We all have a few things – maybe more than a few – that we don’t like about ourselves and are embarrassed to admit to others. Things that we wish were different, but regrettably, are not. One of mine is that I don’t like meeting new people.
Before you judge me, let me explain: I’m just an introvert who doesn’t feel comfortable in groups of strangers. I can make small talk, sometimes very proficiently, but I dislike it and it makes me uncomfortable – which is problematic since it is pretty much the industry standard with groups of new people. Being comfortable around someone, for me, means feeling connected to them, even in a minor way. For me, connectedness comes from being more or less yourself and not worrying too much about pleasantries. And connecting, by definition, entails going beyond small talk. For all these reasons, I tend to avoid social situations of more than four or five people, and definitely groups of strangers. Yet socializing with large groups is an inevitable part of work and of life – and truly connecting with new people is energizing and one of life’s great pleasures. So while I have a hard time putting on a game face for situations where I anticipate feeling uncomfortable, I also need to find a way to make them work for me.
I recently discovered a tool that allows me to overcome my reluctance to participate in group events. My friend Brett told me that when he has to socialize and really doesn’t feel like it, whatever the reason, he copes by telling himself that he just needs to get through this one thing, and that once he does he’ll feel better (and more relaxed). I envied Brett’s success using this strategy. I thought about it long after he shared it with me, but secretly didn’t think it would work.
Recently, my husband and I were invited to a dinner party by another couple. There were to be only six of us there, but, other than my husband, I didn’t know any of the guests well. I anticipated an evening full of small talk and polite, distant discussion about each other’s work. As we biked over together, I thought of Brett’s advice and how much I wished the evening were already over and that we were on our way home. Taking what Brett had told me one step further, before arriving at dinner I decided to assume that the other four people I was about to spend all evening with were intensely interested in getting to know me and hearing whatever I had to say.
To my great surprise, this simple mental exercise worked. Before I walked in the door, I told myself that my dinner companions really, really wanted to hear everything that I had to say. Normally I ask a lot of questions in social situations. I’m a question asker by nature and usually genuinely interested in what someone else has to say. I am also not especially comfortable talking about myself and feel a responsibility to keep conversation going – asking questions accomplishes both of these things handily. This time I volunteered my own thoughts and opinions freely instead. No one seemed to think my behavior was weird, which encouraged me and made me feel more confident about this approach. I didn’t put pressure on myself to fill pauses in the conversation, something that normally stresses me. “Not my problem!” I decided. I was able to relax and actually enjoy the gathering. It was very freeing.
“Mind over matter” is a popular saying to express the role of mental discipline in overcoming a physical challenge. But what about “mind over mind”? That is a more uncertain undertaking; there are no clear rules to follow. Changing well worn patterns of behavior and thinking can feel impossible. How can you make yourself feel different?
I don’t think you can – but you can choose how you react to your feelings, and that can help prevent them from completely taking over. I’ll never be an extrovert, and don’t anticipate ever being excited about socializing with large groups. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to successfully replicate this thought exercise every time I need it. But I think my take on Brett’s strategy worked for me in part because it was a reminder that my expectation of how social interactions with relative strangers feel and unfold is not a foregone conclusion. Even if I wasn’t always completely at ease at every moment during the dinner party, I also was not anxious or upset or irritated. I practiced behaving in a different way in the hopes that it would help me feel more like myself. To my surprise, it did.
Image: Luncheon of the Boating Party, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1881)