Sunday, April 25, 2010

Socially Awkward.

I used to be a very, very socially awkward child. Not "I couldn't ask out my crush" socially awkward--this was the real thing. I would, literally, crawl around on all fours pretending to be a cat, or roll around on the floor of the classroom making my markers walk like people on the carpet. In middle school. And I wasn't just eccentric but absolutely terrible at making friends--I've gone several years of my life with literally zero friends. In 7th and 9th grades, and my freshman and sophomore year of college, I didn't know anyone well enough to go over to their house or have them at mine even once.

Let me put this in some perspective, something that will partially explain it: I skipped 3 grades. 4th, 8th, and 11th. I was 15 when I graduated high school, 19 when I graduated college. Yeah, yeah, supergenius, got in the paper, awesome, except for this: if you were in college, and there was a 15-year-old in your dorm (a really weird one who would do things like stick needles through her hands and walk around going "hey look!" to people) which parties would you invite her to?

I don't want to blame it all on circumstances, though; I was a social moron. I was never socially phobic or antisocial--I always wanted to be liked--but until about age 20 I had absolutely no idea how. I was simultaneously so loud and inappropriate that people cringed, and so meek and shy that I could never ask someone to do anything social with me.

I also realize, although I was largely oblivious at the time, that my appearance reflected my general eccentricity. I wore nothing but relaxed-fit jeans and solid-colored baggy t-shirts until I was maybe 19. I had some sort of incomprehensible moral objection to using any products on my hair or any makeup on my face until about the same time, and my standing order at Supercuts was "as short as you can make it and I still look like a girl."

The worst part, though, was I simply didn't know how to hold a conversation. For many years something as simple as phoning the registrar's office to ask a question was a daunting task. And talking socially? Ugh. My two modes were "total silence" and "HI I LIKE CATS DO YOU LIKE CATS I LIKE CATS AND ALSO WOLVES I SHOULD BE A CAT WOLF MEOW AHWOOO HA HA."

But here's the interesting part of this sob story: I got better.

It's still an ongoing process, but around age 20 I started being able to talk to people. I started dressing and wearing my hair normally, and I started attending social events. I started dating guys who weren't weirdos. I started having a lot more friends. Maybe most significantly, I started being able to understand how people reacted to a behavior, and became able to predict in advance whether something would go over well. My struggles went from "why don't they like me yelling POOP when other people are talking, poop is funny" to "should we hug or just shake hands?" I wasn't unable to learn social cues after all; I was just very, very slow.

I still embarrass myself more than I think normal people do. I'm still learning to find the line between being meek and being self-centered, and I know I cross it all the time. I can't always tell when I'm taking a joke too far or when I'm not taking a friendly or sexy advance far enough. The worst part, right now, is the paranoia: did I just do something terrible and they're just humoring me to be polite? Will I only know I was wrong when I don't get invited back ever again? Will I never know but secretly they all think I'm a floor-crawling Special Child?

(I was crawling on the floor last night, too, but I don't usually, it was kind of a silly semi-kinky thing--I was only following orders!--and other people were playing along, so I think it was okay. I'm honestly uncertain though.)

But even that is fading, it's more of a joke by now. I'm getting, at age 24, to be a regular sort of person. I look regular, I talk regular, I can eat lunch with you or come to your party and not be That Girl. I can go on first dates and job interviews and by the end of them the person will actually like me. I think I'm emotionally ready for high school now.

How this impacted my sex life is probably another entire post (or this entire blog, really), but clearly there was a big-time impact. From fucking only the weirdest freaks during my freak years, to developing bizarre fantasies through my eccentricity, to the sudden and sometimes overwhelming explosion of possibilities as I become socially competent, the story of my social awkwardness is all tangled up in my sex life.

I don't want to get all bootstrappy, to be "I did it so can anyone!" about my recovery from weirdness, because a lot of people in my situation have real disorders and bigger challenges, so I'll just say that I'm so fucking glad that I was able to do it.


  1. This actually sounds...uncomfortably familiar. Although my swing wasn't between 'shy and inappropriately friendly' so much as 'silent and screaming explosion of temper'. People either ignored me or thought I was going to kill them in their sleep. Most of my problem was (and is) that I can grasp people on an intellectual basis, but I can't actually read them at all. I don't get sarcasm unless it's really obvious, I can't tell when people are teasing, I miss a lot of social nuances. I have a bad habit of monologuing and I get embarrassed very easily.

    I still have basically no ability to take a joke, although I'm less likely now to punch someone for embarrassing me. So I guess that's something of an improvement :P

  2. Aebhel - From meeting you in person, you seemed like you could pass for a regular likeable person, so I think you've improved. Of course, you're asking me...

  3. Wow, very strong parallels to my own experience... I figure I was emotionally ready for high school by age 25, and ready for undergrad by the time I was 30.

    Do you feel there was a specific catalyst that helped spark your growth, or were you just catching up at your own pace?

  4. Mark - I can't point to one thing. Working in jobs where I had to be diplomatic definitely helped, and getting outside my mom's influence (she's socially clueless herself, and she encouraged me in a lot of bad decisions and tore down my self-esteem a lot) definitely helped, but neither of these things was the magic cure. It really just came down to time and experience.

    And, if I may get a little bootstrappy, humility and effort. I see some people in my former situation who seem very committed to a "this is just how I am, if you don't like this then I don't need you" attitude, and I don't think that's a good idea unless you're very happy with your life right now. It took a lot of painful trial and error to learn how people work, and it took a lot of open-mindedness and willingness-to-change to put that learning to use.

    Beginning to treat my social behavior as a conscious act, rather than just going with my alternately expressive and avoidant impulses, was in itself a conscious act.

    But it's a conscious act I probably couldn't have made until my brain reached a certain very late developmental milestone.

    Fun fact: at about the same time I got socially aware, I got a lot dumber intellectually. I mean, I'm still pretty smart, but I used to be this wacky extreme prodigy--I was in scientific studies and on the news and everything--and now I'm just reasonably intelligent. Coincidence? I'll never know.

    p.s. please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.

  5. Great post - I really relate. Can you write a guide to overcoming social awkwardness? :P
    Aebhel, I have your same issues re: sarcasm/teasing and no ability to determine when I should say something or just put up with the person who's upsetting me. I usually do the latter and walk around angry the rest of the day :/

  6. Well, you met me when I had Siera around to bounce off of, which makes a big difference, believe me.

    I don't think I ever came across as horrifically awkward so much as incredibly bitchy, because my default response when I'm feeling uncomfortable is to get pissed off and aggressive.

    Beginning to treat my social behavior as a conscious act, rather than just going with my alternately expressive and avoidant impulses, was in itself a conscious act.

    Yeah, this. I think there's this idea that social behavior comes naturally, but for a lot of people it simply doesn't.

  7. Kay - I'll do that, although it'll be rather tentative and incomplete since I'm still not fully socially developed.

    There's some good resources at Succeed Socially that I found helpful, too.

  8. please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.

    I'm happy for you, but following it with this is too fucking depressing.

    My awkward stage was never so awkward, and my transformation has been much more gradual, but apart from the clueless parents my challenges were different, too. I spent about a decade too long dealing with adolescence, which put me about a decade behind my peers in social and romantic development.

  9. Wow, I never would have guessed any of that from reading your blog. Skipping children ahead even one grade seems like it could do substantial harm - I think there seems to be a substantial focus on academic achievement for gifted children, understandably, but emotional development, intelligence and wellbeing seems really unlikey to keep up, and being unable to relate to any of your peers is something I find quite scary.

    Many, many props for the Flowers for Algernon reference - I've adored that book since an English teacher gave it me to read in secondary school. Utterly wonderful.

  10. Some indications here of Asperger's syndrome -- high-functioning autism. More common in males, tends to produce a tendency to slowly learn social cues and indicators; a propensity to systematize information and focus on learning a great deal about specific subjects for long periods of time; a large vocabulary; and a tendency to lecture in a pedantic manner.

  11. Anon - I've deliberately avoided the "A" word--I've never been formally diagnosed with it and (even though I don't trust Internet self-diagnosis anyway) I always test as neurotypical on self-tests. I also don't think that people with Asperger Syndrome are able to age out of it as readily as I have.

    I have been formally diagnosed with developmental dyspraxia, which is a mostly physical disability but is also associated with poor social skills.

    But anyway I'm not sure of the usefulness of labeling, since it seems to imply a lifelong condition, and I'm more interested into developing into a better person as best I can.

    (I actually went through the same sort of transition with physical coordination; I was a very clumsy child and very delayed in learning to walk and clothe myself and write--I got told about how I was probably best suited for a desk job and physically undemanding activities and Velcro shoes--and now I've done extremely physical work on emergency scenes and I make jewelry where hundreds of tiny little pieces come together just so. So in this case as well, I wasn't permanently disabled, just very slow to develop.)

  12. At least you weren't like my parents. They've got social and mental problems on crack and haven't grown out of them. (Or else "never did" - my father vanished suddenly less than a year ago, leaving all of his things behind, and might be dead for all I know.)

    My mother acts like telling other people about the way she thinks things should be magically grants the listener the both power and responsibility to make it so. And if they won't do it, or disagree with her ideals, then they're bad and/or lazy. Has been fired at least twice for repeatedly trying to order her boss around. If someone alerts her that she's been causing problems for other people, no matter how polite they are about it, she acts like making her feel guilty is a horrible crime that is far worse than anything she could ever do to someone else. Argh, I could go on forever about things like this. Now she's living with me, her chronic physical problems eating up most of my spare time and money, and driving me crazy with her utter inability to comprehend why she can't get or keep a job and why no one wants anything to do with her.

    My father... does/did not communicate. Ever. He never gave any warning that something major was going to happen (especially moving, which while I was growing up we did roughly 3 times every 2 years on the average at seemingly random intervals). He never gave any indication what he was feeling or what he thought about anything. If someone tried to tell him anything important or request that he do something, he would act like he understood but then promptly forgot it. (I strongly suspect that he was just saying whatever was necessary to get the other person to stop talking as quickly as possible.) And then he would "remember" requests which nobody actually made. Or wanted. And acted on them. And always refused to believe the person in question hadn't asked for it, occasionally finding odd ways to "punish" them for changing their mind. Don't ask me what reality he was living in.

    As for how they got together, to the best of my knowledge they met in high school, started screwing like rabbits even though they barely knew each other, got married within a few months (with the permission of both of their parents, as they were under 18), and stayed together for several years entirely on the basis of being unable to stop having sex with each other even though my mother could barely stand him personally. (I don't know what my father though of her. He didn't say.)

    Under the circumstances, with the constant moving during our childhood preventing any long-term attachments and with both parents finding ways of screwing up our lives even as adults, it's not too surprising that me and my siblings are fairly stunted socially. My life has actually improved due to my father's disappearance, at least after the collection agencies stopped harassing me about his debts.

  13. If the Flowers for Algernon reference was not meant as a joke, I'll feel really bad for laughing out loud at it.

  14. Thanks Holly, that site is really helpful. This post inspired me to get back in touch with several people today and stop being such a social recluse. Joy!

  15. I was interested to read this for the same reasons as everyone else-- it reminded me a lot of my own journey to barely adequate social skills. I was pretty average until puberty, then lagged behind...a lot. Learning to talk to people again was like learning a second language. I can't imagine how much worse it would have been if I'd ever skipped a grade. I can't speak for anyone else, but I know my case wasn't aspergers. I could always read people just fine, and empathize just fine; it was coming up with a timely, appropriate, on-topic response that was incredibly difficult. There are forms of social and emotional delay that aren't on the autism spectrum-- I wish I knew more about them, and had a name to put with a concept.

  16. Yep. Here's yet another person chimimg in with an "I relate"!

  17. Another dyspraxic here! I typed out a longer comment than this and lost it :(

  18. Socially awkward child prodigies of the world unite!

    I didn't skip grades, because the folks in charge of my education thought that would be a bad idea. I don't know if that came from my parents or from school administrators, or whether they were opposed to grade-skipping in general or just thought it'd be bad for me. Upshot was that I had the academic ability of a bright 16-year-old and the social skills of a 10-year-old, stuck in with a bunch of 13-year-olds with whom I didn't fit in either way.

    I was permitted to skip ahead in math, meaning that I was going to the high school for geometry and trigonometry when I was in middle school (could have done it in 6th grade, but was "held back" because it was thought to be a bad idea to go straight from elementary school.

    The thing is, though, my 13-year-old self got along socially better with the 16-year-olds in my math classes than with the kids my age in my other classes, because being able to relate on an intellectual level actually *helped* me relate on a social level. Sure, I wouldn't exactly have been invited to their parties, but it's not like I was being invited to the parties the kids my age were throwing either. But among the older kids, I could (and did) talk about things like role-playing games or heavy metal on their level, and I wasn't bullied.

    But the social awkwardness? Totally been there. Though for me it was just the shy part. And I've gotten a lot better too, thanks to a lot of conscious effort I put in in my twenties--but I still relapse, it still doesn't come anywhere near easy and I suspect it never will. (Which is why I'm both hesitant to endorse any "bootstrapping" and infuriated by people who don't; it's way to easy not to try, but it's way too easy to dismiss the people who do try and don't fully succeed.)

    As for going from extreme prodigy to just smart... it happens. Some of it is the way it's measured; we're very conscious of differences among children, but once we reach adulthood we start getting measured less by ability and more by results, which has all sorts of confounding factors. Most of us also eventually leave school, which means that academic ability becomes just one facet among many. Personally, I find it liberating after years of "social interaction" where someone would come up to me, ask me what I got on the SAT, and then walk away after I told them.

  19. Aebhel - I wish I could say how you came a crossed when I first met you, but, ya know.
    And now, well Well, "you met me when I had Siera around to bounce off of, which makes a big difference, believe me", means I"ll never really know, now will I?

    I was socially awkward growing up too. I've only begun to realize it now though. Like, I was kinda weird back then, but didn't know it and now I'm not weird and never though I was weird and looking back, yeah, I was kinda weird. that must explain the no friends throughout school.
    I wish I could say I'm not weird now, but I'm weird now too, just in different ways. I'm also able to express it differently, and hide what I shouldn't express. And I didn't do that back then.

  20. This blog post resonates with me deeply. The only difference was, I... didn't date. Not once. I'm still not fully over that, and it's hard to talk about, so I'll leave it at that.

    But it does seem to highlight a gender disparity. Guys who are socially incapable to that level in high school don't get dates.

    (Again, see my other comment, I'm much better now, I have opportunities etc etc whatever.)

  21. Owen - Are you the Owen I know in person, or a different Owen?

  22. Guys who are socially incapable to that level in high school don't get dates.

    This, though I'll say it's more "guys who are socially incapable *in that way* don't get dates."

  23. JFP and Owen - I didn't get dates in high school. Not one. I didn't go to a single school dance either. I had a couple friends that I did sexual things with (who were extreme weirdos), but there was no dating and I had no girlfriend status.

  24. jfpbookworm, my experience was much like yours...I *should* have skipped at least a grade or two but the Catholic school I went to thought that this was a bad idea b/c it would give me a big head and was socially a bad idea for girls (b/c we were supposed to learn to fit in and serve...ugh). So I was bored and ornery a lot of time as well as a natural introvert, so too much "people time"/social activity just wore me out until I just wanted to go off by myself and cry somewhere. I totally didn't get the girl/boy thing at all and couldn't flirt to save my life. My idea of engaging with an interesting person was to start a super-serious conversation or argue with them! I was socially awkward through high school and undergrad and didn't date much, though I had a few longer term boyfriends who were study buddies and pals but not the best romantic partners. One thing that really helped me develop social and conversation skills was online rooms, discussion boards, online gaming sites where I could type my input and read/react with the ability to think/edit. I have always felt more comfortable in writing than in real life! I've also learned to "fake it" and picked up more social skills by observing others and by finding "my own kind" at work and at play. It's great to read about similar stories from all the commenters here as well as Holly's great post :)

  25. Oh bugger, you know another Owen. D:

    We have never met, I live in England. That should differentiate myself from this impostor Owen. What name should I give myself?

  26. As per your lack of dating: well, I guess there's less sexual dimorphism here than I thought.

  27. I didn't date either. I mean, I did have one kindasorta boyfriend in high school, but he didn't go to my school, was a friend of a dropout friend (long story involving family friends), and I suspect was as socially bottom of the barrel as I was in his own school. We had little enough in common other than desperately wanting to try on the whole boy/girl thing.

    I was always the weird kid too, though less extroverted and therefore more the type that if it'd been five years later and I'd have been male would have been a Columbine repeat suspect. Part of my problem was that I reacted to insecurity with bravado- which I eventually figured out *scared the shit* out of boys my own age, who figured me for a ball-buster.

    Online interaction actually did help me a lot later on, due to all the factors Kajja mentioned plus the confidence I gained from being treated as an adult so long as I acted like one- in contrast to the weird Lord of the Flies social environment schools create.

    Anyway, yeah. Long story short, I'm still, on some levels, not really used to being viewed as anything above a pariah socially.

  28. Owen, I think there is an element of difference between genders in the world of socially awkward dating. It's the red flag principle. I ended up writing a novel and having to turn it into an entire blog post of its own!

  29. Intriguing. I'll take that to heart.

  30. i guess im currently at 'socially useless' (literally i would be classed as burden of the state or id be dead if it weren't for incredibly generous, forgiving and infinitely patient parents).

    went from socially awkward in that flip-flopping between pathologically shy and being oblivious to or just not giving a shit about peoples reactions way to wracked with doubt constantly while trying to look like i didn't give a shit. had one girlfriend from about 17-18 who was wonderful and smart but also shy who i adored but couldn't express it to.
    spent a couple years pretty much as a basement dwelling hermit interacting purely through the internet. spent far too much time around 4chan and the like. lost pretty much any social skills i gained but kept the self doubt and depression. went to university and was pretty much a complete loner bar a few ex-school friends in the same city for the first couple months until a few people talked to me and i started
    learning to deal with socialising properly again. started drinking and smoking grass and did a lot better for a while. was still unable to cope properly with girls, especially those i had some attraction to (which would be pretty much all of them) when i was drunk/stoned i lost most of the shyness and awkwardness but still had zero recognition or understanding of social signals. guys i was fine with bar a lack of signal perception until they made their interest blatant at which point i got a bit weird if i was sober. this was probably the peak of my social capabilities and it was pretty great. still had the 'oh god am i acting like a complete freak and everyone is just too polite to mention it' doubts but i could mostly keep it under control.

    got way too into weed, started getting some anxiety and paranoia like issues and stopped seeing people until i only talked to my dealer and two friends IRL unless they had other friends over in which case i was back to shy/manic awkwardness. eventually i was even avoiding them after a couple of what i think were full on delusional episodes and i became completely agoraphobic and avoidant. dropped out of uni and went back home.

    as of now i still as far as i can tell have a fairly hefty case of 'bad me' paranoia going on, i constantly obsess over past and present percieved social mistakes and being out in public is a constant fight against the urge to run like hell and hide from everyone. my sexuality is all kinds of fucked up. the only jobs i've had have been basic garden and construction labouring which i only managed to get through family.

    so i think the lesson is: dont use drugs to fix your social issues, they just come back and bite you harder. fix your social issues do the drugs if you want.

    it great how you can write this shit in comments and chances are no one will read it and if they do they probably wont give a shit about any of it.

  31. Anonymous, I read it. It's a brave thing to share like that, even on the internet. :)*hug*

  32. I know this is three years late, but I just wanted to chime in as an Aspie reader: I did actually age out of it somewhat, but not in the way you'd expect. I was diagnosed with PDDNOS as a toddler and then re-diagnosed with Asperger's in grade school, so I went through quite a lot of socialization training early on. The result was that by middle school I could regularly pass for a very awkward neurotypical. Now that I'm about ten years older and have moved out and no longer have to take cues from my abusive family (who were very fond of explaining my every fucking action as 'oh, it's autism!), I pass for neurotypical basically all the time. At the very least nobody's been brazen enough to ask me to my face what's wrong with me.