Ask Jono: I Can't Talk To Guys I Like!
First of all, I totally appreciate your posts! They're really encouraging and can really cheer me up on days that I'm feeling a little down. Thank you for taking time out of your life to help all of us desperate Sparklers!
With that in mind, I'm hoping you'll take the time to help me out. I'm kind of stuck in a rut. You see, for the past couple of years I've had a lot of boys flirting with me, but for some odd reason I have the hardest time opening up to the one's that I'm interested in. Instead, I end up giving them the impression that I'm aloof, uninterested, and sometimes even a jerk. I've even had a guy say to me, "Poor [my name], wanted by everybody, but wants nobody," which is so far from the truth. It's like this: When I'm not interested in a boy who's talking with me (and since I'm a little dense I don't notice that they were actually flirting with me) I have no problem being smiley, giggly, and funny. Thus, I always end up having guys that I have absolutely no romantic interest in what-so-ever barking up my tree. Those relationships always end in me trying desperately to prove to them that I'm not interested in them and they should look somewhere else.
However, when I am interested in a boy, I've noticed that my brain turns to mush, my hormones kick in, and body involuntarily reacts to the huge amount of stress that I've just put it under. In a bad way. It's like I put up a defensive shield because I'm so terrified of the fact that someone I'm attracted to is even sniffing my tree (metaphorically speaking). I can't get words to come out of my mouth, and when they do, they're usually failed attempts to be funny that just make me sound like a jerk. I'm not normally like that. I have no clue why I have such a hard time treating them just like I treat my friends or like other guys that flirt and ask me out (that I'm not romantically interested in). I mean, really, I'm 18 and I've never been on a date with a guy that I've actually wanted to date.
To make matters worse, this school year a boy that I've had a crush on for forever has been giving me some signals that he's interested in me. He's really nice, considerate of others, and hilarious, so he's rather popular amongst girls. I'm very attracted to him, and I've noticed that lately he's been trying to find ways to shorten the distance between us whenever we're in the same room, and he tries to start conversations with me about my interests. He's even gotten a little physical at times. Although I'm not completely failing miserably compared to past attempts with boys, my defense system is still acting up and I feel like he gets the impression that I'm not that into him. I can never follow up on his attempts to keep the conversation going, and once a topic ends, there's always a kind of an awkward silence afterwards until either a teacher or a friend interrupts. I have no clue what to say to him--ever! Not to mention the fact that I've always been told my whole life that I'm a very shy and quiet person. In addition, I'm also afraid that I might just be misinterpreting signals since he also flirts with and dates a lot of girls.
Any suggestions on how to fix this situation would be totally appreciated!
First of all, you're probably not misinterpreting this guy's signals. Guys aren't subtle with their signals, like a catcher signalling what pitch to throw; guys are tactless, like a catcher who shouts "THROW THE BALL HERE, DUDE," and then adds "ALSO YOUR SISTER IS HOT, WHAT IS SHE UP TO LATER." Second, your problem is not weird. If the questions I get usually start with "There's this guy," they just as often continue "and every time I talk to him, the words that come out of my mouth sound like random Scrabble tiles." So you're not alone here.
Allow me to make some wild predictions: you're a bit of a perfectionist and you place a high value on being liked, you're a good listener, you're very empathetic, and (drumroll please) you were born in May or June. If I was right about any of those things, it's because shy people tend to crave personal control, tend to pay attention to a situation before inserting themselves (and thus develop empathy), and are more likely to be conceived in August or September (day length during pregnancy can potentially influence a child's temperament). If I was wrong about all of those things then I am taking my science and going home.
Either way, the gist of what's happening to you is that you're experiencing performance anxiety; there's a task you know how to do (saying words at boys), but when the stakes are high (you like the boys), you choke. This is partially due to your fight-or-flight response, which activates in the presence of stress. You're like "Oh dear, a cute boy!" and your brain is like "Here are some chemicals to help you fight a mastodon," and you're like "Thanks a lot, brain," and your brain is like "No problem." If, in the moment when you were failing to talk to a guy, you had to run away from a dinosaur, you would be much better at it than usual, but unfortunately this scenario rarely comes up.
Anyway, there's a lot of conflicting advice on how to deal with this problem. Some of it is so silly that I don't even know how to mock it—for example, talking out loud to your vagus nerve with encouragements like "We're in this together, vagus nerve!" (Seriously.) I suppose that if someone catches you talking to your nervous system, you will no longer have any reason to be shy, because the most embarrassing possible thing will already have happened, but here is some other, more sane advice.
1.) Prepare (but don't memorize)
This is common public speaking advice, and what you're doing is essentially public speaking, except that you have an audience of one and you would like to kiss his face. If you're prone to blanking out when you try to improvise, then don't improvise; have some other topics in mind before you talk to him. Ideally you should be able to segue to them naturally, instead of memorizing all the things you want to say and then repeating them like you are a conversation robot. ("Can you believe this weather we are having. Did you see that politics happened. Error. Topic not found.")
2.) Write about it
In one recent study, researchers gathered some students prone to test-taking anxiety and gave them all a math pre-test, then got them nervous about a second upcoming test (telling them that they would be videotaped and that their peers were counting on them). Half of the students were then given ten minutes to write about their test-taking worries. This group performed even better than they did on the pre-test, while the group didn't write anything performed worse. Even the act of writing down "ARGH, BOYS :(" on a piece of paper is more helpful than bottling up your worries and pretending they don't exist.
3.) Force yourself to interact
The most unfortunate part of this kind of anxiety is that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your brain is so fixated on how terribly you're going to screw up that you forget how sentences work, and you stand there like a sad mime, and the conversation goes terribly, and your brain is like "See, I told you." For some people, simply getting out and talking to guys who would normally make you nervous can help break this cycle, the same way that driving a car ceases to be scary after you'd done it dozens of times.
4.) Change your focus
As dumb as it is to imagine that you and your vagus nerve are teaming up to get you a date, it's still better than fixating on yourself and your failings the whole time. I often suggest being genuinely curious about the other person—instead of saying "How are you?" and thinking "Oh God, oh no, what do I say next, I wish I were extra dead," you should say "How are you?" and actually mean it as a sincere question. Concentrating on the other guy and caring about his answers makes you less stressed about yourself. But this is only my version of a broader tactic, which is focusing on anything else that isn't you (other people suggest visualizing the interaction going well or concentrating on the scenery around you to distract yourself). When self-consciousness is making you freeze up like this, the goal is to stop worrying about consequences, take the focus off yourself, and just go out there and say mouth words.