My social anxiety came on hard and fast in my early 20s. Before that, I loved big social gatherings where I would be meeting new people. I was a smoker and I loved small talk with strangers that I met in the corners around campus where we all took our smoke breaks. I loved every new semester meeting new teachers and classmates and I never remember wanting to stay home from ANYTHING.
But during those years (teens to 24) I was also super-narcisistic, self-absorbed, self-righteous, and a kinda shitty person just all around. I hid it well behind a cute Teen Hippie Mom In College exterior, but deep down I was really just caring about myself and taking big ole poops on lots of people along my path. The only thing I was doing right was that I was still, under all of that, a loving Mom. I put E’s needs before mine 99% of the time and sacrificed a lot (especially sleep) to care for him.
But other than that? I was a total d-bag.
But then in the late summer of 1999, all of that terrible behavior caught up with me and broke through my facade and the world finally caught onto my horrible path of destruction. I found myself with no friends and in a situation where I walked up to a group of people I knew, only to hear them gossiping about my situation in terribly unflattering (but truthful) ways. And this was the birth of my social anxieties.
I made new friends (including Donnie) who knew nothing of my past sins other than my own telling of them but I started keeping very much to myself. And over the next decade my social anxieties would grow to crippling severity. I didn’t even like going to family events where I knew people. I just wanted to stay home all day every day. I had to travel once for my job and it was TERRIFYING.
I have two stories I tell the most often to demonstrate how far I’ve come since the dark decade of crippling social anxieties. One is when Donnie forced me (and I mean “forced” because I did NOT want to go) to attend a picnic at a pool celebrating the end of his first triathlon training class at Fleet Feet Sports. I was a ball of nausea and nerves the whole time. I barely spoke to anyone and stayed in the pool with the kids far away from the grownups the entire time. I was angry at my husband for forcing me to come to this thing that was causing me SUCH TERRIBLE ANXIETY.
Me – at a Fleet Feet event hiding from people. People who know me now are thinking, “HUH?”
Story number 2 is my first “official” book club with the group I’m still reading with. I had run into them at Barnes & Noble and recognized two Moms of E’s friends. I had sat down with them (awkwardly) and chatted and they asked me to come to their next book club. I MADE ELIAH GO WITH ME. I mean, it was at his friend’s house so it wasn’t THAT weird, BUT STILL. I MADE MY KID GO WITH ME TO BOOK CLUB. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to wear and I almost…ALMOST…didn’t go several times. But meeting these women by chance really felt like the world was giving me a sign: GO! BE WITH PEOPLE!
A few weeks later I faced my fears and signed up for an all women boot camp. Another thing I was terrified about wanted to skip up until my friend Sarah emailed me to reassure me that I would love it. Then I signed up for my first Fleet Feet training class and y’all? I skipped about 5 weeks of runs early in the program because I JUST WAS NOT OKAY WITH ALL OF THE STRANGERS. But finally I pushed myself to go one Sunday and ran 7 miles with a girl and we talked Harry Potter the WHOLE TIME. It was amazing.
So during the year after my Dad died, I had put myself out there a few times to discover Hey. Maybe I can do this. And sometimes you meet amazing people. I knew I was crumbling under grief and I needed to be out in the world to remind myself the point of it all, and each time I faced those terrible anxieties and fears I walked away thinking, Not so bad.
But I had to reshape the way I acted socially. I watched a lot of TED talks and read a lot of articles about social anxieties and I found the tricks that helped me get to where I am today: Still often making a damn fool of myself, but carrying a toolbox to help me survive social events enough that I am still able to meet amazing people and making amazing friends.
- Learn And Use People’s Names: I used to be scared to use people’s names because I was always terrified I had it wrong. And often I still do. (I FB messaged a friend once after an event and said OH MY GOD, I CALLED YOU THE WRONG NAME I AM AN IDIOT.) But I have found when I can greet someone by name, it creates an instant warm feeling in the other person. People LOVE hearing their names. And if you suffer from social anxieties where you are reading negative cues into everything? The warmth from someone when they hear their name REALLY helps put them at ease which helps put ME at ease. I still screw up, but the percentage is low because I try to use names ALL THE TIME. Even when our server at a restaurant introduces themselves, I’ll use their names the rest of the meal. If they were kind enough to share their name? I’m going to use it. I really feel like using people’s names helps ease tension.
- Ask A Lot Of Questions: The easiest way to feel comfortable in a social situation is to NOT have to do the talking. I ask a shit ton of questions of people. If they’re strangers I start with the basics, but if they’re from a group I know, I’ll ask related question: “Have you read anything good lately?” Or an even better question: “Have you read anything terrible that I should avoid?” Or if I see a running friend I’ll say, “What are you training for?” Not only does asking questions take the pressure off me to talk, it also opens up doors to possible conversations.
- Make eye contact
- Own your vulnerabilities: I wear “Socially Awkward” like a nametag wherever I go. I often laugh about my social awkwardness as a point of conversation if I meet someone else awkwardly standing in a corner. I talk about dumb shit I’ve done all the time. Recently I made the FATAL ERROR of going in for a hug when someone was just patting me on the shoulder. I AM STILL SO EMBARRASSED. But I’ve also told everyone I know about that moment as One More Awkward Story to add to Zoot’s Encyclopedia Of Awkwardness so that if I ever do embarrass myself, people know: Oh, that’s just Zoot being awkward. NBD. We love her anyway.
These four things have really helped me not run away in fear from social events. I still deal with a lot of anxieties and there are still situations that feel SO FOREIGN I can’t even use my arsenal of skills mentioned above to help me, but I physically don’t have the negative reactions like I used to have. There’s no panic attacks anymore in the middle of an event. There’s no faking illness to get away to a quiet room. There’s no faking illness to stay home all together. I get out all the time now, sometimes too much and I have to remind myself: You are still an introvert. Give yourself time to recharge…ALONE.
Because you can make the introvert outgoing, but you can’t change the fact that socializing STILL DEPLETES EVERY OUNCE OF ENERGY SHE HAS.