Behavioral Psychology

Closed For Business

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I was at a restaurant and a friend wanted to hear my psychological take on another patron. It was a Saturday night and she was there by herself. She had brought a laptop and studied it assiduously as commotion and talking went on around her. She had chosen to sit in a position where she could not see much of the restaurant but people could see her. Her body language was closed off with hunched shoulders, arms crossed most of the time, and head down.

Here we have a behavioral sketch, and obviously without more information, including an exhaustive interview to start to determine underlying motivation, analysis is pointless. For this conversation therefore we will fill in the back story ourselves and assume that she is lonely and does not feel connected. We can imagine her sitting at home, pensive, trying to decide if going through the motions of going out is worth it. She doesn’t really know anyone in the city and has no close friends. She’s desperate to make some meaningful connections to improve the quality of her life but doesn’t really know how. This is a common problem in our individualistic, competitive culture.

Obviously she might have been there for any number of reasons. Maybe she was on a work deadline, didn’t have any food at home, and wanted to accomplish two tasks at the same time. For this psychological analysis let’s assume that she is desperately lonely and was at the restaurant to be surrounded by people and, in the best of circumstances, to make a connection with someone.

There are a few pertinent roads to take with her in a therapeutic setting. The first is to be genuinely and actively congratulatory for taking the vital step of getting out of the house. This is a big deal all by itself. Many people have been surrounded by family or close friends all their lives and feel safely insulated. Others are outgoing and gregarious. They have no problems meeting people wherever they go. But if you have ever felt truly alone in a place where you didn’t want to remain that way, you have also felt the anxiety that goes along with moving outside of your comfort zone to try to make a connection.

Regardless of how her night on the town actually played out, her behavior is trending in the direction of taking risks, moving beyond herself, and interacting with the world in order to make connections and increase well-being. Whether you are a counselor helping a person who feels lonely or are yourself a person trying to get outside of your bubble, it’s important and healthy to take the time to honor this life-affirming choice. It occurs at a core existential level and predicts increasing levels of happiness if you can capitalize on it.

Talking or thinking about ways to improve upon this initial desire and choice for connection is much less painful when we are genuinely proud of the accomplishment in the first place. She is likely to feel less defensive, to take the conversation seriously without discounting it, and to try putting some of the ideas we come up with into practice. Perception changes when we are trying to improve upon something we already like instead of change something that we don’t like.

Probably the single biggest thing to note psychologically in the case of the girl at the restaurant is that body language often connotes an internal state of being. What you are feeling on the inside is communicated on the outside. For example, when you are sad you might slump your shoulders, when you are proud you might puff out your chest, when you are mad your eyes might narrow and your jaw might clench. Sometimes by changing our external body posture we can affect an internal change also. If you want to feel open, one way to accomplish it is to act open.

There are countless routes in therapy to raise awareness and move towards more fulfilling levels of connection. One that I would suggest to her is to go to a bar or restaurant by herself again, but this time not bring a computer or other device. These days our handheld computers perform the psychological function of reducing anxiety by letting us avoid our surroundings and act like there is something more important on the screen. Then we would talk about positioning herself in a way that makes her body language open. She would face the restaurant and people in it instead of turn away from it. She would not cross her arms, not hunch her shoulders, and keep her head up. She would look around the room, making eye contact with people who look at her, smiling if she wants to.

Doing all of this is no small feat, and the expectation does not have to be to make a new friend or connection. Instead it’s a way to move one step closer to feeling plugged in by testing your internal and external states of being. How do you feel when you present yourself to the world in a more open way? Open body language serves the dual function of changing your internal state like we talked about, and making you seem more approachable to others. You are more likely to walk through an open door than you are to test a door that looks closed and forbidding.

No one deserves to feel isolated, outcast, or alone and there are infinite ways to increase connection in your life. The behavioral route we have talked about here is a small but important part of the whole picture. The experiment of changing body posture makes you analyze your regular body posture and to start to raise your awareness about how it’s related to your internal state. If you don’t feel open, act like you’re open, and see how it changes your day.