Thursday, June 11, 2015

I don't always have to be The Entertainer

"The Entertainer came out tonight."

That's what my partner told me a few times, after dinners with old friends of mine. He says he doesn't quite recognize "The Entertainer", that it's not the version of me that he's grown to know over our past 8 months together, and that he's bothered by some of my behavior in that version of myself.

It took me a while to figure out who this Entertainer was, and why it might be bothersome, but I think I've got it now.

As a kid, I determined pretty early on that the way to get friends was to impress people. I remember coming up with party tricks for the cafeteria lunch table in elementary school (I would offer to eat everyone's brown paper lunch bags and rate their deliciousness). I remember offering my house T1 line to potential house-comer-overs in middle school (back when home internet connections weren't a thing). I remember bringing bags full of candy and toys to school for *every* holiday, offering them to every one of my classmates.

...And it worked! Well, at least, it did superficially. I always had full birthday parties, I always had a place to sit at lunch, I always won our class presidency elections. But now that I look back, and realize how few "friends" I kept in touch with since then, I wonder if it really worked? Was I actually friends with all those people? Did I actually even know anything about all those people? What if I just spent my childhood entertaining them, and never remembered to have a real conversation with them?

It's hard for me to really say because my memory is so poor to begin with, but I *can* evaluate my current life and how I'm relating to the people around me. I've realized that I know very little about most of my Khan Academy and GDI colleagues, and anything I do know was information they proactively shared. I suspect I resort to being "The Entertainer" around them, like at the lunch table, because that's the way I've learned to relate to the world.

But why? Why do I feel such a strong urge to entertain? Like most of the things I'm discovering about myself lately, it seems to be a social anxiety that comes from a fear of unworthiness. I think I'm afraid that if I don't entertain, then I haven't earned my place at the table. If I do, then I've proven myself worthy of love and attention - even if it's only a particular version of myself, even if it means most of my connections are devoid of true 2-way interactions.

I've decided that I don't always have to be The Entertainer anymore. I can be the Listener -- the Curious Cat -- the Eager Participant -- the Smile&Nodder -- a self that is comfortable with my place at the table. I don't think its going to be particularly easy for me to become a Listener; I don't have a whole lot of practice. I seem to be able to become a Listener in the presence of my partner, for whatever reason, so I'm going to try to call on that self when I'm not around him.

I will be happier in the long-run if I can become comfortable with not being The Entertainer. I want to relate to people in a way that isn't fueled by my fear of unworthiness, but fueled by a genuine desire to connect more deeply with them.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Why am I so afraid of mingling?

I was at a meetup tonight, and after a round of introductions, the host said "and now we'll mingle before the talk!" At that point, I literally hid in the bathroom. I waited there until the sounds of mingling died down, and I knew it was safe to rejoin and watch the talk. This wasn't the first time I've hidden in the bathroom during the mingling part of a meetup. It wasn't even the second or third time. Bathrooms and me, we're old friends.

So why am I afraid of mingling? Let's break it down:

  • Fear of the approach: I have to pick somebody to go up to, and hope they also wanted me to approach, or are okay with me approaching them. I have to tell myself that they're not going to groan to themselves "ugh, I didn't want them to approach!" I know that, rationally, I shouldn't feel so unworthy of their desire to speak with me, but emotionally, I have that tendency. I am working through that, in therapy and a Radical Acceptance reading club with my partner, but I'm not to the point yet where I can think to myself, "sure, anyone would love to talk to me!" and wholeheartedly believe it.
  • Uncertainty on the topic: Assuming I manage to approach someone, I then have to figure out the right conversation topic. At the meetup, the introductions included a "Ask me about ___" prompt and a "One time, I built ___ " prompt, designed to give us topics to talk about. Because of that, I think I could have approached a few people with a topic that I knew was relevant to my interests, and I'm thankful they provided that fodder for us. I also heard a nice prompt suggested tonight as a general conversation starter, "What's something you've learned recently?" I'd like to try that out, at meetups that don't provide any introduction fodder.
  • Fear of the finish: I have yet to figure out a good way to wind down a topic and leave it on a positive note. Instead, my 1-on-1 conversations often feel like they wither and die a slow, agonizing death. I've gotten suggestions like claiming you have to go to the bathroom, but I don't know that I'm a good enough liar for that, and that I can reasonably use that for every conversation. That's why I much prefer time-bucketed conversations or group conversations that allow for easy in-out transitions.

I know that my anxieties around mingling are fears that I need to work through, as they're tied to my underlying social anxieties in life. But I also believe that events can make networking less intimidating for those of us with these anxieties, and that's why I'm a big fan of more structured mingling. For example, at this meetup, they could have blown a whistle at the end of 4 minutes, and forced everyone to mingle with a new person, and that would have helped with my fear of approach and finish.

I wrote up more about making networking easier in this earlier post, and I think that the pre-matched speed networking is still my favorite of all the structured mingling attempts I've experienced. I hope more events experiment with that. Just in case I'm not the only one that hides in bathrooms. :)