Human beings are social animals. Research has demonstrated the importance of building and maintaining a social network as being one of the most important indexes of mental health. It is also protective against negative aspects of the aging process. But social comfort is not evenly distributed.
Social role modeling from parents and older siblings, growing up in a neighborhood with many other children, and personal traits or accomplishments that attract others are among the factors that help some people reach adulthood with more social skill than some of their peers. The developmental tasks of adulthood can also interfere with social growth as some people work long hours building their careers without much opportunity for socialization and some of today’s careers can be done from home – requiring effort to get out and socialize.
As a result, social discomfort is pretty widespread. One of the common complaints that I hear from patients who would like to be perceived as wanting to be more involved with others is that they tend to clam up in social situations. A common lament is, “When people are talking about something, even if I’m familiar with the topic, I can’t think of anything to say.”
I’ve actually found that statement to be untrue. There’s always stuff going on in your head – even in the midst of a discussion when you “can’t think of anything to say.” The problem is generally that of having too rigid a personal filter. People who can’t think of anything to say usually have something to say but their filter tells them that it’s too trivial or not that important or that it will make them look foolish or their remarks will be ignored.
We just finished an election in the U.S. Think of some of the things that the candidates said. Actually, politicians’ filters are often not rigid enough, but what they say keeps the political conversation going, and that’s a necessary part of the election process.
It may not be easy to overcome social discomfort, so I recommend not doing it all at once. Instead of looking for something brilliant to contribute from the get-go, just monitor your thinking. Identify what you would say if you were to actually say it. Inside your head, compare it with what others have contributed to the conversation. Are their remarks so much more brilliant than what you would have had to say.
I suspect that once you have gone through that exercise silently a few times, you will be more confident in your ability to actually contribute verbally. There’s always something that you can say – and some of it will be meaningful.