Last Saturday it was my Dad’s birthday party. Being a large, jovial social gathering packed with family members, friends and loved ones, I was of course terrified. Parties are always something people seem to get very excited about and dare I say look forward to in the “real world”, but in my world and the world of anyone with social anxiety they are a minefield of stress, uncertainty, embarrassment and awkwardness.
However, I somehow made it through the party this weekend by following a “Social gatherings survival guide” that I created as a military style strategy to manage the whole thing like an army preparing for battle. So, in the interest of helping anyone else out there with any level of social anxiety (aka my fellow soldiers), I thought I would share my survival guide to surviving the obstacle course in life known as “the situation in which you have to hang around people”…
Step One: Make a preliminary plan for the evening – As every good soldier knows, the key to success in battle (aka a social situation) is a step by step plan to follow, much like the guide I am writing here but far more specific and suited to the environment in which you have found yourself. Thinking “I am going out to a party tonight” can be very overwhelming, but if you break it down into pieces it becomes a little more manageable. For example “I will leave for the party at 7pm”, “I will drive to the party”, “I will stay for two hours” sounds far less intimidating. I often find that by setting a time limit I manage to get myself out the house by thinking “it is only two hours” and then sometimes the situation isn’t actually too bad so I can stay for longer having fooled my enemy (aka my brain) into allowing my excursion from safety. Whilst you have a plan though, it is also important to be open to being flexible should opportunities such as staying an extra hour arise. The plan is more of a comforting guide to have in your back pocket rather than a rigid set of actions that you must carry out, even if that means leaving when you are having fun, just because it is in the schedule.
Step Two: Set up a safe base/camp – When putting yourself in a potentially stressful situation it is always important to have a safe place to retreat to when things get too much. Forcing yourself to stand in the stressful fray of pass the parcel or musical chairs, when your anxiety really cannot handle it, does not a good soldier make, and it is important to know when you need a break to refuel on sanity. The safe place will ideally be a place some distance from the battlefield that is a little quieter. A lot of social gatherings in my family happen at my Aunt and Uncle’s house who thankfully are very accommodating to this particular soldier and always have a camp (aka the back bedroom with blankets and cushions) for me to camouflage myself in when things are too much. If you are going to a gathering in surroundings you are familiar with, plan your safe place in advance. This is unfortunately not possible when entering unknown territory, but as a hint, good safe places to seek out in most locations can be found just outside the party venue (aka by the door for fresh air), in a bathroom (not an ideal habitat but guarantees the safety of privacy), or, if you drove yourself to the gathering, in your tank (otherwise known as your car).
Step Three: Lower your expectations – When I entered the party on Saturday I felt an immense amount of pressure. Being a general guest in battle is one thing but being the offspring of the person whose gathering it is is like being suddenly promoted to Commander in Chief. Everyone at the party knew who I was even if I didn’t know them and being related to the host I felt it was my responsibility to ensure the evening ran smoothly, entertain everyone, serve the food and start the conga line. Obviously nobody else expected any of these things from me (which is somewhat sad as I do like a conga line), and people just wanted to see me there. When you go to a party do not feel the pressure to perform or act in a certain way or as if the responsibility of the evening’s success is on your ability to be a good guest, people don’t invite you to a gathering to serve a particular purpose, they just want to see you.
Step Four: Prepare stock answers – When in battle it is likely that you will be interrogated (aka asked polite questions by nice people who want to find out how you are.) This is one of the most stressful parts of an evening in my opinion, as I always find myself tongue tied and never know what to say even to simple questions like “What have you been up to lately”. Obviously it is impossible to predict which probing questions might be launched during socialisation, but some questions are more likely than others (in my experience people are more likely to ask what you are doing with your life than what you think would happen if the world was run by a power hungry fairy with a passion for pogo sticks), and it may help to plan stock answers to whip out when the occasion presents itself. For example this weekend, for the inevitable “what have you been up to?”, I prepared “I am currently running a fantastic blog that you should definitely follow because it is the best thing on the internet” rather than leaving it to my brain to come up with an answer on the spot which would have likely been something along the lines of “um…I am living at home because I am mentally ill but the other day I managed to touch a doorhandle without showering afterwards so that was an achievement ahh please stop talking to me”.
Step Five: Bring an inflatable penguin along with you – Yes soldier, you read that correctly, that is a key step to this plan. Like horror films, social gatherings are things that are easier to manage when you have a buddy or someone/something you can trust with you. If you can take a friend or even a small object like a heavy pebble to cling to when things are getting scary it can be a great help in grounding you and hopefully prevent any spiralling into total irrationality and panic.
When my mum was buying things for this weekend’s party she foolishly took me to a balloon shop where she proceeded to purchase helium filled orbs with my dads age on them. How imaginative. Thankfully I was there to help/be an inconvenience, and by the time we left the shop, in addition to mum’s choices, I had obtained an inflatable penguin balloon on a lead which I proceeded to drag around the party with me for the duration of the evening. Sounds silly but it was oddly comforting and whenever I started to panic about someone coming over to talk to me I could just glance behind me and think “it’s fine, I have my inflatable penguin with me, what could possibly go wrong!”.
So there you have it chaps. That is my strategy guide and list of steps to get my fellow social anxiety soldiers through battle. Any situation involving a large group of people is going to still be scary, but hopefully with these tips you can at least feel a little prepared so that things are more manageable. Remember we are all in this war together and you are never alone. Now go forth my brave warriors, fight the fear, stay safe, follow my lead and commence mission socialise….
Oh, and for anyone who wanted to see a picture of my personal buddy this weekend…