When I was really, really little (like, younger than four), my parents took me to Sunday School for the first time. I went in the room, saw the group of kids, freaked out internally, and hid under a table. This happened for a few weeks, my mom dropping me off, me hiding under the table, her coming back and getting me. I wasn't hysterical, I just was frightened of all these kids that I didn't know. Well, after a while of watching all these kids doing fun things, and getting bored with the table, I finally got out and joined them.
During adolescence, I used this memory as an excuse for being shy and not interacting very often with people who weren't related to me. It didn't help that I wasn't so great with social skills because, while I'm fantastic one-on-one with people, group conversation didn't come naturally to me. When I first started going to youth group (I'd just turned twelve), I would either say too little or say too much, because I didn't know how to keep a balance. My mom ended up teaching me how a good conversation is structured when she noticed I was having this problem, which is something I'm very thankful for.
What also didn't help was that I moved back to Alberta just before I turned thirteen, after living in Alabama for three years. Not only that, I'd been homeschooled those three years so that I didn't fall behind the Alberta curriculum, which meant that I went from interacting mostly with people who weren't my age to interacting with people who were all my age. I felt like a social retard because I didn't know how their rules worked, so I didn't say very much and didn't really take any risks when making friends, which ended up with everyone thinking that I liked being alone versus being with people, and so my friends for all of junior high were other people who also didn't have any friends.
At the beginning of high school, I didn't have any friends because all my friends from junior high left, mostly because they had more friends at another school. In other words, I was going to have to make new friends, and the easiest way to do that was to snatch up new people, because they wouldn't be assuming I preferred being alone. That was hard, but I did it because I knew that the only other option was being entirely friendless for the rest of the year, and I couldn't bear the thought of that happening. It also turns out that one of the two friends I made then is still my friend, and I have to return a movie to her at some point in the near future. Gotta remember that.*
But making friends or starting conversations out of desperation kind of sucks. It works, and gives some level of comfort, but it never ends up feeling satisfying, because I would still always feel like people didn't like me.
One day, I was sitting in the hall by myself during what was pretty much a spare (long story), thinking about how so few people liked me, and a couple girls from my choir class walked by. We said hi to each other, and they went off to wherever they were headed. They seemed happy to see me, but my negative self-talk took their eventual leaving as a sign that they didn't really like me, and the monologue kept going in my head.
At that point, God spoke to me, and he said: "Write down a list of everyone who is at least friendly with you. They don't have to be your friends. They just have to seem happy to see you when you're around, like saying hi to you, or smiling when you say something that people generally smile at if they think of the speaker in even just a positively inclined manner." Eager to prove wrong his implication that there would actually be a list, I started writing, using exactly that criteria.
After about fifteen names and plenty more in my head, I gave up and had to conclude that people actually liked me.
And that's when I got brave about approaching new people. When I realized that people actually liked me because, if they really do like me, then I must be likeable. And, if I'm likeable, then I can be fairly certain that people who don't know me yet will like me, just because that's who I am.
I still have to be careful to keep a good balance in a group conversation, I can't do small talk to save my life (neither can anyone in my immediate family, which makes it awkward when visiting my extended family on my dad's side -all they do is small talk... and they seem to enjoy it. It is both repulsive and fascinating, like watching a brightly coloured slug slime its way across a cabbage leaf), and I can get overwhelmed and drained if I meet too many people at once or hang out with people all day, but now I can handle new social situations with an ease that my less-than-four-year-old self would have envied, and my adolescent self would never have believed that I could achieve.
This isn't to say that I'm never uncomfortable or scared in a new social situation. I'm just now very, very good at acting like I'm in a situation that I'm used to.
I've made friends with a bunch of people who claim that they're socially awkward, and I don't believe a word of it. They're always, without exception, fantastic conversationalists. So what if they don't fit into the average? They're quirky, opinionated, passionate, smart, have a great sense of humour -whatever their type of humour is- and are, all in all, utterly fabulous people. Every. Single. Time. I just thought I'd throw that out there.
*Said movie (La Femme Nikita) has been returned since I wrote this. It also happens to be awesome. I'm so glad I borrowed it. :D