If you suffer from some form of social anxiety or social phobia the prospect of party season is likely to fill you with dread. I’ve listened to people talk about sleepless nights and feeling sick with anxiety. When I spoke to Jack (names changed to protect identity) I asked what he most feared. “I think people will see through me," he said. "Once the booze starts to flow that’s when the comments will start.” Jill, by contrast, said she was always torn between staying and going to parties. “If I don’t go I just know I’ll be the focus of the gossip because that’s exactly what they do if someone doesn’t attend.”
Not “party phobia”
Jane doesn’t want to attend the office party because she finds it’s an excuse for drunkenness, lewd comments and wandering hands. She’s conflicted and anxious. If she stays away she fears it may go against her, especially because some of the other girls seem happy to go. This is not an example of social phobia. Social phobia refers to a long-lasting and overwhelming fear of most social situations. Jane, however, fears a specific situation because the accepted culture seems to sanction disinhibited behavior and sexual harassment. It is therefore perfectly understandable that Jane wants to avoid becoming the target and the victim at such an event.
If anxiety is the main issue and you choose to stay away from a party or social gathering, your avoidance will certainly lessen some of the awful symptoms that come with social anxiety. All that confusion, blushing, shaking and tension won’t be seen. The morbid fear of being asked for your opinion, or having to make small talk, or the sweating and dizziness that makes you fear you may faint, won’t happen. These are compelling reasons to stay away, but they are also the reasons you are sabotaging any potential for recovery. The more you avoid the more likely you are to fear the things you avoid.
Preparing to go
You wouldn’t dream of running a marathon unless you had first put in some training. Yet this is exactly the predicament you’ve probably found yourself in. Having spent the year dodging social interactions and only speaking to people inside your small and trusted network, along comes the annual party. Maybe your partner is desperate for you to go and so, reluctantly, you agree. Maybe you know your partner is likely to be pulled away when you arrive and you’ll be on your own. Whatever your situation, the fact is it’s like diving into the deep end when you already struggle to swim a few meters.
Here’s a thought: Why not try a few homegrown experiments in order to get some training in? For example, if you’re out shopping, pass a few comments to the person behind the counter. Say something about the weather, or ask questions rather than waiting to be asked. Lots of people like talking about themselves, so a simple question such as, “Do you have any pets?” if you’re purchasing dog food, or a statement like, “That’s a nice dress,” may be all it takes to break the ice and for you to begin to relax.
Looking at another person and thinking of your next question also takes the focus off yourself. Say hello to new people. Take the initiative and start small conversations or make telephone calls. It’s a case of dipping your toes in the water and then gradually immersing yourself rather than plunging straight in. I think you’ll find it’s a lot easier than you imagine.
One thing to keep in mind is that you are not alone. Social anxiety is quite common and reveals itself in different ways and at different levels. People with social anxiety don’t have to look terrified, twitchy, or edgy. That aloof and standoffish person you’ve seen may well be in knots. Some people come across as irritable and some may appear quite bubbly and outgoing but are finding the whole experience a massive effort. This shows us that it isn’t always possible to tell how another person feels inside.
So, should you stay or go?
You should go. Even if you only stay a short time you will avoid all the self-recrimination that comes with avoidance. Don’t be overly concerned with social rules because there isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t fully measure up to these. But you must discover for yourself that your fears are groundless. Each and every day, nudge yourself into small social challenges. Undertake a random act of kindness. Expose yourself gradually to social situations that may not even require speaking and you may find it easier just being in larger groups.
Social anxiety tends to respond well to therapy and this is always a good option to consider if you feel you aren’t making the progress you would like.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.