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Social Skills And Self-Help Advice I'm Not Crazy About

Here are some types of social skills advice that I'm not very keen on. When I was working through my own social issues I found they didn't help all that much. I've seen other people claim they weren't useful for them either. Hopefully by telling you about them you can avoid some detours of your own. You'll notice a lot of the points below promise a fast or effortless solution.

Simple, "profound" insights or motivational snippets

I mean things like, "Imagine today was your last day on Earth, how would you act?", or "You just have to not care what other people think!", or "How would you live if you had no fear of failure?"

The issue I have with this type of advice is not that what it's saying is flawed, but that it's often implied that looking at things at a new angle will instantly realign your thought processes and solve your problems, which of course it won't. For example, in the long term if you can cultivate an attitude where you don't care how people see you you'll be better off for it. But you can't just read, "Don't care what people think!", suddenly have everything fall into place, and walk away a new person. Not every author presents it like this, but I've read my share of articles where some simple reframe is presented as the 'key' to fixing a complex problem.

When people read advice like this they can sometimes get a cheap, fleeting boost in confidence and motivation. Going too far with chasing that feeling can lead to something I informally call epiphany addiction.

Vague advice like "Be yourself" or "Just be confident" or "Just have fun"

This type of advice is similar to the one above, but is meant to be more of a straightforward suggestion than a way to pump you up. I find it doesn't work that well because it's either too vague or too easier-said-than-done. You can interpret "Be Yourself" in two dozen different ways, some of them more helpful than others. And you can't just flick a switch in your brain and "be confident". Changing your mindset like that takes time.

Short related article: Why People Can Give Vague, Unhelpful Social Advice

"Fake it 'til you make it"

I only have a problem with one meaning of this advice. The idea behind it is that if you outwardly behave like a confident, sociable person eventually you'll build up enough positive experiences that you actually become that way. I don't think it always works when used in the sense of "Act like a really confident person while you're socializing in the moment." If you're at a party and you tell someone who's really awkward and socially anxious to "just go up to those people and act self-confident and outgoing" they simply won't be able to do it. It's too scary and too much a leap in their behavior. At best they'll be able to keep up the act for a night or two. However, if someone is already most of the way there, advising them to act a little more outwardly assured than they truly feel is reasonable enough. I think people who report success with this suggestion fall into that category.

Faking it can work is when you have no problem performing certain actions in the moment but your insecurities often hold you back from doing them in the first place (e.g., you're able to ask new friends to hang out, but usually don't because you figure they don't really like you). In that case you can consciously decide to act like someone who was confident their new friends liked them, and therefore invite them out, regardless of what your insecure thoughts are saying. By going after new relationships instead of giving up on them you'll eventually gain the real-world confirmation that people are interested in you, and become legitimately self-assured about it.

"Fake it 'til you make it" can also work when forcing yourself to carry out habits that are known to be helpful, but which you're currently feeling skeptical and pessimistic about. For example, if you're lonely and haven't done anything in a while to try to meet new people, the discouraged side of your mind may make you feel it's pointless to attend any meet ups. If you make yourself go to several of them, even though you're not feeling it, you'll likely make some new friends and it will have been worth it.

General self-improvement advice like 'get in shape' or 'eat right', given as if they're the only things you need to do

Obviously taking care of yourself has many benefits. Like exercise can improve your mood and make you feel better about yourself. What I take issue with is when people are told to 'start going to the gym' and 'get enough sleep' as if doing those things will make their social problems resolve themselves. Maybe if someone is mildly shy getting in shape and eating healthier could give them the tiny boost in confidence they need. If they have non-minor social issues then they need specific advice that addresses their trouble spots.

Being a good listener and being interested in other people

This piece of advice is everywhere. I hardly think it's totally useless, but it's definitely over-hyped. I talk about it more in this article:

Listening And Being Interested In People Isn't A Conversational Cure-All

Affirmations

You know, tell yourself that you're worthy, likable, awesome, attractive, etc several times a day. In time, the thinking goes, you'll mobilize your internal resources and make your dreams come to life. Personally, affirmations did nothing for me. When I first read about them in high school I decided to give them a shot. I said several affirmations to myself, many times a day. I felt good, and briefly psyched-up. I kept it up for a few days before I started to forget the odd self-affirmation here and there. Within a week the words become a little meaningless and my brain started filtering them out. Not long after that I had forgotten to do them entirely.

Later on I started learning about affirmations more, and came to the conclusion that they're not very useful. How does telling yourself something make it so? How can you make something from nothing? Does it really work to tell yourself statements you don't believe deep down? More importantly, I've seen many other people say they've had no results from them. Research has shown that they don't work for people with low self-confidence because the positive sayings contradict their core negative self-image, so their mind rejects them. My hunch is that this is the kind of advice that has been repeated and regurgitated for so long that no one questions it anymore. It's kind of like how grade school science textbooks have a reputation for being slow to catch up with current knowledge, because each new edition is mostly copied from the old one without checking for new research.

Mirroring people to get rapport with them

When two people have rapport their body language will often naturally fall into sync. This advice claims the process can work in reverse, that if you consciously mimic someone's non-verbal communication you'll win them over more easily. I've read a lot of accounts of people saying this hasn't worked for them, or if it did, the effect was very minor. My opinion on this advice is the same as how I feel about affirmations: It never really did much, but it's been around so long that lots of writers unthinkingly use it to pad out their "Five Easy Ways To Get Along With People" articles.

Using someone's name a lot at the beginning of a conversation to gain rapport

There are two beliefs behind this suggestion. The first is that people are a little self-absorbed and love hearing their name for its own sake. That's debatable. The second is that using someone's name simply shows that you care about them enough to remember it. That's reasonable. I think using a person's name once or twice when you've first met them doesn't hurt, but it's not a requirement. Say their name more than that and you'll really, really come across like a salesperson using a technique. If you listen to natural day-to-day conversations you'll see people don't insert each other's names into them very often. Yeah, they may use a name to greet someone, get their attention, or refer to them with other people in the interaction, but they don't speak in the style of, "Yeah, Jen, it's really interesting that you've starting playing piano, Jen. So Jen, what songs are you practicing at the moment, Jen?"

Self-hypnosis

Yep, I've dipped my fingers in all kinds of places. I first learned about hypnosis in a university course and researched it more in my own time. When I read the claims of how I could effortlessly reprogram my mind my interest perked up. I learned how to lie somewhere quiet and talk myself down into a state of deep relaxation. Once I felt fully self-hypnotized I repeated a few commands to myself. "I was confident. I wasn't insecure around people. I felt no fear of talking to strangers", and so on. I did this every night for a month or so.

Can you guess what happened? You win if you said I felt psyched up for a few days, and like my problems were solved, before the feeling subsided without me actually accomplishing anything. You know what really ruined hypnotism for me? I read that it only works if you believe it will work. After that it was never the same.

Condescending suggestions like "Have you tried taking a shower?" or "Maybe you should leave the house"

Yes, I realize people who fit the basement-dwelling, 'doesn't know to wear deodorant' stereotype do exist. But they're a tiny minority of everyone with social problems. Most know about basic hygiene and don't play video games for 18 hours a day. They just have fewer friends than they'd like, or feel nervous in group conversations, or struggle in one of dozens of other ways. It's insulting to imply everyone who sometimes feels socially awkward must be a clueless, smelly shut-in.