Sanity-Checking Your Social Interactions

This article by me was published in the magazine Interesting Times on the 31st of December 2009. The article is published here with the permission of the magazine. The original article can be found here, on page 22.

Introduction

Do you sometimes find interacting with people a challenge? That’s most probably because you’re only looking outside yourself, trying to understand intellectually how these people think and behave. Unfortunately that doesn’t work very well, because you don’t get very close contact with people that way. The solution is looking inside yourself, at what’s happening inside when you’re meeting these people. In this article we’ll look at some situations, and give you some hints about what to do.

We’ll get started by looking at some necessary theory.

Emotions

Emotions are an important part of your social interactions. Technically, they are just signals in your brain that make you feel a certain way. Researchers have tried to agree on a classification of emotions, but haven’t yet succeeded, so here we’ll just take a simple approach that works. For example, we have happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, shame and combinations of these.

Technically, emotions are just signals in your brain that are triggered by what happens within the brain, or what enters the brain through your senses.

When you do something that you haven’t carefully planned and don’t feel wholly committed to, it’s mostly due to emotions that you act directly upon. We say that you have an unconscious reaction on the emotion. These unconscious reactions explain a lot about what happens in awkward social interactions!

There’s not much you can do about having emotions. What you can do, however, is to practice choosing what to do when you have them.

Thoughts

You know what thoughts are, right? That’s the flow of concepts and ideas through your mind. For many people, they just start and go on and on, without any possibility of control. Actually, thoughts are mostly unconscious reactions to emotions, so if you can’t stop thinking of something that you don’t want to think about, most likely there’s an underlying emotion that you haven’t yet discovered.

Emotions can trigger thoughts, and vice versa, so it’s sometimes hard to know which is which.

Now, it’s time to look at some common challenging social situations.

Who’s Uncomfortable, Really?

Suppose you always get uncomfortable in the presence a particular person, call him Bob. Can we find out what happens and what we can do about it using the concepts of emotions and thoughts above?

We start with what we know, that is, that you get uncomfortable when you see Bob. That’s an emotion, right? And emotions typically show up on the outside, even if you try to repress it. Now, what do you think Bob sees; a kind and warm person? Nope, you’ll definitely not look inviting.

Now just turn this around, and look at what Bob sees. Bob now sees your being uncomfortable. If Bob is sensitive, he will react to your emotion, believing that something is wrong with him, and feel uncomfortable himself. And then, what will you feel?

So, are you sure it’s just you who’s uncomfortable? And does it matter who starts being uncomfortable? And does it matter why you or Bob reacts to the other person? It could be due to anything, perhaps Bob reminds you of some childhood bully, or you remind him of a teacher that he didn’t like, or whatever.

In this situation, where you don’t know what causes what, the only sensible conclusion to draw is that any of you has the chance to break this cycle, and stop feeling uncomfortable; otherwise things will remain as they are. We’ll soon come to how to do that.

Who’s Got the Power?

Let’s look at another situation. You’re facing a person who’s trying to exert some power over you, for example a friend or a boss who wants to persuade you to do something you don’t really want to do. Because of the power you feel your friend has, you remain silent, and accept to do it. Now, let’s see what we can find out about this scenario. Let’s suppose the other person is your friend.

First, what are your emotions? If some emotion stops you from saying “no”, it’s probably fear or shame. This emotion can make you believe that your friend caused it, which gives the illusion of power.

But now look at your friend, call her Alice. Is she calm, warm and listening, or does she have some negative emotion on her face, such as a mixture of fear and anger? Probably the latter, I’d say.

So Alice’s power exists only because you react to her fear and anger with your fear or shame. What would happen if instead of submitting to her power, you say “I see that you are angry and scared. What’s the problem?” Then you’re the one with the power! Of course this only works if you can decode the social situation at the moment it happens, identifying what emotions are at play.

Who’s Stronger?

What does it mean to be strong in a situation? If we skip the physically violent situations, which I hope that you don’t see very often, are you strong if you deliver a verbal blow in response to a verbal attack, so that you finally “win” the argument?

Verbal attacks and verbal blows don’t occur without an underlying strong emotion. So the verbal response is just a reaction to your strong emotion. And if you’re emotionally unaware, that means you’re pretty predictable for the person attacking you. That can easily be used against you to distract you from what you think is important.

I’d say you’re strong when you pursue what you think is important, not getting distracted by unnecessary drama, only listening to relevant facts. How do you do that? By being aware of what happens, emotionally, in social situations like these.

Jargon, Nagging

With friends, it’s easy to get into “jargon” mode, nagging each other. That can be fun, and doesn’t have to be unproductive, but let’s look at why you would be doing that!

Jargon usually means that you say something other than what you really feel. For example, if you’re jealous of your friend’s new cell phone, you don’t say “I’m so jealous of you having that phone”, but instead “Can you actually make calls with that phone?” or something like that. This way of expressing yourself could be fun in a group, but it’s good to know what its disadvantages are.

Of course there’s an underlying emotion that stops you from telling what you feel, perhaps fear of being accepted even if I’m jealous. Here I can only assure you that it’s much easier to be accepted if you’re perceived as honest, than if you constantly say something else than what you really mean. And you’ll get much closer contact with people.

Again, you need emotional awareness to make it possible for you to improve in such a situation.

Next, we’ll look at how to increase our awareness in social situations.

Awareness

The basic idea of awareness is that you can’t change what you don’t know. If you’re not aware of your emotions, there’ll be an autopilot reaction to them, instead of you deciding what to do about them.

In order to decode a social situation, you also need to be aware of your emotions at the moment of the situation. Otherwise you’ll react in the same way the next time you get there, however much you regret it afterwards, because the emotion will be there again!

One important fact is that you aren’t after to remove inconvenient emotions just because they make you react, because that doesn’t work. You can’t eliminate emotions, unless perhaps you’re a psychopath (which I really hope you aren’t). What you can do is to change your reaction to your emotions.

Keys to Awareness and Self-Improvement

So, how do you get aware? The simplest advice is just to practice. Try to be more and more aware of what’s going on in your head in just about any situation. One trick is to catch yourself having a strong emotion that you can’t handle very well, and just try to think of something emotionally opposite to that emotion. For example if you feel shame because you believe you’ve done something socially unacceptable, just let the thought “Oh, it’s so great that I did this!” go through your head (it doesn’t have to be true, you know). Try to think in a convincing way. This way, you can disconnect the emotion from your reaction for a short moment.

Meditation to Improve your Awareness

Another practice that can cause more permanent improvement in your awareness is to meditate. Meditation is no magic. Just sit down comfortably, close your eyes, remain alert, and just observe everything that comes up. For example, if the thought “I really need to get up now”, just observe the thought and do nothing. The point is that you practice not reacting to your emotions and thoughts.

Practice patiently for about fifteen minutes a day, and you’ll see gradual permanent improvements.

Letting Other People Find Your Blind Spots

Often being aware of everything is just impossible. Then you can let others people help you, even if they don’t know that! For example, if other people believe you’re angry when in fact you’re happy, perhaps you aren’t as happy as you could be. Look at your body language, for example, and try to be aware of what (an emotion, as usual!) makes your body move in a certain fashion. Doing that could release some knots that could make you much happier!

Being Taken Seriously

Every human being wants to be listened to and taken seriously, but it’s not very common to meet people capable of providing that for you. What happens when you meet such a person is that they will not react unconsciously to what you say or feel, so there’ll be no “emotional drama” like we’ve been looking at above. They’ll decide consciously what they say to you, and they’ll openly show their emotions. This can feel uncomfortable at first if you’re not used to it, but after a while you’ll see that this is where you want to be. Try to become one of those people yourself, and then meet another one!

Boundaries and Caring about Yourself

When all else fails in your attempts to interact socially, you need to be able to set boundaries. That means that you say “Stop, I don’t take this.” That’d be easy, right? Not so. If you’re having a strong negative emotion when something happens, you might believe that “I deserve this”, or something like that. Being aware helps you in this situation, too.

An example of this could be an intimate relationship, where you are told that everything’s your fault, and that you should change in some way. If you really believe this, you will be caught in a very nasty spiral, where your self-confidence gets lower and lower, and you’ll never have the guts to leave. But if you’re emotionally aware, you’ll see that there’s an emotional game going on, which is no good for you. Just say “Stop, I don’t take this,” and if you don’t get any constructive response on that, just leave. It’s quite obvious that this is the best thing to do, right? But it’s almost impossible to see when you’re in the middle of it, not being aware of what’s happening.

Conclusions

We’ve been looking at how getting more aware of your and others’ emotions can make it easier for you to act properly in social situations, diving into a few concrete examples.

Being emotionally aware can make your life so much more worth living, so just start practicing now!

Thomas Drakengren is a personal development blogger in Sweden. His blog (in Swedish) can be found at http://matrix.drakengren.com.

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