Dealing with social anxiety about "new" family arrangements
December 24, 2013 2:28 PM   Subscribe

My mother recently divorced my step-dad of 11 years and started dating a new guy about 6 months ago. Having a stranger in my family is causing my social anxiety to manifest when I go to visit on holidays and other times, and I don't know what is the best way to talk to my mom about this, and to what extent I should feel OK removing myself from these situations. I'm 26 years old but I have the feeling that the way I am acting is perceived as highly inappropriate and rude for an adult. She has been very understanding of my anxiety in the past but is now that it is related to her boyfriend, she's taking it personally and I'm not sure what to do.

I deal with a degree of social anxiety in my life, and for the most part I've learned to cope with many symptoms when they arise. I've worked with a therapist in the past and we talked a lot about accepting that I am an introverted person, and that its OK for me to turn down social events that I know I don't enjoy participating in. In most cases, just understanding that I have the power to leave a given situation has been calming enough.

However, I've reached an impasse ever since my mom's boyfriend has moved in with her a few months ago. In a perfect world, I would be able to meet him over the course of a few months over lunches out with my mom, but there has been a bit of pressure from my mom to come home and hang out for entire evenings - or in the case of tonight, Christmas Eve and morning. I'm not sure exactly why, but having this new person be a part of intimate family dinners and holidays is just a little too much for me to handle so soon. I only live about 45 minutes away, so I would normally spend an afternoon and evening at my mom's house once or twice a month. I've been doing this much less often, and the last time I went home for an afternoon, I had to retreat to the bathroom 5 or 6 times to cry for about 20 minutes and pull myself together.

I already skipped Thanksgiving dinner, and my mom was disappointed. I tried having a honest talk with her about how I'm feeling and she was pretty upset, it was hard for me to get through to her that I'm not angry with her for having a new boyfriend, that I'm not asking her to do anything for me, I just need time and space to process this new person being a part of the family. She said that she could tell I wasn't comfortable the past two times I'd come to visit, and that I was being selfish. She suggested a few times that I was acting like a child and that it is ridiculous to be afraid of strangers as an adult.

I understand why she is upset, and I'm not angry at her. Its very likely that she feels guilty that I am uncomfortable. I mostly just feel horrible about not being able to "perform", socially. This pressure of course is causing a LOT more anxiety than there needs to be. I have a very difficult time relaxing when I know that someone is watching me closely and monitoring whether I'm having a "good" time or not. Just that thought has been making me cry whenever it occurs to me.

I'm supposed to go home tonight for Christmas Eve but at this point I'm a mess. I'm terrified of going home and having to excuse myself from dinner, I'm terrified of feeling like I have to put on a show of being really friendly to the new boyfriend, I'm terrified of digging myself into a deeper hole of guilt and pressure if I *don't* go.

I would love to spend time with my family, but I feel deeply uncomfortable with this right now. Its really bumming me out that my social anxiety is manifesting in close family situations. I'm avoiding things that I'd really like to be a part of as a result of it. I'd really like to deal with it the best I can, but I feel like its impossible while I feel pressure from my mom to act a certain way.

What's the best way for me to talk to my mom about this?

As an adult, should I feel more comfortable being more assertive about the ways in which I want to interact with my family?

I've seen a therapist recently for social anxiety issues, but am not seeing anyone at the moment while I'm in between health insurance. I feel like my old therapist would say "You need to take care of your needs first. Your mother's reaction is her own to deal with and not your responsibility." But really sticking to my guns in this way during the holidays, knowing what my mom is going to think of me, is proving difficult and I need a bit of perspective!
posted by supernaturelle to Human Relations (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
That sounds really hard. I'd say you should definitely start going to the therapist again (assuming you're in the U.S. and will have to have health insurance again in a couple of days). It's a bigger problem that just being assertive. But for now, please don't feel guilty if you don't want to go. You can say you're not well and you're sorry you can't come.
posted by three_red_balloons at 2:43 PM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Short term, since you live relatively close, could you change your plans from staying overnight to stopping in for a brief visit (dinner) tonight, going home to sleep, and coming back in the morning for a little while, and then leaving again? Do you think knowing that you'll be home in a safe and non-performative space at night will help you cope with dinner? I think that there are definite middle grounds between being "on" the whole holiday and being entirely absent.

If I were your mother and I read this AskMe, I would tell you absolutely that I don't want you to feel bad, and to please stay home and have a happy holiday (and probably send you home with lots of food.) I wonder if she just doesn't know that you're quite in the bad place that you are right now, because you're better at presenting sociably than you think you are?

Long term, please get yourself back into therapy as soon as you can. Your internal therapist voice in the final paragraph of your question is the calmest part of your writing. I think you need to trust it!
posted by Mizu at 2:51 PM on December 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

"Mom, yes, it's ridiculous, I know it's ridiculous, but my social anxiety a mental health condition I can't make just go away. It's just as awkward for me as it is for you. He seems like a perfectly nice person and I just need to ease into this. I'm doing as much as I can about this right now, a lot of it is waiting on my getting health insurance again. I really am working hard to make this happen as quick as it can, can you meet me halfway?"

I mean, you don't have to tell her this. But if she really does care about you, she might just not understand that what you have is a recognized problem and not just a personal eccentricity. I felt really, really uncomfortable about my stepdad for... I dunno, the first year or so? Now, I'm not his greatest fan but I'm not bothered by his being around at all. It does get easier. But in the meantime, it is usually better when possible to be honest about what you're going through and why it's difficult.

I would really look into medication once you've got insurance again. It's never going to be as easy for me as it is for some people, but it's at least way easier than it used to be once I can tune the nervous system down to a dull roar, I get less overwhelmed.
posted by Sequence at 2:54 PM on December 24, 2013 [8 favorites]

It is not selfish to ask for what you need. Have you ever told your mom, "Mom, when you tell me I am being selfish when I am advocating for myself, you are hurting me and you are hurting our relationship. I need you to hear me, and help me get what I need. Are you going to be able to do that?"
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:03 PM on December 24, 2013 [10 favorites]

She suggested a few times that I was acting like a child and that it is ridiculous to be afraid of strangers as an adult.

This sounds awful and stressful and your mom is definitely the party in this situation who is behaving badly, not you. I would consider doing the therapy thing again if you think it will help you, but even more, I would consider asking mom to do a family session, just the two of you, so she could possibly gain some valuable insight on how thoughtless and cruel she is being by suggesting that your social anxiety issues are really just you being a bratty crybaby.
posted by elizardbits at 3:04 PM on December 24, 2013 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Does this happen with every new person you meet? Or are you missing her former partner? He's still your step-father and can be in your life to the extent you and he wish, despite your mother's divorce. The new guy isn't going to take his place.
I don't think you need to rush intimacy and family feeling with your mom's new beau, but I'd suggest that your feelings have more to do with loss of the familiar relationship that you had, your old family and the comfort you had in that situation. It's okay to mourn that family.
"Social anxiety" seems to be a buzz-word used for a multitude of emotional responses to various situations. Being an introvert doesn't have a lot to do with how you feel about changes in what was your family home.
Sure, your mom is allowed to change partners, get married, divorced, and all the rest, but she's either blind to how these changes would affect other family members and I think she's being incredibly insensitive to you by wanting you to just leap into the whole Christmas at home scenario. Frankly, I think you might want to start making your own traditions--maybe you go out for oysters and church with pals for Christmas Eve and show up for brunch with Mom and New Guy. Or the other way around. It's not going to be the same, and all moving parts are not interchangeable.
Print this thread out and show it to her.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:04 PM on December 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Your therapist-in-your-head is right! You need to take care of your needs first. Your mother's reaction is her own to deal with and not your responsibility. Really.

Sample verbiage that may get your needs taken care of (including the need to not have a fraught relationship with your mom):

"I'm sorry, Mom, but I'm not in a place right now where I'm going to be able to handle things in the way you want me to. It's OK if that makes you uncomfortable; if it's something you can't handle (and I totally understand that,) I'm going to have to skip these gatherings for a while, or leave early. If you like, I can give you some books on social anxiety so you can explain my behavior to New Significant Other Guy and help him understand it's really not him that's the issue."

I also like Three Birds' phrasing, though I give you permission to be hesitant about going that far in person. Your mom doesn't sound very supportive/understanding at all.

BTW, it's a really good sign that you know what your therapist would say. I agree with the others that resuming therapy when you can is a wise idea, but you're doing very well to be at that level.

It's also a little early for you being totally chummy with the new boyfriend. Being OK with him, but behaving like he's mostly a stranger, is more realistic. Does your mom understand you have social anxiety issues? Because this is a lot to ask of any young adult whose parents recently divorced.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 3:05 PM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, also - I've worked with a therapist in the past and we talked a lot about accepting that I am an introverted person, and that its OK for me to turn down social events that I know I don't enjoy participating in.

I would suggest you find a therapist who is aware of the difference between having social anxiety and being an introvert.
posted by elizardbits at 3:08 PM on December 24, 2013 [15 favorites]

Response by poster: "I don't think you need to rush intimacy and family feeling with your mom's new beau, but I'd suggest that your feelings have more to do with loss of the familiar relationship that you had, your old family and the comfort you had in that situation. It's okay to mourn that family. "

Ideefixe's very insightful comment is making me think of a couple other factors that I didn't mention in the original question that might paint a more complete picture. I guess I might be overlooking these pretty vital things as well:

-I had no idea that my mother was divorcing my stepdad until I came to visit this summer (I was temporarily living across the country at the time) and she told me over dinner after picking me up from the airport. He had moved out the day before I arrived. I didn't get to say goodbye. I wasn't particularly affectionate with my stepfather, but I was very comfortable with him and comfortable with our family.

-My mom also decided around the same time that the boyfriend moved in that she wanted to sell her house, which is the house that I grew up in. Again, I'm not angry at her for doing this, but I am sad. This was a big issue for her when I mentioned that it was a part of why I needed a little time to process; the idea that I am too old to be upset about something like that came up again.

So yes, mourning is definitely going on, and criticism of this mourning is also a major contributing factor to my anxiety, in addition to weird stranger in family land anxiety.
posted by supernaturelle at 3:28 PM on December 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You can't persuade your mother. The most you can do is to tell her you're doing your best, and you hope she can accept it. Then don't discuss it anymore; when she brings it up, just repeat what you already said.

You're probably going to think I'm completely clueless with the following comments, but I've experienced debilitating social anxiety in my life, and some of the people closest to me have been very unkind about it. I'm suggesting this because it will definitely work, but it would be very scary for you. I mean that it will work for you and for the boyfriend. You can't control how your mother feels, and she may not be satisfied. But at least you can say that you're handling it your way.

Write him a note, maybe inside a card. Hi, __________. I'm glad you're in my mother's life, and she's told me so many nice things about you. I'm really shy around new people, and it may take a while, but I'm looking forward to getting to know you. Sincerely, supernaturelle

Try to smile when you give it to him, but it's not mandatory. You don't have to stick around while he reads it if that's too much. After that, try to make eye contact at least once during your visit. If he's a decent guy he'll appreciate it and also tell your mother (when she harps on it) that he's okay with your shyness.

I agree with your "therapist" about your mom, but it's not an easy shift to make -- letting her anxiety roll off instead of feeling more anxious yourself because of it. That's something you can practice a little at a time. I'm not making excuses for her at all, but have some compassion for the worrying she's doing -- like you, she can't just will her anxiety to go away.

I really wish you well.
posted by wryly at 3:33 PM on December 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think you have viral gastroenteritis. Tell your mom that you are pooping and barfing. Maybe you'll stop in for New Year's.

Tomorrow you should go out for Chinese food and watch the movie Saving Mr. Banks.

Then go to Starbucks for hot chocolate.

Your viral gastroenteritis will be much improved tomorrow night. Promise.
posted by crw at 3:44 PM on December 24, 2013 [43 favorites]

I love crw's response. It will be great if you can get into therapy, maybe with medication, once your health insurance is in place. But you need advice for tonight and tomorrow, and I think crw is right on.

Actually, looking at the clock, it might be a little late for you to come down with gastroenteritis. (It's 6:57 PM here.) But if you have not yet left -- I think crw might be right!
posted by merejane at 3:58 PM on December 24, 2013

could you go for either christmas eve or christmas day, whichever is the more meaningful time for your family, and stay as long as you are able to? do give your mom a heads up though if you plan on going for just part of the time and reiterate to her that this is going to take some time for you to feel comfortable with the new family arrangement. i definitely wouldn't lie. your mom will surely see through that and feel even more hurt. i like wryly's idea of a card to the new guy explaining where you are at. you could write it in a nice xmas card. try reminding yourself that this new guy isn't going to bite. he probably just wants to get to know you a little. you don't have to be "really friendly" to him but rather just cordial.

i do think getting back in therapy and on some meds for this will likely help a lot in the future. good luck.
posted by wildflower at 5:05 PM on December 24, 2013

Maybe you should see about getting a prescription for Xanax to take as-needed for these family get-togethers until you adjust?
posted by Jacqueline at 5:16 PM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to say that I'm sorry for your loss, and that you do not have to feel bad (one iota) for the stress you are feeling about this. If this is about grief, you know how they say that you should let people grieve in their own way? It's pretty rude to suggest that you shouldn't have a problem with loss or change in relationships, and whatever it is that that may require for you.

I think for your mom not to get this reveals a serious lack of empathy or introspection on her part. I'm feeling the loss for you as a pretty obvious thing to be distressed about, and I have no idea who you are! Divorce is a bigger deal than some people make it out to be in terms of emotional upheaval, and there are some who think that everyone should just automatically adjust like it's no big deal, as some kind of adult perspective on life. It may be that your mom wants the family change to be "not a big deal" and is seeing your anxiety as some sort of judgment. Don't let this keep you from doing what you have to do to take good care of yourself.

I'm not saying, of course, that having less social anxiety couldn't help you here. But you are not wrong, at face value, with finding this to be a distressing situation. I like the idea of finding a reason to bow out for the day and simply take good care of yourself.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:41 PM on December 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Your mom is being kind of a bitch about this, if you'll pardon my saying so. You are not "too old" to feel sad about her abruptly divorcing your step-dad and selling the house you grew up in. She's entitled to do what she wants with her life but she doesn't get to tell you how you are supposed to feel about it. Hell, I still cry sometimes when I think about the house my grandparents lived in while I was little. I am 48 years old and the house was sold like 40 years ago.

As far as social anxiety, I feel you there (although you sound a bit worse off than me... I don't feel particularly weird with one stranger in a group of people I otherwise know.) However, since joining church a few years ago and winding up in some groups where everyone knows each other and I am the new person is a situation which makes me feel anxious. The only thing that makes it better is time, and taking baby steps as far as engaging with the group. I don't put pressure on myself to "act really friendly", I just go, be cordial, smile as much as I can manage, and emerge from my shell little by little as I feel more comfortable. It's taken the better part of two years as a member of one group where I feel comfortable contributing to meetings and conversing with people as if I know them.

If I were you I'd pick one of the two dates to attend, go and be as pleasant and cordial as you can manage, and then just keep showing up to stuff until you start to get used to the new guy and the new house and all. I think that the more you avoid it, the more you prolong the process. But of course you should pace yourself so as not to get overwhelmed, so try to balance gently pushing yourself to engage with also putting limits on the number and length of time you visit.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:36 PM on December 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Yeah, you can't control your mom's reaction, that's for sure. It's all on her. If she's not going to be understanding, then that's on her. You are 100% in the right, and your feelings are 100% valid. Please know that.

FWIW, Christmas is often a very stressful time for people, and as a result, they sometimes act differently to make sure everything goes smoothly. Sometimes they act differently to compensate for not doing what they wanted to do/should have done during the year, to try and make up for "lost time." Sometimes there's a lot going on; presents and family members to deal with. That said, no matter what, you're allowed to feel the way you do. You have my permission to take whatever time you need to adjust to your mom's new man.

I'd recommend going for one night or so, then once the Christmas dust settles down and people's stress levels go back down, have a heart to heart talk with your mom. Explain how it's not actual fear, but rather, anxiety, and how it's not something you can control. I experience social anxiety myself, so I know how debilitating it can be. If she still doesn't understand, then... you did your part. At the end of the day, it's your life, your feelings, your thoughts, not anybody else's. Be friendly and cordial at the most you can be, but don't feel you need to open up. Hope this helped somewhat!
posted by dubious_dude at 7:57 PM on December 24, 2013

nthing medication. The situations you describe are *exactly* what PRN medication is for. Drop a Klonopin or a couple xanex and head on over, but still for short visits on your own terms.

You don't need to stop being assertive, you don't need to stop putting your needs first, but good drugs can smooth over a lot of this.
posted by colin_l at 9:06 PM on December 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

What about begging off part or all of Xmas but at the same time making a date to go out to lunch with the two of them on at a familiar restaurant? That way your mother doesn't feel rejected, you are handling your relationship in an adult way, it is a short visit with a definite end time, and it is neutral ground. You should also get some medication to reduce your anxiety that you can at least take on an as-needed basis.

This is having a major impact on your life and you need to address this with professionals because your current coping methods aren't working. I can kind of see where your mother is coming from, you tell her this is a serious medical issue - she has felt the impact for months - and yet you don't seem to feel it is serious enough to have taken steps to resolve it medically though therapy or medication. Do you see a bit where she may be wondering if you are using anxiety and/or the lack of seeking medical attention as an excuse?
posted by saucysault at 1:11 AM on December 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Even before your update, I wanted to pop in and say it IS awkward that your mom is already living with somebody new and your reaction is totally normal.

Your mom's reaction to you? Not so much.


Tell me, did you come down with gastrointestinal-whatchamacallit?

I sure hope so!!
posted by jbenben at 2:29 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your mom is an adult and it's fine for her to move on if that's right for her.

And you're still young---do you really not want to try and deal with your social anxiety? There are people who don't and it just narrows the opportunities they have in life and also hampers their ability to deal with others. There will always be strangers. There have been strangers since forever, but it's important to be courageous and learn to manage yourself as well as you can.

See a therapist and a psychiatrist asap and consult with him/her on how to cope.

And your mom is allowed to do whatever she wants whenever she wants. It's not a bad thing to get out of a relationship that's not right for you and move on. You're an adult now, she's also an adult. If you expect her to respect you, you have to respect her and not be so judgmental.
posted by discopolo at 4:17 PM on December 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

What's your mother supposed to do? Stay in a relationship that is over and keep everything the same as is has been so her 26-year-old offspring doesn't get upset? If you were 6 instead of 26 I'd understand the problem you're having dealing with the "stranger" in the home, but at your age if you're still having trouble with this kind of thing, it's you who needs the help. No way should your mother have to put her own life on hold because you're uncomfortable when she does something different.

Really - get help with your social anxiety - you need to find the way to manage in the big, strangers-everywhere world you were born into. You can no longer expect your mother or anyone else to make special accommodations for you, especially when it comes to things like family gatherings for holidays, vacations, etc.

You should be in my family. Every year my son brings a new "love" to our holiday get togethers and I never know who's coming until 12 hours or so before they arrive. They don't know me and I don't know them, but here they come and dinner's on and gifts, etc. And it all works out just fine - the new person may be a little uneasy, but we just blend her in with the rest of us and move on - she either relaxes or she doesn't - and they always do.

Time to deal with your own problems, honey - your Mom's off the hook. Please, please, get therapy, and if it isn't working, find a different therapist. Good luck to you - I hope by next Christmas things are very much improved.
posted by aryma at 1:07 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

In a relationship, it is not a "valid argument" for the partner to excuse his or her behavior by saying that it was caused because he forgot to take his medications. It is the partner's responsibility to take care of his or her mental health.

Similarly, you are an adult, and part of your responsibility with the relationship with your mom or any other loved ones in your life is for you to treat your anxiety issues. You can truly help your mom by helping yourself.
posted by deanc at 7:20 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Haha, I appreciate the "tough love" in the last three comments but perhaps I didn't make it clear that I have been in therapy recently (until November, when I had a lapse in insurance) and I am indeed on medications that have helped a LOT with my anxiety- if fact, its pretty much cleared from most other situations I'd had it in before. This new thing is something I'm actively working on. My question is more how to communicate to my mother that my current absence from/discomfort with family events *isn't* about me being critical of her life decisions (I'm actually SO happy that my mom is the type of person who doesn't "settle") but is about me processing an emotionally ripe situation at my own pace. In my eyes taking the time I need is just as much a part of my treatment as therapy or meds.

She is aware that I'm on medication and have sought/will be again seeking help soon once new health insurance kicks in.
posted by supernaturelle at 12:56 PM on December 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

OP, I hope you're surviving the holidays, hang in there!

Another way of looking at this - be careful not to make the same mistake many of the commenters here are making. Please don't confuse the two entirely separate issues of 1) Your Mother's Personal Life Choices (you sound clear that it's 100% her own business who she lives with/dates and that you support her attempts to find happiness in love) versus 2) The way your mother treats YOU, which has nothing at all to do with her love life! She dismisses you and calls you names when you attempt to enforce your own perfectly valid boundaries around socializing. Your boundaries are very much your own business, and you absolutely DO get to be upset about your mother not only crossing them, but for hurting you when you didn't comply.

Again, this is about how she treats you, not about who she's dating - but in her mind, they're linked. For starters, your mother needs to develop a much thicker skin about her life decisions. She needs to stop passive aggressively forcing you to validate her life choices, and she needs to stop punishing you for not keeping up appearances sufficiently for her.

Calling you "selfish" and saying "a few times" that you were "acting like a child" was absolutely wrong of her. I'm sorry she treated you so badly when you trusted her enough to be vulnerable and share your hurt feelings with her.

What's the best way for me to talk to my mom about this?

Please stop worrying so much about trying to convince her you're not being critical of her, because that's a losing game. Deep down I know she feels extremely critical of herself, and it sure sounds like she's projecting that self-criticism on to you.

Instead, listen to your inner therapist and just continue to focus on your own health at this time. Follow your mother's own great example of prioritizing your own needs first and not worrying about what your blood relatives think or feel. It works for her, it will work for you, too.
posted by hush at 12:05 AM on December 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

to focus on your own health at this time. Follow your mother's own great example of prioritizing your own needs first and not worrying about what your blood relatives think or feel. It works for her, it will work for you, too.

Yes, seconding this. Sorry for before. It sounded to me like you were really caught up in your mom's decision to move on and were upset about that.

But definitely take care of and meet your needs before trying to meet everyone else's. And good for you for going to therapy. You're only responsible for doing your best and it sounds like you're trying really hard. And that's all you can do.
posted by discopolo at 3:35 AM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

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