How Do I Get Control over My Compulsive, Self-Defeating Social Behavior?

We got this unusual, very interesting question from one of our readers, and thought we’d share it.  She knows she turns people off in social situations, but doesn’t know why or how to stop it and start doing something else.  Check it out.


Dear BR,

I feel like I’m the opposite of the introverted, socially avoidant person who sidesteps rejection by shying away from people. I’m so outgoing, I turn people off by over-talking and thrusting myself into the middle of everything.

How can I moderate my need to be with people with more subtle, acceptable behavior? I’m in my forties. Is it too late?



Dear Louisa,

I’m curious as to how you know you have a problem. Is it because of the feedback you've gotten from other people, or can you tell on your own when people are backing away from you?  And I guess I’m not sure what you mean by “outgoing" and "too in the middle of everything". 

So let me ask you some questions:  Do you scare people by being too socially aggressive?  Do you break into conversations before you realize you’re not welcome? Or do you break in in spite of the fact that you know you’re not welcome, but can’t seem to help it anyway?  

It’s possible you learned this behavior from a parent who acted this way, and you just picked it up – but if that were the case, you probably would have modified this behavior by now.  A more likely possibility is that it’s driven by anxiety that you just don't know how to contain, so you compulsively act on it.  You may not be so different from that shy person after all – you just express it in very different ways. 

But certainly it’s not too late!  You can get some control over this behavior by practicing the art oflistening to people.  You want to be more subtle?  Listen.  Pay attention. Set your intention to find something to genuinely appreciate about the other person.  Give them room to talk and then ask clarifying questions about what they’re saying, and, assuming your timing was right (i.e., you didn’t break up a conversation or approach them as they were trying to leave), your responses will automatically become more acceptable. 

The other thing you could try to do is to notice mindfully whenever you have an impulse to be "too outgoing" or jump into something, and instead, take a moment to turn inward to notice the impulse and just handle it on the inside, rather than making it an interactive behavior that has to bounce off someone else. 

Just noticing, with kindness and compassion for yourself, this anxious feeling, and give your inner self a reassuring pat, telling yourself it’s okay, just breathe and stay calm and sit with it – this too shall pass. That kind of self-talk can be surprisingly helpful.

In fact, learning mindfulness meditation would probably be just the ticket to install these skills within you in a permanent way. Mindfulness is the practice of constantly turning your attention inward, noticing how you feel with neutral, curious, gentle detachment.  This would result in a really positive change, helping you turn away from acting on the impulse to display your jumpy insides on the outside, where other people have to deal with them.

Of course, you’d be changing a long held habit, so it would probably feel pretty uncomfortable at first.  But that doesn't make it a bad idea.  In fact, it's a great idea if you have the motivation and discipline to stay with it.  We have two wonderful new mindfulness meditation programs for you if this interests you. One by Traci Stein  and one by Julie Lusk.

If mindfulness turns out not to suit you, then some simple relaxation could do the job too.  You could practice relaxing to our Relaxation & Wellness imagery or our General Wellness and then you can put that learned relaxation to work in any social situation. 

Mind you, you'd still have to notice what's going on inside of you, so you can block and tackle the self-defeating behavior before it gets expressed externally.  So awareness is going to be a critical skill, no matter what. That's why mindfulness is my preferred method for you, and where I’d start.

You could also deputize friends or family to notice and help monitor you  (as long as they're not too critical), telling you when you blew it and when you were spot on. Some therapy and support groups with a strong group process component could also teach you new behavior.

But since it's going to come down to self-awareness, I would encourage you to do the mindfulness work. 

All best wishes,

br signature


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