You Have Social Anxiety. Help me help you.
February 3, 2020 1:14 PM   Subscribe

I am not a person who suffers from social anxiety, but perhaps you are. If you are, how can I help make difficult social situations easier for you?

Today, Kottke posted a video about social anxiety. Thankfully, I am not a person who suffers from social anxiety. However, from time to time, I've noticed folks who are struggling through a party or social gathering.
If you've watched the linked video and you can relate to the character in it, this question is for you.

In these situations, how can I best help you?
posted by cleverevans to Human Relations (33 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
You can't. This is my struggle. Drawing any attention to my struggle with special treatment only makes it 10 times worse.

At least it's that way for me.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:18 PM on February 3, 2020 [41 favorites]

Look inside yourself and feel affection in a visible, genuine, calm way.
posted by amtho at 1:24 PM on February 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

If you are an organizer of said party, having a quiet non-socializing area. Kind of the equivalent of the chillout rooms they used to have at raves, or just a place one can go if they need to get away from it to recharge their batteries. Maybe even something as simple as having a movie going in another room, or something, since that often stops socialization as people are all looking at the screen.

I've found the maxim of "for extroverts, socializing charges batteries; for introverts, socializing drains them" to be a little simplified but for the most part a good rule of thumb. In this case, the overall idea is to give the socially anxious a place to get away from a battery-draining situation to recharge a bit.
posted by WCityMike at 1:33 PM on February 3, 2020 [10 favorites]

For me a lot of it is about wanting to talk to other people but not having a good idea of how to engage with them. This is worse if the people I'm around are mostly straight, or if they're all parents (things I can't relate to). Having a quiet room helps, but having people who engage with me in a low-key way is also really good. One of the best things for me overall has been having extroverted friends who drag me around to things and get that I'm not going to start conversations with strangers but am fine with joining if they do it.

Also if you are going to a party where you have a socially anxious friend, make plans to go with them and just chill with them. They may go do their own thing after they feel comfortable, but short of that it makes a lot of difference to have a friend to hang out with.
posted by bile and syntax at 1:52 PM on February 3, 2020 [13 favorites]

Two good roles for someone experiencing anxiety at a party are fire keeper and errand runner. Ask if they’d like to help you get firewood/tend the fire where applicable or run to a corner store for party supplies (do people need mixers or something? You can make up any number of reasons for an errand run. I’ve left a party to go with a friend to their house to get animal themed onesies).

Both activities provide both space and a sense of purpose, and when they require you to leave the party for a while, it gives things an opportunity to reshuffle in a way that might be more comfortable when you return. You can pick a person or two you’re most comfortable with to step out with if you want to remain a bit social. Plus people tend to be appreciative of your service in a way that puts you at ease interacting with them. Firekeeping doesn’t always make you leave the party if you’ve got plenty of wood, but it’s a soothing activity that excuses you from heavy social interaction. I’ve noticed that the fire keeper at any given gathering is usually the most anxious or introverted person there (often me).
posted by Gymnopedist at 1:54 PM on February 3, 2020 [14 favorites]

Get really good at introducing people and give them a jumping-off point for conversation. I have what I think is mild social anxiety— it is really that first icebreaker that intimidates me. If you make a point of introducing people and include something that they might have in common. "This is Susie, we were just talking about her recent trip to Mexico." It is like someone throwing me a lifesaver, because then I can be like "oh cool, what part of Mexico/was it for work or vacation," etc. Rather than grasping blindly for something to talk about.

Some people in my life have a bad habit of forgetting to make introductions, resulting in these really awkward scenarios while I'm standing there trying to figure out how/whether to jump in, while they stand there and carry on a conversation right in front of me. The longer it goes, the more uncomfortable I get.
posted by jschu at 2:03 PM on February 3, 2020 [15 favorites]

I want to be chattering away like everybody else here, but can't seem to get started.

Help me out by asking me questions!
posted by Rash at 2:06 PM on February 3, 2020 [23 favorites]

I appreciate it when more outgoing people introduce me to people that may have a common interest with me and draw me directly into the conversation. It helps if they stick with me until I'm in a coversation group that is going well. If they leave me and later see that I'm sitting alone, it helps if they come talk to me and pull me into another group.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 2:06 PM on February 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

Be nice. Let them feel like their presence is welcome, no mater how quiet they are being.
Strike up a conversation but don't put them in a situation in which they're the center of attention.

Push through the awkwardness like it's no big deal. The last thing they want is for their discomfort to become your discomfort (then they feel like a burden). For example, in the video when he spills his shot. For him, it's a catastrophe. It would have helped if others had been like, "oops, it happens, let's get you another one" and move on from there.
posted by Neekee at 2:07 PM on February 3, 2020 [7 favorites]

Obviously mileage is going to vary here, but I find these things helpful for myself and my social circle that trends toward anxious introverts:

Information: what's going to be happening at this event? Is there a timeline? Is there food and drink, do I pay for it, and if so how? Is there seating, what kind? What size event is it? I can use technology to get to the location but what exactly do I do about car/bike parking, are there accessibility concerns (or accommodations but you need to know they're there to use them, like hidden elevators)? How do I find the event itself/know I have entered the correct function and not someone else's function? Who's going to be there? What should I wear? Will it be loud, will there be a quieter area if it's loud? Is your event space/crowd actively unwelcome to homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexual assault? Does public transportation, if available, end unexpectedly early or late? Will there be a cat/dog, and can I pet it?

Nature of event: in my crowd, people really want to be Doing a Thing, even if the Thing is a bit of a pretense to socialization, because Things have Rules. Game nights, watch parties, crafting or making. Even larger generic parties tend to have some stations where Things can be done - a craft, some games, a puzzle or assembly toys, a giant color-in tablecloth and sharpies, assemble a food thing, maybe a watch station with some kind of themed content (movie, curated youtube playlist, Twitch, etc) where people can plunk down and semi-socialize.

If you're mixing up a bunch of people who are relative strangers, especially, I think it makes a big difference to roll in companionable distractions without (this is important) dictating Enforced Fun. Either it should be a targeted event so people can opt in by showing up at all - mini golf, crafternoon, pizza crawl, specific kind of game night - or easy options provided to let people warm up as they need to, and share that there will be some of these in advance. Make it easy for people to discover shared interests, and if it's not obvious be ready to make those introductions in a thoughtful way.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:17 PM on February 3, 2020 [10 favorites]

Hey, I have social anxiety!

First of all, seconding everyone above who suggested having a "chill-out space" for any parties that you host. I often run out of energy an hour or two into a party and need to be by myself for a bit to recharge. I don't want to just scroll through my phone in the corner of the main room because that feels awkward and I don't want people to see me being antisocial, so if there's nowhere better, I usually end up tying up the bathroom for 10-15 minutes to be by myself and get my energy back together. Which isn't ideal. Having a bedroom or somewhere else to chill would be perfect.

As for what you can do in terms of personal interactions, the answer depends a lot on whether you already know me. If we're friends, I would really appreciate you coming up to me and saying a friendly hello and chatting with me. A lot of my social anxiety comes from an internalized belief that I'm weird and nobody likes me, so having a friend being excited to see me gets me out of my head and reminds me that people do, in fact, like me -- and makes the party easier to deal with for the next little while.

If we don't already know each other, it's a little trickier, because that internalized belief that people don't like me makes meeting new people really anxiety-inducing for me. It's easier if you're naturally talkative and sort of unfazed by quiet people, because then I don't feel like I'm "letting you down" if I can't hold up my end of the conversation very well. You could do some nice things like offer to get me a drink, compliment my outfit/makeup/whatever, or bring me into a conversation that you're having.

Here's the thing, though -- it has to feel completely natural, and not feel like you're going out of your way to be nice to me because I look anxious and lonely. If I get a whiff of a feeling that you're being nice to me out of pity, that makes me feel even worse and I'm likely to clam up.
posted by mekily at 2:22 PM on February 3, 2020 [20 favorites]

Also, if you're friends with someone with social anxiety, getting together with them in ways that don't set it off is nice. A lot of us have a lot of trouble with parties but few opportunities to see people outside of them.
posted by metasarah at 2:43 PM on February 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

I have mild social anxiety - which you wouldn't think at all if you knew me, because I'm extroverted, outspoken, and I actually enjoy small talk. But it's still true, so I do a bunch of extra and private labour to manage my anxiety.

If possible, I will always try to see photos of the event in previous years, or at least photos of the venue, or at least photos of the other guests on the RSVP list. This helps me to predict the vibe, maybe know what the host and crowd will be like, and thus feel much more comfortable when I arrive. I'll make wardrobe and grooming choices, like what shoes to wear or what bag to bring, based on details from this info- how much standing we'll be doing, how bright the lighting will be, etc.

I invest a lot of time figuring out what to wear because I REALLY HATE to be inappropriately dressed. I'm racialized so appearing "proper" is more important for me and appearing "inappropriate" happens more easily and incurs much harsher judgement for me than it might for a white person.

I generally do a quick google or social media snoop to research this stuff. I don't need someone else to do it for me- just letting you know as a data point about the kind of thing people might want to know- and the fact that surprises can be really stressful.

Once, an ex took me to "a mystery event" as "as surprise treat" and refused to tell me what it was, where it was, or what the vibe would be like. I showed the ex three outfits of varying formalities and they chose the most casual outfit, which in retrospect was the wrong choice; I should have worn the more formal one, which would also have been much warmer and more practical.

I ended up having to walk over a kilometre in painful shoes, I was cold for hours, I should have been dressed much more formally so I was writhing about that the whole day, a lovely meal was served but I had eaten beforehand, AND it ended late (which the ex should have predicted) so I was very late to an appointment. The actual event was really cool and I would have really enjoyed it - but my ex's domineering secrecy made me really anxious beforehand, and the lack of info led to incorrect choices which made the whole day really uncomfortable for me. So my main note: minimize surprises!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:44 PM on February 3, 2020 [8 favorites]

Give me a task, any task. I’ll be glad to be helpful and filling a role will give me a solid place to work from.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:53 PM on February 3, 2020 [20 favorites]

I didn't think that video actually had much to do with typical social anxiety. The first link says, "The main character is someone who has learned to repress his emotions." I don't think most people who have social anxiety got there because they had weird parents who taught them to repress their emotions. I suspect a lot of people who are nervous in social situations wish they were better at repressing their emotions.

I have a medium level of social anxiety. I find an argument or a chance to debate sets me at ease like nothing else. Mild rudeness or lack of etiquette in general is relaxing to me. Seeing other people ignoring politeness rules reassures me that I don't have to worry about offending them by accidentally breaking a rule myself. But I know this is not a universal preference. My even more socially anxious partner hates arguments. If the two of us walked into a party where a huge debate was going on and we were asked to take sides, I would immediately relax and jump in and he would want to turn right around and walk back out the door.
posted by Redstart at 3:02 PM on February 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

I echo the people talking about social introduction and facilitation, which is what a host throwing a party where the guests don't already know each other well should be doing anyway. Putting people together with a topic of mutual interest is your best chance of breaking the ice.

Being clear about dress code is also a very good idea. Cut the "Brooklyn recherche cocktail casual" nonsense unless you're very sure your whole invite list will get it. Social anxious people are often desperate just to blend in, so the more you make them guess about the social conventions for the event, the more you're going to stress them out.
posted by praemunire at 3:05 PM on February 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I really hate small talk and conversations revolving around what I do for a living/my degrees or what not as I feel it others everyone involved or people take it as a cue to start competing with me/each other. I'm not sure if this is common or just something that happens to me but it definitely makes me nervous and makes me want to lie or avoid people completely. Not sure how you can help resolve this, but perhaps talking to someone about something other than what they do for a living would help.
posted by Young Kullervo at 3:08 PM on February 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Please give me something to do. I love being helpful, and when I have a purpose I feel like I can interact with people more readily. Being just a guest at an event where I don't know anyone is just grueling for me.

Facilitate conversation starters. Do you know someone else who has a shared interest with me? Bring us together and say, "I wanted to introduce the two of you because you both like X! Kitchen Witch loves _____. So and so, you mentioned you've been doing that for a few years now..."

Understand that my social meter might deplete more rapidly than that of others.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 3:16 PM on February 3, 2020 [8 favorites]

This is helpful. I particularly appreciate responses that are actionable on my part. Thank you. Feel free to keep mentioning other ideas.
posted by cleverevans at 3:17 PM on February 3, 2020

Give me a task and/or keep an eye out for me and how I'm doing in the group.

I have serious anxiety issues and also have a very large friend group, I rely on my "safe people" and usually won't go to an event unless at least a few of my safe people will be there when I arrive.
posted by Twinge at 3:24 PM on February 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have really bad social anxiety, which for me is about being unsure of the rules in any given gathering, which makes me feel scared, and the more scared I feel, the more I retreat. I just had my best social anxiety experience at a work conference this week and I compared it to my worst one, which was at a fan convention a few years ago.

At the bad event, "You can walk up to anyone you want and start talking to them" was a rule, but I couldn't believe in it, because I didn't see evidence of it. I saw a lot of people talking to their friends, of which I was not one, so going up and talking to people felt like breaking a rule, which is something my brain hates doing especially in situations that are new & when I'm alone, when I'm the most cautious.

At the good event, I saw strangers talking to each other and welcoming each other into their conversations, which made me more able to believe that it was OK to do, which made me able to do it with ease. And then of course, the more I did it, the easier it got.

Just being welcoming & friendly goes such a long way! Shouldn't need saying, but it does! I had so many bad experiences before this one to list that mostly consisted of people not being particularly welcoming & friendly.
posted by bleep at 3:39 PM on February 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

people really want to be Doing a Thing, even if the Thing is a bit of a pretense to socialization, because Things have Rules.

Came to say this. An event with some kind of framework goes a long way towards alleviating anxiety. Even if I don't know what specifically we're going to play or watch I understand what a game night/watch party is generally like and that the activity will provide conversational material.
posted by Flannery Culp at 3:44 PM on February 3, 2020 [9 favorites]

Keep asking me to come, even if I'm the quiet one in the corner. Forgive me if I bail or leave early.

I go to a yearly party, and often I go and sit away from the crowd when its overwhelming. I know one host better than the other. But it's the other host who will come and sit with me. He does it every year and I adore him for it.
posted by Ftsqg at 4:13 PM on February 3, 2020 [7 favorites]

If I'm talking to you about myself, respond to what I've said and then tell me something corresponding about yourself! (I don't mean deep private stuff, just job or hobbies or whatever the topic is.) I want to know about you. I just don't know how to ask the right questions to get you talking, so I talk about myself and hope you'll respond by doing the same.
posted by huimangm at 4:17 PM on February 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm very bad at names and faces, but meet a lot of people, and I get a lot of anxiety around being in places where I might be expected to remember someone I've met before, but don't. I love events with name tags because I remember written information a lot better and can surreptitiously creep on someone on Facebook or whatever if they look familiar but I'm not sure how we are connected. It's hard to put into practice in casual gatherings, but these always make me feel much better.

Icebreaker activities are great, like a themed party I went to recently where guests were given a fake identity and profession, so you could always ask about their character.
posted by music for skeletons at 4:30 PM on February 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

refining the chill space idea: consider a firepit.

my favorite annual overstimulating New Year's house party had a firepit that I camped every year. People -- smokers primarily but anyone else who got tired of the madding stuffy horde -- would filter in and out so there was always a small group chatting around the fire and this completely relieved me of the responsibility of going and finding conversations to participate in. I could just let the party wash up on my shores.

And firepits don't replace socialization like a movie would, and don't require braining or learning things like a board game or whatever activity does. They're perfect for me and my damage. And if you have someone who needs a task you can make them tend the fire (and also be in charge of keeping children and drunks from falling into it, alas)
posted by Sauce Trough at 4:43 PM on February 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Text me the next day and tell me it was good to see me and you hoped I like meeting so-and-so or thank me for helping out with task x. That will go a LONG way to making the anxious part of my brain stop replaying every single conversation, movement, glance, EVERYTHING I did all night.
posted by cooker girl at 6:31 PM on February 3, 2020 [12 favorites]

If you're hosting, or functionally hosting (like we're going together to see someone you know but I don't), tell me what to expect as straightforwardly as possible. I was going to list out a bunch of questions I'd want to know the answer to in order to feel less anxious, but Lyn Never covered them quite well.
posted by rhiannonstone at 9:20 PM on February 3, 2020

Ohhh boy, I am a lot of this thread. I wouldn't say that I have bad social anxiety. I can feel at ease in social situations with people that I know well, and I can wear a more extroverted persona like a mask in less comfortable situations, but it can be exhausting to keep it up.

My nightmare scenario is a party where I don't know anyone except one person, and there is no common framework (like a hobby or a professional field) that unites the attendees. I kind of try to hang out near the person I know but not all the time so that I'm not weirdly clingy, and if they leave early I want to GTFO of there ASAP. Sometimes I serendipitously find other people to talk to, but sometimes I just don't, and that is the worst.

I experience most of my anxiety retroactively: did I talk too much and talk over other people? Did I talk too much about my obsession du jour and bore everyone? Oh god, why did I make that one joke that didn't land and totally came across as rude; now everyone thinks I'm an idiot!

Actionable suggestions: I think everyone else is pretty much on the money. I'll appreciate it if you start a conversation with me or introduce me to other people over some joint topic of interest, but without drawing attention to my not talking, or being "shy"; that's mortifying.

Don't take it personally if I leave early-ish -- it's not you! It just means that my people meter is full. I spent a long portion of my life feeling obligated to stay at every party for as long as my ex, who always wanted to be the last person to leave, and it felt awful (and often really awkward). So now I leave whenever I feel that I need to leave. It doesn't mean I didn't have fun while I was there.
posted by confluency at 3:47 AM on February 4, 2020

Something I try to do with fellow nerds who I think are coming from the same place is to really try to engage with the topics of conversation that they get excited about. I love listening to people talk about their interests even if I don't personally know a lot about them -- but I know how it feels to worry that you're talking about something that nobody else is interested in. So I try to make my interest clear by listening actively, asking questions, and so on.

If someone makes a slightly awkward joke I try to say something funny in response so that they don't feel like they've verbally faceplanted and made a fool of themselves. Of course this in turn carries the risk of making me feel that my dumb joke went down poorly, but that's life.
posted by confluency at 3:51 AM on February 4, 2020

Oh, and here's a thing not to do. There are people who revel in what I think of as conversation-stoppers: "witticisms" which are designed to put the recipient on the spot, and which are essentially impossible to answer in any way except "fuck off". E.g. obviously inappropriate suggestions or trick personal questions.

I've most often seen these deployed against waitresses and other people obligated to be nice to the speaker, but occasionally I see them in the wild in interactions between social peers. The second-hand cringe I experience from this is indescribable. I don't understand what effect these people could possibly be going for except embarrassing and upsetting someone -- do they think these are funny icebreakers? These are the opposite of icebreakers!

Anyway, if you do this in front of me, let alone to me, you are pretty much guaranteeing that I will avoid you like radioactive waste for the rest of my life.
posted by confluency at 4:02 AM on February 4, 2020

Keep inviting me!! I might not show up this time. I might plan to show up this time and not be able to do so. I may leave early this time. I may make an excuse or I may just ghost you (although I'll try not to) this time. But please keep inviting me, please please keep inviting me.
posted by nkknkk at 1:50 PM on February 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

it can be helpful to know what to expect in advance. Evite / facebook event is a good way to get out this info without singling anyone out (also tells invitees the guest list). It’s helpful to hear things like “we’re super exited to host everyone. There will games set up in the basement and a fire pit outside for those who are looking for quieter spaces, and a dance party / photo booth in the great room. The puppy dog will be banished to the back yard. We will have snacks suitable for those who avoid meat, gluten, etc... and a variety of alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages.”
posted by oceano at 11:32 PM on February 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

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