This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Dear Charlotte, which tells the winding story of the triumph and folly of forever trying to better yourself. This letter is from the chapter on "Dealing with Others".
I really need to stop doing this. There is often a mantra repeating in my head, instructing me on how to behave around certain people. Sometimes I set little rules for myself like, "don't get too excited," and that'll be in my head over and over again.
For example, I was in Steve's apartment which is usually a relaxing place. He has a small apartment with a loft that's shaded by tall live oaks, and his place is filled with vinyl records, posters, and recording equipment. I usually feel creative there, and I see a lot of creative energy flowing from him. So I share more with him, and I let myself go into these digressions where I'm either predicting the future of technology or spouting some social commentary. But every now and then, Steve will just give me a random, disagreeable scowl. Maybe I get too excited or slick with my assertions, but certainly not enough to require these abrupt reactions.
I usually worry about his reaction hours later, and the only way I can calm myself down is to come up with a mantra. So, when I saw Steve a few days ago, I repeated in my head, "don't get too excited, don't get too excited," and we ended up having a pleasant conversation about our careers as video game designers1. Hours passed without his scowl-reaction, and I thought to myself, "My mantra is working!"
But in my new enthusiasm, I gave him some career advice that set him off. Clearly I over-reached, because he just said nothing to my statement, instead turning his head to look at his computer screen. It was so cold and subtle that I stewed on it hours later when I got back home.
And so I came up with a new mantra, "Don't make personal statements." But then I realized, this was probably the 100th or so social mantra I've come up with. With my parents it was, "Don't talk about my failures," around Frank it was "Don't talk about politics," and around Alice, "Don't sound over-confident." It's like I've been trying to hack myself into a socially competent with all these rules.
I finally gave up and said, "Fuck it with these social mantras!" If I have to repeat something in my head in order to socialize with someone, then in a way, I'm sucking up to them. I wouldn't be surprised if this imbalance is half of why I have post-social anxiety in the first place.
And so, as has been typical in my quest for self-improvement, I've had to remind myself that the best mantra is no mantra. I've had to repeat this in my head over and over again, and so we'll see how that works out.2