Together at the Poles

Making an Impression Versus Making a Connection: Mitigating Social Anxiety

For me, one of the most frustrating symptoms of bipolar disorder is social anxiety. In conversing with other people, I often find myself running a constant check on what it is I am saying and how other people will respond to it. After conversing with people, I often find myself going over every little thing I said, hoping that I didn’t offend anyone.

Unfortunately, since my mood tends to influence (*cough* distort) what I think people think of me, this experience can be very taxing. This can lead me to avoid social situations and to feel very uncomfortable in those situations. Even when I do pull myself up by my bootstraps and do it, it can make the experience of interacting with people far less pleasant than it could be.

However, a few years ago, a psychiatrist gave me a piece of advice that has helped me alleviate the worst of these symptoms (though, of course, it doesn’t get rid of them entirely, since the anxiety itself is physiological). The advice is simple to memorize but difficult to practice. He said, “Make a connection, not an impression.” Focusing on this has helped me significantly in the last few years. It doesn’t get rid of my social anxiety entirely, and cannot help with its most extreme form, but it can definitely mitigate it on a day-to-day basis.

Making an Impression

So much of my social anxiety is focused on what it is that other people think of me. I worry that I may offend someone or alienate someone, so I try to do things that will impress them in some way. Unfortunately or fortunately, I am often very good at making an impression. Hypomania really improves my sense of humor, for instance, and I’m able to make people laugh.

The problem, though, is that so long as I’m trying to make an impression, I’m worrying about what it is that other people are thinking about me. That pushes me back inside my own head, where I ask myself, “Did they like that anecdote?” or “Will they think badly of me for saying that?” There, my anxiety can start to do its work. It gives it something to focus on, and it can reach the point where I am fretting so much that I’m not enjoying a conversation, leave it, or avoid it entirely.

So, I needed a way out of this cycle. The more I worried about other people’s impressions of me, the more it fed my social anxiety.

Making a Connection

On the other hand, there is another way to approach conversation: making a connection with other people. I’m going to fall back on a little Dale Carnegie here, but bear with me. I found that two things really helped with this. First, I try to find out about other people. Second, I try to find things in them that are genuinely interesting so that I can appreciate them.

The problem with making an impression is that it is ultimately about me. Sure, the impression is in the other person, but I am the object of that impression. When making a connection, on the other hand, I’m instead learning about them, and developing common interests based on what really matters to them.

Two Tricks for Making a Connection

I’ve discovered two tricks that really help with this. The first one is asking questions, rather than talking. Through this, I can really find out about other people, who are often surprisingly interesting. It also has the advantage that I can do it in any mood state. If I’m depressed, talking itself can be quite a chore, and this takes a lot of the load off. If I’m hypomanic, it’s a great chance to find out something new that’s very interesting (because, let’s face it, everything’s very interesting when hypomanic).

The second trick is to try to figure out what is so interesting to them about whatever it is that they find interesting. At first, I’m likely not going to be very interested in the details of the latest Star Wars prequel novel. But why do they care about it? I gear my questions to finding out what it is that makes the topic so interesting.

And you know what? The world is full of some really interesting stuff and some really interesting people. Once I understand why someone finds something so interesting, I will often find it interesting myself. Moreover, I will have become more interested in that person, and will have made a connection based on something that is now genuinely interesting to the both of us.

The Limitations of this Approach

This approach doesn’t work when my anxiety is especially extreme. At the end of the day, bipolar anxiety is something tied to our misfiring brains, and it can’t just be pushed away. However, our thoughts can and do affect the severity of our emotional states. If things are extreme, I can’t even engage in this exercise. But when it is less extreme, and I find I can engage in this exercise, I find it really helps alleviate my anxiety. It gets me out of my own head, which is where my anxiety is happening.

So, these tricks are a way of alleviating social anxiety, not really of getting rid of it. Nonetheless, having a way of mitigating social anxiety is very helpful, and makes my interactions with other people a lot better. It makes me able to enjoy other people and my interactions with them.

6 Responses to Making an Impression Versus Making a Connection: Mitigating Social Anxiety

  • I have suffered with bipolar disorder for about 30 years and as hard as I try, I find it very difficult to overcome. Medication certainly helps a great deal as does contact with close friends and relatives.I have one close friend who has been unable to work for about 20 years as a result of this condition.I now find it difficult to hold down a job, long term.

  • Thanks for a great post. I was at a church dinner last night and was going through the very sensory experiences you were describing. And it does indeed help to focus on the other person. That is a good practice for anybody regardless of their mental health status, especially in this society of self involvement. I enjoy and relate to your insights. Thank you.

  • Since reading this post a month ago, I have referred to your psychiatrist’s mnemonic, “Make a connection, not an impression” many times. Thanks! It’s a great way to pull myself out of that spacey, self-conscious feeling I sometimes get when I’m in a conversation. I repeat that saying and remind myself to focus on the person and the words they are saying, not speculate on what I imagine they may be thinking about me. Instantly, it changes my perspective and I’m able to get back into the conversation and fully participate.

    Just wanted you to know it’s been helpful!

    • You’re welcome, Dawn, and I’m very glad to hear that it has been so helpful :). I first heard the phrase about five years ago and I’ve found it very helpful, so I wanted to share it.

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Counselling from Daniel
Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RSW, CCC
Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RSW, CCC is a Registered Social Worker and Canadian Certified Counsellor with a private practice operating out of Kitchener, Ontario. He provides in-person counselling in Kitchener and email, video or telephone counselling within Canada.

To find out more, please visit the website for his private practice, Bader Mediation & Counselling Services.