We all know how it starts.
We’re having a casual conversation with a friend and one of us mentions that you really do need to meet and catch up soon. In your mind, “soon” means a long time from now – so far in the future that it practically ceases to exist. Soon, your friend is throwing out dates – “well, what are you doing this weekend?” “How about 8:00 on Saturday?”
Or, we’ll see it start on Facebook. The dreaded Facebook party invitation, usually celebrating birthdays or housewarming parties, something that’s very important to the person inviting you, something that you can’t possibly miss.
Then, the anxiety starts. The pit in our stomach. The internal turmoil and churning:
Well, if I go on Saturday night, that means I might have to stay over, and then I won’t be back until Sunday afternoon, which means I won’t be able to get all my errands done and have enough down time before I have to start work on Monday at 9:00 am….
I’m sure that most people don’t think this way. I’m willing to bet that most of the population, particularly those in their twenties, see a party invitation and become immediately excited – “A party! How fun! Can’t wait to pick out my outfit!”
But for those of us who fit into the category of introverts, a night out can slowly escalate into a full-on anxiety attack.
Introversion is defined here by Psychology Today:
If a crowded cocktail party feels like a holding cell to you, even as you gamely keep up your end of the chatter, chances are you’re an introvert. Introverts are drained by social encounters and energized by solitary, often creative pursuits. Their disposition is frequently misconstrued as shyness, social phobia or even avoidant personality disorder, but many introverts socialize easily; they just strongly prefer not to. In fact, the self-styled introvert can be more empathic and interpersonally connected than his or her outgoing counterparts. The line between introversion and lonely loners gets blurry, however, as some introverts do wish they could break out of their shell.
It wasn’t until a few years ago when I read Laurie Helgoe’s Introvert Power that I understood, finally, why I am the way that I am. As a child, I was painfully shy and anxious. I had terrible separation anxiety and really hated being away from home. At school, I made friends easily and was social and had a good sense of humor, but I couldn’t wait to get home at the end of the day. School was hard for me because it was intensely social and non-stop. My mother would schedule playdates for me after school and I would often cry, “I don’t want to go over to her house, I just want to come home!” What I really meant, but couldn’t yet articulate, was that I needed time after school to be by myself, to collect my thoughts and regroup before I engaged in another social situation.
As an adult, I realize that all those years, I was just displaying a textbook example of what it’s like to be an introvert. I have spent years beating myself up because I felt horrible not wanting to go to friends’ birthday parties and other social engagements, because I love my friends. The last thing in the world that I would ever want to do is hurt them or disappoint them, and I knew that my canceling, in their mind, would mean I was just blowing them off. I want them to understand that it’s not that I don’t want to see them, but how difficult it actually is for me to socialize. It’s simply not my thing, particularly since I don’t really drink and find loud places like bars and clubs to be extremely overstimulating. Some people feel electrified in a crowd whereas I feel tiny and awkward. As a kid, I even hated birthday parties because I hated a lot of attention on myself — too many people, too many people staring at me. As a matter of fact, I wish we could go back to the middle school concept of a night out: dinner and a movie!
Are you an introvert?
Two of the problems they list are spot on:
“Too many social obligations + no alone time = a total grump.”
“When you hear this question, and your palms start to sweat with anxiety”:
People have huge misconceptions about introverts (much like they do about librarians!)
They think that we are crazy cat ladies who sit home like spinsters, never answer the doorbell, and have the social skills of a slug. In fact, introverts and librarians alike are actually extremely social, people friendly, and energetic — if we weren’t, libraries wouldn’t be adapting to the twenty-first century. Introverts are often very social — the difference is that for every time we are social, we need at least an equal amount of downtime in order to recharge. As a public librarian and introvert, I love my job. I love working with the public, engaging with people, helping people, and teaching computer help sessions. But my job is perfect because it involves being social during my work hours, but never having to be social outside of work — no cocktail parties, no huge holiday parties, no client lunches, no social outings. People usually tell me, “But you’re so outgoing and friendly!” Yes, I am! But when I come home, I need to be alone, use the computer, watch tv, pet my cat, and just be alone.
Does this mean that introverts get a free pass to never socialize again?
In fact, most of us do really enjoy it once we figure out a game-plan for making it work for us. I like to think of anxiety-prevention in the same way I do migraine prevention. My neurologist once told me that migraine headaches could usually be avoided if you kept away from your triggers. Maybe drinking wine, sleep deprivation, and stress are all migraine triggers for you. That means you only engage in one out of three, not all three at once. Similarly, I find that introverts become overwhelmed when they are faced with too many triggers. I’ve come up with the following list of ways you can turn a social situation from something anxiety-producing to something enjoyable.
1) Define your triggers.
What makes us anxious about social situations — is it picking out an outfit? Wondering if we have enough money to pick up the tab? Worrying about getting home too late or having to spend a night at someone else’s house? Worrying about being overtired the next week? Worrying about drinking too much and having a hangover and getting sick?
Define the triggers and find out which of them are within your control and which you can manipulate to help yourself feel better. You’d be surprised how much you can really fix once you make a list and think it through. For example, can we save up a little extra money in the weeks leading up to the event so that we aren’t stressed about having enough cash on hand? Is it possible for you to take a mental health day the next week so you have time to clean your house, do your laundry, and regroup? Make a list and see what’s within your control, and then learn to let go of the things beyond your control.
2) Utilize comfort items.
No, this doesn’t mean walking around with our blankie over your shoulder and our thumb in your mouth. However, there’s a reason why, as children, we used comfort items during times of stress, like going to school for the first time, traveling, or going to the doctor. As adults, a comfort item might be a makeup bag filled with ibuprofen, migraine medication, and antacids in case you start feeling a bit off during the night. It sounds silly, but sometimes just knowing that you have these items is enough to quell your anxiety. What’s your comfort item? Do you like taking pictures? Bring your camera! Do you get anxious about knowing when your train leaves? Bring an MTA schedule.
3) Have an escape plan.
I am a little bit of a control freak, so any time I am out of control, ie: on the train instead of in my car, in someone else’s car, in someone else’s house, I get anxious. When I’m out, I find comfort in knowing exactly which train I’m going to catch home. Usually, I will leave the MTA page open on my iPhone so that I can keep track of time and see when I have to head back to Grand Central Station. This isn’t always the case — if I’m somewhere local where I’ve driven myself, I have much more leeway — I just leave when I feel like it. But when my car (the largest comfort item) is taken away, I like to have a plan.
4) Make compromises.
If we work all week and there’s a party say, on Saturday night, does it mean that we’ll have to spend the night somewhere else? I live far away from my friends, so usually a night out in Manhattan involves my staying over at a friend’s house because the trains don’t run that late. For me, staying over someone else’s house and having my next day affected sometimes makes me anxious because I feel like I don’t have enough time to get everything done that I usually do on the weekend. If this is the case with you, can you tell your friend that you’ll stay until you can catch the latest train home? Usually people are understanding, especially if you don’t live locally.
5) Use your free time wisely.
I used to spend the week and days leading up to an event being anxious and allowing my emotions to dictate my mood. Now, I’ve found that I can use the week ahead wisely. If you know that your weekend plans are going to disrupt your routine, try to get things done ahead of time. Do you usually do your grocery shopping and go to the gym on Saturday? Can you take a night during the week and shop instead? Do you usually clean on Sunday morning? Can you use a morning before work to dust and another to vacuum and clean your floors? This is all dependent on your schedule of course, but I find that knowing that I have my ducks in a row before I go out on the weekend really eases the tension because I know that I will return to an orderly house. If you have an insane schedule and can’t do this — can you take a day off the following week instead? As introverts, I’m assuming that you don’t have plans as often as most, so perhaps you can afford a mental health day once in awhile.
The bottom line is this: we are never going to feel as comfortable as our extrovert companions in social situations. But that’s okay. Just like diabetics and people with food allergies have to learn to eat with those without dietary restrictions, so do we have to make going out work for us.
This article was originally published on elephant journal on November 8, 2013