new faces, same fears

Liz and I are now moved to Missoula as of October 6th and have spent the last two weeks looking for furniture and turning our empty apartment into a home. Our main focus with the time so far has been filling the physical space around us, and we’ve only recently, this last weekend, begun to make attempts at filling our social space. This has put me face-to-face with all the “mess” that’s involved in getting to know a new group of people, essentially it’s making me face all the fears of meeting new people.

At a church service last Sunday I had an encounter that left me unsatisfied, or disappointed rather. It was one of those circumstances where it’s like you can hear and see yourself, but feel like you have no control over what you’re saying or doing. Like you’ve handed the keys over to someone else, and just have to watch them do their thing with your body, not necessarily happy with their decisions.

The interaction was this, I had met someone at a potluck last Friday and we had struck up a good and interesting conversation. At church yesterday this person had seen me again and wanted to introduce his wife to me. So he walks up with her, and I felt like I blanked out, and then awoke as it was time for everyone to sit down again, only I felt like I had just vomited words all over this man’s wife.

As everyone sat back down I took some time for reflection to try to understand what had just happened. I had been polite, had made some jokes, and nothing obvious had gone awry (I didn’t stick my tongue out at anybody for instance), but I still left that conversation feeling very dissatisfied with myself. What I had done was tell her and her husband about a swing dancing party that my wife had thrown the night before, but I felt like I had jammed the space with words, struggling madly to fill it to the brim. It’s like I was working with a wood chipper and was deathly afraid of it going silent, so I just kept shoving logs into it to keep it running. Never mind the quality of the wood going in, just keep the damned thing running!

Here is what I journaled immediately after sitting down.

Why did I fill that space with nonsense? Why do I feel so nervous? Is it finding out this person doesn’t like me? What could I have done differently? Ask her questions… allow for silence. Why do I feel it is my responsibility to fill that space? Why am I the one who feels the need to impress? I fear being judged and found wanting. Is that because I judge others so quickly?

Haven’t had to make new friends in a while. How do you know who will end up being your friend in a group of strangers? What’s the connection I felt when I met my closest friends? How do I be the truest me so that I can find the truest friends?

It was that last bit that stuck with me. How do I be my truest self, so that I can find my truest friends? A particular skill that I have is to adapt to almost any social scene around me. Stated another way, I can usually get almost anyone that’s around me to like me. I’ve heard it called “relational power” or “relational intelligence”, but for whatever reason I can see how to make people relax, laugh, and feel comfortable. I’ve also described it to Liz as a mist that I feel like I can emit, that fogs people’s perceptions of me, so through it they see what they want to see. Maybe that’s more it, I can usually figure out how to reflect back to people what it is they want to see, so they like me.

While this skill is very useful in many circumstances, and I credit it with helping me be as effective as I was at work, it has a negative edge. When I couple it with my desire for harmony, or conflict avoidance rather, I can find myself retreating into that reflective, flexible me, rather than the immovable me. One paradox of this is that while people feel better around me and more comfortable, it actually makes it harder for them to get to know me, and consequently for me to get to know them, since I only learn about them in a certain capacity. I learn about how they interact with Fun Samuel, not necessarily how they interact with Real Samuel.

Taking a step back here I’m not saying that I’m some big phoney or that all my interactions are fake. I would say actually that I’ve come a long way in this regard, and this has helped me learn a lot about who I actually am, and to become okay with that person. I also want to state that I’m not manipulative or dishonest, it’s just more that there is a charming person that I can turn on when I want, but when I turn him on out of fear, I’m left disappointed.

I think that’s at the crux of what bothered me in that interaction. Why did I retreat from this other person when I felt fear in that interaction? More importantly, why did I feel fear? I think I felt fear of rejection. I felt fear of being “found out”. I fear all the people at the church holding a meeting where they all discuss how awkward that new Samuel fellow is and then they draw straws to see who will have to interact with me. I know these aren’t true (please God don’t let these be true!), but that doesn’t stop me from worrying.

There are two practices that I’ve been trying to lean into during these last few days as I meet new people, as way to keep myself present to the interaction. The first is to embrace the silence that might arise in a conversation. It’s almost as if sometimes I view it as a challenge. Like I’m telling the other person “oh this silence, doesn’t phase me. I can do this silence ALL DAY!” It’s silly to think of it that way, but by preparing ahead of time in a conversation for the silence, if and when it happens, I feel ready for it rather than a panic. I think to myself “okay, here is that awkward pause I was thinking might happen”, rather than “OH MY GOD THE WORLD IS ENDING AROUND ME”. It’s a nice shift.

The second is to look at the person in the eyes as they are speaking. I’ve found that it’s very hard to be distracted from a conversation, or to withdraw, if you’re looking at them right in the eyes. Now I’m not staring at their eyes with intense focus, or getting lost in their eyes (except with Liz, I get lost in her eyes all the time), but I make myself look at them, so they see me looking at them, and they know that they are my focus. This too I look at almost as a challenge to them, since it helps me do it. Otherwise I feel a tinge of fear creep in, then I seek escape in looking somewhere else, and at that point I’ve disengaged and retreated.

Meeting new people is hard and moving into a totally new area and making new friends is scary. Thankfully the people of Missoula have been nothing but gracious and extremely friendly. It’s just up to me now to try to be my most authentic self with them, so they have a fair chance at really getting to know me, and I have a fair chance at making some real friends.