When You Need To Be Social But Have Anxiety
I got invited to parties on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday this last weekend.
I am not a party animal. I am your garden-variety introvert. And this is not a typical weekend for me. But it’s the end of summer. The start of my kids’ school year. And for some reason, a lot of people that I know have birthdays now.
So, three parties. Three nights in a row.
I do love to connect with people. One-on-one conversations. With individuals.
Parties. The thought of all those people. So many people. Looking at me. Judging me. Am I wearing the right thing? Am I sweating too much? Did I say something weird? Odds are, I did.
Anticipating those parties makes my heart race. It drags a blanket of dread over my head. Weighs me down and makes me want to lay in bed and watch mindless, numbing TV.
I have had anxiety most of my life. I have talked about it here and here. But that fear of being judged by other people is a specific subset of anxiety, called social anxiety.
The DSM-5 (the gold standard of medical diagnoses) describes social anxiety as:
A persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be embarrassing and humiliating.
There are times in life that we need to interact with other people. Work meetings and presentations. Job interviews. Performing and interacting with strangers is critical for many of us to get ahead.
But also, we need social interactions. Because humans, even introverts, are inherently social creatures.
A recent study by Debra Umberson and Jennifer Karas Montez (read the whole study here) states:
Solid scientific evidence shows that social relationships affect a range of health outcomes, including mental health, physical health, health habits, and mortality risk.
So, there are times when we need or want to to step into unknown social situations. To prove ourselves at work. To meet new friends or significant others. Individuals that we can connect with. Who will enrich our lives.
But we are terrified.
When I feel the buzz of anxiety around a social activity, here are 4 things that I do. Things that can help me clarify my thoughts and feelings. And make an intentional choice. To do the social activities that I want to do. That will enrich my life, even if I’m scared. And let go of the things that are not worth it.
Identify Physical Feelings
Anxiety almost always comes with strong physical symptoms. Sweating, heart racing, tension. Mine feels like a tightness in the chest. Unless I start hyperventilating. Then it feels like numbness in my fingers and often in my face, especially the tip of my nose. It is like an out of body experience.
So, the first thing I do when I am feeling anxiety is pinpoint the physical symptoms. Where am I feeling this?
The key here is to bring your brain back to your physical body. To take your mind away from the abstract, future-thinking anxiety. And remind you that nothing is happening right now.
For me, I usually feel the most anxiety in anticipation of the actual event. So, reminding myself of the physical present is a way to get out of my head. To redirect my attempt to predict an uncertain future. And back into the current moment.
Separate Other People’s Negative Thoughts From Your Own
Those of us with anxiety tend to catastrophize the thoughts of others. We believe that every thought that other people have about us is negative.
In reality, people are probably thinking about themselves. Worried about how we perceive them.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 15 million adults in the US have been diagnosed with social anxiety in the US.
I consider my social anxiety to be mild. I don’t have diagnosis. Even though I have suffered panic attacks related to social activities. So imagine how many people do actually experience some level of social anxiety. If 15 million people have sought and received a diagnosis?
My point is that a lot of us worry about the negative thoughts of others.
My belief is that we almost never know what others are thinking. But its much more likely people are thinking about themselves.
So while I am standing at a party worried that other people notice the beads of sweat on my upper lip. Its possible other people don’t notice my lip at all. They are too worried that I am looking at their mouth because they have something in their teeth.
And all the negative thoughts about me are coming from my own brain.
Remember Your Why
For some of us, we experience anxiety about almost any social interaction. No matter what the activity.
What helps me is to think through each individual social event in advance. What is the goal? Will doing the work presentation help get the promotion I want? Will going to the party give me an opportunity to meet people with similar interests?
For me, of the three parties for this weekend, I have a solid reason to attend two of them. One is at the Botanic Garden in our town. Close friends invited us. I love standing among the flowers on a warm summer night in August. So, a place and people with whom I want to be.
The second is an acquaintance’s birthday party. While I don’t know her as well, I do know two other people that will be there. And it will be at a new restaurant that I want to try.
When I weigh out the pros and cons of managing my anxiety versus these reasons. My “why” for both social events are, for me, good enough to at least get me out the door.
The third party is hosted by an acquaintance from my son’s school. A lovely invitation, but I don’t have a strong “why” that makes it worth managing my anxiety around. Especially knowing that I will be pushing myself this weekend. To attend the other two events. Which brings me to my last point.
Respect Your Own Boundaries
It takes a lot of mental energy to manage my anxiety about social interactions. And, I do consider myself an introvert. So being social drains my energy as well.
Because of that, I decided not to attend the party of my acquaintance from my son’s school. In the context of everything else this weekend. It seemed like I could give myself a break. And not push myself beyond my own capabilities.
I also do this when I am at the event itself.
Part of my anxiety stems from the fact that I am an extreme morning person. Which means that I am not a night person. I can handle an evening social event until about 9pm,. And then feel very self conscious about the fact that I am maxed out and desperate to leave.
But I realized that I was creating more anxiety for myself. I was anticipating the looks of judgement (“Wow, she’s not fun”).
Instead, I decided to respect my own boundaries. I try to go into events with an open mind. Be proud that I got myself there. Enjoy a conversation or two. Have a bite to eat or a glass of wine. And accept myself if I want to leave after that.
It’s possible that people are judging me. I have no way of knowing. But I am who I am. I need to accept that about myself. Staying late at a party to please other people is not going to achieve any of my own personal goals. And I have to accept that that is a valid enough reason.
Anxiety about social interactions is a tricky balance. We want to manage our anxious thoughts. And also respect our own motivations and boundaries. But we can each make incremental progress. If we are mindful, purposeful, and accepting of what we want and who we are.