Twenty minutes into the party, I was already exhausted. There were almost twenty families there, but I only knew about three. One of them was a woman who had snubbed me in the past, and any social courage I could muster was flying out the window. My social anxiety was on high alert already, and I found myself wondering why I had even come in the first place.
As much as I wanted to make friends, I didn’t know these people well. I can chat one-on-one pretty easily. But racket it up to more than that, and I become overwhelmed. I can’t remember names. I can’t remember whose kids are whose. I start to panic-sweat. I need a buddy to steer me through situations like this — and my best buddy was off buying charcoal for the hot dogs.
So I tried to join a few groups. I sat down on the periphery and tried to enter the conversations. But everything I said sounded, to me, awkward and stupid, so I stopped talking. Social anxiety at its finest. I probably seemed like a creeper, so I focused on watching my kids play. We ended up leaving early because I couldn’t cope any longer with the excruciating social interaction.
Man, those women must have thought I was a grade-A bitch.
This is what it means to have social anxiety, especially in groups. You go into it with the best of intentions, of course. But when you see that crowd, your stomach knots up: literally, most of us can feel that terrible embarrassment-turned-to-physical-feeling somewhere in our midsection. We suddenly lose the ability to act like normal humans. We don’t know where to stand, how to stand, who to talk to, what to say, how to say it, and how to say it without sounding like a complete ass.
Conversational skills may begin to elude us, so we stay quiet. We listen instead of talking, because talking is scary. Because when we don’t talk, no one talks to us, we end up tuning out and feeling stupid. We think no one likes us and it’s our fault. The vicious cycle continues.
I did the same thing on a girls’ weekend once. Too many people at the same time. Even though I knew they all wanted to be my friends, when I was confronted with all of them at once, I froze like the proverbial deer in the headlights. All my social skills dove out the window, and I was left with either the ability to blurt out stupid shit or keep my mouth completely shut for fear of embarrassing myself further. I stuck as close to my bestie as possible and let her do the talking for me. One-on-one, I found each separate person delightful and wonderful. I adored them all. But in a group? I resisted the urge to hide under the sofa. I always felt like I was hovering stupidly on the margins.
They probably thought I was crazy. Really, I was suffering from crippling anxiety.
Of course, it was miraculous I’d made it to the events in the first place. As much as I crave connection, I sometimes skip out on things because it’s too daunting to deal with that sea of faces, with all those expectations. I can’t bear it. So I stay at home, where I’m comfortable, where no one expects me to perform. It’s easier at home. It’s happier at home. I don’t stress at home. But I also don’t make friends. I also don’t meet anyone, which makes the next event that much harder. And the next. And the next. It’s a vicious cycle I can’t claw my way out of.
So how can we deal with social anxiety like this?
One way is to find a wingman and stick close. I usually try to employ that strategy. I find it grounds me and gives me a base. I know that one person, at least, doesn’t hate my guts and think I’m a miserable human.
But besties can wander off (or be forced to go buy charcoal). So I’ve found another strategy that can help is to buddy up with one person and make a party of two wherever we are. I found that helped some at that party I was at, at least for a little while. I shared similar interests with one woman, so we managed a non-weird, no-fear, 20-minute conversation. If you know someone has common interests with you, you can manage what my husband calls “the confidential pull-aside” and start your own conversation with them. You can make a friend in the midst of a big gathering and still manage your own rampaging social anxiety that way.
But how do you know if you have something in common?
One way to find out is to ask. People like to talk about themselves. When we’re feeling anxious and don’t know what to say, when we’re terrified we look stupid sitting there, a good way to enter the conversation while still remaining mostly invisible is to pull a Nick from The Great Gatsby: turn the focus onto other people. Ask them about themselves and shut up.
You may need to read some books on how to make small talk — yes, they exist. “So what do you do when you’re not being a mom?” is a good one to start with. So is, “Do you have any pets?” because people love to talk about their dogs or cats. Anything that will require a long answer, anything that you can listen to and ask a follow up, is fair game. This takes all the attention off you and puts it onto them, which is all you wanted in the first place.
But I get it: if it were that easy, you’d be doing it already. But give it a shot. Next time you have a social event, dress for battle in an outfit that makes you feel confident. Do whatever it takes to make you feel comfortable (for me, that includes a fidget ring). Remind yourself that you’re awesome.
But even if you talk so little that people think you’re a bitch, find other ways to reach out. Be the woman who brings the most cookies, and offer them to other people (it’s hard to be scared with cookies in your hands). Be kind to other people’s children (kids are less intimidating). Admire people’s babies, an easy way to get some good vibes from other mamas. And if you need to, don’t be scared to leave early.
Practice self-care, and know when you need to escape for your own sanity. It might be a good idea, in fact, to leave on a high note.
This isn’t to say I practice what I preach. Those moms probably still think I’m a bitch. But at least I know what I might do differently next time. I think. I hope. And maybe I’ll make a mom friend or two next time before I have to flee, kids in tow demanding why we can’t stay longer. Because mommy needs a break from people, I tell them. Mommy can’t do social for more than a certain amount of time without getting short-tempered and crazy. It’s true. And the first step in the battle: recognizing it.