My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘social skills’

When You Think Other People Are Talking About You

You know when you feel sure that other people are talking about you? You notice them whispering, or looking at you, or studiously not looking at you, and you think, what are they saying about me?

Two smiling friends sharing secret in coffee talkPsychologists call those feelings “ideas of reference.” (If you alter your behavior because of the supposed scrutiny, they’re known as “delusions of reference.”) Ideas of reference are often associated with paranoia. However, if you ask clinically depressed or bipolar people, you will find that many of them have them as well.

I know I have. It’s hard not to. You already feel that you’re not really normal (whatever that means) and you’re afraid that it shows. If people can see that you’re not like everyone else, they’re bound to be talking about it. Never mind that your difference is a mental one; you’re sure that everyone can tell just by looking at you that you’re crazy.

In actual fact, the people you think are talking about you usually aren’t – until you go over to them and defensively berate them or accuse them of doing so. Then you can be sure they will be talking about you after you leave.

Except perhaps in junior high school, most people in everyday life do not spend their time discussing how odd the people around them are. (Except for those people who take pictures of others at Walmart and then post them on the internet.) But the average person is too involved in his or her own daily life to give more than a passing glance to a stranger. The people you see whispering behind their hands are most likely developing their own secrets or gossiping about someone you don’t even know.

Even if the people are talking about you, ask yourself – so what? Do their opinions really matter? I know that you want to say yes, they do. But in the larger scheme of things, they don’t. Your life will not change in the slightest if they are saying they don’t like your haircut or that they heard you bite your nails. Malicious gossip and social bullying are separate matters. But again, you don’t really know that these people are saying anything that’s actually harmful.

Perhaps you feel it’s more significant if the people you think are talking about you are family members, coworkers, or friends. They may really be talking about you. The point is, even if they are, you have no idea what they’re saying. Most of the time they speak in low tones so as not to upset you, never realizing that that upsets you more. Tell yourself they could be planning a surprise party or talking about Aunt Edna’s affair with a younger man. Not everything is about you.

Ideas of reference may be a factor in imposter syndrome – the feeling that you are not really successful, competent, or talented, but are just faking it, and that everyone around you can tell. Or perhaps your ideas of reference are like intrusive thoughts – sudden, distressing notions that pop into your head, seemingly without cause or warning. These can be anything at all, from “I wonder if my passport has expired” to “Who would miss me if I died?” to “Those people are talking about me.”

What can you do if you have ideas of reference? Resist the urge to ask if the people are really talking about you. That will only make things awkward and worse. Ignore them if you can. (This is not the same as the bad old non-advice about ignoring bullies. You know when a bully targets you. With ideas of reference, you never really know if your fears are true.) Since you didn’t actually hear what the people said, you can realistically assume they were talking about someone or something else entirely. Imagine that one is telling the other that her slip is showing. (Do people still wear slips? I know they don’t wear pantyhose anymore.)

If you feel you must react, use a minimal response such as the good ol’ side-eye, which is sufficiently ambiguous that the person (who may also have ideas of reference) can assume it’s directed at someone else.

Another suggestion I’ve heard is to work with your therapist on issues of self-esteem and self-concept, or to try cognitive behavioral therapy. Some medications may help too. Still, if you feel you can manage it, I think the best idea is to tell yourself “So what?” and move on.

Parts of My Life I Miss the Most

Last month I wrote about how bipolar disorder had cost me – well, not the ability – but the capacity to read (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-qp). I am intensely thankful that the concentration, focus, and motivation to read have returned as my healing has progressed.

But there are some other things that are missing from my life that I wish desperately that I could get back. Or wish I had never lost in the first place. (Depression is very much with me right now, so forgive me if I dwell in the past with my failures a bit.)

First are friends. I’ve written about this before too (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2W), but the subject was brought home to me recently when I received a fuck-off letter from a former friend I was trying to reach out to, in hopes of reestablishing the relationship. One of her main reasons for cutting me off was that every time we went out, she felt it was “her and me and my misery.”

She did acknowledge that at times our friendship had been burdened by her misery too, but evidently that either didn’t count as much, or else mine lasted too long. (If it was too long for her, it was even longer for me.) I am very disappointed that, now that my “black dog” is smaller and on a leash, she found other reasons not to associate with me. To make it more ironic, she has been a therapist and now teaches psychology.

I also miss having a steady paycheck. My last 9-5 office job was over ten years ago, and since then my mental state has not allowed me to get and keep another such position. The security of knowing how much money I would have every month allowed me to plan.

And to travel. I really miss traveling. Admittedly, part of my inability to travel now is determined by my physical health. But my anxiety would make it just that much more difficult. Now I can barely get away for a weekend, and even then I must carefully monitor my moods, limit my activities, track my eating and sleeping, and avoid crowds.

One of my deepest regrets is that when I was undiagnosed and untreated, I couldn’t fulfill my potential. I attended an Ivy League university, but I can’t say I got out of it what I could or should have. I feel now that I skated by, impeded by many depressive spells, lack of focus and concentration, and confusion. I even took a year off to get my head together, but since that didn’t include getting help for my bipolar disorder, its value was questionable.

Lest this seem like nothing but whining (which my depression is telling is what it is), there are also some things that bipolar disorder has taken from me that I don’t miss at all.

Oddly, one of them is a 9-5 office job. While I do miss the steady paycheck, I absolutely don’t miss the things that came with it. Now, doing freelance work, I can fit my work around the things I need to do (like seeing my therapist) and the things I have to do (like slowing down when depression hits). I don’t have to get up at the same time every day and dress appropriately (if at all) and try to fit in and socialize with my co-workers. That was never easy for me and became nearly impossible after my big meltdown.

And, as much as I miss travel, I don’t miss business travel. Again, being “on” all the time, for days at a time, with no time or place to decompress, would be impossible now. Since we usually had to share hotel rooms, there wasn’t even a chance for any alone time, which I need a fair amount of. I could never get the hang of “team eating” either.

Finally, I don’t miss the boyfriend who took an already broken me and broke me worse. (I wrote about him in my post about gaslighting http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm.) My self-esteem was not great before the relationship, but afterward it went into negative numbers. Self-harm, self-medication, self-doubt, and negative self-talk were what I had instead. But Rex didn’t do it alone. He had my bipolar disorder there to reinforce his words and actions. And to not let me see what was happening.

Bipolar disorder is a balancing act, in more ways than one. It takes away good things from our lives. But my therapist reminds me that it also gives an opportunity – as I rebuild my life, I can choose which pieces I want to reclaim and which I want to discard. And the parts I can rebuild are what I should concentrate on.

And I will, once this spell of depression releases me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Not Introverted. I Just Don’t Want to Leave the House.

Maybe you would call me an introvert. I stay in the house for weeks at a time, never sticking my nose out into the fresh air. I wear pajamas all day, most days. My husband does the grocery shopping, picks up my prescriptions, and does most of the other errands.

I go out when I have a doctor’s appointment or when Dan entices me out with the promise of a restaurant meal.

I don’t consider myself an introvert.

I do consider myself a social person.

Why, then, do I stay indoors?

First, because my bipolar disorder makes me sensitive to noise and crowds. Technically, I think this is more agoraphobia than introversion. I can handle being in small groups of people or audiences, but hundreds milling around, as at a mall, make me panicky. And forget places that are both noisy and people-y, like Chuck E. Cheese or other family-intensive restaurants.

Second, I like to be social – on my own terms. That largely means Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, various online bipolar support groups, IM, email, Skype, and the good old-fashioned telephone. In the years since I’ve been on Facebook, for example, I’ve connected more deeply with old friends and coworkers, reconnected with old schoolmates and Girl Scout troop members, gained new relationships with friends-of-friends, and discovered things I never knew about my acquaintances. I keep up with birthdays; look at baby, travel, and pet pictures; and cheer on accomplishments, as I would in person. (Except for the hugs. Virtual hugs are just not the same. But my husband takes up the slack there)

Most of all, I stay inside because I can. My husband enables me in this, as when he does the grocery shopping. We tried splitting the shopping, but even with the little runabout scooter-with-a-basket (mobility issues), I was overwhelmed and exhausted after shopping just one-half of the store.

I’m able to work, at least some, and the work I do is conducive to telecommuting. I can sit in front of my keyboard and monitor, in my pajamas, and still be a useful, productive member of society. I have clients and interact with them in the aforementioned ways.

I haven’t had an assignment that involves leaving the house in years – not even to do research. I used to have to visit libraries occasionally, and while they’re not known for being noisy and people-y, Google and the Internet put virtually any information I need right on my screen or hard drive.

Admittedly, getting out into the fresh air would be good for me. We live in a nice secluded area that would be good for walking, and there are any number of parks nearby, if I want variety. I know that going out and getting at least a small amount of exercise would be good for my bipolar depression, but I haven’t been able to force myself to do it yet. Going outside to walk involves getting out of my jammies into real clothes, and possibly taking a shower, either before I leave or when I get back. And many of you know what a challenge showers are for people with depression, bipolar or otherwise.

But again, this is a symptom of my bipolar disorder and the immobility it causes, rather than introversion. I’m not afraid of meeting people while out walking, or even having conversations with them. Usually “hi” is all that’s needed in these situations, and I have the ability to make small amounts of small talk appropriate to the occasion. (“Sure is windy today.” “Are those shoes comfortable?”) Since I seem to be riding a hypomanic swing these days, perhaps I’ll be able to get out and walk occasionally. I know my husband would heartily endorse the idea and most likely go with me to offer me encouragement.

Bottom line? I can go out amongst people if I want to. I just usually don’t want to.

Relentless Holiday Cheer

a snowmanFor many of us with bipolar disorder, the holidays are hard to get through. There is stress caused by family, shopping, entertaining, and crowds. Or the celebrations of others can bring loneliness, isolation, immobility, and despair. Above all, there is the relentless, overwhelming, mandatory cheerfulness, and the expectation that we should feel that way.

As I write this, tomorrow is Thanksgiving. A bit over a week later is my birthday. Then comes Christmas. And, of course, New Year’s Eve and Day.

Every year these celebrations are a trial and a chore for me. I don’t know how you get through them, but this is what they usually look like for me.

Thanksgiving. We have no family in town, so it is just me and my husband. Actually, this is not bad, because it relieves us of the responsibility for massive cooking, anxiety-filled entertaining, and the always-dicey interactions with family. At most, it means we Skype with my mother-in-law while we all eat, which is taxing enough.

This year we are short on funds, so we’re having spaghetti instead of turkey. (I don’t like to do turkey anyway: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-2z.) Then we will indulge in our two traditions: the Thanksgiving episode of WKRP (“As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”) and the ceremonial playing of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” Then we nap. That’s it.

And what am I thankful for this year? I can’t think of much, except for my husband and cats, and that my pdoc just increased my Abilify. It hasn’t kicked in yet, except to make me sleepy, but, hey, a nap is on the schedule anyway.

Birthday. This is one of the big ones, with a zero at the end. My husband has already given me my presents (a variety of shoes and slippers). I can reliably predict that there will be a day-old baked good from where he works. No singing, no candles. That’s the way I like it. I’ll count the number of greetings I get on Facebook and feel miserable no matter what it is.

(My attitude toward birthdays is colored by the fact that a traumatic childhood event happened at a birthday party, although not my own.)

Christmas. The biggie. We exchange gifts ahead of time, without wrapping them. We go to the Chinese buffet. Dan watches a movie that I can’t stand, like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, or one I can sort of tolerate, like It’s a Wonderful Life. Or one I actually like, like Scrooged.

New Year’s Eve/Day. We used to go to a friend’s house for leftover Christmas cookies and singing “Oh, Danny Boy” on the porch (don’t ask), but she was one of the people who couldn’t put up with my bipolar isolation and tendency not to respond to invitations or to show up if I had. So that’s out now.

Dan’s family has a tradition of shaking their purses or wallets at midnight to ensure prosperity for the new year (it failed spectacularly last year). He’ll be working, so we can’t even kiss at midnight. I drink cheap champagne and go to bed early. We might have pork on New Year’s Day. Or not. But unless we have cole slaw or Dan opens a can of sauerkraut for himself, no cabbage.

If that sounds like a dreary holiday season, well, it is, but it’s all I can handle. I have tried. I really have. In years past I have bought Christmas sweaters and earrings and sent cards and entertained and done Secret Santas at work. I have had dinner with family. (Decorating is largely out, owing to the cats.) I have organized trips to fancy local buffets or restaurants. I have wrapped presents creatively (if sloppily) and even shopped off-line. I have baked spice cake and decorated sugar cookies with my friend Peggy. I have gone to community carol sings.

But no more. In many ways, like my life, my holidays have been pared down to the bare minimum. I approach them with dread and survive them with relief. They do not lift my spirits and nowadays I don’t expect them to.

It’s ironic that, though in many ways I am improving and healing and rebuilding my life, the holidays still defeat me. They are, at least for now, pieces that I can’t reclaim. I don’t think it would be much better if a bout of hypomania hit. I can just see myself buying presents for my far-flung friends, then bottoming out before I could mail them. You can’t time these things, after all.

The best I can wish for myself and for all of you is this:

Survive. Hold tight to whatever happiness you find. And please, please, get through this season any way you can.

Owning My Bullying

bullying, written on vintage metal texture

I have written many times before this on the subject of bullying – and now I have to admit that I have been a bully too.

Bullying is often seen in stereotypical terms as a larger kid extorting money from a smaller, weaker one, or torturing someone in the locker room with “swirlies” and other indignities. But there are many kinds of bullying. There is physical bullying – the kind most people thing of. There is ostracism or social bullying – the stereotype of which is the clique of mean girls or arrogant jocks. There are racist bullying, ethnic bullying, socioeconomic bullying, ableist bullying, sexual bullying, and just about any other type you can name.

Nowadays, one of the most vicious types of bullying, with the most harmful and longest-lasting effects, is cyberbullying. The tools of connection are being used to separate, exclude, and destroy reputations and even lives.

None of those is the kind of bully I was.

I was an intellectual bully. And since I realized that – only recently – I am ashamed.

I am not ashamed of my intelligence or my educational accomplishments. Those were the products of nature and nurture that I had little control over. It was what I did with those advantages that is shameful.

I used my smarts and my vocabulary to squash other students.

It may have started as a defense against the bullying I received – physical and social and whatever else. Intelligence seemed like the only weapon I had, and I wielded it as one. I was taking revenge in the only way I knew how. And that is something I should never have done.

I may not have intended it that way, but every snarky remark, every intellectual put-down, every sesquipedalian word flung back at my bullies carried a message. I was telling them that they were stupid and inferior, and that I was smarter  – better – than they were.

If that’s not bullying, I don’t know what is. And I’m sure it caused damage to egos and self-esteem, as well as perpetuating the cycle of be-bullied-and-bully that leaves countless perpetrators and victims in its wake.

Later in life, as my bipolar disorder deepened, I turned the bullying inward. I made self-deprecating remarks, snarked at myself, even made fun of myself for being overeducated and pedantic. I thought I had to do these thing to myself before someone else did them to me. It was at once a measure of my profoundly low self-esteem and a way to lower it even further.

In essence, I was bullying myself. And I’ve known other people who have done likewise. (For what it’s worth, I’ve since learned that it can be profoundly irritating to listen to a person tear himself or herself down this way.)

Intellectual bullying is a hard habit to break. The words, the ideas, the sarcasm are there for the using. The consequence, of course, is driving people away, sometimes without even realizing it. I have done this and seen it only when looking back at the potential or actual friends lost, the coworkers who thought I was a jerk, the people I’ve hurt.

I’ve been trying to break myself of the habit. Oddly, the Internet helps. It is, as has been noted, true that there are few ways to convey tone of voice in chat or email. There is no sarcasm font. But there are ways to let the recipient know that you do not mean a message literally or unkindly. You can place <snerk> after a remark or a  😛 emoji or a sticker that demonstrates you mean well. I’ve even seen people use <sarcasm on> and <sarcasm off> around their messages to make them clearer.

But mostly, I try to guard my speech. I have to install a little censor (or sensor) that says, “Ooh! That’s funny! But is it insulting?” before I make a remark.

I’d rather pause for a second and look like a doof than go back to being a bully.

The Therapeutic Hug

People Group Teamwork Holding Logo. 3D Rendering illustration

Big Group Hug

The common wisdom is that a person needs four hugs a day for survival, eight for maintenance, and twelve for growth. I doubt that this is confirmed by any scientific studies and I doubt that it is true. If it were, there would be millions of people on Earth who would not survive.

I would be one of them. Despite being married to one of the two truly world-class huggers I’ve met in my life, I do not get my four-a-day. And certainly not twelve. Assuming eight hours a day for sleep and eight hours a day for work, that would leave eight hours to work in twelve hugs. That’s one and a half hugs per hour, and I suspect half a hug just won’t do.

In fact, I know it won’t. Scientific research has been done on the 20-second hug. It releases oxytocin, a pleasure and bonding chemical in the brain. Half a hug would need to be 40 seconds long to do the proper amount of good, and young lovers and newlyweds tend to be the only people who give hugs of that duration.

Then there’s the question of what constitutes a hug. For greatest oxytocin effect, I would recommend the full body hug – toe to toe, torso to torso, heads on shoulders, arms tightly squeezing. But you probably can’t give that particular hug when you run into an acquaintance in the supermarket, especially not 20 seconds worth, without blocking the aisles.

Other variations of hugs that may be less effective are the side-by-side one-shoulder squeeze (and the multi-person variant, the Big Group Hug), the manly back-thumping, and the A-frame hug (standing a distance apart and leaning in for a hug from the shoulders up). Then there are the virtual hug, usually written ((hug)), with the number of parens indicating the length/intensity of the hug, and the proxy hug, in which you delegate a person to pass along a hug when you’re not able to be there. None of these seem really conducive to the 20-second, made-for-thriving hug.

But, on some level, we know that hugs are therapeutic. Oxytocin or whatever, they make us feel better. Lots of hugging goes on at support and 12-step groups, and people who go to those daily might indeed make their recommended quota.

I go to private psychotherapy, however. I’ve never hugged my therapist, and am not even sure whether it’s appropriate for therapist and client to hug. It would be awkward to ask, “Can I have a hug?” only to hear, “No. That’s unethical.” But I suppose it depends on the therapist and the client and how each feels about the subject. I know sex is unethical, but hugs may be a gray area. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

Of course, there are people who do not like to – or are afraid to – touch other people. Think Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. People who are aware of and skilled in responding to others’ body language may be able to see the little (or, let’s face it, large) cringe when one person sees another moving forward with open arms. If the non-hugger is quick enough, he or she can quickly stick out a hand for a hearty handshake, or the potential hugger will abort the hug and retreat to a friendly tap on the shoulder.

But there are people who will swoop in and envelop you in an unwanted embrace and maybe even air kisses with smacking noises. I suspect these would be more likely to shut down oxytocin entirely, and possibly release adrenaline instead in a fight-or-flight response.

As with sex, the safest route is to ask for consent – “Can I have a hug?” – and take no – “I’d rather not” – for an answer, without taking offense or pressuring – “Aw, c’mon” – and making things even more awkward.

Still, the best advice I can give is to be proactive about hugging. Say, “I need a hug” when you do. Ask “Do you need/want a hug?” when a person you know seems to be in distress.

Avoid hugging strangers, though. That hardly ever helps. At least wait until you’ve been properly introduced.

 

 

A Crowd-Hater at a Conference

“I’m gonna kick butt at this writers’ conference!”

I was a wee bit manicky.

“I am a writer and I know it! I’ve had articles published in lots of magazines! I have two blogs and I write in them every week! I can do this!”

It was a conference for humor writers.

“I know I can do this! I’ve written funny things about ratatouille (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-2z) and possums (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-46) and being burgled by Frenchmen (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-1B).”

So, comes the conference…at a time when I’m not the least bit manicky.

Forget what I said about having developed a few social skills (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2M). I was there alone, and confronted with a large group, not small groups or individuals.

And I had paid a lot of money to attend.

Yellow ladybird is marginalizedIt was noisy. It was people-y. It had multiple panels scheduled all day. Every day lunch was an Event with big round tables. Every dinner was an Event with big round tables and important speakers. Everyone there blogged daily or had three blogs, an agent, and/or a book contract.

What to do?

Give myself permission to do what I could do. And skip the other stuff. Ignore the money. Build in breaks. Find quiet spaces. Admit when I’m exhausted and go home. (I lived in the area. If I had stayed in the hotel, that would have been “take naps” and the quiet spaces would have been easier to find. If I had better social skills, I might have made a friend and asked to borrow her hotel room.)

This is how I got through it all. Or most of it, anyway.

Do what I could. I combed the program book for Sessions I Must Attend, Sessions I Would Like to Attend, and Sessions I Can Skip. Then I looked for sessions that were offered more than once and decided which offering fit my schedule better. I tried to avoid more than two back-to-back sessions.

Ignore the money. Yeah, I paid quite a chunk of change for this. But it would have been ridiculous for me to calculate how much money each session was worth and try to make back my investment. I had to tell myself that I spent a lump sum and that whatever I got from the conference was worth it.

Build in breaks. The conference had what they called breaks – 15 minutes between sessions when everyone rushed the snack tables, compared schedules, and chattered up a storm. My idea of a break was to sit in the lobby in a comfy chair, stare at the program book so no one interrupted me, and carry snacks with me (boxes of raisins are good).

Find quiet spaces. When I needed something quieter than a hotel or conference center lobby, I searched for unused classrooms. In a hotel, the bar is usually pretty empty during a conference and is a good place to sit and relax with a nice glass of iced tea and maybe even complementary peanuts. Sometimes I was lucky enough to find that if I went to the room I wanted for the next session, it would be empty or contain only a few people. When all else fails, there are always the restroom stalls. (Unless there’s a line.)

Leave when exhausted. On the last full day of the conference I found myself slumped in a chair in the lobby, totally wrung out. There were events scheduled that evening that sounded fun and that I had signed up for while manicky (see above). But I just couldn’t. The events were mostly entertainment rather than educational anyway, and I was not in a headspace where I could absorb entertainment. The fact that there was a flu going around made my disappearance more understandable (even though I wasn’t physically sick).

So did I learn anything at the conference? Did I make new friends? Did I come back revitalized?

Sort of. I learned that the one-on-one “speed dating” with experts was perhaps the most valuable thing I did. I learned that showing up early for a session allowed me the opportunity to meet one of my idols (the speaker) and spend a little time with her and a small group before the session started. I learned that if I sat near the door it was easier to slip out when panic struck.

I even learned a thing or two about writing – how to write a better query letter, how to improve my blogs, when to consider self-publishing, and so forth. I learned that, despite my manicky expectations, I was no better or worse than the other attendees. We all had skills and valuable experiences and we all had things to learn.

Did I make a lot of new writing friends? No. At least not then. The conference had a Facebook page for attendees and I got involved afterward, online, where I am more comfortable than in crowds. I recognized names I had seen on nametags and had conversations with them. I posted some material from my blogs and read what others posted. I commented and read comments. I “followed” some of the instructors. I read books that attendees had recommended.

To tell the truth, I think I got more from the conference after it was over than when it was going on.

Am I glad I went? Yes. The experience was good for me in more ways than one. Paying attention to my own limits and not trying to live up to artificial expectations made for a good – and survivable – learning experience.

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