Step One: Creating Your Index of Dread
Since your sociability profile is unique, your first step toward superior social fitness is research. To create an effective program, you must identify areas in which your interest is high but your confidence is low. Most of us aren't aware of the difference between inborn aversion and the fear that comes from injury or inexperience. To learn where this distinction lies in your personality, you must become both a scientific observer and the subject of your own observation.
Begin by establishing a log you can dedicate to the task of understanding your social self. If you already have some sort of calendar or planner where you list everything you have to do, use that. Otherwise, spend a couple of bucks on a spiral notebook. Take a few minutes every evening to jot down a list of things you plan to do the following day, and with whom. It usually works best to go through the day chronologically.
Now read through your list and imagine doing each activity you've planned. Picture one event at a time, as vividly as possible. While holding each image in your mind, notice whether you find yourself pleasantly anticipating the activity or resisting it. Try standing up while you do this. You'll probably find that your body leans slightly forward when you think about an event that you expect to love but tilts backward when the activity repels you.
Give each item on your to-do list a score representing your level of resistance to that activity. Let's call it the Index of Dread, or IOD. An IOD score of zero means you aren't worried at all. A score of 10, on the other hand, means you'd rather eat tacks than do the thing you're picturing. Be utterly honest as you write down your scores, and don't criticize yourself. Would Jane condemn a chimp for wanting to skip a group hooting event? Be a scientist: Just record the facts as accurately as possible.
On Day One of your experiment, you'll have only your list of planned activities to consider. But on Day Two (and every day thereafter), you'll be able to look back and evaluate how much you actually enjoyed an activity, once you were in the middle of it. Each night, after listing your schedule for the next day and assigning your Index of Dread scores, go back to the previous page. You will now add a second number next to the Index of Dread score. This is your Enjoyment Evaluation. An EE score of zero means you got no pleasure at all from an experience, while a ten means you could have danced all night—or bowled or plucked chickens or whatever—and still have begged for more.
Again, avoid blaming or shaming. You may have to admit you hated things you were supposed to love (Mom's birthday party, time with your spouse) but derived huge joy from things you think are wrong (reading tabloids to children, flirting with priests). No judgment here: We are simply social scientists examining data.
After accumulating several days' worth of data, begin analyzing your activities and the scores you gave them. Ignore results that contain no surprises (because your expectations matched your level of enjoyment). But pay close attention to those anomalous events where middle-to-high scores on your Index of Dread are paired with relatively high numbers on the Enjoyment Evaluation—in other words, activities you both feared and delighted in.
As the days and weeks go by, you'll begin to notice patterns. Your scores may reveal that you quail at the thought of singing in public but love the evenings you spend at your neighborhood karaoke bar. Or perhaps you feel shy and recalcitrant when going to meet a certain friend but find the hours flying by once you're together. You'll begin to see areas where you have a natural inclination but lack confidence. It is in these situations that a little social resistance training can help you build up your strength and live a richer life.
When I began lifting weights, I got injured so often I might as well have simply beaten myself about the head and face with a barbell. The reason? I had a common but pernicious belief that strength is all about effort—the more, the better. Wrong. The whole point of weight lifting is to break down muscle tissue, then pamper it so it can heal into a stronger version of its former self. The R&R side is at least as important as the heaving and sweating. My weight-lifting regimen started working for me when a personal trainer told me, "Always leave the gym knowing you could do more." The same applies to building psychological confidence.
You should approach your low-confidence activities with small steps. If being alone is what scares you, don't sign up for a weeklong silent meditation retreat; try a five-minute solitary walk every day. If opening up and sharing secrets is your loved but feared activity, try telling one fact at a time to one friend at a time, instead of joining an intense encounter group right off the bat. Ease, effort, ease. That's how to achieve psychosocial fitness.
As you push against your social resistance in small ways, you'll find yourself gaining confidence in new situations. Small events that once hovered near the top of your Index of Dread will become less frightening. You may have a hankering to take a big risk that can't be divided into small steps. In that case, consider using a spotter.
At the gym, of course, a spotter is the trainer who cheers you on, corrects your form, and grabs the barbell in the instant you reach muscle failure but before the weight actually crushes your skull. In social situations, your spotter should be someone honest, observant, and willing to help you through the moments when your courage fails.
Employing scientific observation methods, a little courage, and a friend to help you through the rough spots, you too can expand the range of activities you enjoy. Honoring your personality—gregarious, solitary, or in-between—becomes steadily more rewarding as you get better at differentiating between your inborn aversions and places where a lack of confidence might be holding you back. Resistance training can get you to a place where being alone isn't lonely and joining a crowd doesn't crush your psyche. In short, it can lead to a life designed not by fear but by the person you were always meant to be.
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