There’s a party this weekend, you should come – A phrase guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of all those who suffer with anxiety. Others include – are you coming for drinks after work? Or – shall we go for a coffee to discuss the project? I’ve had social anxiety ever since I can remember. The signs were there at an early age. I hated big family BBQs or birthday celebrations. The worst part was the drive over. I would dread the initial five minutes, filled awkward embraces and greeting family friends who I hadn’t seen in years. Like all children I was expected to ‘perform.’ Chatting animatedly with the adults about school or playing with the other children outside. I tried my best, as I didn’t want to be labelled as strange. But somehow the words ‘quiet’ and ‘shy’ were used in reference to me. At one party I hid in the upstairs loo for over half an hour to avoid the crippling walk around the house looking for ways to occupy myself. My grandma was a Godsend, she could always be relied on to get smashed and start talking about politics or the evils of cigarettes, (she was normally smoking at the time.) Tbh, I would’ve been much happier to spend all of the parties this way.. sat outside reading a book and listening to her rants! Alcohol certainly helped during my university years. What better way to silence the fear than with liquid courage? Sadly, this isn’t a strategy that should be used frequently as an adult, particularly at work related events! By definition Social Anxiety is the fear of interaction with other people that brings on self-consciousness, feelings of being negatively judged and evaluated. In the past when I’ve attended work events, or parties filled with people that I didn’t know my mind would explode with negative thoughts:
- Nobody here wants to talk to you
- They’ll all think that you’re strange and a loser
- You have nothing smart or interesting to say
- If you try to talk you’ll start blushing or shaking
- You should go home now before you embarrass yourself.
Ironically if a colleague would’ve said any of the above then two sharp words ending with ‘off’ would follow.. but we tend to accept things more when they come from ourselves. The worst social experience happened a few years ago during an event at my previous employer. At the time I desperately wanted a job in the digital team and decided to really push myself by talking to the Director. I’d done my research and spent a good five minutes trying to impress him with my knowledge. However, part way through a sentence he bluntly cut me off and said – Sexy talk Claire, I’m guessing that you don’t have a boyfriend. He then left the group and everybody laughed. Perhaps a tougher person would’ve brushed off the comment and not taken it personally, but I blushed crimson and sneaked away to the loos to cry a little, (you’ll notice that loos are my haven!) In hindsight, I pushed myself too far and had unrealistic expectations. As a result I felt humiliated and criticised myself, rather than feeling pleased by my efforts. For the record, the man in question was and still is a sexist arsehole – it just took me a while to realise that. Anyway, where am I going with these tales of whoa? Well I’ve learned a few survival tips during my four years in the big city. The first thing to remember is that feeling nervous is a completely normal reaction. Whenever you enter a party, particularly a work one, at least 50% of the people in that room will have similar worries to you. They might hide it behind loud voices and big smiles, but at the end of the day everybody likes to feel accepted… we’re human after all! So what can we do about the negative thoughts? Well lets think about it for a moment… are you 100% sure that nobody in the room wants to talk to you? That’s quite a big generalisation to make, perhaps the thought is unrealistic. Also, do you really have nothing interesting to say at all? I doubt that anybody is asking for a dictation of Einstein’s theory of relativity (unless you’re some kind of super academic!) Remember: When translated, all of these thoughts mean the exact same thing “I’m nervous” and we’ve already determined that feeling nervous is normal, so there’s nothing strange about you whatsoever! Ok, so here are my survival tips.
- Try not to be late. Rushing will only increase your heart rate and leave you feeling flustered. Instead arrive with enough time to freshen up in the toilets and climatise to the surroundings.
- Body language. Make a conscious effort to keep your posture straight and a pleasant smile on your face. (To be clear, I don’t mean like the Cheshire Cat. How freaky would that be!) Think about it, would you want to talk to the moody looking sod in the corner? I doubt it. Try and look at the bigger picture.
- Conversation starters. If you find small talk a challenge then jot down a few things in advance. Good ones are: Have you travelled far? What department do you work in? How do you know so & so? Are you doing anything nice this weekend? They might sound lame, but they’re easy and are guaranteed to start a conversation.
- Don’t dwell. If something bad happens such as a rebuff or mild embarrassment, simply take yourself away to the loos for a five minutes (remember, they’re a haven!) Feel whatever you’re feeling, don’t try to suppress it. Remind yourself that you’re human and are doing just fine. Then feel please that you made the effort and leave the toilets with your head held high. In a hour it won’t even matter any more.
- Be yourself. Believe me, I’ve spent years trying to ‘play a part’ or be someone who I’m not and in the end it only creates more distress. Keeping up the charade will eventually become exhausting.
If all else fails then just have a few glasses of wine and put it down to experience! You should feel proud that you stepped outside of your comfort zone. Oh and if you see my grandma then you’re sorted for the evening!
Categories: Social Anxiety