Dear fomenters and fretters,
Many humans that struggle with any kind of social anxiety have a sense of what other people want or expect from them. I sometimes refer to this as ‘the generalized other.’
How You Learned That You Are Unacceptable
Sometimes these outward projections of a person’s insecurities are often based in childhood: people think I’m too loud, people think I do my gender wrong, people don’t like me because I cry too much.
The other piece is that insecurities are often based in some kind of lived experience- usually closer to adolescence. Lots of people have often had a few formative experiences that reflect these insecurities, and the story gets more specific, and less of just a full wave of shame. It could just take one really snide person at the right moment, or a series of social gaffes that really break down a person’s sense of self and instruct them in what they should hide from other people.
When You Try To Convince Yourself To Be Somebody Else
Many folks are afraid of being different within the social norms of their communities. There is a comfort and reward to homogeneity. Some people fall into the bell curve effortlessly, but there are plenty of people are just innately themselves and are unable to do so. There are also a number of people who engage in a daily struggle of attempting to normalize things that fall counter to their actual nature.
And by “different” I mean “different than their actual nature”- and not in a generative, growing-edge sort of way. If you are not good at math or are shy in social situations, you can develop these skills. However, there is a difference between skill-building, and attempting to shift your entire personality 90 degrees to become more socially acceptable.
People Are Not Static
It’s also tricky, because we do change as we get older and integrate new information, or our life circumstances change. When you lived with five roommates and there were always people around to share food with and talk, you were much more sociable. When you moved in with one other person, you perhaps remembered that you also enjoy quiet time to yourself, and spent a lot more time reading mystery novels and having solo Kate Bush dance parties. (you ARE running up that hill, good on you)
Every human being has flexibility within their personality and preferences. The trick lies in being genuine about what you are actually looking for in the moment. We often have to struggle and experience discomfort in order to integrate new information, and without this we would do no growing or changing.
Growth Does Not Mean Disappearing into Shame
Many folks engaging in the process of growth struggle with the fact that change is messy! Folks will often experience a lot of shame in acknowledging the gap between their own situation and where they would like to land. This will often stir up their worries about how they will be perceived by the generalized other. (this is the “before” in before/after pictures)
The generalized other is who I refer to when I talk to folks about who in the world they think is judging them. I find that many folks have a very specific vision of either the particular person, or the kind of people that they think dislike their style/ politics/ way they tell stories at a party.
This happens in a lot of ways: business-minded folks worry about being ambitious or successful enough. Lots of queer people worry about being appropriately gendered or expressing/enacting their sexuality in the ‘right’ ways.
Literally everyone worries about becoming boring when they get old, and what boring in this context means besides “doesn’t like loud concerts or staying out late” or “less enthusiastic about binge drinking” I haven’t figured out yet.
Vintage car-owners have their own specific concerns about how they appear to other vintage car-owners and ways that they engage socially and attempt to impress or show one another up. Because I am not a vintage car-owner I cannot tell you much about what those nuances are, but they absolutely exist.
Folks Are Afraid of Being Left Behind
Many of our fears are based in the reality that people organize relationships around convenience, affinity, and identity. If we don’t measure up, our sense of social scarcity gets activated, and we try really hard to keep up, or try really hard to stay in the particular groove that maintained the original relationship before it was worn down by time and change.
Our concern that people will think we are uncool is a pretty generalizable concern. But what is considered uncool changes rapidly over time and is subject to pretty specific community concerns.
If any of you have read “Dykes to Watch Out For” there’s a specific comic I’m thinking of when two characters (Mo and Harriet) are hooking up for the first time, and Harriet worries-“ Oh no! I’m wearing a bra! I hope she doesn’t think I’m uncool!”
Because friends, amongst lesbians in the 80s, it was de rigeur to not wear bras, because an androgynous aesthetic was popular, and bras were interpreted as cages of patriarchy, I guess?
But since Harriet is a person with large breasts, (which are best aided with some means of lifting or supporting) she wound up fretting that her hook-up buddy would think she was uncool for wearing a bra.
Is this reasonable? No.
But have we had our own version of worrying that people would think we were uncool for some similarly deeply contextual, superficial reason? You bet.
Your Anxiety Is Not Giving You Good Information About What Other People Think of You
We are in a moment of deep misinformation and fear and we do not have good information about the world around us. Probably your anxiety is ratcheted way up, because you are bipedal human who goes on the internet sometimes.
Your capacity to consistently interpret other’s behavior does not exist in isolation from the other generalized stress we are experiencing. This is something people regularly tussle with, but it is worse lately.
It’s okay to feel that deep maw of fear, grief, social anxiety and insecurity. It’s understandable that your shoulders are up around your ears and that your overworked sense of panic extends to whether or not people dislike you.
Consider that the story where nobody likes you is a story that you are telling yourself. If you need help untangling that story, give me a call. (in December 2017! I’m still on leave, but I’ll see y’all soon.)