Poker face

Somehow I developed a bad habit long ago: it became important to me to not let anyone know what was going on in my head. Too much risk of being laughed at or rejected, I think. And a general free-floating fear of What Might Happen, without any specific bad scenarios in mind. And a deep-seated gut feeling that it's important to maintain distance, not let anyone too close, the whole "I am a rock" thing.

(And that's one reason I like email and journaling; both provide ways for me to feel a little safer in saying what I'm thinking/feeling. Talking to people is hard, and scary; writing to people gives me just enough distance to take the edge of the scariness. I can certainly understand that for some people it gives too much distance, doesn't feel like human contact (and I certainly know that the lack of cues like tone can be a problem), but for me sometimes I need a little distance before I feel safe talking about what's important to me.)

So one unfortunate pattern I too often find myself in is sitting with a group of people, and seeing someone I particularly like (or am particularly interested in) arrive, and wanting them to come sit by me but not wanting anyone (including the person in question) to know that's what I want. And then if the person does come sit by me, I make the worse mistake of acting nonchalant, like I really don't care that they came to sit by me; I sometimes even act like I'm ignoring them, and talk to someone else. (This is especially true in a group where I'm uncomfortable with the rest of the group knowing I'm interested in the person.) Which sometimes leads to the person getting up and going elsewhere. Which makes me jealous and grumpy, and I start to kick myself mentally for taking too long to show interest.

(Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that sometimes when I don't pay attention to someone who's sat down near me, it's because I don't know them or don't feel like I have anything to talk with them about or am just feeling twitchy about social interaction. If I ignore someone, it doesn't necessarily mean I'm interested in them.)

I suspect that more than one person reading this will think they know exactly who and what I'm talking about, so I should note that I'm not talking about any one person; I do this unfortunately often. (I've probably done something similar with three or four different people in the past couple weeks.) For example, at Christmas dinner at the Evanses' last year, I managed to sit next to Lola, and then we spent most of the meal turned away from each other talking to the people on our other sides, even though I was acutely aware that she was sitting right there and I wasn't talking with her. Later, through judicious application of email and telephone, we worked it out. But that's not always feasible. And anyway, even when it does work out in the end, I get frustrated with myself for falling into the same old patterns that have been not serving me well for twenty years or so.

This may just be a subcategory of my general feeling that my social interaction patterns are, in too many ways, still stuck in middle school. Shyness around people I'm attracted to, distrust of popularity (and simultaneous desire for it), head games, cliques, wanting to please authority (and simultaneous distrust of it). I try hard to subvert those patterns, to notice when I'm engaging in them and stop myself and try to live up to my own expectation of maturity and adult approaches to things, but sometimes all the old insecurities and fears and unfortunate behaviors still bubble up with little provocation.

7 Responses to “Poker face”

  1. Jacob

    First of all, thanks for your honesty and vulnerability.

    I have struggled with a lot of the same stuff. Somewhere, when I was a kid, I developed this idea that if people knew what I thought/felt/wanted, they could “get at me” in some way. I can’t describe it any better than that (it’s not a rational feeling) but it would be Bad.

    For me, part of the result was that I also hid a lot of feelings from myself, or squashed them down as soon as they popped up. The result, unsurprisingly, was severe depression. For me, therapy/counseling was extremely helpful, at least with some therapists. Not with others.

    There was a period where my wife would suddenly ask me, at random intervals, “OK — what are you feeling right now?” And I would do a little self-inventory and discover hey, what do you know, I’m sad right now. Or angry. Or happy. Who knew. I’ve tried to make that kind of occasional inventory an automatic thing.

    This may not help you at all: it’s been huge for me to be married; to live so closely with someone and share so much with her that I really do feel like she knows all of the best and worst of my inner life. And nothing terrible happened. That’s been a very good lesson for me.

    It’s also sometimes helpful for me to see myself falling into a pattern like this, and deliberately do something wacky to shake completely free. Like, I find myself being distant from someone, so rather than try to break the pattern by being a bit more friendly, I shatter the pattern by jumping up and grabbing them and saying “let’s dance” (even though there’s no music) or some such.

    And of course you didn’t ask for advice. My main point: I’ve been there too.


  2. Dan P

    This may just be a subcategory of my general feeling that my social interaction patterns are, in too many ways, still stuck in middle school.

    I can sing along with *that* song. Thanks for writing this.

  3. Haddayr

    Thanks for writing this very honest post, even if it just blew your cover. 🙂

  4. Thida

    Your post really resonated with me. I played endless variations of “playing hard to get” based on fear and as you said, middle school behaviour. Of course this results in more romantic encounters if you’re a girl, because it’s culturally expected. And I do say girl and not woman. But as you know, I was unhappy with the people I ended up involved with. Once I started being more adult about romantic relationships, I got involved in relationships that were better for me.

    Fear of rejection is tough to deal with. It still holds me back in writing particularly submitting it for publication. I tell myself I have a lot to offer. If someone rejects me, I can always go elsewhere. And I’ll never know unless I take the risk. But the truth is at some point I just talk about it enough to myself and others so that not doing is embarassing. Then I do it despite my fear.

    At least romantically, it got easier every time. The fear was still there, but my confidence in my ability to handle it improved. I’m still working on my writing. My husband is very supportive.

    Well writing this helped me. I hope reading it helped you a little.


  5. Kendra

    I have no idea what you’re talking about. 🙂

    As I struggle to break this same habit in myself, I’m also working at remembering that other people do it, too — in particular, that someone who seems to be withdrawing or uninterested may simply be afraid of revealing his real feelings. It’s scary to respond to that poker face by becoming more expressive and vulnerable, but boy does it feel good when it works! Almost enough to make me keep doing it…

    This post reminds me all over again how great it was to get to spend so much time talking to you last week — thanks!

  6. Dave Schwartz

    This, of course, is the reason that we shy folks get labelled “snobby” by people who can’t relate. Growing up, my face was very much an open book, and I got ridiculed for it at times. I learned to mask my emotions much as you’ve described, and I do it unconsciously when I’m in most social situations. Case in point: I constantly berate myself after making eye contact with attractive women, “Dummy! You should have smiled.” A smile opens doors and invites interaction. But I’ve all but trained myself out of doing it.

  7. Lola

    For the record, at that Christmas dinner, I was also acutely aware of you sitting there next to me as I was busy talking to Pam on my other side. And what I most wanted was to just lean on you for a while, but I was afraid too. I feel pretty grateful and lucky that we both had just enough motivation to pursue a repeat interaction so that we could, in the end, work it out.

    I think that’s been the key for me in those kinds of situations, the repeat interaction. If I want badly enough to spend time with someone or get to know them better, and I’m too chicken to say something the first or second time, sometimes I will the third or fourth time. And of course, if I get any kind of positive response, my heart drops out of my throat, my blood pressure goes down, and I can be wonderfully charming. But man, the fear of the negative response is so friggin’ huge…. Therapy good, me agree.

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