DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been struggling with confidence, not being needy or anxious. I asked an author how can I achieve ‘inner calm’ and he sent me a response, but I don’t know what he meant by it and I was hoping if you can help me get a clear picture of it.
He said “when you learn to step back, see the bigger picture and learn to develop quiet inner confidence by not getting anxious about so much, or care too much what others think (not in an arrogant way), that can lead to inner calm that builds over time”.
Can you tell me what he meant by that like stepping back and such?
Bundle of Nerves
DEAR BUNDLE OF NERVES: I can see why you’re confused, BON. When he’s telling you to learn to step back, what he’s telling you is to try to step away from the immediacy of the moment and to work at getting perspective.
One of the reasons why anxiety is so pernicious is because it’s so very immediate. We feel like it’s an emergency that needs to be resolved right then and there, even when it’s over an event that happened in the past or a thing you’re worried about in the future. It also ends up feeling so much larger and more momentous because we’re right in the middle of it. But many times that’s a trick, an illusion, a sort of mirage brought on by perspective and how close we are to it. But if we can find a way to take a breath, slow our heart rate and calm ourselves down in the moment, we often realize how much smaller and less important it really is.
It helps to think of it like looking at a very large painting in a museum. If you stand close to it, you’ll see the brush strokes, the texture of the paint and canvas, the tiny details of the piece. But if you step back, you are able to take in the painting as a whole… and realize how much those seemingly massive and significant details vanish. So it is with anxiety and panic; when you’re able to take a second to metaphorically step back or zoom out and look at the bigger picture, you gain perspective. You see how much that the thing making you anxious is actually smaller than it seems — often to the point of being insignificant or invisible.
This may seem impossible — how can people not zoom in on that humiliating or embarrassing thing? But in reality, people very care to the extent that you do… or even notice. It’s easy for you to get hung up on it because you have a 24/7 unedited stream of your thoughts and actions; everyone else, however, doesn’t have access to that same stream. They’re seeing far, far less than you, if they’re seeing it at all.
One of the reason why people suffer from social anxiety, for example, is because we’re convinced that we’re the center of everybody’s universe. We feel like we have a bright spotlight shining down on us, drawing everybody’s attention to whatever we just did that we’re embarrassed about. The truth, however, is that everyone is so caught up in their own bulls--t that they barely have time to notice other people’s, never mind give a damn about it. We’re all focused on our own issues and that means we’re far less likely to pay attention to the things other people think are unmissable. A great example of this is the infamous “gorilla basketball test”, where students were asked to watch a video of people throwing a ball back and forth and pay attention to how often people in white shirts passed the ball. In the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla costume wanders through the frame. They’re absolutely unmissable… but when asked, students didn’t even realize that the gorilla was even there. They were so focused on counting people throwing the basketball that they never registered the gorilla in the midst.
Once you realize this, it makes things far less distressing. You may think that your brief moment of awkwardness is indelibly branded on people’s minds… but the truth is that once you leave their eye-line, they’ll not only not think about it, but completely forget that it happened.
It’s the “you too” factor writ large. You think that saying “You too” at the wrong time is the sort of thing that people remember…. but consider how often someone said it to you and you never noticed or wrote it off as a random flub everyone makes. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace: you quit worrying about what other people think of you when you realize how rarely they think of you at all. When you realize how little the things that make you anxious register to the outside world, you stop worrying about it as much. When you are able to interrupt that moment of panic and look at the bigger picture, you’re able to see just how little it matters. And once you do that, you’re able to act with more confidence, realizing that you don’t need to be “perfect”. You can make mistakes and still succeed. Hell, you can make big mistakes and still recover, as long as you keep your head. If you don’t panic, even obvious, unmissable mistakes can go from being soul-crushing defeats to a quirky anecdote you all laugh about later on.
I’ve quite literally choked — as in, I aspirated on my own saliva — while introducing myself to a couple of very attractive women. Instead of freaking out, once I could breathe again, I said “hold on, I think I can do better, let’s do another take,” stepped back (literally), walked up and introduced myself again. I ended up talking with them for twenty minutes and got a phone number before I went back to my friends.
So instead of striving for perfection, work on realizing that anxiety lies to you. But if you can stay cool, interrupt that panic response and get a little perspective, you can tamp that anxiety down and transform it into calm, genuine confidence.
Fear + survival = confidence. Once you can embrace that, your confidence will grow over time.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I recently learned from my girlfriend that she has been feeling especially lonely recently. She does not feel that I have been very interested in her life. While I do greet her every day when she gets home from work and ask about her day, she has told me it only feels like I am asking superficial questions and then I start talking about my day.
I do know that I am the kind of person who waits to talk more than he just listens.
What can I do to make sure I’m not just having a shallow conversation or trying to pivot the conversation to things in my day?
One Sided Conversation
DEAR ONE SIDED CONVERSATION: The answer here’s kinda obvious, OSC. You say that you’re the sort of person who waits to talk, rather than listen… so start listening. Part of what makes somebody a great conversationalist is to pay attention to the other person, instead of just waiting for the chance to talk about your stuff. The easiest way to accomplish this is to be an active listener and focus on what she has to say. Rather than taking the surface answer and assuming that was that, make a point of involving yourself in the conversation.
First: acknowledge and respond to what she’s saying. If she’s telling you something her coworker did, don’t just say “huh”, say “wow, that’s crazy/cool/unusual (or whatever would be appropriate)…” something to indicate that you’re actually paying attention, rather than just waiting for the tone of her voice to say that she was done.
Next, you want to find a way to go deeper. Maybe you had a similar experience; at that point you can say “I’ve had a co-worker that did X too; in fact, they were kind of famous for it.” By doing this, you’re showing that you understand what she was saying instead of latching onto keywords; you’re essentially restating in ways that allow you to commiserate or relate to her experience.
But rather than use this as your pivot to talk about your day, take this opportunity to go deeper. You might ask “what lead up to that?” or “So what happened next?” or “What did you do about it?” Or there might be something you don’t understand or context that you’re missing; this is the point to ask questions to get a broader picture about what happened. Or you might ask for her for more details about a specific thing that she did that day. Or what she thought about X coworker or Y meeting. Or some other aspect of her day, her interests or her goals. There are almost always things that you can use as a springboard to more questions about her, if you just pay attention.
And to be perfectly honest, OSC, showing interest in what your girlfriend gets up to or does is kind of an important part of a relationship. Relationships are supposed to be partnerships, not just the One-Sided Conversation show, with your girlfriend as the live studio audience. She’s got a lot going on; it’s worth investing some of your time and attention to learn more about it, rather than expecting her to only be focused on whatever you’ve done that day.
But hey, once you start paying active attention, you may find that there’s more going on that you’d want to know more about. Learning more about your partner is always a good thing. But if you’re stuck on treating conversations like an opera singer warming up (“me me me me”), you’re going to find yourself single again… and sooner than you’d like.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org