anxiety

Likeability: An experiment into being more “popular”

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I have always been interested in Psychology, investigating why we do what we do and what influences our behaviour and thoughts. One of the most recent books I read because of this was Popular by Mitch Prinstein. It was an eye-opening analysis of popularity and how our early childhood and adolescent experiences with ‘popularity’ can have power over how we act today.

I use ‘popularity’ with inverted commas because the first thing I was surprised to learn was that there are actually two types of popularity that can be discerned from research. One is status based, and one is based on likability. A very brief overview is that whilst the popular crowd at school who we all longed to be in with had very high status, they were usually not very likeable. And whilst many of us become obsessed with striving for status, especially in the age of social media, it can be more rewarding to improve how likeable we are. This will not only affect how others perceive us but also how we feel about ourselves.

As a kid at school, I always felt as though I was on the sidelines, and from reading Popular it’s clear from my point of view that I would have fitted into the ‘Neglected’ social category. This means that I’m a textbook introvert, and as a teenager and for most of my adult life, I’ve dealt with social anxiety, so reading this book was extremely interesting when it came to describing ways we can change how we’re perceived by others and also how we think about ourselves.

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One of the book’s anecdotes I particularly appreciated involved the author having telephone conversations with various members of call centre staff to try and fix his internet. He informally conducted an experiment, deliberately making an effort to be polite and warm and interested to some call operators, whilst being curter with others. He then tested out being more positive in his day-to-day life. I was impressed by how different the author said he felt after making such changes and wanted to try it out for myself.

For the first few days, I did not make any deliberate changes to the way I behaved or acted. I did, however, jot down notes on who I had conversations with, and how often. After a few days, I started to change how I acted. Here are the small changes I made an effort to consciously adapt over the next week:

  • Be polite/positive in interactions with people. Whether it be family and friends, or someone over the phone, or a complete stranger who moves to let you past on the pavement.
  • Be interested in what the other person is saying.
  • Smile more.

To start, these simple things were the only 3 items I included. They sound basic and obvious (because they are) but they are things that sometimes slip or I don’t always pay attention to. Practising these three ways of approaching interactions with others, and life in general, had some interesting results…and a few situations stood out.

The first instance I recall was at a job interview. I’m not someone who naturally smiles a lot, and I have a severe case of ‘Resting Bitch Face’: not a great thing for a prospective employer to see. “Right,” I thought, as I went to introduce myself, “start smiling.” As the saying goes, smiles are contagious, and I definitely felt more at ease as the receptionist returned my smile. I paid attention to each interaction, even tiny stuff like being offered a drink. And not in the way of being obsessive or over analytical, just paying attention to how I conducted myself. It was very surprising how being attentive made me feel more present and actually took away some of my nerves, because I wasn’t allowing myself to overthink about where I was, and was instead focusing on who I was with.

I was surprised overall at the effect that these changes had in making me feel more grounded and present, and building up little likeable acts created a bigger picture that boosted my self-esteem.

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Before starting this, I was initiating 1 or 2 conversations a day, i.e. with a shop assistant, or other mandatory transactions when out and about (this is excluding conversations with people at home). Including these, the conversations themselves tended to be short. By the time I’d finished the next week, I made deliberate changes to the way I interacted – I was averaging about 6 conversations a day, including one I struck up with a randomer who sat on the same bench as me (which I would never have done in a million years).

As the number of conversations I participated in increased, I found that consciously being more aware of the way I interact lead to a number of discoveries:

  • Very quickly I was beginning to see interactions with others as opportunities rather than as chores. To start with I initiated conversations to observe what happened, but in the end, I just enjoyed having a chat and was more willing to learn about people I chatted to. Like the guy who runs our local convenience store or people I see walking their dogs in the morning. (The perks of living in a little town where it is customary to say ‘morning’ every five seconds came in handy here.)

  • I was less analytical of myself. If a social interaction got ‘fluffed up’ i.e. I got flustered and said something that didn’t come out right (which I do a lot), I made an effort to not be as hard on myself and laugh it off.
  • I found the more I try to maintain these ideals the more they become second nature. Instead of setting time aside to be conscious of these likeable factors, they started crossing over into work too. I found it less of a challenge to speak in meetings and was less nervous to ask questions and make suggestions. I was less hung up on being right and more concerned with attending to what was happening and being involved.
  • Making an effort to be more interested in what another person was telling me ended up in me being more interested in others generally. Asking questions, being present and discussing details with other people; whether it be chatting about family, work or some other topic like the latest Avengers movie ended up in providing the chance to strengthen my interpersonal relationships both professional & personal.

The more I strived to put effort into my day-to-day interactions, the more positive I felt. The littlest instances of finding out details of someone’s day or taking the time to thank someone where perhaps I usually wouldn’t have felt good and made me less socially anxious when initiating conversations.

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I am not saying that we could all do this, all of the time; or even that we should do. Obviously, there are still days when I’m not in a great mood or don’t feel like talking to anyone when I’ve gone out to run errands. However, being more mindful of how I present myself and how I listen to other people has surprisingly made it less daunting to be sociable. Which is interesting as this isn’t what I was intending to use it for, and was rather approaching it as a way of learning how to come across well. What I enjoyed the most about doing this is that it taught me how to listen more effectively. Now I make a better effort to really listen to what someone is saying to me and be present when I talk to them.

I’m also not saying for a minute that I’ve turned into a completely different person. There were still a couple of days throughout this week where I was exhausted from socialising. There are still times where I get pissed off by something or someone and the last thing I want to do is be interested and present so instead shut myself in my room and watch Netflix. What it has done however is make me more open to interactions with others. I still get anxious chatting to people, but I’ve seen some positive changes.

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Who knows if my efforts during this time have really made me more likeable? I definitely feel better about myself as a result, and I’ve noted changes in my own behaviours. Of course, I could just be coming off as a complete stalker who has an unhealthy interest in other people(!) but I hope that’s not the case.

After this experience I hope to continue my effort not to improve how ‘likeable’ I am but rather, to improve how confident and content I feel within myself.

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If anyone wants to read more here is a bad quality pic of the book ft. my thumb.

 

Words by Lauren Barnard for Anthem Online.
Images from Nathaniel Russel/Mitch Prinstein/NY Times, Explorying Your Mind, Robert Rolih, Salt 10.65 and Lauren Barnard.

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Mental Health Myths

This week is Mental Health Awareness week! Fortunately, in recent years we have become a bit more open about mental health, however, there are still some stubborn myths that are sticking around. We’ve written up five of the most common misconceptions about anxiety and depression, along with our thoughts on how we can start to think differently about mental health.

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Mentally ill people are different:

With media hype around the ‘depression gene’ and the inaccurate stereotypes that are perpetuated by popular culture, it’s not hard to arrive at the idea that people who are depressed or experiencing mental illness are fundamentally different from those who do not.

Whilst some studies have shown that learning about so-called ‘depression genes’ can make people less likely to blame their friends for being depressed, the biological side of mental health is still a contentious subject. If we are not careful, we still run the risk of increasing the “perceived distance between those who are afflicted and those who are not”, even though the so-called ‘depression gene’ is only weakly linked with the condition.

It’s important to remember that anyone can be affected by depression, and in very different ways. Approximately one in four* of us are likely to experience some symptoms of a mental health disorder at some point in our lives, and even if we’re fortunate enough not to, we should remember that people experiencing struggles with mental health should not be viewed as ‘other.’

 

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People with depression are always sad:

Like any illness, people with depression or anxiety can have good days and bad days, and what seems easy to them one day may seem totally impossible for them at another time.

Whilst someone suffering from depression or anxiety might have messy hair, unkempt clothing and seem to be on the verge of crying at all times, they may also be well dressed, smiley and talkative. A person may put a lot of effort into hiding the symptoms or effects of what they’re going through, and it’s important not to discount someone’s experiences simply because they don’t match up to preconceived stereotypes.

 

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Meds are bad:

Contrary to popular opinion, taking medication for mental health problems does not turn you into a constantly-smiling zombie-person! Medication can be a very effective treatment, either alongside therapy and other treatments or on its own. I was a little nervous to try medication for the first time because of all the horror stories I’d heard, but it turned out to be just what I needed. It’s important to note that whilst it is awesome if medication can alleviate your symptoms, if you find it is not working for you, speak to your doctor and you can explore different medications and treatment options.

 

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Young people are just ‘being teenagers:’

We’re often told that childhood and adolescence are times that are carefree and fun, and children and teenagers can be perceived by older generations as not having any responsibilities or ‘real problems.’ Whilst this may be true to an extent, it doesn’t mean young people are immune to mental health problems or their experiences aren’t as serious. The Mental Health Foundation says that “Depression is the predominant mental health problem worldwide” and one study found that “ in 2014, 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and older showed symptoms of anxiety or depression.”

From personal experience growing up, many of my problems that I now recognise as relating to my later diagnosed depression & anxiety, were chalked up to “being a teenager” and going through puberty. Family members were quick to judge my behaviour as being a stroppy teenager (which I definitely was sometimes!), rather than being open to discussing depression. Only when I took myself to see a health professional did they begin to consider other ideas. This is something I have heard similar stories about from other friends and forums online, and we need to remain aware that mental health can affect people of any age. Young people need mental health support even if the problems they are going through might not seem ‘real’ to someone else.

 

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Mental illness is a choice or phase:

If you’ve ever had the privilege of having a well-meaning but uninformed person give you such sage advice as “just be positive!” or “you’ve got so much to be happy about!” in relation to your anxiety or depression or [insert pretty much any mood disorder here] then you’ll know the frustration of trying to explain that your mental health is not something you’ve just decided to let go of or struggle with.

However, this isn’t just from the perspective of someone who is not mentally ill judging someone who is. It is important to remember that just like most things, mental health is a spectrum, and if you have been through issues yourself, it still doesn’t mean you can expect to know how another person feels, or that what worked to help you will work for them.

The best thing we can do is be supportive and listen. Try not to adopt the view that someone who is depressed or anxious is not helping themselves enough; everyone’s journey is different and it is important that we respect people living with mental health issues as we would anyone else.

The conversation surrounding mental health has come so far in recent years, but there’s still room for improvement. As long as we keep on talking to each other we can keep learning, and that’s always a good thing.

 

Words by Ellie Cook and Lauren Barnard
Images by House with No Steps, Texvet.org, The Odyssey Online, Pranita Kocharekar and Getty Images/ThinkStock. 

References:
https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/fundamental-facts-about-mental-health-2016
Heine, S.J. (2017) DNA is Not Destiny W.W. Norton & Company
https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems/#.Wvta94jwbIU *

Sex Drive and Sadness

The side effects and symptoms of depression and anxiety can seep into every nook of your life. They can destroy your confidence, your energy levels, you can lose your social life, and your sex life can disappear. Those who suffer from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety can watch their sex life suffer and not understand why. You can sit by as you watch your relationship fall apart, or you can’t quite find your confidence to keep the lights on and remove your clothes in front of someone else. You can think that you don’t feel the same wants and needs that everyone else around you apparently feels, or not be able to pinpoint what exactly in you has changed yet nothing feels the same.

One of the less discussed yet still debilitating side effects of depression is a loss of libido. This can destroy relationships, the sufferer may not feel that they are providing their partner with everything that they want and need and therefore can acquire a sense of guilt and not feel like an adequate partner. This does not come from a lack of love for the partner, but relates to the struggle to enjoy life in the same ways that they used to. This is normal. At a time when they may feel that everything tastes of nothing and there isn’t quite anything that makes them feel strongly about something anymore, a lack of sex drive is perfectly understandable. They can still be head over heels for someone but not feel any urge to have sex anymore, they are intrinsically different things. Discussing this with the partner may make things a little easier for them to understand; communication is important in order for someone to understand what you are truly thinking. 

Another consequence of depression and anxiety can be a feeling of low self-confidence and low self-esteem. The thought of letting someone else see your body can be stomach churning, and the idea that they may find you attractive is baffling, but part of the self-care, if you have a mental illness, is to learn to fall in love with your body and to learn to find peace with yourself. If you aren’t currently okay with letting someone else see you fully naked, then build on it over time and learn where to draw the line of how comfortable you are. Never force yourself to do something because you feel like you should be doing it. If you are uncomfortable with something, work out why you feel that way and try to solve it or work around it.

Give yourself time, don’t force yourself into something that you are not comfortable with. You’re not alone in these feelings and looking after your mental health will help ensure that you have a healthy sex life. Don’t forget that every person has a different sex drive; what is normal for one person may be much higher or much lower than yours, having a dip is therefore normal for you. As with any issue discussed this week, if something is particularly worrying you, take time to go to the doctors so that you can talk about it.

 

Words by Beth Farrell
Part of the September Sex Education Week, 2017.