Shake It Off: Autistic Traits

As some of you may already know, despite no formal diagnosis, I fully believe that I have “high-functioning” autism. Although this self-diagnosis has given me great comfort, I’m very careful about who I talk about it with. A lot of people don’t believe me and respond with a surprised look. I don’t blame them, before I looked into it, I wouldn’t have believed me either. The way autism is portrayed in the media isn’t the way mine looks. I am able to blend into society quite well. I’m like a duck, gracefully gliding along the water. No one can see how hard I’m actually working just below the surface.

I don’t necessarily want to talk about my autism today. I want to talk about the way I view autism in general. I’m not quite sure how the autistic spectrum was determined. The two ends of it appear as totally different disorders in my opinion. How not being able to speak or live on your own and having trouble understanding social cues can be classified as the same disorder never ceases to amaze me. It made more sense to me when high-function autism was called Asperger’s. Anyway, when I refer to “autism” from here on out, know that I am speaking mainly about high-functioning autism.

I guess I’m biased, but to me, a lot of the symptoms of autism seem to be more natural than “normal” behavior. For instance, I’ve always thought it strange that human beings are expected to make eye contact with one another. In the rest of the animal kingdom, direct eye contact is a threat, a sign of aggression. I don’t blame myself for getting anxious and having to make a concerted effort to look someone in the eye when talking to them. The rest of the natural world seems to agree with me that this is not a great idea.

Another common trait of autism is not quite understanding or falling in line with social customs. However, most of these things have been arbitrarily created throughout the centuries. It seems more bizarre to me that most people appear to have inherent knowledge about these rules of etiquette. How should one be expected to know, understand, and accept things that continue to change throughout history and geography? Perhaps autism wasn’t discovered until recent times because in the past there actually were things like cotillion and other ways in which people were formally educated on how to properly behave in society.

The final autistic trait I’d like to comment on is often referred to as “stimming.” This is when a person does some form of repetitive motion in response to strong emotion, either positive or negative. One of the more common forms of stimming is hand flapping. This is one of the key factors that causes me to believe I am on the spectrum. I have had the urge to do this for as long as I can remember. I remember my mother advising me not to do it and my sister teasing me about it as a young child. Since then, I’ve learned to control this behavior in front of others. However, I still have the strong urge to move or flap my hands after a stressful or exciting event. As a teenager, while sitting on the classroom floor, my friends asked me why I was always rocking side to side while we did so. This was another form of stimming that I hadn’t even realized I was doing!

Even more so than the other things I’ve mentioned, I think stimming is actually a natural, beneficial behavior. I hadn’t realized it until hearing it discussed on a podcast the other day, but animals will often be seen doing something similar. It’s quite normal to see a dog shake their whole body after something stressful or exciting happens. I have seen many different species of animals doing something like this. It is a way to discharge excess energy or stress, a way to quite literally “shake it off.” It even makes me wonder where that expression originally came from. Perhaps I wouldn’t be such a tightly wound, anxious individual if I hadn’t been discouraged from doing this self-soothing behavior by society.

I’ve started to see my autism as something to be embraced, rather than just something that sets me apart from most of the people around me. It makes me feel more in tune with the natural world and other animals. To me, society is what’s strange, not my behavior. I’m simply doing my best to assimilate into this painfully artificial world human beings have created. From now on I am not going to stifle myself. When I have that overwhelming urge to shake, I’m going to shake without shame. I’d much rather fit in with the rest of the animals than humans anyway.

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People Pleasing

Stop People Pleasing! A People Pleaser Self-Love Intervention

Whether I like someone or not, it’s really important that they like me. I have an overwhelming desire to be liked by anyone and everyone I encounter. Even if I hate someone, I will be devastated if they hate me back. I really have no idea why I care. For the most part, I don’t like people anyway. Why does it matter so much to me whether or not I’m liked? Perhaps it has something to do with anxiety and my fear of confrontation. It does seem safer to be friends with everyone in that regard.

Today I’d rather talk about the problem with people pleasing in general rather than my own pathology. People pleasers like me try to become whoever they believe the other person would like them to be. Sounds simple enough. But how can any of us really know what someone else wants? We may spend years cramming ourselves into a false persona when the person we are doing it for would have preferred who we really are. Or maybe they secretly find us extremely annoying, but mask their true feelings out of politeness. No matter how hard you try or how “good” you become at winning people over, you can never really be sure of what someone else wants. Knowing this, your best bet is always to just be yourself. You’ll never be able to make everyone happy. But if you remain true to who you are, at the end of the day you’ll at least have your integrity.

Otherwise what happens when you are in a room full of people? Whose needs do you cater to? You may find that the person you are with friend X is someone that friend Y would utterly despise. Then what are you supposed to do? I suppose in that situation I choose the persona that fits more closely with who I really am. Any backlash from the other party is buffered by knowing that I have the friend I prefer there to have my back. Yet you always run the risk of being found out as “fake.”

That term always interests me. What does it really mean to be fake? I always hold true to my main beliefs no matter who I’m talking to. We all have slightly different versions of ourselves that we present for different situations or occasions. At what point does it become fake though? We all have to be a little fake in order to conform to societies standards.

The biggest issue my people pleasing has caused me is when it comes to my work. Social work is not a great field for people pleasers like me. No matter how atrocious the parents or clients I deal with are, I desperately want them to like me. I once brought cigarettes to an old man I worked with while he was in the hospital, because I was afraid he’d be mad at me if I didn’t. I really struggled the other day not to agree with this mom who was outraged that she got in legal trouble for giving her 10 year old daughter a tattoo! These types of situations are incredibly hard for me to navigate.

As someone who is probably on the autistic spectrum, I learn most of my interpersonal skills from direct observation. I think the only reason I’m as good at blending in as I am is because I watched so much TV growing up. It may not be the best reference for real life situations, but it does give you a good idea of how to talk to people in a wide variety of scenarios. I am always eager to observe someone else in a situation that I would have no idea how to respond to. Luckily I’ve gotten the chance to watch our therapist at the office for the last few years and learn from her. I would love to be a fly on the wall of her therapy sessions and meetings with the parents so that I could absorb even more.

At the end of the day, however, no one is going to be liked by everyone. No matter how good of a communicator you are. Eventually we all have to accept that we just aren’t going to get along with some people. Rather than continuing to practice the best ways to be liked and accepted by others, I’d like to spend some time finding out how to like and accept myself. Maybe ultimately that is what makes a people pleaser, someone who needs external reassurance in order to feel okay with themselves. Unfortunately any positive feedback rings hollow when you’re simply playing a role.

About people-pleasers and how to stop being one – Miss Lovage

Loving & Letting Go

What is grief, but love persevering.

Unknown

I’m still working my way through Les Miserables. As I near the end, I feel confident in saying it has become my new favorite book. I am going to be very sad once I’ve finished it. There are so many beautifully worded commentaries on the human condition. Things we all know well, but put in a way that reminds us of the mystery and beauty of being alive in this world. The last thing I read that really struck me was about love.

I believe it was called the great paradox of human existence or something to that effect. It has the potential to save, to transcend, while equally having the power to destroy and condemn. What a cruel world where we must have the very thing that may ruin us. There are so many contradictions in this life. Our challenge seems to be to let our love be stronger than our fear. A difficult task.

I am constantly being confronted with things that confound my black and white thinking mind. How am I to devote myself whole heartedly to a love that I can’t be sure of? How am I to hold onto this love inside while also letting go of the pain? It seems like I used to feel everything all at once, so sharply, and now I feel nothing at all most days. Neither is ideal. But I don’t know how to negotiate a happy middle ground.

I read something the other day about it being possible to still love someone, but to also let them go. For me this feels impossible. Which is what leaves me in a difficult position. I desperately want to keep my happy memories and the love I have in my heart. But I also want to be able to let go and move on. How do I do both? If I focus on letting go, my heart closes. I feel hatred and betrayal and disgust. If I try to push these feelings aside and recall more tender emotions on the subject, it once again becomes too painful to let go. I feel myself clinging desperately onto some chance of reconciliation.

It’s always been much easier for me to forget someone if I have a reason to hate them. However, this hatred tends to also taint all of the nice memories I’ve made with them. Is it really possible to have both? To cherish the memories while also accepting there will be no more? Maybe it is something that I’ll be able to master someday with more practice. Maybe it just gets easier with time.

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Amped Up By Good Energy

The other day at work I had the pleasure of meeting a very lovely, interesting, intelligent young girl. As you may already know, I work at a child advocacy center. At centers like ours children come to disclose physical, sexual, or other types of abuse. After their interview, I spend time with the child in the waiting room while my team members talk with the parents. Even though normally this is one of the highlights of my job, I still get very anxious about being left alone with anyone, let alone a child. I consider myself to be a very awkward person and am not very good at making small talk with the teenagers. It’s usually easier for me when it’s a toddler or a child that just wants to play while we wait.

Some days end up being extra special though. There are certain older kids that I have an immediate connection with. We seem to have a lot in common and find a lot of interesting things to talk about. This is always an extremely pleasant experience for me. I am so grateful for the opportunity to meet so many awesome kids and have a positive impact on their lives.

The only problem is I’ve noticed that even excited energy is very similar to being anxious to me. Even though I was really enjoying my conversation with this girl, I still felt somewhat panicked. I felt the urge to run, to escape. I found myself hoping that my coworkers would hurry up so that this girl could go home sooner. I’ve noticed feeling this way when I’m happy and excited many times before, but I have absolutely no idea what I can do about it. I feel compelled to avoid not only negative situations that make me anxious, but positive ones that excite me too much as well.

Even after the family had left, I found myself overwhelmed with excited energy. As a child I used to shake or flap my hands/ arms when I was really happy. When I’m alone, I still can’t resist the urge to flail my hands rapidly at my sides in an attempt to disperse or use up some of this energy that has no where to go. I know this is often something people on the autistic spectrum do, which is one of the many reasons I think I’m autistic. I would love to talk to a specialist or another person on the spectrum to see if they are doing these types of actions for similar reasons. Maybe I’ll look into finding some books about autism from people that live with it themselves. I’m sure there are plenty interesting books like that out there.

Physiologically I think that anxiousness and excitement are pretty similar. This may be the reason that sometimes my mind can struggle to differentiate between the two. Whatever the reason though, I want to find a way to manage this phenomenon. Strangely it doesn’t seem to have the same effect if I am excited about a solitary activity. It is only social excitement that tends me make me feel panicked. Perhaps I am just afraid of embarrassing myself or worried that I’ll somehow mess things up and lose this person’s approval. Maybe it’s just scary to feel seen by someone. Or perhaps it’s that unconscious belief that I am unworthy of positive attention, that by making this person like me I have somehow tricked them into believing I’m someone I’m not, that if I accidentally reveal my true self they will be angry or upset.

I’m probably just thinking too much into things again. In the end, the real problem is not the feeling, it’s my concern and distressed reaction to the feeling. I just need to reassure myself that I am worthy of positive attention and friendship. It is normal for someone to like me and for me to like them. And if for some reason they should change how they feel towards me, well that’s okay too. Maybe my mantra for today will be: It’s okay to feel excited.

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Shades of Grey

It’s getting to the point where I’ve written every day for so many days that I can’t remember if I’ve talked about something before or not. However, I don’t really care enough to sift through all of my old posts to find out. So if I have started to repeat myself occasionally, I apologize. That being said, I’ve been thinking a lot about that black and white thinking I know I’ve mentioned before. This is a quality of mine that has in some ways been instrumental in determining my path in life. I’m not sure that I would have become a vegan or have the courage to stand up for what I believe in with as much passion as I do now without seeing the world primarily in black and white.

Some things are wrong. Some things are right. Some things are good. Some things are bad. This narrow frame of view is somewhat childish. Most people come to understand that very few things in this world actually fit into those parameters. The majority of life falls into that broad area in between, that grey area. While intellectually I recognize this, I still can’t help but reflexively place things into my black and white boxes. It is as if my mind doesn’t have a space for the many shades of grey. Rather than letting anything rest there, I feel many things, people, and actions constantly oscillate back and forth between good and bad, right and wrong. Which, as you can probably imagine, is quite mentally exhausting and emotionally confusing.

It has always been hard for me to reconcile the different aspects of people into a cohesive whole, a realistic image of a person in my mind. Instead I find myself idolizing someone one moment, then condemning them the next. This, understandably, makes all of my relationships quite difficult. I may feel undying love and admiration for someone, placing them up on an impossible pedestal, then feel utterly tricked and betrayed when they don’t live up to that unrealistic image. And even though I recognize this, I can’t seem to help it.

Even my self-image suffers from these extremes of perception. However, usually when it comes to myself I remain pretty consistently in the “bad,” “not good enough,” “broken” box. I focus on my faults and flaws while dismissing or diminishing anything positive about myself. Lately, I’ve even been feeling guilty about my posts on this blog. I feel like I’ve been playing a dastardly trick on everyone who follows me. I want to write about love and gratitude and yoga and self-improvement, but every time I do, I feel like a phony. “I’m not good enough to speak on these things,” I tell myself. I feel like a hypocrite for the things I write because I, myself, can’t embody those ideals fully in every moment. I’m not entirely perfect, therefore I must be utterly terrible.

Even though I know it’s ridiculous, it’s the way I feel most of the time. I feel like I am missing out on so much in life by being unable to accept all the shades of grey for what they are. Instead I find myself keeping a mental tally. If someone or something has more “bad” qualities than “good”, into the “bad” box it goes and vice versa. Anything close to true neutral flip-flops between the two endlessly rather than being allowed to remain in the middle.

As I’ve gotten older it’s become easier to recognize, but no easier to adjust. I know that this is possibly a symptom of an autistic brain, but I wonder if there is anything I can do to create space in my mind for the grey areas. Am I truly incapable of this type of comprehension? Perhaps there are some types of exercises or therapy that would help with this issue. In the meantime I guess I’ll just have to keep reminding myself that good people can do bad things. Bad people can do good things. No one is truly “good” or “bad” at all. Including me. We are all just doing the best that we can. And we are all constantly changing. I don’t need to label everyone and everything, I just need to allow them to be what they are. Even if that happens to be something I don’t fully understand.

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Social Awareness about Mental Illness

As you grow older it is interesting to watch the world change around you. The social climate is so vastly different than it was when I was a little girl. It is refreshing to see that a lot of the things that used to be controversial or taboo are now commonplace and widely accepted in the majority of society. Even though I have always been a liberal and progressive person, even I have come a long way in my ideas and beliefs.

One of the areas where progress has been made in regards to visibility and social acceptance/understanding is in the field of psychology, particularly when it comes to mental illness. When I was an anxious, socially awkward, probably autistic little girl, there wasn’t much support out there for me or my family. No one seemed to understand what was wrong with me or my sister. My mother, who is also likely on the spectrum and who has been shy and anxious all her life, was forced to accept these issues with no explanation or even understanding from her peers or colleagues. She has lived the majority of her life simply believing she was strange and that was that.

Thankfully, as I’ve grown up, there has been a major shift in social awareness and understanding of mental illness. From a very early age, I came to understand that I had an anxiety disorder. Even though knowing that didn’t fix the problems I faced because of it, there is something very comforting in at least having an explanation. It has also been a great help knowing that other people around me understand anxiety disorders and what it means to have one. In the past, I’m sure you were just considered rude for not always making eye contact or smiling and greeting others on the street. I doubt it was given much more thought than that. This perception, I’m sure, caused a lot of people that were already struggling socially to be even further ostracized by their communities. Now I am easily able to explain my odd behaviors to others and, more often than not, receive compassion and understanding in return. Strange habits and behaviors can now be discussed openly, with far less fear of judgement.

As with most things though, there is a potential negative to this social progress. The other day, a thought occurred to me after explaining to a new friend why I am so inconsistent with my texts (sometimes I’ll reply right away, other times I’ll be MIA for hours or even days.) In some ways, knowing that other people will understand and be accepting of these social issues enables me to continue engaging in otherwise frowned upon behavior. I started to wonder if being enabled to continue these behaviors in this way actually serves to exacerbate the problem.

In the past, a lot of people like me just had to “suck it up” and make phone calls, keep appointments, and participate in other common social interactions. There was no excusing yourself from normal expectations by saying, “I’m sorry, I’m just too anxious.” And while I’m sure it was often unpleasant, it may have actually been therapeutic in some ways to be forced to face your anxiety regularly in these ways, instead of being able to so easily avoid any situation that makes you uncomfortable. With so much social and technological progress, isolating oneself has never been more simple. Perhaps this is partially why despite significantly improved living conditions in a lot of the world, rates of mental illness continue to rise.

I am very grateful that more and more people are becoming educated in regards to mental illness and psychology in general. I’m sure overall it is extremely positive. With more knowledge and less stigma, people will more easily be able to reach out for treatment and support. The more we learn about these disorders will also lead to more effective forms of treatment as well. Yet it is still important to consider the possible drawbacks of this crucial shift in global consciousness. I would be very interested to see what solutions we will come up with to address this issue and when we will somehow draw a line between acceptance/understanding and enabling.

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Sexuality on the Spectrum

Today I wanted to somewhat build off of what I wrote about yesterday which was emotional intelligence. I feel as though my deficit in that area contributes a lot to my increasing uncertainty when it comes to sexuality. There are a lot of peculiarities when it comes to my sexuality and sexual expression that leave me wondering where I fit in. What labels would even suit me? Do I even need any? The ever-evolving sexual nature of our society has left me more confused than ever. In addition to that, though undiagnosed, I also think I struggle in part due to autism and general lack of understanding when it comes to relationships and social situations.

When it comes right down to it, I think the biggest problem is that I don’t seem to know myself very well. Especially when it comes to sex, romance, and where the line is in between the two. I never thought much about it when I was younger. But as I’ve gotten older and explored my sexuality more things have become murky. The libido inhibiting effects of taking an SSRI certainly haven’t helped.

So here’s where I am currently. I am pansexual. I am attracted to who a person is rather than their gender or gender expression. I would also, in the same light, consider myself demi-sexual. I am not sexually interested in anyone until I have a romantic attraction toward them. These are the only two labels I feel comfortable with at the moment. And hardly anyone in my personal life even knows I identify this way. It isn’t that I’m hiding it. I just don’t feel it would be appropriate to make a big announcement or anything.

Here is where I’m stuck though. I have been taking Paxil for so long, I don’t know if this is even an accurate reflection of how I truly feel or if it is in large part due to my now practically non-existent libido. It is kind of difficult to tell who you’re attracted to when you’ve been single for years and rarely ever feel any sexual attraction anymore in general.

I have even been contemplating the idea that I may be asexual. After reading more about this orientation, it might fit me. Apparently there are asexual people who do have sex with their partners, but it is more to please their partner than it is to please themselves. This seems to fit me pretty well. Despite going months or even years without sex, I never really think about it or miss it. If it were up to me to initiate, I doubt I’d ever have sex. But I am happy to have sex for my partner’s sake. And I am certainly capable of enjoying it, especially if I have a deep loving bond with that partner.

However, I am hesitant to identify as asexual. Because once again I don’t know if this is true or a side effect of my medication. Or if that distinction even really matters at this point. I am also afraid of the sigma that may come along with that label.

Tying in my last two posts about internalized sexism and emotional intelligence, this is a huge fear for me. Part of me thinks no one would ever pay me any attention if they knew I felt this way sexually. Seems like it could be a huge turn-off to a lot of people. That’s the sexism part, as if I am only worth anything as a human being if I can also be pictured as a sex object. The other side of that coin is my low emotional intelligence.

It is hard for me to really understand my own feelings and reasons for having sex. Have I ever truly wanted the sex? Or have I just wanted to feel desired, loved, accepted, admired? Perhaps it could be both, but I know I’ve definitely had sex for the latter reasons.

I may never have thought about these things in the initial phases of my sexual experience because for the first few years of it I was in a relationship with someone I dearly, dearly loved. Yet I also was not taking Paxil. So I was very interested in having sex with that person. But was it because I loved them, wanted them to show love for me, or because I actually had a libido back then? Are you starting to see why I’m hopelessly confused?

As for now, I am a pan and demi-sexual. Although I am warming up to the idea of identifying as asexual as well. Not that any of these labels really matter. I don’t think I’ll be publicly proclaiming them anytime soon. I’d just really like to understand myself better. Otherwise, how can I even hope to be understood by another?

Emotional Intelligence

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I have always considered myself a highly intelligent person. It is one of the only things that I am proud of. I can feel extremely threatened when this aspect of myself is called into question. Until very recently in life however, I didn’t consider that there are different types of intelligence.

I have a friend whom I believe to be very smart. Yet she never did well in school, and there are some things she’s done or said that normally I would consider quite dumb or foolish. Eventually I realized that while this friend may not be “book smart” she has a high level of emotional intelligence. This explanation satisfied me, and I didn’t think much more about it until years after this realization.

When I ask myself the question “Do I have a high emotional intelligence,” the answer is a resounding “no.” The answer isn’t surprising to me as I’ve never been very good with people or handling my own emotions. I was surprised, however, that I’d never even thought to ask myself the question before.

I was thinking about this deficit a lot today. So I decided to take an emotional intelligence test on Psychology Today’s website. Even as I was going through the questions, I could tell I was not doing very well. My result at the end was only 57 out of 100. A grade I never would have received in school. Unfortunately you had to pay to learn anymore details. But it was enough to confirm my suspicions about myself.

In my opinion, this is yet another piece of evidence that I am on the autistic spectrum. It is hard for me to admit to myself that I have this huge lack of knowledge and understanding. I cannot believe I have gone my entire life without realizing this. Not only that, but I have no idea what I can really do about it. Perhaps this is something a therapist would be able to help me work on somehow.

I suppose at least now I know and can take this into consideration as I go about my life. As someone who has been called a “know-it-all,” on more than one occasion, it is quite humbling to discover this handicap. I hope that in the future I will be able to improve in this area.

Questions

One of the reasons I suspect I may be on the autistic spectrum is my inability to comprehend and/or engage in small talk. Ever since I was a child, it has always seemed boring and nonsensical to me. I didn’t (and still don’t) get the point of saying: “How are you?” “I’m fine.” “Nice weather, today!” Or just asking random, vanilla questions for seemingly no other purpose than to fill silences. I do hate awkward silences, but I seem incapable of generating these space fillers that come so easily to most people.

Part of the reason it seems to be so difficult is because I am not really interested in having those types of conversations. I feel like I’m being phony. Asking people questions I don’t really care about the answers to. It’s like putting on a show. It’s a lot of work for me. It’s tiring. And maybe I sound cold. Do other people genuinely care about the answers to all those generic questions? I’ve just never had any interest in talking for the sake of talking. The silence is only awkward to me because I feel like other people are expecting me to talk. I supposed I quickly got tired of hearing people say “you’re so quiet!”

There are questions I’d like to ask people I don’t know yet. I realize that each of us has our own universe within our head. I am fascinated by the different things people think and their perspectives of the world. I like to know about people’s pasts too and how that has influenced who they became. The problem is, I don’t really know when the appropriate time is for learning those things about a person. I guess that stuff is usually divulged organically through other conversation. But often if I just wait for that to happen I find myself stuck in a limbo of surface level interactions.

I have a hard time remembering to ask questions, because the questions I’d like to ask are too random and possibly inappropriate, offensive, or insensitive. And as I’ve said I feel weird trying to make small talk. So instead I usually end up talking about myself a lot. Sometimes I wish other people would do this too. That way I could know what interests them, what is important to them, get a good idea of who they are. I always get along best with extroverted people that easily fall into talking about all sorts of topics and branching out from there. I’m absolutely hopeless at carrying on a conversation with someone who is quiet and reserved. It’s almost palpably painful for us both. I find myself wishing social etiquette would allow me to just remain silent. I guess that is rude though…

I want to make a list of some of the questions I’d really like to ask of people I don’t know yet. Maybe someone reading this could tell me if they’d be okay to ask or what context I could give them to make them okay. Here are just a few that come to mind:

  1. What is the last dream you can remember?
  2. What is your first memory?
  3. Do you believe in God?
    • Why or why not?
    • How has that impacted your life?
  4. Have you ever done any recreational drugs?
    • What have you tried?
    • What was your favorite and why?
    • Why did you try them initially?
  5. Are you afraid of dying?
  6. What was your childhood like?
    • What is one impactful moment from childhood you remember?
    • How do you think it’s affected you?
  7. How do you see yourself?
  8. How do you think other people see you?
  9. How would you like people to see you?
  10. What is something you’re passionate about?
  11. What was the most difficult time period in your life?
  12. What was the best time period in your life?

These are just the first questions that came to mind. Some seem more appropriate than others, but I wouldn’t know how to sprinkle any into conversation naturally. Maybe you could suggest some more interesting, yet normal questions to help me chat with a new person. Can any of you relate to this type of discomfort? How do you handle it? I’ve definitely gotten better at faking it with time and practice, but I still don’t think I’m a very good conversationalist. I’m not sure that’s really something you can learn.