An extrovert can walk into a party and get recharged on the energy that’s present. They thrive on their interaction with others, they get stronger and brighter as the night wanes. But people like me- we have to plan and build ourselves up. We have to restructure our entire day to ensure that we can walk into the room with a full battery, because the energy it takes to interact for long periods of time is draining right to the core. To be perfectly honest, I have never been a fan of parties. My idea of a fun night out involves dinner and a movie, or going down to my favorite local bar with a few friends where I can sip on a beer while we talk about life. To some that could be boring, it me it is the perfect way to relax after a long week.
The other weekend, however, was different- it was my little sister’s 25th birthday and she wanted to let loose and celebrate. My sister is one of my best friends, but we are the most similar opposites you will ever meet- perhaps that’s why we get along so well. We like all of the same things, but our personalities are night and day. We are yin and yang, fire and ice, Monica and Phoebe. She likes to party and be crazy, and I guess you could say I am the old soul out of the two of us. I adore her, which is probably the only reason I walked through that door into the 90’s themed house party with a dozen total strangers (insert mild panic attack here).
I’ve always been able to play pretend at being bubbly and social for short bursts of time. I worked customer service in a high-stress environment for many years. I can smile and laugh, make small talk and pretend to be a different version of myself. But I will always walk away exhausted, ready to hop into a hot bubble bath with a good book and sit in silence. During my customer service years that wound up being a near-nightly ritual. I needed a way to recharge. I can still channel this part of my personality whenever the need arises, and I knew when we walked through that door- the need had arisen.
I selfishly hoped that I would be able to lurk in the kitchen with my fiancé and Finnigan- the adorable puppy that magically appeared about an hour into the festivities. But alas, even Finn was enjoying the social adventure, prancing around from room to room, happily soaking up all of the attention. No, I would have to glue on my smile and do my best.
What people don’t always realize is that my social anxiety will pop up no matter how nice and accommodating you are. It has nothing to do with the people in the room, it has everything to do with the critical eye I use to view all of my own actions. I will tear apart every word I say and every insignificant move you make. You close your eyes because you have an eyelash stuck in it- no, I must have said something boring. You move your weight from one foot to the other- you must want to leave and talk to someone else. It doesn’t matter how irrational it is- the funny thing is, I usually know I’m over-analyzing, but I can’t stop it. It’s like there’s a button in my brain that sticks, and no matter how I try to turn it off, it just wont pop until it’s good and ready (usually well after I intended to fall asleep).
For those that don’t understand, this is a glimpse into the mind of an introvert with slight social anxiety issues on a typical night at a regular party:
- Is this the house? I’ve been here a million times, why am I questioning whether this is the house or not? But did I come on the right day? What if it was cancelled and I’m the only one who didn’t know?
- Yep, this is the place- but where do I park? I mean, I might get boxed in there if I decide to leave early. And will I be too close to that other car over there? No, that spot requires parallel parking. Would it be weird to park down the block? I think I say a Fred Meyers parking lot a few blocks away…
- Did I get here to early? I will look so stupid if I’m the first one here.
- So I’m at the door- do I knock, or text them that I’m here?
- They still aren’t at the door- do I just open it? Would that be weird? I’ll text them again.
- Okay, so I’m inside. Of course I’m like the second one here. I am always too early. I should have parked farther away.
- So food- where is the food? Would it be strange if I just sat next to this bowl of chips? Will people try to talk to me? Maybe I’ll just stand in the kitchen.
- Nope, I keep getting in the way in the kitchen and they don’t need help. Okay, I’ll just go over there.
- I don’t know anyone here. I guess I’ll just smile like an idiot because I don’t know anyone here. Where is my friend? She invited me, she knows I don’t like this stuff.
- Is it too early to leave yet?
- Oh, who’s puppy? Yes, I will just sit here and pet this adorable dog. Let’s just hope is owner doesn’t come over.
- No, puppy come back! You were my only friend! Okay, stand up like you weren’t just rolling around on the floor with the K-9. And step back until you are against the wall again. Good…did anyone notice?
- Yes! Someone I know! Hello someone I know!
- Oh look, another person coming over to talk- okay, smile, but not too big, you don’t want to look weird. Just play it cool, you’ve got this! Be smooth, be smooth.
- Hey, this person is kind of cool.
- Oh no! Lull in the conversation- okay, look really interested in what is happening on the other side of the room while you try to come up with something to say.
- Why did you ask them about their cat? Now they’ll think you are a crazy cat person.
- They have a dog! Don’t get overly excited, wait for them to show you a picture of theirs before you whip out yours. And only pick one- not seventy-two.
- You’re talking too much, stop talking so much, you’ll scare them away.
- They just moved from one foot to the other- are they bored? Are they trying to find a nice way to extract themselves from the conversation?
- Another person is coming over! Remember: you can do this. Another smile, introductions. Shoot- they want to shake hands, left or right? Okay, move my drink to the other hand and…success!
- Look at me, socializing all over the place like a boss! I haven’t even had alcohol yet. I am amazing, I am acting like a relatively-well adjusted human being. I am awesome.
- Okay, now I’m getting tired. But these people are actually pretty cool. Except that one over there trying to force people to dance. I don’t want to talk to that person. I think I will subtly side-step out of the room so I can avoid that person.
- Is it too early to leave?
- PlayStation? There’s a PlayStation here?! Okay, I’m in!
- I don’t care if it’s rude- Crash CTR was my game, and I am going to own everyone! Unless that would be rude- would that be rude?
- I lost- maybe they’ll like me more for losing.
- Why did I say that? That was such a stupid thing to say…
- So I’ve asked ‘what’ three times and still have no idea what they said. Let’s hope that smiling and nodding is an appropriate response.
- Ha! They laughed! I need to remember that joke, it was gold! Phew, I was really nervous at first…wait, that wasn’t a courtesy chuckle, was it?
- Okay, I am getting tired. Oh- and I’m at that good spot in my book. Maybe I’ll leave soon.
- It’s going to take me like ten minutes to get to my car. I really shouldn’t have parked so far away.
- Okay, and say a few quick goodbyes- oh, hugs. I did not see that coming. Does that mean they like me?
- Dancing guy! Nooooooo!! Hide behind the tall guy! Shoot- how am I taller than the tall guy? I’m like a giraffe in here.
- Wait for it, wait for it…and go! Phew, out the door.
- That was fun. I’m tired. I cannot wait to get into my pj’s!
Do you see yet why we get so exhausted? This is just a small snippet of what tends to go through my mind, and some of these are repeated over and over and over.
There was a time when I would try to hide that side of me, I would play pretend and act like I was ‘normal.’ But at my sister’s party, I did something different: I embraced the awkwardness and joked about it. And as it turns out- I wasn’t the only one feeling the same way, suddenly there was a gush of people laughing about doing the exact same thing, thinking the same way I did- and then in a flash, being there in a room full of strangers wasn’t so scary any more, if only because these people weren’t so strange. They were just like me, playing pretend and stepping out of their comfort zone. I think there are more of us out there than we ever thought, people you wouldn’t expect who have that same internal dialog that doesn’t turn off. We all put on our bright shiny faces when we go out, and we smile and laugh, hoping others wont see the insecurities in our eyes. We all walk into a party wearing a mask, without even realizing that everyone else is doing it too. We can’t turn off the internal dialog, but perhaps, on occasion, we can make a joke that cracks our mask. Perhaps someone else will recognize a bit of themselves in you. And then the small talk can fall away and a true conversation can be had. You would be surprised at what people are really like, underneath it all.