Do they always find you in the kitchen at parties? CLAIRE O’MAHONY offers some tips for the socially unconfident this Christmas.
There seems something Scrooge-like about admitting that you fear and loathe the social whirl the festive season brings. “I just adore small talk,” said no one, ever, but for some people (I include myself here) the notion of a diary heaving with work-related events, gatherings with friends, family occasions and all the randomness that accompanies this time of year – and from mid-November onwards – seems like a huge challenge. Panic begins to escalate as potential pitfalls build in our heads: What if I don’t know anyone there? What if nobody talks to me? What if I’m inappropriately dressed? What if my poor grasp of current affairs is exposed? What if I can’t find the bathroom? What if my dull and limited personality repels people?
Of course, everybody’s fears are different and there are many reasons why someone might be apprehensive about social events. There’s good old-fashioned shyness, which affects most people at some time in their lives. Perhaps you’re an introvert, in which case it;s not that you are averse to socialising, but large crowds and networking are not to your tastes’ you’d prefer the intimacy of a one-on-one conversation and you’re happier in your role as an observer rather than active participant. Then there’s social anxiety, a disorder that affects an estimated 7-8 percent of the adult population. This is characterised by a fear of being judged negatively by others, and being extremely self-critical of one’s “public performance”. At its most acute, it can be debilitating and spills over into all aspects of the sufferer’s life and not just the socialising aspect. It can result in avoiding any interactions with strangers and can be extremely isolating, but it has been proven to respond well to cognitive behavioural therapy. If shyness is a general discomfort and self-consciousness, social anxiety has deeper roots and will more than likely benefit from professional help.
But if you’re sitting uncomfortably somewhere on the spectrum of social awkwardness, the good news is that party apprehension does not have to be a cross you must always carry. You may not become the Dorothy Parker of your generation, but you don’t have to be afraid.
Feel Awkward And Acknowledge It
Recognising your vulnerability is a large part of the battle, according to Allison Keating. “If you allow yourself to recognise that you are uncomfortable, there’s nearly a release in that, rather than pretending that you are the most confident person in the room. Perhaps you’re not, but I’m sure you have many other aspects of your personality that
Recognising your vulnerability is a large part of the battle, according to Allison Keating. “If you allow yourself to recognise that you are uncomfortable, there’s nearly a release in that, rather than pretending that you are the most confident person in the room. Perhaps you’re not, but I’m sure you have many other aspects of your personality that are wonderful and that people really like. Maybe part of your strengths is that you’re a good listener.”
Find A Role Model To Copy
As well as potentially striking you dumb, nervousness can have the opposite effect and cause you to lose any self-editing capacity, as you prattle on, unable to stop your verbal flood. Keating points to Barack Obama as an amazing orator. “What he does is that he pauses and takes his time, and that’s how he commands the respect and attention of people,” she says. “It’s a skill. Look to people who communicate well and observe, and you can emulate that. Sometimes that is pausing, taking a second and being mindful that if you are talking too much, just to stop.”
And Finally, Harsh Truth Alert
We are the centres of our own universes. We are not the centre of anybody else’s, however. “There’s the spotlight, where every client I have with social anxiety thinks everyone is thinking about them, and the truth is that everyone else at that party is thinking about what everybody else is thinking about them,” says Keating. “There is nothing self-absorbed about that – we can only come from our place of how we perceive the world. Even people who come across as confident can experience social anxiety and be very shy.” So, you are not alone. And retrospectively, are these things ever as bad as you feared they would be? Liz Wright suggests that you write down what you worry might happen before you go and then reassess this upon your return home to see if you can challenge any negative beliefs. “After you come back, you can say, ‘I predicted nobody would talk to me and, actually, one person asked me if I wanted a drink and another person asked me about the weather.’ So, it’s to challenge those catastrophizing beliefs and to realise that you weren’t the life and soul of the party, but those two people did speak to you briefly. It makes you a bit more realistic.”
This article originally appeared in the December issue of IMAGE magazine.