The foreign language of conversation

I had another appointment with the university counsellor on Wednesday. I originally got in touch with him because of my struggles with the workload, just to see if there was anything he could suggest or help me with. Yet in the space of 4 appointments, he’s come to learn all about my SA, depression, experiences with bullying, self harm, and past assessments for autism. I honestly wasn’t looking for someone else to help with all of these things, but he has so far been great at understanding everything. I don’t know if it’s because he’s older than any professional I’ve seen in the past, but he does seem very, very good at his job and genuinely listens to what I have to say. He’s very easy to talk to because of this, which certainly helps a lot.

As I mentioned in my last post, he’d given me the task of starting a small talk type conversation with him (I was supposed to pretend that he was a random person that I’d met in the university canteen or somewhere similar). All I really managed was “Hi. How are you? …. I’m fine, thanks” before I got stuck. On the few occasions when someone at university tried to make conversation with me, it was much the same – the talk would never last longer than 30 seconds or so, because I just never know what to say. Throughout the hour session, we continued to practice at having a conversation. I don’t think I ever really knew just how clueless I was about talking to other people until then. The counsellor told me that the main trick with conversation is just knowing what questions to ask/ finding something in what the other person says that you can ask a question about. He made it sound so simple but I struggle even with that. Often I’m so anxious that I can’t pay full attention to what the other person is saying. For some reason, my attention span when people are talking to me is very short and I find myself zoning out a lot and missing things. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with anxiety… I’m often quite awful at processing and following spoken instructions also. I’m not good at asking questions of the other person or taking an interest in what they’ve said, in order to allow them to speak. If you imagine making conversation as a game of tennis, where each person has 3 tennis balls, typically the other person throws me a ball (i.e. a question) but I hit it off in the wrong direction rather than returning it to them, so they soon run out of balls to throw and lose interest, and the conversation is over. I’m usually too scared to throw them a ball myself. I could talk about myself quite a lot if someone asked me, but I’m usually poor at asking the other person questions about their self and their life. Perhaps this is one of the down sides of seeing professionals for years – I’m used to having to talk about myself  but not having to have a proper, equal conversation. The professionals learn a lot about me and my difficulties, but I learn very little about them. I feel very selfish for focussing on myself and not being able to bring the focus back to the other person by asking them questions. Even on this blog, all I ever really write about is myself and my own thoughts and feelings. I suppose that’s the nature of blogging but still…I really need to learn to pay more attention to others. I must really bore people because of this, and because I have (compared to the vast majority of people) a boring life.

So I have mixed feelings about our last meeting. On one hand, I’m upset and angry at myself because I’ve only just fully realised just how little I know about making conversation and how unskilled I am at it. I’m 19 years old and I’m only now learning the most basic aspects of conversation. It just seems ridiculous when I think about it. As I’ve had so little social experience in my life, I’m basically still a toddler in terms of social skills. I’m going to have to greatly and rapidly improve on this if I am to have any chance of making friends or being in a relationship. I wonder if that’s even possible – 16 or so years worth of social skills in a few months, for example. And even if it is, that’s just one component of reducing/ overcoming social anxiety. It disheartens me. And it disheartens me to know that I am so far behind everyone else, while other people just ‘get’ social interaction and appear to know (or at least have an idea) of what to do in most situations, due to their extensive social experience. On the other hand, I am glad that the counsellor is actually trying to help me improve my conversation skills, because – somewhat bizarrely-  none of the other professionals have ever even touched on this before. I really hope that I can improve with his help. He has been very encouraging so far, despite my difficulties: “I know that even walking in this room and trying to start a conversation with me is difficult for you, so you should be proud that you gave it a try“. I will probably try and find a good book on social skills which I can read this summer, but I think direct social experience is what will most help me to improve. I never realised quite how little I know about interacting with other people.

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5 Responses to The foreign language of conversation

  1. It’s upsetting when you see the “you are here” marker on the map of humanity and realize how much you’ve missed in terms of the journey. That’s what basically happened to me in 2010 and it threw me into deep depression. Then I realized that if I was going to go on living then I needed to start addressing the problem.

    Since then, I have found that every tiny improvement in how I interact feeds more improvement. It is still work for me, most of the time, to engage in “normal” conversation, even with people I know well. But I have moments where I forget I’m doing it, and it’s not work. I also no longer go home crippled from tense neck and shoulder muscles. If you can, try to turn off the castigating voice in your head that’s judging everything you’re doing and saying. Meditation might help you there — you learn to note a thought, accept it, then brush it away and see that it’s not reality.

    You will eventually start to be able to listen and be present. Also, don’t take responsibility for filling the silence every time. Conversations are two-way — so if there’s silence to fill, you are as free to sit and let the other person fill is as you want to be. It can be awkward, but sometimes it leads to surprising turns in conversation. Finally, it might help to take pressure off if you don’t constantly measure yourself today in the context of “I’ll never have friends or a relationship if I don’t fix this right now.” That’s a big leap. That will all come eventually. In the meantime, just deal with the little things that all add up to being able to connect on a daily basis with people.

    I have a friend who was bullied relentlessly. It’s incredible, the number that can do on your self-image and trust in other people. Having that past trauma is a lot to overcome. Give yourself credit for trying.

    I’m glad you found someone who you can work with. That’s a valuable thing.

  2. Gemma says:

    Thanks for the advice/ tips. 🙂 Although I’m slightly sceptical, I’d like to try meditation – actually, I’m willing to try anything that could possibly help my mood/ anxiety. This might sound like a stupid question, but how do you do it? None of the professionals I’ve seen have ever mentioned it (I have heard of ‘Mindfulness’ though). Do you need to go to a class for it, or is it something that you can learn through the internet?

    I’m not really skilled at switching the critical ‘voice’ in my head off, but sometimes telling it to shut up or telling it that what it’s saying is a load of nonsense does help. (As crazy as it may sound). Trying to look at it as something separate from myself also helps.

    The whole thing about my lack of friendships/ a relationship is probably the thing that brings me down the most. I do find it very difficult not to dwell on this/ convince myself that I will ever have either of those things. I do agree, though, that taking things one day/ week at a time is the best approach. My mum watches a programme called ‘The Biggest Loser’. The heaviest man they’d ever had on the programme was over 500lbs (and that was AFTER he’d lost a bit of weight) at the start of the season. His trainers thought that thinking about what a large amount of weight he had to lose would just make him want to give up/ feel completely hopeless, so they asked him just to think about what he had to do THAT DAY in order to improve his health/ lose weight. I’ve decided to try to do the same thing when it comes to reducing my social anxiety, though it is tricky to not let thinking about the bigger picture bring me down.

    Bullying has indeed massively impacted upon my trust in other people and my self esteem. I think >90% of my current problems are down to all the bullying that went on/ not fitting in and not having any close friends throughout my high school years. I worry that I'll never be able to stop ruminating on all of the things that happened to me there and move on.

    I think that finding a counsellor who you actually get along with and can honestly communicate with is half the battle. It is nice to finally find someone like that after years of working with people who weren't as helpful.

  3. I realize I never responded to your question about meditation. I bought a book called “The Mindful Way Through Depression.” It came with a CD, which I used for guided meditation. Meditation was probably largely responsible for keeping me from taking my own life a few years ago — the commitment to doing it every day and the slight distance it gave me from my thoughts and feelings, that was so critical to defusing them. I still have trouble meditating without using the guided audio, although I hope to be able to one day. When you first start, you’ll be shocked by the noise in your own head, and the judgment. Or maybe you won’t be. I was.
    http://www.amazon.com/Mindful-Way-through-Depression-Unhappiness/dp/1593851286

    • Gemma says:

      Thanks. 🙂 I’ve bought the book and CD. As luck would have it, at our most recent appointment, the university counsellor gave me a USB stick which has 9 Mindfulness/ meditation audio tracks on it. I will try listening to both, as well as reading the book, and I’ll see if it helps.

  4. solcolasoda says:

    I can really relate to this. I often feel incompetent and slow because I am unable to process spoken instructions. I zone out a lot while people are having conversations too..Heck, even in one on one convos with ppl I feel relaxed around. I always get distracted by crowded environments, passerby etc while trying to listen to what my friend/partner was saying.

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