We've all been there: a social situation where our nerves get the best of us, and we find ourselves at a loss for words. We racked our brains, but we just couldn't think of anything worth saying.
It might have been meeting a new potential friend, a client, or love interest. Or maybe it was trying to strike up a conversation at a party. I've been there. As a disabled person and a wheelchair user, often I have had thoughts about being judged or seen as different.
I have often felt like I am not good enough. I've told myself that other people are not interested in knowing me. That they have already made their decision about me. I'm actually imposing my self-image on other people, assuming they see me the same way I see myself. That way, I have an excuse to refrain from being vulnerable because I already made their minds up for them. I don't have to take any chances on finding out what they really think.
1. How meditation made the difference
My interest in mindfulness really started when my dad died and I was looking for direction. I had no idea what I believed about life, about what my philosophical outlook really was down deep. So I began searching all the traditional approaches to dealing with life's problems.
In the end, I settled not on a school of thought but an exercise in contemplation. A contemplative approach shared by many philosophies and religions. Buddhism refers to it as mindfulness, but many traditions have some form of it in their practice.
Mindfulness is about training yourself to watch and, to some extent, control your thoughts. It is about learning to pay attention to, or ignore, where your wandering mind settles.
You could say that I've had three mindfulness meditation mentors over the years when I wasn't teaching myself. Two of them were highly trained Buddhists in the Tibetan tradition, but the third was a counselor I was seeing after my daughter died. She was the first one who taught me how to apply mindfulness concepts and techniques to social situations. The advantage of mindfulness, she said, was that being present takes you out of your head and into the moment.
You can't judge yourself or worry about what the other person is thinking if you're too busy experiencing the wonder of the here and now.
2. Break up with your ego.
It took me a while to learn this, and I'm still learning it every day—but the ego is a double-edged sword. It can make you feel great or terrible about yourself. What the ego loves to do is tell stories about reality. It likes to believe that it has everything figured out. We think we know exactly where we stand, exactly the way it is that people perceive us. Sometimes, it's easier to "know" we will fail than it is to actually try to talk to someone and risk embarrassment.
It's time to challenge our assumptions and burst the ego's bubble.
3. Stop playing telepath.
When we attribute thoughts or motives to others, this is often just based on our own insecurities, not reality. This mental chatter can even be randomness. Thousands of thoughts go through our heads throughout the day, many of which we ignore as inconsequential or even nonsensical. You're doing yourself and the other person a disservice by trying to read their thoughts through a cloud of your own self-talk.
4. Leave your mind, enter the moment.
This can sometimes be done with a mini exercise. Just focus on the sights, smells, and sounds in your immediate vicinity. Most importantly, focus on the other person and what they're saying, not what you're saying to yourself in your head. When entering a new social setting, you can use the new sights and sounds to ground yourself in the moment. At a dinner party, you could take in the smell of food cooking or its flavor.
You might take a moment to truly appreciate the scent of the cologne or perfume of the person in front of you. Or the temperature and texture of the beverage in your hand. Not as a distraction but as an anchor to the here and now rather than worrying about judgment.
4. Remember that no matter what, you will be OK.
We often stop ourselves because we fear the consequences we've dreamed up. "What if I ask someone on a date and they say no?" But the truth is that, whatever the consequences, we have the capacity to move on. It would be far worse to live our lives in fear, never knowing what it's like to take a risk. Knowing what it is like to truly live.
Once you take on board and truly accept the idea that you will be OK despite any social consequences, this allows you to act with far more freedom. The freedom that you will find is invaluable in areas that extend from making friends to career advancement.