Perfect Strangers or: How I Deal With Social Awkwardness/Anxiety

“He might have been encased in a thick glass bubble, so separate did he feel from his three dining companions. It was a sensation with which he was only too familiar, that of walking in a giant sphere of worry, enclosed by it, watching his own terrors roll by, obscuring the outside world.” 

― J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy

 

The restaurant was a blustering mess of humanity; babies crying, families exchanging casual conversations, musings on the mundane, the inconsequential, while hearty laughs bellowed in the distance, echoes of cheer, tension, forced pleasantries and polite behavior chafing my sensibilities like a potato sack chafing my legs during the Field Days of my youth.

 

If Hell is a construct of your worst fears, this was one of them.

 

I was hungry, my body slightly pained and aching, and I felt my irritability levels exponentially growing as the seconds ticked by. By nature, I am easily startled by sudden, loud noises, a direct response to one of my many childhood traumas. I am extremely sensible to my surroundings, a sponge of sensory overstimulation, and when it becomes unbearable, I freeze; my heart grows quick, my breathing becomes intensely labored, and my first instinct is to start throwing elbows like I’m swimming in a sea of bodies at a Slayer concert.

These are the moments where my mind wanders to dark places and wishes for nuclear holocaust or an Infinity Gauntlet.

 

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These are the moments where I actually sympathize with villainous motivations

 

It was supposed to be joyous occasion, to spend time with loved ones, familial warmth, the sanctuary of genuine laughter and good will.

Except my mind finds it extremely difficult to accept those concepts still, because my life experiences have always been distorted, especially through the lens of mental illness – my formative years were filled with violence, both physical and emotional, so my coping mechanism was to hold all things at arm’s length using sarcasm and unapproachableness as my sword and shield, to protect myself from the dangers of a cruel world that I did not understand, a world that I was thrust into to fight against, a gladiatorial contest of will and survival by any means necessary.

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The perfect representation of how I see Me vs the World – thank you Taika Waititi for your genius vision on Thor: Ragnarok (still one of my top five MCU films)

 

So, how do I survive these encounters, these unnecessarily stressful situations that are undoubtedly an important part of our lives?

 

Well, brutal honesty is not a tool I pull out of my Mental Toolbox Emergency Kit in a family setting; even though honesty and sincerity are key to dealing with mental illness, there is another crucial precision tool that needs to be taken into consideration: tact.

I’ve always been famously known in many social circles as a tactless, brash grump, a Troll with a heart of gold who unfortunately wields a poison tongue – and I am not afraid of whiplashing the shite out of folk for my own sick amusement from time to time (Hulk speaking) – but I have learned to sheathe my razor tongue and wield its power for the forces of good unless there is no other recourse. 

 

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Hulk’s definition of finesse

 

 

After years of jackhammering my way through social situations, I finally learned the subtle art of situational awareness

 

According to the source of all knowledge and wisdom – Wikipedia – “situational awareness, more commonly known as situation awareness, has been recognized as a critical, yet often elusive, foundation for successful decision-making across a broad range of situations, including aviation, air traffic control, ship navigation, health care, emergency response, military command and control operations, and offshore oil and nuclear power plant management.Lacking or inadequate situation awareness has been identified as one of the primary factors in accidents attributed to human error.”

Situation awarenessmeans the up-to-the-minute cognizance or awareness required to move about, operate equipment, or maintain a system. […] In the applied behavioral science community, the term situation awareness has emerged as a psychological concept similar to such terms as intelligence, vigilance, attention, fatigue, stress, compatibility, and workload.

 

So how did I apply some of the tenets of situational awareness and use them to my advantage?

 

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Intelligence – By nurturing the growth of emotional intelligence and its role in my life I was able to accurately assess the situation.

 

Compatibility – I accept the fact that I am never going to be 100% compatible with everyone around me, and vice versa – being aware of that fact allowed me to adapt to the situation.

 

Attention – Attention to detail is key in human interaction; being able to identify mannerisms, social cues, gestures can all lead to healthy means of communicating.

 

Stress – Yeah, I was stressed the hell out, which usually exacerbates my anxiety to the point of the proverbial volcanic eruption, but by being aware of my stress level I was able to act accordingly and manage it appropriately – crisis averted.

 

Vigilance – By adhering to lessons learned and staying mindful of past transgressions and their aftermath, I was able to translate that knowledge and put it into action. Always learn from the past. If you make the same mistake twice, it tends to mean that it is no longer a mistake; it has become a choice.

 

In simpler terms, just be aware of not only the things that are going on around you, but observe people, be mindful of your actions, words, body language, etc. Human interaction is a delicate dance full of fluid cadence, beats, rhythm, and nuance that takes time and practice to perfect.

If you are aware of the situation you are currently experiencing, you learn to act accordingly, adapt to your surroundings, and find yourself able to be honest with yourself about how you feel without shame nor guilt; it is ok to be uncomfortable, and it is ok to express discomfort – just don’t make a scene nor disrespect someone because you feel the need to point out that they are disgusting for not picking that atrocious piece of lettuce out from in between their buckteeth.

I felt extremely uncomfortable in the restaurant, but I was aware of it, and I made my discomfort known clearly yet subtly to my significant other, and we were able to take steps to make the experience as enjoyable as possible by adapting to the situation.

 

It ended up being quite a pleasant family gathering, surrounded by noisy, inconsiderate jackasses, but enjoyable nonetheless.

 

The moral of the story:

 

We all live in our own bubbles of reality; it is up to us if we decide to let them burst in an explosion of disastrous proportions, or if we decide to be like this adorable otter of meme fame and maneuver our bubbles with panache, dignity, and meme-able expertise.

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What’s IQ Got To Do With It?

“Experience is not what happens to you – it’s how you interpret what happens to you.” -Aldous Huxley

 

Fireworks lit the sky with thundering colors, bright and loud tributes to the celebration of the new year.

 

It was beautiful, full of electricity and exhiliration, hope, and promise.

 

I assume that’s how most people felt when the clock struck 12am on December 31st, 2018 – unfortunately, I did not.

 

I was too busy going through the beginning stages of a depressive episode.

 

I was fully aware and had my handy proverbial toolbox of techniques ready to handle the situation – hence why I had delayed writing for a few days, trapped inside depression’s gaping maw, quietly kneeling inside the belly of the beast, meditating, pondering, letting all of the emotions flow through me.

 

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I was lost for days in the labyrinth of my mind, scared, feeling alone, hopeless, confused, wondering why I was feeling the way I was, how in the wake of new beginnings, new ventures, I cried; I lay in bed, my senses being assaulted by everything and nothing, my heart sinking into the messy sludge of stories untold, entangling myself in the web of the unforeseen, tumbling inside the avalanche of the ever-growing snowball that was my imagination running wild.

 

And that’s all it was – my imagination running wild.

 

I was aware, not fully in control, but with one foot in the door of rationality; I kept myself honest, both to myself and my significant other, maintaining at all times the fact that like all things fleeting, the emotions will pass, the tides will recede, and the shore will be closer than I thought.

Slowly but surely, what I thought were centuries of agony passed in a couple of days; I was able to claw my way out of the spiny shallows I was floating in, swim back to the safe shores of reality, and drag myself back to the sanctuary of clarity. I proverbially lay there on the beach, having survived the undertow of depression – while catching my breath I stared up at the cosmic swirl of my thoughts, soaked, exhausted, yet smiling, because I knew the worst was over. I was back at the wheel, in the driver’s seat, and all is at it should be.

 

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Back to every day normal stress, yay! 

 

All it took for me to survive was to learn and assimilate such a simple, yet diverse and debated concept – the concept of emotional intelligence.

Daniel Goleman revolutionized the mental health landscape in 1995 with his landmark book Emotional Intelligence where he “used the phrase to synthesize a broad range of scientific findings, drawing together what had been separate strands of research – reviewing not only their theory [John Mayer and Peter Salovey, 1990] but a wide variety of other exciting scientific developments, such as the first fruits of the nascent field of affective neuroscience, which explores how emotions are regulated in the brain.”

Emotional Intelligence is defined as the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.

 

Sounds simple, right?

 

Well, to be honest, it actually kind of is simple – just like studying for an exam, learning a new subject, hitting on a girl at a bar, or putting together a puzzle; it just takes constant discipline, practice, and dedication. And maybe just a tad bit of good luck; then again, we are the architects of our own success, yes?

 

It took me years just to accept the validity of the concept and all of its advantages; it took hard work and vigilance to finally understand how important it is to be mindful of yourself and your surroundings, to be aware of every physical and emotional cue. Even to this day, it is a day-to-day struggle – some days are better than others. The good news, however, is that it CAN be done.

 

There are many ways you can make this work for you, but I have found the way to make it work for me is to be absolutely, unequivocally, unflinchingly, brutally honest with yourself, and with others – there’s no shame in communicating your thoughts and feelings, whether they be positive or negative, as long as you do it in a manner that imposes on no one, a manner which is respectful of boundaries, that shows that you care about not only others, but about yourself, and how those interactions can be healthy and fruitful as long as they are handled with care, love, and decorum.

 

In the simplest of terms, and at the risk of sounding like a cheerful, Flanderian automaton:

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May the copyright gods have mercy on my soul; it comes from a jovial place!