We’re in the final stretch of the holiday season, and you’ve been invited to a thing.
Here’s the thing about things though. Things are often scary to go to, especially if you’re one of the 7% of Americans who are living with social anxiety.
For the socially anxious, the life-cycle of party participation goes something like this:
Invitation > Consideration > Trepidation > Participation > Self-condemnation
Someone who likes your company invites you to their party
You consider whether or not you’d like to attend. Maybe you decide to attend because you feel obligated, but more than likely, you actually want to go. You may be socially anxious, but in spite of your fear, you still crave the company of others. At least, that’s what my wife tells me I crave.
In the days and hours leading up to the thing that you were invited to, you ache with the anticipation that this will not be enjoyable, but painful. You ruminate on the given that you’re going to say the wrong thing, or you’re not going to say enough, or you’re going to say too much, etc…
The big day arrives. You go to the party. Everyone’s glad that you’re there. You make yourself sit through one of those games that puts the spotlight directly on you. You join a circle of people talking and make your contributions to the conversation, even when you don’t feel you have anything to offer.
You leave the thing and before you’re even in your car, you start tearing yourself down for things you said, didn’t say, or even for feeling anxious in the first place.
If you’re lucky that’s the entirety of the cycle. Sometimes you go to a thing and someone at the thing invites you to another thing. This is known as Social Anxiety Inception (Not really, but it should be).
So what are some things you can do to lessen the burden of the plague of parties in the holiday season. There’s a few things I’ve done myself, and recommend:
1. Don’t go
Your time is precious, and your ability to function at the basic level is paramount in your pursuit of healing (See Getting to Zero). I’ve coined a phrase I tell myself that’s helped to keep me from becoming a hermit, “Isolation is the enemy”, and it’s true. Living in isolation is often the worst thing you can do when you have a mental illness. That said, there’s a big difference between choosing to not live in isolation, and attending events just because you feel that you’re obligated to. Again, your time is precious, and you may choose to use it in the way that’s best for you and your health.
A little something extra from my wife’s therapist: Ask yourself, is this a “Yes” or a “Hell, Yes”? Save your energy for the latter.
2. Tell yourself how long you’ll be attending
One thing I’ll do when I’m feeling anxious about attending something is plan to go for a pre-determined minimum of time. Maybe it’s thirty minutes, maybe an hour. After that, if I’m feeling okay, I can choose to stay longer if I want to. I often find that I do.
3. Know that it’s okay to step outside for a few
Sometimes parties are a total sensory overload. You got a few dozen voices clamoring for attention, maybe there’s a bunch of kids running around, or the music is too loud. It’s okay to step outside for a minute, or ten, or thirty, and re-center. It’s likely that the other sensory-overloaded people won’t notice you’ve stepped away, and if they do, don’t be ashamed to say you just needed a moment, or a lot of moments, of quiet.
If you feel like this could be awkward for your host, that’s okay. If you feel comfortable, talk to them before hand. “Hey, sometimes I can get a little overwhelmed at things like this. If I step outside, I want you to know it’s okay.”
4. Remind yourself that other people are thinking about themselves.
Most people don’t go to parties with the intent of judging others. (If they do, what the heck? Who hurt them????) More than likely, to varying degrees, they’re also feeling a little anxious. That’s part of the problem with social gatherings, they cause soul-crushing introspection. So try giving yourself this responsibility at the next shin-dig: Don’t be concerned about whether you’re the most interesting person in the room. Concern yourself with finding out what makes the other people in the room so interesting. You’ll find a bit of the weight lifted.
Lastly, I want to leave you with this. It’s okay to feel anxious about attending social events. In fact, it’s very, very human. Something that most of us share, but some just experience to a greater degree. You don’t have to love it. You don’t even have to go. The important thing is that you don’t waste your time beating yourself up about it, because it’s a waste of time, and like I said, your time is precious.