Dear BR,

I feel the opposite of the person who avoids rejection by avoiding people. I think I'm TOO outgoing and turn off people by being too in the middle of everything. How can I balance my social need with more subtle behavior? I’m in my forties.



Dear Suzannah,

I take it that you know you have a problem because of the feedback you've gotten from other people, yes?  But I'm not quite sure what you mean by "too outgoing" and "too in the middle of everything".  

Do you scare people by being too socially aggressive?  Do you break into conversations you don't belong in?  Do you talk too much, not give people room to talk back?  Or do you dead-end conversations by always bringing points people are trying to make about something back to a story about you?  Do you share too much personal information about yourself too quickly?  Do you get anxious if you're not the center of attention?  Do you create drama and trouble by "kibbitzing" too much in other peoples' business?

These are all the ways I could interpret your question - some of the more commonplace ways people get themselves in trouble in the "too outgoing" department.  Are you aware at the time of being "too outgoing" but can't seem to stop anyway?

This could be behavior you learned from a parent you've identified with, who acted this way; or it could be a kind of social naivete, from not having quite learned the rules (teenagers deal with this a lot but often outgrow it); or it could be the result of anxiety that you don't know how to contain but rather externalize and impulsively act out socially (This would be the most common cause for someone in their forties.)  

Either way, you can unlearn this and get better control over it by, first and foremost, taking a deep breath and listening to people.  You want to be more subtle?  Listen.  Set your intention to find the other person interesting, place your attention on comprehending them, give them room to talk and then ask clarifying questions about what they’re talking about, and short of doing this like a bulldozer, your responses will automatically become more subtle – and nice to be around.  

The other thing is becoming aware of when you have an impulse to be "too outgoing" and instead turning inward and handling yourself and your own impulses, rather than making it an interactive behavior. Breathe deeply and place your attention (gently!) on what’s going on in your insides.

Becoming adept at mindfulness meditation would probably be just the ticket.  It's a practice of constantly turning your attention inward, back to your insides, rather than keeping it on externals at the boundaries of your "self".

This would train you to stop putting your jumpy insides on the outside, where other people have to pick up the tab for them. Of course, this would run counter to your whole way of being with people, so you probably would find it uncomfortable at first.  But that doesn't make it a bad idea.  It's a great idea if you have the motivation and discipline for it.  So that would be my first suggestion.

If mindfulness is too quiet for you, too demanding, too lonely, then some simple relaxation would be a help.  You could practice relaxing to our Relaxation & Wellness imagery or General Wellness.  Then you could put that relaxation to work in social situations.  

But you'd still have to become aware of what's going inside of you so you can interrupt the self-defeating social behavior before it gets expressed externally.  So awareness is going to be a key component, no matter what.  

And that's a hard thing for somebody whose defense is to automatically and instantly translate their anxiety or discomfort into something interactive, before they even get to feel what they're feeling and identify what the heck it is.  That's why you’ll need to be patient with yourself.  And why mindfulness is my first choice.

Of course you could also appoint friends or a spouse (if they're not too critical) to act as your social feedback coach, signaling you in some predetermined gesture or comment when they see you heading in the wrong direction.  

Or some therapy or life coaching groups with a strong group process component can also teach you new behavior.  But since it's going to come down to self-awareness and self-discipline, I would encourage you to do the mindfulness work too.  

You could join a mindfulness or vipassana meditation group; or we have some wonderful resources to help you at home.  Jon Kabat-Zinn offers great instruction, as does Bodhipaksa in his excellent guided meditations.  Give one of these a try and let me know how it goes.

All best wishes,