So you are standing around at a party looking for people to chat up. You notice one guy, but he pulls out a cigarette and starts smoking. You hate smoking so you decide he’s a bad match for you. You see two more people but you notice that they are excitedly talking about a hobby you aren’t interested. You spot a third person, but you recognize that they seem unkempt. After looking around the room you start realize that everybody seems like an awful person to strike up conversation with. Eventually you just decide to sit off by yourself and wait until you can leave the party of your own accord.
Downplaying is something I am guilty of more times than I can count. While it may seem like an issue of not finding cool people, it’s actually the art of making lame excuses to avoid scary social situations. It usually happens when you’ve been burned by people in the past. This can be anything from somebody betraying your trust to having been in an abusive relationship. When you are down-playing you’ll find yourself pointing out something wrong with just about every person you meet. You’ll always find something that is fundamentally mismatched with you and that will clearly ruin any chance of a happy friendship. You’ll know this is down-playing when you find that this happens consistently regardless of how many people you meet. It can be very detrimental because of the fact that it thwarts every attempt you make as a prosocial person.
The cause of down-playing
Down-playing happens because there is a part of you that’s scared. Somewhere inside of you there is a fear of what will happen if you allow yourself to meet new people. This fear will differ wildly from person to person. Some common fears may be a fear of intimacy, a fear of rejection, or a fear of new social dynamics (such as having more friends than you can manage or losing the friends you already have). In my case, I wound up in some very abusive relationships several years ago. I found myself taking care of people who had no respect for my well-being and would push me beyond my emotional limit for stress and drama. After that I became very closed off. I developed a fear that, if I befriended people, I’d be constantly taking care of them, that they would not take care of me, and I’d wind up feeling alone and trapped.
Dealing with down-playing
Down-playing is an evil coping mechanism. No matter how much you try to control your mind, you will still find yourself identifying issues with everybody you meet. At times this can get very maddening. Despite this, there are some things you can do to work around it.
Step One: Make Friends Anyway.
You know that your mind is being irrational and making up excuses, so ignore it. Go out and talk to that guy you were dead sure was going to be too boring to talk to. Try talking to that girl you are certain is way too shallow for a meaningful conversation. The worst you can do is waste your time, and if you are really in need of more friends it’s worth risking a little time to meet them.
Step Two: Make sure you are giving people a real chance.
Because of the fact you are down-playing, it’s going to be very easy for your heart to not be in it when you are talking to people. Make sure you are not giving people attitude before you even know them and assume that everything you know about them is wrong.
Step Three: Don’t Look for Proof
You are going to be constantly tempted to go “See I told you so” every time a person does something that fits your irrational down-playing judgments. DON’T DO THIS. Human being are masters at reaffirming there own beliefs. If you believe the world is flat, I guarantee you that you will somehow find proof around every corner confirming your opinion for you. You don’t want this to happen, because you’ll be playing right into your own hand. You’ll find proof everywhere you go showing you that everybody around you shouldn’t be your friend. This is not the path to a healthy social life.
Step Four: Prove Yourself Wrong
Intellectually you know that the judgments you are making are phonier than a three dollar bill. Almost all your judgments are not based on any truth and when you do have evidence for your judgments, it’s going to be flimsy. One of the best ways to overcome down-playing is to prove to yourself that your judgments are seriously wrong. Take a moment and think about any people in your life that you like. Imagine for a moment that you were meeting them for the first time. What sort of judgment would you have made about them? Think about how that judgment would have caused you to dismiss a really awesome person you now have in your life. Also, take the time when meeting new people to observe the things you like about them. How they really could be a great person they could be friends with.
An exercise to try:
Find a list of organizations or activities you might be interested in attending. This could be meetup.com, a list of clubs at school, activities at a gym, nightschool classes, etc.
Go through the list and write down any activity/group that you could imagine yourself trying even if it sounds farfetched and unappealing.
For every activity/group write a list of excuses or justifications for why you don’t want to go.
Ignore any excuses that you repeatedly make and sound flimsy to you (example: I don’t like meeting new people)
Pick at least one item from your list that seems tolerable even, attend it, and actively talk to other participants. Go to it even if you have a bazillion reasons not to. Do this at least 4 times per activity (4 times is enough to get to know somebody and maybe find some common interests)
Create a small journal and write about your experience. Discuss what judgments came up, how you dealt with them, what judgments were right, and what was a misconception. Write down any evidence you found that indicated that your initial judgments were just a poor excuse to avoid interaction.
Also write down any observations about when you make judgments and why. We make these rash judgments to protect ourselves and sometimes if you know what it is you are protecting yourself from you can find a healthier way to feel safe.
Repeat this exercise as often as you like. Over time you’ll have a very strong understanding of your down-playing and how to deal with it.
Images provided by Dustin Stacey, Jennifer Stacey, Julie Jordan Scott, MEME TN, and Bruce