If the limit of your conversational prowess this past year has been to grunt through Zoom meetings, nag your children or make passive-aggressive comments to the cat, you may feel out of practice now large gatherings are in reach. Perhaps you’ve quite enjoyed this period of government-mandated introversion and dread the idea that you may be expected to socialise. Either way, if all goes according to plan, this era of social distancing may be starting to close. For those feeling a little daunted, here, MS-UK Counsellor Mark Howe explains how to ease yourself back in.
Some social anxiety is normal
It is part of being human. We’ve all been socially deprived this last year, and when you haven’t done something for a while, it can feel a bit strange going back into it. The social rules may also have changed – do you hug? Do you need to wear a mask? Some anxiety is understandable, so we need to give ourselves a bit of a break.
You can’t lose social skills
We acquire most of our social skills between the ages of zero and seven. Sometimes they’re hard to remember and we may have to dig way down, but they’re there. It may take a reminder of what is socially acceptable, but your fundamental skills won’t have withered irreparably. Also, remember that the changes to restrictions can be gradual. You don’t have to brace yourself for something that feels like a tsunami.
Build confidence gradually
Note down some small goals that you would like to achieve in the coming weeks. It could be reaching out to people online, or arranging to meet someone for a coffee, or doing an online course. If you feel you are struggling, there are effective treatments, usually CBT, for social anxiety. Social anxiety starts early in life – most people describe it starting in early adolescence – so if you’ve always lived with it, you often think it’s just who you are. But there are good treatments that can really change someone’s life.
Don’t avoid social situations
It might seem the easier option, but it won’t help long-term. Avoidance incubates anxiety. It can also have negative consequences, such as missing job or friendship opportunities. The world may have shrunk around us and to some it feels comfortable, but it’s not always good for us. When you’re shy you have to, in order to move forward and experience life fully… be brave.
But be mindful of what you can tolerate
As restrictions change, it’s reasonable to establish boundaries. If you suspect your employer wants you back in the office five days a week, you could pre-empt that by coming up with a plan of why and how you could start with two. Then you’re not on the defensive. In the event you receive an invitation to a large gathering once they are allowed, such as weddings or a milestone birthday and you are unsure about accepting, smooth the way by meeting certain obligations, such as sending a present, but don’t offer an explanation other than saying you’re not ready. Will you ever be able to go to a big party? Of course, but you don’t know when and that’s OK.
Ease the pressure
People who feel more socially anxious tend to do so because they put a lot of pressure on themselves, and that’s probably going to be the case as life opens. Social interactions are not a performance, – they’re simply about being with other people. One of the most common fears people have is that they feel they should be interesting all the time. But many of us have had a pretty mundane existence over the past year. Simply sharing how bored you’ve been feeling in lockdown is probably enough, because that’s other people’s shared experience too. Don’t assume that being anything less than a dazzling raconteur is a failure. Having very high expectations of yourself – to always have something witty to say, or to never trip over your words – is a route to feeling socially anxious. These are totally impossible standards.
Social interactions are a two-way street. Other people do not go into social interactions expecting the person they are meeting to perform or entertain them. Social interactions are just about being together. When you over-analyse yourself, it gives you the impression that the other person is also doing that, when they’re not. The more we can get out of our head and lost in social interactions, the more we ultimately enjoy them.
Don’t write a script
Although it’s tempting to prepare topics of conversation, or one-liners, it’s actually counter-productive. It makes you more self-focused, more anxious. It takes you out of the interaction because you’re more in your head, thinking about your list of things to talk about, rather than just going with the flow of the conversation. It can unwittingly make you appear aloof or uninterested in the other person. Again, it puts way too much pressure on yourself and the interaction.
Or maintain a lower-key social life – if you want to
Perhaps you have enjoyed a quieter, less frenzied life, with fewer people making demands on your time, and want it to continue. This is also perfectly valid. To demanding friends, you could say: ‘I have actually found that I want to proceed differently now. I still really want to see you, but I won’t be going to big parties’, or whatever it is you want to say. Do you want loads of friends because it would make you happier, or because you feel you should? We’re so used to trying to gather ‘likes’ and followers, it’s been ingrained into us, but we don’t need hundreds of people around us. Introverts prefer deeper relationships with fewer people. There’s not one picture of success. Often, we’re shown this extrovert ideal, and we’re all supposed to aim for that, and actually, that’s not for everyone.