Dear Carolyn: In high school, I was very awkward and insecure. I avoided interacting with boys at all because I was afraid of rejection. Now in my 20s, I have grown into myself and I feel much more confident.
However, because of my social anxiety in high school, I feel like I am behind my peers when it comes to putting myself out there and meeting new people.
I’ll notice an attractive gentleman trying to catch my eye. I know what I am supposed to do to convey interest: look at him and smile. It sounds simple.
Instead, I am filled with overwhelming anxiety and avoid his gaze. Then he leaves and I kick myself.
It is not that I mourn “what could have been,” I just hate that anxiety is keeping me from doing what I want to do. A part of me is still that high school girl who felt unworthy of attention and put up walls to avoid being hurt. Now that I am willing to take the risk, how do I tear down those walls?
One brick at a time.
You want to do this, and you’re aware — either in the moment or just after it — of what you need to do. The only thing left is to do it.
Remind yourself when you’re out in public, before you’re in this situation, to force yourself out of your usual habits. And, tell yourself that messing up won’t be as bad as whatever you’re dreading, even if you don’t believe it.
Then, when someone looks at you, look back … then you can look away. Repeat however many times you need for it not to feel new and weird. Life is long and the world is full; you don’t need to master this the first time with the first guy. If and when you get comfortable, then nudge yourself a little farther along.
In fact, you don’t need to master this, period; I’m advising this exercise because it’s something you say you want. You can also live a full and happy life without knowing how to flirt.
Either way, I urge you to open another front on this battle entirely. Since you’re so uncomfortable negotiating these fleeting encounters, please also put yourself in a position to get to know new people slowly through a shared interest. Join a club or sign up for an activity that meets regularly. That will allow you to get used to people while you’re busy with [activity of choice], which will in turn push you past awkward terror into a more comfortable version of you, which allows you to figure out mutual attraction based on who you are and not just how you look to someone across the room.
It’s win-win as long as you choose the activity for you instead of just for dates. That way, even if you don’t meet someone special, you meet people who share your interests, do something you care about/enjoy doing, and take your social skills out for a spin.
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