“It’s okay,” I told myself as I drove down the interstate through an unforgiving, almost mockingly spontaneous downpour. “It’s alright. You’ve trained for this for the last six months. You can do this.”
It was time for my mother’s birthday barbecue party, in which all extended family members–dozens of them–would be attending. My mother had announced to me since the Christmas holiday how excited she was for this cookout.
“I’m inviting all of our family,” she gushed. “You’ll need to come early, B, to help out. Do you have the date down? Did you write it down? …Write it down, B, so you don’t forget.” The beautiful, warming lilt in her tone belied the loving, threatening edge of her order.
For the last two of my mother’s birthday parties, my depression and social anxiety had conspired against me and overtaken any sense of…well, common sense I had. Overstimulated, feeling out of place, shaken, and frightened by the crowd of strangers (aka, extended family)…I’d hidden in a closet and fallen into a vegetative state for over four hours.
Yeah…not my shiniest moments.
Since that last party (and many much-needed therapy sessions), I vowed to myself that I would not so much as notice a closet or isolated space at her next party. It was part of my 2019 resolution to focus on the needs of the people that I love, not myself. And this party was about my mother, as it always was, should have been, and should be.
Of course, that didn’t mean my chest didn’t seize up every time someone mentioned the party.
For various reasons, I would be arriving at my mother’s party during its peak hours. I knew that, if I wanted to a) enjoy myself, and b) remain consistently visible throughout the party, I couldn’t arrive without a plan. And so, using my overactive imagination and a sexy spy hook theme song on my Google Play Music library (not sponsored), I established the following objectives to maneuver through this super-extroverted party while appearing social, positive, and engaged.
1. Arrive with FULL Expectations
ONE WEEK BEFORE:
“Ohhh,” my mother had drawled over the phone, pondering on what she knew would freak me out, “it’s just gonna a few people. No more than immediate family, maybe a few cousins.”
“Uh huh.” Sitting in my SUV as I drove into the parking lot of my weekly voice over class, I had allowed myself to imagine the multiple half-circle of chairs under tents, the stacks upon stacks of ribs and chicken awaiting their turns on the smoking grills, and the hours of introductions as I was passed across first cousins, second cousins, third cousins, and many more.
One tactic that has helped me deal with social situations is being honest with myself on how many people will be attending. As an introvert, I prefer smaller crowds of people that I know intimately. Since I still struggle with anxiety, I am thrown when I am spontaneously placed in front larger groups than I anticipated, or people who I have no idea of their identity.
- Are they family? Are they in-laws?
- Are they part of the family/friend side that we “like”?
- Are they…different like me? Can I trust them to accept my weird, random self without blinking at me or blowing me off?
- Or, is it simply the generic meet-n-greet with a handshake, a smile, a couple of small-talk inquiries (“You come from out of town? The weather’s been crazy, amiright??”), and a customary awkward pause before I say, “Well, nice to meet ya!” before moving on to do it all over again?
I know. I could be in worse situations. We all could.
But if we don’t like certain situations, we don’t like certain situations. We will all be in situations that will make us uncomfortable. All we can do is be aware and mentally prepare as best we can.
2. Establish Your “Core Team”
If you’re going to a party where you know at least one or two people who will also be there, you can establish these people as your core team. This core team will serve as your party anchors to whom you can temporarily latch onto to regain your mental bearings after a particularly awkward or stressful situation.
Here is what’s important. Your core team must be people whom you can trust not to be cruel or condescending should you get overwhelmed and even give up halfway through the party.
I’ve been around guys I considered dating who laughed at me when strangers entered the room, and I’d nervously backed up to adjust to the change.
I’ve even had close family members roll their eyes at me when I was struggling to recover from a panic attack in public.
These…are NOT core team people.
My core team at my mother’s party consisted of my mother, my two sisters and my nephew, who were also attending the party. They are all very aware of my social anxiety issues, including my social “incidents” from my mother’s previous parties. Despite my past behavior, they’d never belittled me or made me feel any less. They projected nothing but love and support, even as they’d opened the closet door and asked me, gently, if I was doing okay.
These…are absolutely core team people.
3. Focus on Your Target: Be a Social Bee, Not a Butterfly
One thing that I have observed with some of my more social friends is that they don’t actually speak with the same people for extended amounts of time. Instead, they flutter from cluster to cluster, asking how everyone is doing and rotating at regular intervals to make sure they’ve greeted everyone equally.
Yep. I’m not there yet. Too many faces, not enough time for intimate exchanges.
What I am learning to do is get a layout of the party, find a single target within certain areas of the room, and aim for those.
The technique is not to force yourself to speak to everyone, but to engage with enough people to make yourself seen. In my case, my aunts and couple of cousins to whom I was closer to were littered throughout the yard. These were family members I’ve been familiar with, yet hadn’t seen for years. Thefore, it was the perfect opportunity to set targets through what would otherwise be…walking through a horde…of…strangers.
Thus established, I drifted over to each member and greeted them warmly while passing a friendly smile to the group with which they were engaged. Introductions were made; I gave a shy smile and a few comments. Whenever I felt a little nervous, I returned to face my “target” as a reminder that I wasn’t alone.
4. Find A Job to Stay Busy
Idleness isn’t just in the devil’s workshop; it’s also part of an anxious person’s nightmare. For me, standing somewhere in the middle of crowds, doing nothing, makes me feel like I should either be talking to someone, or doing something. I’m not a big “bend over my smartphone” kinda gal–or rather, I try not to be. I like to feel needed and productive.
What better way to do that (and to reduce the nerves of facing simplistic chitchat) than to get assigned a job?
I was lucky that at the cookout, my immediate family was hosting. That meant that, as soon as I parked my SUV in my mother’s yard and climbed out, I was put to work.
“Go send this chicken up to your cousin at the grill,” my mother barked, loading my arms with aluminum pans of raw poultry. Like a soldier hurrying to help support the flag, I rushed up the hill to where a pair of deluxe grills were mounted.
“Is your mother doing hot dogs, too?” my cousin asked, with one hand waving the grilling tongs majestically over the slabs of ribs smoking over the coals.
“I’m not sure; I’ll go check!” Down the hill I raced, tossing smiles at people I passed.
“Hot dogs? In the fridge. Take two packs!” Off I went, from kitchen to grill and back again.
Having a job can help give purpose and direction as well as keep your thoughts from being too preoccupied on the excessive surrounding stimuli.
Not only that, but watching some random person run wildly back and forth with supplies can be a very entertaining sight for the party-goers.
And I might be an anxiety-prone introvert–but I am also a performer, dagnabbit.
5. Remember Your Post-Event Life–aka Life After Party
The trouble with social anxiety is that it makes you all encompassed on the moment causing the anxiety. The only thing that fills your thoughts is how many people there are, and are you able to make it through, and man, you are so tired and why won’t everyone just shut up for a second.
But remember: as overwhelming as this moment is, it’s not the only moment. Once the party is over, you have–well–the rest of your life to relax from this exhausting moment.
Me? I had a full week of relaxing and playing with my immediate family–my mom, et all–to look forward to. It had been six months since I’d seen any of them, and I–I missed them.
I wanted to show them the new improv games I’d learned in my 8 weeks at the Village Theater. I wanted to test out my new voices I’d honed from my intensive voice acting course. I wanted to hear about their lives, their relationships, their highs, their lows. I wanted to reconnect again, find my bearings amongst them all.
If I had to make it through a few hours of heavy interaction with strangers just to get to the more intimate rest of the week, I would.
And you know what?
The party wasn’t half-bad, either. 😌