So you’ve finally made it. You’re awkwardly standing amongst a room full of bubbly, loud individuals: standing beside a makeshift trestle-table bar are a group of women guzzling wine, underneath the disco ball centre-stage are a few fellas cackling with laughter after hearing another one of Barry's sexist jokes, and on a spare chair in the corner of the room sits that distant family friend of yours, Denise, chowing down on a tray of entrees which happen to be microwaved party pies (because in this bizarre party scenario the budget was very low – furniture from Bunnings, catering by Coles).
First of all, congrats on stepping out from the comforts of your home to attend this event – whomever it may be celebrating (God forbid it be sexist Barry).
Second of all, how are you coping right now? I can only imagine how uncomfortable you must be feeling, with all these people, all this terrible food, and all those hard-hitting questions coming from family members asking ‘where have you been all these years?’
The initial struggle for the socially anxious individual would not have begun as you stepped onto that carpeted dance floor, but rather in the comforts of your own home when Aunt Denise called to cordially invite you to the party. I imagine myself in this situation – sitting at my computer umming and ahing as to whether I should click ‘Attending’ on that Facebook invite – a ‘Maybe’ is always the best option here; that way I can ask my friends if they’ll be attending and then can consider making an appearance. I’d also be worried about what to wear, who to talk to if I were to go alone, what to talk about, perhaps I’d even Google the venue to locate the nearest exit in case things got a little uncomfortable, or maybe I’d glance at the guest list, see who exactly I’d be dealing with at this party.
It’s clear that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between introversion and social anxiety – most introverts I know can cope well in large social gatherings – but I, on the other hand, suffer from anxiety now and then, which seems to flare up when I'm in a room with more than four people. Let's face it, human beings are just awkward creatures in social situations: with their gangly limbs, nervous small talk, judgmental first impressions, never-ending silences, or knowing that at any moment you could mispronounce someone’s name which will forever haunt you in the years to come.
Over the years, I’ve learnt to deal with this social anxiety and awkwardness by altering my thought patterns and ensuring that I always feel comfortable before stepping foot in a room full of Colgate grins. I refuse to let something like anxiety force me to stay home and not have fun (FOMO still affects us anxious-prone people). Although it can be difficult to hype yourself up to attend something that may make you feel stressed, often you’ll realise after attending how insignificant all that worrying was in the first place.
And so I've decided to put together a list of ideas and things to think about which may help to alleviate your social anxiety.
Wear comfortable clothing
This one might be directed more towards women, but how many times have you gone shopping for a new item of clothing to wear to an event, bought it, and then once the time comes to actually wear it, you start doubting your ability to pull it off. Will I look good in this bodycon dress at nan’s funeral or are these two-sizes-too-small pair of jeans suitable to wear to that office party? Either way, you’ll probably look great, but whether you’re picking a wedgie or sucking in that belly, being uncomfortable can heighten your anxiety. My advice is to always opt for an outfit that will make you feel comfortable – confidence will then follow.
Research before you leave the house
Google how far away the destination is. Check the weather forecast – this will help you with sorting out that comfortable clothing choice. Scroll through the invitee list on the Facebook event, check out who else will be attending, maybe they have mutual friends, activities in common, etc. Researching beforehand can help alleviate any pre-conceived ideas or worries you may have about the location of the event or people at the event.
Block out those inner thoughts and meditate in the car
You’re eyeing off the other guests from a distance, craning your head above the steering wheel to see who is who like a paparazzi on the hunt for the next Britney pic. Next time you're sitting in the car and planning your escape from that party you don't want to attend, why not try and meditate for a few minutes instead. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Listen to the surrounding sounds, ignore your inner worries and negative thoughts. Blocking out our conscience can be hard (meditating is not easy!) but try and make it a daily habit like brushing your teeth. Trust me, after a few days of five-minute meditation, this will really help to clear your mind before undertaking a task or attending an event that may seem daunting, and it is so convenient to do in your car right before you walk into that work meeting, coffee date, or Uncle Gavin’s Fiftieth b-day bash.
People don't really care
People don’t care. I’m sure you’ve all heard this one before, whether from Mark Manson himself or from your own parents… it’s clear that most people are selfish, starring as the lead in their own version of A Star is Born, concerned with their own problems, inner thoughts, and appearances.
The idea that people don’t really care is something I tell myself when I’m worried what others will think of me at a social event. Most of the time people won’t notice our deep, internal worries or insecurities from our outward appearances. When we realise that people have other things on their mind, like their own problems and incessant thoughts, the insignificant things we obsess over or worry about dissipate. If you find yourself questioning whether people will think you are pessimistic or shy or weird or awkward, question yourself with a ‘how?’. How would these people know these things about me if they’ve never met me? And then ask, ‘Would they even really care?’ Would you care? Mmm probably not…
I don't know whether it is a universal thing or just me, but how awkward is standing still and not actually holding anything or doing anything with your hands; they're just flopped down by your side like two useless flabs of flesh.
Anxiety can manifest physically throughout the body, not just affecting you mentally. You may find that your hands are restless, fidgeting, cramping, or have trouble moving.
Often I find myself holding onto an empty glass or a plate with no food on it just because it feels right to be holding something. Holding onto my purse/handbag or bringing along a jacket to hold has helped my hands to feel at ease, even scoffing my face with food – sorry, carefully eating a slice of cheese over a two hour period – not only deters people from talking to me, 'can't talk Denise... mouth full', but also seems to settle my anxiety.
Read the room
I feel so at ease when stepping into a church tea room after a Sunday service to find myself the youngest in the room accompanied by cute little old ladies, arm in arm with their near death husbands. In those situations I’d change what I was going to talk about – who needs to comment on the weather when you can strike up a conversation about Martha’s delicious iced buns or pastor Arnold’s powerful sermon. If I were to walk into a room packed with high school students my small talk wouldn't consist of pastries or pastors, but be more inclined towards Tiktoking and mindless gossip. May the latter scenario never occur but you get the point. Read the room, identify what sort of people are present, and strike up conversations that would best suit them.
Be the listener
As an introvert, you should pride yourself on listening and understanding others, so use this to your advantage. People just want someone to listen to them. If you’re lucky you’ll get into a conversation with a divorced middle-aged housewife who wants to blurt out her shitty life to you; you don’t even need to pay attention to this, just give the occasional nod and 'mmmm yes I understand' like the therapist you were born to be. I guarantee she’ll be the one to give you that tight hug at the end of the night with the leaving words of 'We had such a great conversation, let’s catch up again.' You may not have got in a word but at least she got you through the night when you had no one else to talk with.