DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I know you are not actually a real doctor (thankfully I have a therapist for that) but, maybe you can shed some light on my situation.
Long story short, I got diagnosed with PTSD from childhood and Depression and I am working on overcoming my avoidant tendencies.
One major problem that seems to pop up is that I truly do WANT to meet and connect with people but, what actually ends up happening is that I throw up an emotional wall as soon as that starts to happen. Whether that be with humor or just silence, the thought process always ends with the same message “Don’t get too close”/ “Keep it superficial”.
Now I would love to shatter this outdated defense mechanism into a million pieces (especially because it could explain why I am so emotionally detached from people) but unfortunately the human pysche doesn’t work that way.
So with that being said, my thought process to overcome this was:
1. Throw myself into a ton of social events (Virtual for now due to COVID-19)
3. Congrats you can feel again!
Seeing as you run a relationship advice column maybe you can shed some light on what my next move should be?
– Removing the Armor
DEAR REMOVING THE ARMOR: I understand the desire to throw yourself into things as a form of intense exposure therapy, RTA, but I don’t think it’s going to work quite the way you expect it to. The problem with just doing a whole bunch of social events is that unless you actually take deliberate steps to either take down your walls or start letting people in, you’re not going to actually get anywhere. In fact, virtual events might actually make things worse. It’s very easy to keep those walls up when the only connections you have are virtual. We’re not a species built for Zoom calls or Skype chats; we’re built for face-to-face, in person communication. When you’re at a remove from everyone, it’s very easy to see them as being less real or less significant than they actually are. That distance makes it so much easier to just put up the wall and hide behind it.
Unless you take actual steps to change things. And, importantly, they need to be the right steps.
I’ve seen lots of folks try to do the “get over this issue by flooding myself with it” thing. In fact, one of the most common examples I’ve seen has been the “do a thousand approaches to get over your approach anxiety” trick. But while seeing that being rejected or turned down won’t kill you can ease that anxiety a little… just doing a thousand approaches isn’t going to fix things unless you’re doing it deliberately and intelligently. Otherwise, you’re just trying to reach a benchmark with no real meaning. It’s kind of like the proverbial 10,000 hours to master a skill. Ignoring that the 10,000 hours number was basically made up out of whole cloth, it’s not just “do this for 10k hours and you’ll master it”, it’s putting in deliberate practice. Michael Jordan didn’t become who he was by just shooting random free throws. He drilled the basics until they were muscle memory, he practiced making shots from all over the court, he practiced and refined his technique until he could do it by pure instinct. It was a course of sustained, careful and strategic development that lead to him becoming one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
So by that same token, just going to thousands of social events isn’t going to break your armor. Instead, it’s going to take going to events with the intent of letting people in. The answer is to start finding ways to be more comfortable with taking down the wall, to addressing the fear of letting people get close to you. That’s why I don’t think going to a bunch of different events — a new one every time — will help. You’ll have no real motivation to let the wall down and no reason to trust anyone. These will all be strangers to you, a different set of strangers every time. Instead, what I think would be more productive would be to go to specific events, regularly. If you go to the same, let’s say 3 events, every week, you’ll start to get to know the regulars. You’ll be seeing the same people over and over again, which will increase your familiarity with them. They won’t be intimidating strangers, so much as “ok, that’s Tim with the Mage campaign, that’s Nina who plays jazz piano, that’s Umberto who’s obsessed with Animal Crossing”. As any marketer will tell you: familiarity and repetitive exposure breeds comfort and ultimately affection. Just as hearing the same pop song over and over again eventually makes you go “ok… that’s not so bad”, seeing the same people over and over again helps you get to know them. That knowledge and familiarity helps breed trust, even affection. And as you get to know them and trust them enough to not hurt you… you can let down your guard. Not a lot, just a little. It’s the emotional vulnerability of “just the tip”, being just a little vulnerable with someone to see how it feels. Just to see how they react.
And when they don’t respond by taking advantage of that vulnerability or that chink in your armor? Well… with a little more time, you might be willing to open up a little bit further. And then a little bit further after that.
Now obviously, I think this is a plan that should be coordinated with your therapist; as you correctly observed, Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor. But the problem isn’t that you lack socialization, it’s that you were hurt in ways that make it hard for you to trust people. But if you give people the chance to earn your trust and prove that they’re trustworthy, I think you’ll start feeling secure enough to open up a little bit at a time. It may seem like a long, slow process at first… but those little changes, those little micro-revolutions add up over time.
Take it slow, keep those changes small… but give people the chance to show that they can be trusted. Do that, and I think in time, you’ll feel safe enough and confident enough to let your walls down and let people in.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org