Smile First, Ask Questions Later: Beat the Social Isolation Schema

The Social Isolation Schema

Maurice was lonely and angry. “No matter where I go, I’m on the outer of groups. People can just sense that I’m a weirdo, a loner”. He had reached the point of exasperation. “I just can’t be bothered with socialising. Most people are just small-minded, small-talking, dimwits!”

Some people, like Maurice, have had significant childhood experiences of exclusion from their peers. Maurice was shunned in primary school. His parents were in active addiction to drugs for much of his youth and the parents of his classmates were reluctant to arrange playdates with him. He developed a Social Isolation / Alienation Schema.

The Social Isolation / Alienation Schema is a pervasive sense of difference from others socially. Anyone can be an outsider from time to time. People with this Schema will find themselves feeling the outsider no matter where they go.

Loneliness is one of the main consequences of this schema. Maurice had friends, but he could only get along with others individually, not as part of a group. Because he avoided social gatherings, over time he lost many friends.

An inability to play interpersonal politics is another consequence. Maurice often coped with the anxiety he felt in groups by acting aloof or superior. This further alienated him.

A key part of overcoming this schema (and overcoming the social anxiety that so often co-occurs with it) is to engage with social groups. Joining clubs or Meet-Up Groups. Work social events. Basically, having an approach strategy toward socialising, not an avoidance strategy.

Approaching social situations can be hard for SIA people. Within a social group, these people already feel on the defensive. The early life schema wound is easily and immediately triggered. How should we approach social situations if this occurs?

Smile First, Ask Questions Later

Most people are mostly friendly.

One of the most important things to understand about people is that they don’t want to make enemies, they want friends. Even people that seem scary are social – they have a desire to gather in groups of friends. No matter how tough you are, it would be too stressful to be surrounded by strangers and enemies every day.

People have friendly sides and unfriendly sides. People who are sweet and gentle with their friends one moment can be vicious toward someone they perceive to be an enemy the next. Most people want to have friends, but they all have defences when they feel threatened.

So how do you ensure that you meet a person’s friendly side and not their defensive side? By smiling first and asking questions later.

What does smile first mean? It means that you always start with a new person by acting in a friendly manner. This could mean actually smiling at people in a social setting, but it also means more:

  • Making eye contact.
  • Talk in a clear, loud voice. If people have trouble understanding you, they are less likely to like you.
  • Using the person’s first name. We all love the sound of our names being said.
  • Talking about a shared interest, shared joke or shared friend.
  • Asking for help and offering help too.

What ask questions later mean is:

  • Point out differences between you and the other person.
  • Talk about difficult or controversial issues.
  • Using teasing humour towards the person.

Maurice used the approach strategy: smiling first. It was tiring initially. The hardest part was overcoming the negative self-talk. However, he found that he could make connections in social settings. “I can see that I used to be too standoffish, too guarded”. Maurice learnt that he wasn’t so socially unacceptable after all.

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