Here’s some news that’s both comforting and deeply upsetting: awkwardness is universal.
“We all have this core need to be accepted and be liked, and to be seen,” clinical psychologist Dr. Tracy Dalgleish told HuffPost Canada. The nervousness so many people feel at parties — sweaty palms, tension in your shoulders, an overwhelming fear that people won’t like you — that’s natural, she says.
In her office at Integrated Wellness in Ottawa, she often sees people with the same kinds of social anxiety: “They fear being judged. They fear rejection. They fear possible humiliation,” she said. “This leads into a core feeling of shame, which is the sense that ‘I am defective,’ or ‘I am unlovable in some way.’”
HuffPost Canada’s series, “Navigating,” is all about figuring out the challenges of modern life. So, we asked Dr. Dagliesh to share some of her tips on how to feel less dang awkward at parties.
Watch Navigating: How do you make new friends in the digital age? Story continues below.
Be in the moment
“When our minds are spinning, they can tell us stories that may not be true,” she explained. ” ‘Oh no, why did I just say that? What are they thinking of me?’ You can make up that dialogue.”
To avoid doing that, and get out of what she calls your “monkey mind,” Dalgleish suggests grounding yourself in present moment.
There are a few easy ways to do that: try taking ten slow, deep breaths. Or try pushing your feet into the ground. One exercise she strongly suggests is one that uses all your senses: observe five things you see, four things you touch, three things you hear, two you smell or taste, and then take one deep breath.
“We have something like 40 to 50,000 thoughts a day, on average,” she said. “And when you put us in a situation where we really want to be liked, you can then think of all the thoughts that are going to come up.”
Name it to tame it
“One of the common things we do when we don’t feel good, is we want to try to avoid it or to get out of that feeling,” Dalgleish said. “Sometimes, just acknowledging it is really powerful.”
Admit to yourself that you feel awkward, or uneasy, or anxious — and then keep going.
Challenge your unhelpful thoughts
Before or after you go out, think about all of your negative perceptions and try to come up with alternate explanations. So, you felt like nobody liked you. Do you have proof of that? Maybe you’re attributing meaning to a look on someone’s face that didn’t mean anything at all. Maybe the people you were talking to felt awkward, too. Or maybe they just aren’t your people.
“We have a lot of unhelpful thoughts that tend to focus on negatives aspects,” Dalgleish said. In other words, our natural instinct is to look for the worst, and sometimes it isn’t actually there.
Be aware of how much you’re drinking
Alcohol is a given at a lot of social gatherings. Because it lowers our inhibitions and regulated our emotions, it’s normal to feel less nervous after a drink. And there’s nothing wrong with drinking at party. Just stay in control of it, Dalgleish said.
Beyond the obvious — you’ll probably feel way more anxious if you get too drunk and do something embarrassing — there’s a rebound effect to self-medication. “If you have one glass of wine, your anxiety goes down. But the next day you could feel more anxious,” she said. “So it really is a short-term effect to helping you deal with anxiety at a party.”
Also, if you’re drinking to cope with social anxiety, “you’re no longer learning what it means to be just you in that moment,” she said. “So you associate needing to have a substance with being accepted.”
Keep going, even if it feels weird
“When we fear something, we want to avoid it,” said said. But if you don’t go to a party because you’re anxious, then going to the next one will be even harder.
This isn’t to say you should regularly force yourself to do things you don’t want to do, but it’s about not running away. Dalgleish suggests asking yourself what’s important to you. “If being in social situations and connecting with people is really important to you, then go keep doing that. We feel better when we’re doing things that are hard and that matter to us.”
Imagine a friend in your place
Self-compassion is an important part of dealing with anxiety, Dalgleish said. If you’re in an uncomfortable social interaction, it’s easy to beat yourself up, to feel like people don’t like you because you’re too stupid, or ugly, or annoying.
But what if one of your friends felt that way? Your language, and your thoughts, would probably be much less harsh.
If it were “your dearest friend, you would say something like, ’I accept that this is something you’re working on,’” Dalgleish siad. “Or you might even recognize the common experience we all have, like, ‘Hey, it’s okay to struggle at parties. Other people struggle too.’”
Renew the art of small talk
“We’re so used to being on our devices that we’re not engaged in a lot of small talk, or introducing ourselves, or learning how to ask questions,” Dalgleish said. Learning how to communicate with people we don’t know, rather than pulling out our phones when there’s a moment or two of silence, can be a really useful skill.
And this is something you can do anywhere, she added. “You could practice asking questions in the grocery store lineup. And the more we practice something, the easier it becomes.”
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