DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve recently started to make changes to my life. I’ve started attending counselling to get a handle on regulating my emotions and raise my self esteem so that I don’t depend on others to make me happy and/or develop an obsession with someone who clearly doesn’t like me back. I’ve also joined online groups in my area so that I can socialise with others who share my interests during this horrific pandemic.
However I’ve got a significant obstacle in my path that makes it really hard for me to make friends and it will make it even harder to try my hand at flirting with women who I may be interested in in the future. My problem is i’m way too quiet and reserved to show my emotions or show genuine interest in others when I interact with them, to the point where I come across as aloof. I was raised with the mentality of the “stiff upper lip” where the cultural expectations are that you’re not supposed to show much emotion except when you’re around friends and family members. When you’re around strangers and acquaintances you’re supposed to be as polite and unemotional as possible unless you’re making a passive aggressive insult at someone. This can make it hard for me to make friends with people I’ve just met or flirt with someone that I’m interested in since flirting requires emotional openness by definition.
The only time I show emotion is if I’m pissed and I don’t like getting pissed too often since I know how damaging alcohol can be even if it makes me more giggly and social (also alcohol is expensive for a skint Uni student like myself). Since Canadian culture is much more emotionally open and expressive than the uptight and polite British isles where I hail from I’d like some tips on how to loosen up a bit and be more open and engaging with my peers.
I had a lot of trouble last year socially and I want to improve. Do you have any tips on how I may go about doing that? I figure you would, since you specialise in dating, social skills, and relationships.
Lost Uni Student
DEAR LOST UNI STUDENT: First of all, LUS, I’m glad to hear you’re making so many positive changes to your life. That’s excellent, and I hope you keep up the good work!
So let’s talk a little about learning how to be more open and expressive, especially with new people.
While there’s certainly a lot of “keep it all close to the vest” to British culture, the tendency to disconnect from your emotions is something that’s endemic to a lot of male socialization. Men, particularly in the US, are taught that displays of emotion are “unseemly” at best and deserving of mockery at worst. This sort of behavior gets reinforced constantly as a form of gender-policing, most often by other men. You see it when “being emotional” is equated with weakness, femininity or both. You see it when people insist on being “logical” or “sensible” and dismissing feelings as being either distractions or proof that somebody isn’t thinking clearly. And of course, you see it reinforced over and over again in pop culture, when men being emotionally expressive is portrayed as being awkward, uncomfortable or just something to be laughed at. And yet, that same cultural commandment to repress and detach from your emotions is the reason why men are increasingly emotionally isolated and suffering the most in the epidemic of loneliness that the world’s been experiencing. And — speaking from experience — using alcohol as a way of getting into “social” mode or giving yourself permission to be more openly expressive gets problematic very quickly.
Of course, part of the problem is that it can be very difficult to shift this mindset, particularly when you’ve lived with it for your entire life. It’s a little hard to go from being Stoneface McGee to being more open and expressive at the drop of a hat. One of the things I suggest is simply starting small and letting your emotions show on your face. One of the reasons why some folks have a hard time expressing themselves is because they’re wearing a mask of sorts; they try to keep a poker face on at all times. And yet, physically expressing our emotions is a part of how we feel them. By keeping as neutral an affect as possible we actually make it harder to feel and to share those feelings with others. Simply letting yourself smile more can make a huge difference in how you’re perceived by others. Giving folks a genuine smile and nod when you see them can go a long way towards dispelling that sense of being aloof or even arrogant. You may be quiet… but that’s hardly the same thing as being stuck up.
Similarly, being willing to show appreciation for others can help ease you into being more expressive and less shy and reserved. Laughing at people’s jokes — genuine laughs, not a polite, sensible chuckle — or nodding thoughtfully while they talk or simply saying “that’s really cool” or “thank you” can help get you in the habit of being more willing to show how you’re feeling without just trauma-dumping or feelings-vomiting all over the place. They may be baby steps, to be sure, but they can help you get more comfortable with being more outgoing and expressive.
Another thing that I’ve found that helps is an odd practice, but one that works for a lot of people: play a role. One of the things that can be fascinating is how disinhibiting playing pretend can be. People who seem shy and retiring often seem like they’re exploding with confidence and excitement when given a space in which to pretend to be someone else. There’s a level of security there, a distancing from themselves that lets them try on different attitudes and behaviors. They’re not the one being the talkative, flirty social butterfly, it’s just who they’re pretending to be. As long as they’re being someone else, they can embody those behaviors — things that they might have a hard time doing on their own. In this case, you’re taking that principle and applying it to, well, you. You’re essentially playing the role of the “you” that you wish you were. Your future self, if you will, the person that you want to see down the line. While it can seem a little preposterous — you’re pretending to be yourself?? — it actually works. You’re creating a level of psychological distance that lets you pretend that this isn’t you, even though it’s who you wish you were. But at the same time, what you’re doing is taking that future version of yourself and making him real by essentially training yourself to be them. This is part of why “fake it ’til you make it” works so well; by faking being that person, you’re teaching yourself how to become them.
However, I think the most useful thing to do would be to try giving yourself permission to be vulnerable and authentic. Being bottled up and unexpressive isn’t who you are; it’s a shield, protecting you against the judgement of others. By being willing to take ownership of your feelings, being willing to express them and not be embarrassed by them is an incredible display of strength and courage. You’re showing others that you’re not afraid to be your authentic self, to show others how you feel and to be genuine with them. That’s incredibly ballsy; after all, it can feel like you’re opening yourself up to mockery from others. But at the same time: that mockery is often the result of their own discomfort with their own emotions. They’d rather try to shut you down than face their own feelings. Your refusing to make yourself smaller is a power move, and people respond well to that sort of confidence and authenticity.
It’s important to note that none of this is going to be an overnight change. It takes time to habituate yourself to new practices and new behaviors. But with steady, consistent practice, you’ll start turning this from something you have to consciously perform into the emotional equivalent of muscle memory. And I think you’ll find that as people respond positively to you, you’ll find that it will come all the easier, until it feels utterly natural and part of who you are.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com