between two women who were, charitably speaking, survivors of the Great Depression.  All the other people I knew were scattered around the table in neat little pairs, but here I was, a lone island in between two octogenarians who were primarily interested in talking across me to each other.  So I spent the evening staring off into space, smiling faintly to myself in order to make people think that I was listening to and being entertained by the women’s meal-length nattering.

To be fair, the women did try to engage me in conversation.  But I can’t do it.  It’s too hard.  I don’t know what to talk about, and I always have the feeling that anything I bring up is so mind-numbingly boring that I might as well be reading aloud from the phone book.  And it’s not as though this is only something that happens with strangers.  At the same conference I found myself in social situations with people from work a few times, and in each instance I found myself doing a lot of listening, talking only when someone asked me a direct question.  The really distressing thing is that even alcohol, that old social lubricant, hadn’t come to my rescue.  These social situations were excruciating, and I can’t figure out why I’ve turned into this person.

The closest I’ve come to a reason can actually be found in an article I read a year or so ago.  Following David Foster Wallace’s suicide, Rolling Stone published a really nice article about his life and work, and it focused a great deal on Wallace’s own anxiety and depression.  The physical version of the article is long gone from my possession, so I’m relying on memory here, but there was a line in it that stuck with me.  The gist of it was that in social situations Wallace was so busy worrying about what other people thought about him that he couldn’t participate in the conversation at hand, which only contributed to the perception that he was an awkward, depressing bastard.

And that’s me in a nutshell.  I feel so uncomfortable in social settings that all I can do is focus on how miserable I feel and how ridiculous I must seem to everyone else and how I don’t have anything to talk about, and the result is that I can’t participate in the conversations going on around me.  This means I come off as sullen/aloof/arrogant/grouchy, when the truth, of course, is that I’m so nervous and anxious about what everyone else thinks of me that I’m paralyzed by insecurity.

The really interesting thing (at least to me) isn’t so much that I’m now like this, as much as it is to wonder why I’m now like this.  Because it developed fairly recently – as I mentioned above, it’s been with me for the last ten years, give or take – it’s not something I can trace back to my childhood.  I wasn’t humiliated in school, and nothing especially traumatic happened to me socially as I was growing up.  I have, however, always suffered from insecurity and feelings of inferiority, so the nearest I can figure is that for the first time in a really long time I’m truly out of my comfort zone.  When I moved cross-country to Georgia, starting a new job in a new place with new responsibilities and new pressures, I truly started from scratch, and the insecurity of that situation only compounded all my other insecurities.

I don’t know that I have a point in all this (not exactly the most auspicious start for my return to the blog), except to notice that I might have to admit to myself that I have a real problem.  As much as I like being able to say that I have something in common with David Foster Wallace, this is probably not the right thing.  I’m now in a job that requires me to be comfortable in a variety of settings and with a variety of people, so the panic I feel in most situations with other carbon-based life forms is not something I should nurture.


Current listening:

Keane – Under the Iron Sea (2006)

Current reading:

George R.R. Martin – A Storm of Swords (2000)

Last movie seen:

127 Hours (2010; Danny Boyle, dir.)



1. thoreauly77/ian - December 6, 2010

of course it probably didnt help that your cohort couldnt afford to attend the dinner with you!

i also have social anxiety. i may not show it, and i make a great effort not to, but the fact of the matter is that i have had to take wellbutrin at times in my life, and when my anxiety leads to insomnia, as is always the case, i have had to take atavan.

its scary stuff. but it can be managed, and trust me, its much better than social anxiety and then that feeling of guilt for not going places and doing things. sheeit, there should be a flow chart for that social anxiety-guilt cycle!

2. wolferiver - December 21, 2010

Hmmm. At the risk of sounding glib and insensitive…shouldn’t you think about getting over yourself? What I mean is that everyone else is too busy being the hero of their own life story to give you that much thought.

As for what to talk to them about, well, obviously, you talk to them about themselves, and they’ll think you’re the most mahvelous conversationalist, dahling. (Easiest question to open with: what’s your opinion of _____? — “the guest speaker”, “the dean”, “new math”, “kids these days”, “this food”, etc. and you’ll get an earful!)

To put this yet another way, to get people to open up and engage in a conversation with you, you have to be interested in them. (Or at least, SHOW that you’re interested in them. You don’t have to actually be interested, although it helps.) Take that remark you made about being stuck between two geriatrics at a table, who “probably survived the depression”. Time would’ve gone by a lot quicker if you’d asked them about surviving the Depression (resulting in some wonderful stories, no doubt) or WWII (perhaps less insulting of their age to imply they lived through The Big One.) Instead, you sat there stewing over being stuck between two oldies, and they were equally annoyed by you being between them.

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