I love getting presents. I love guessing what’s in a pretty box or shiny gift bag. I love the way a present makes me feel loved and appreciated and thought of. You’d think, then, that opening presents would be a logical favorite past time of mine — and it is, just not if I have to do it in front of people. Which makes birthdays, Mother’s Day, anniversaries and — oh, yeah — the holidays, mini anxiety minefields.
The reasons for my angst run the spectrum, but I’m mostly worried about disappointing the gift-giver by not seeming appreciative enough. I might be thrilled with the gift, but I’m not always great at conveying that sentiment. Worse, I might open a present and be sorely disappointed, which I’m not very good at hiding. Knowing the people I love might be hurt by my reaction makes me super nervous. My stomach clenches, my heart speeds up and my once-relaxed face goes plastic Barbie fake. When my low-grade social anxiety kicks in, opening presents with other people present is incredibly uncomfortable.
What if I don’t like what they chose for me and they can tell from the look on my face? What if I do like it, but it looks like I don’t? What if I fart while all these people at my birthday dinner are laser-focused on me opening this present?
Wondering about the right way is to react and worrying I’ll screw it up is excruciating. I want to enjoy the moment, but the fear of being judged no matter what I do is overwhelming.
If you’re one of the 40 million adults in the U.S. who live with a social anxiety disorder, you probably feel the same way. That’s because opening presents in front of an audience triggers the symptoms of social anxiety, like worrying about feeling embarrassed or that you’ll offend someone. Anxiety can manifest physically, too, making you blush, sweat or tremble or feel like you’re going to throw up.
Having all eyes on you, eagerly awaiting your reaction, is the perfect time to stress over how people perceive and evaluate you. You worry you won’t seem grateful or happy. You worry your response will hurt the gift-giver’s feelings, even if you love what’s in the box. Basically, opening presents in front of people can make someone with social anxiety extremely self-conscious. What seems like it should be a simple, joyous occasion ends up being a very awkward and intense exchange.
Think about it: people with social anxiety usually avoid the spotlight. Being the center of attention is generally uncomfortable for them, but when it’s your turn to open a gift, everyone is watching, excited to see what you got and how much you like it. You are intensely aware that the onlookers – even if they’re your best friends or loving family – are expecting a certain level of appreciation. People do want to know if you like the gift they’ve given you and are looking closely for confirmation. You’re not just imagining that everyone’s looking at you, because they are. What’s difficult is managing the feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment that threaten to send you running to the bathroom to open your present in peace.
Experiencing a little social anxiety is part of life. If we didn’t feel a bit nervous when meeting new people or having attention focused on us, we’d probably make some serious social blunders. Being anxious prompts us to pay more attention to the people around us and keeps us from hurting people’s feelings or being offensive. It’s when social anxiety gets in the way of enjoying life that it becomes a problem.
So what’s a person with social anxiety to do during the gift-giving season? In an interview in The Atlantic, Stefan G. Hofmann, the director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University, recommends people face their anxiety. Long-term, people with social anxiety can engage in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which identifies people’s fears and gradually helps them challenge their negative thinking patterns.
In the short-term, when you’re faced with a room full of family, eagerly waiting for you to open your gift, try to stay in the moment. If things do go wrong and you’re worried your reaction really wasn’t appropriate, try to have a little self-compassion. Remember, nobody’s perfect and you’re surrounded by people who love you. If they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t be giving you a gift in the first place.
So enjoy your brother-in-law’s spiked eggnog and your Aunt Myrtle’s “mature” fruitcake and try not to worry too much about what might await you in the big box with your name on it.