Having difficulty “reading” others is painful. Many people report experiencing difficulties in their social relationships because of what they see as their “inability to read people accurately.” In social situations, some people struggle with mild to intense anxiety, feeling constantly angry at others as a result of disappointment, worries about being judged or rejected, fears about being unworthy of love or/and attention, and social isolation. Why? Research has shown that the brain registers the emotional pain associated with social rejection, in the same way that it registers physical pain. In other words, rejection does really hurt! An additional source of suffering for people who struggle with social relationships is associated with not knowing or understanding the nature of their difficulty, and how to overcome it to make things If this rings true to you, what can you do to help yourself?
Just like it is the case in any other field, the first step in solving a problem is to identify what is causing it. We can spend a lot of money and time trying solutions that will only bring more pain, and ultimately lead to increased sense of hopelessness and helplessness.
Psychological conflicts can be understood as the result of three different elements that are trying to negotiate how to best help you with a situation that makes you feel afraid or uncomfortable: Wish, Anxiety and Defense. Thus, the first step that you can take to solve your anxious about social and interpersonal inteactions is to identify all the elements that are playing a role in a particular situation.
Let’s say that you have been wanting to go to a party with your friends (Wish for connection) for a while, but when the day arrives, you find yourself dreading going to the party (defense) because you are concerned about being judged (anxiety). In this case, the first element you are likely to notice is your desire to not go to the party anymore (coping mechanism of avoidance). Once you notice that you are trying to avoid doing something that makes you uncomfortable, you can name your fear; in this case, the fear is about being judged or rejected (anxiety). If you are noticing that the judgement is very specific, such as “they are going to think that I am not smart enough,” you can ask yourself, “who had that thought?” The answer must likely will be “I had this thought,” and you are likely to be right, the thought belongs to you, it happened in your mind. If you tend to be very harsh and critical about yourself, this is likely to be a very common reason for being anxious in interpersonal situations.
Sometimes you might be afraid of not being liked or approved by others, but if you dig deep inside, you may be able to realize that you are the one who is judging or disapproving the other, but since this is a thought that does not make feel good about yourself, unconsciously you rather see others doing this than admitting that you are doing it.
One common psychological mechanism that is behind our problems in relationships is called projection. Projection allows us to export thoughts, feelings, desires, or traits that we do not like to see in ourselves, onto others. As a result, we are able to experience ourselves in our “goodness,” while the others take the role of the “bad” one. This also allows us to see the others as the problem, instead of taking ownership of our own less than holy thoughts, feelings, traits, or desires. The problem is that when we project outside what is really inside, we are more prone to misread signals and distort interpersonal interactions. We also might become easily worried, scared or angry about what we see in others, and respond accordingly by avoiding, isolating, or getting into arguments.
When we become aware of what is really inside of us, our true wish (I want to connect with others, I want to be known, I want to be close) or a thought or feeling that we find objectionable ( I am angry at you, I do not like you, I do not think you are that smart), we can make a decision about what to do with this. Instead of projecting (which is something we do unconsciously and out of habit), we can choose to own our own desire or to take responsibility for our feelings and thoughts. As the need for projection decreases, so it will our anxiety.
Relationships are very complex and often difficult to navigate for most people. However, if you are worried about building and maintaining relationships, or looking to create deep, meaningful connections, it is important that you take the time to look inward, observe, and identify all what is happening inside of your mind that might be interfering with your wish for connection. Although it takes time to change this long-standing cycles of habitual thinking, by becoming aware of what really is happening in the moment, you will be able to start making different decisions that will eventually move you forward towards your goals.