I ask myself this all the time. I sometimes leave parties thinking I failed somehow. Like I didn’t make a good enough impression, connect well with others or make good small talk. Maybe I felt overstimulated and worried that others could totally tell. As I’m driving home, I might replay an awkward scene in my head and wish for a do-over.
The weird part is that I’m usually at parties with people that I actually like, and it’s fun. I laugh, I chat, I give hugs. But I still leave with a heavy feeling in my heart, a sense of failure. A sense of missed connections. And I feel drained and ready to sleep for 10 hours straight.
It makes me wonder:
- Where does this performance anxiety come from? Parties have always been a bit intimidating. Even as a young child I had mixed emotions about parties- equal parts excitement and dread. I think I tried to suppress these complicated feelings by being super outgoing and excited. To this day, I can feel myself overcompensating at parties by being very social, trying to talk to almost everyone in the room, and being one of the last to leave- almost to prove to myself and others that I’m “good at parties”. I totally suppress my HSP introverted side.
- Are people really judging and evaluating me, or is it in my head? Possibly, but not likely. Most people are probably enjoying themselves too much to care, or are equally self-conscious and inward-focused. Anyway, what does it matter? You’d think in my 30’s I’d learn to stop caring what others think of me. But since HSPs are especially empathetic, we’re good at picking up on others’ reactions. It’s hard not to wonder how others’ are perceiving you, and if they are picking up on your anxiety.
- Why do I get so overstimulated at parties? I remember in social psychology learning about the cocktail party effect- the ability to tune out irrelevant background noise and focus on the conversation at hand. I suck at this. My brain has a hard time separating the relevant from irrelevant stimuli. I take everything in- the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and social cues- and that can be draining. It takes so much energy to focus on the person I’m talking with, and even if I’m having a nice conversation my body might feel on edge. This overstimulation produces a fight or flight reaction in me, which makes me think I’m stressed and anxious even though I may not be.
- Am I missing the whole point of parties? While my ideal social scene is a coffee shop with 2 or 3 girlfriends sharing deep conversation, parties are a totally different vibe. Just because it’s not my favorite scene, are parties worthwhile? I think so. Each party has a purpose- to celebrate a person or event, to catch up with pals, to just enjoy some treats and keep each other company. While I can occasionally connect in a deep way with people at parties, this is not guaranteed. And that’s ok. Togetherness for togetherness’ sake can be a good thing!
My solution: This holiday party circuit, I decided to honor myself in these ways.
- Plan ahead: This is such an introvert thing, but if you’re not a fan of small talk, maybe make a list of 3 or 4 possible answers to the question, “So, what’s new?” My recent go-to’s: baby just turned 1, just got back from Costa Rica, signed up for Stitch Fix, planted my winter vegetables. Much better to give a specific answer than a blank stare or “Oh, nothing much!”
- Pep talks on the way to the party (and during). I mean literally talking to myself on the drive. I say things like, “You feel a little nervous about the party. That’s totally ok. It might be noisy and crowded, but you can handle it. Take a break if you need to. It’s ok to just grab a drink and sit on the couch. It’s ok to just observe. No one will be judging you; they have other things on their minds. It’s not a popularity contest. You were invited because someone wants you there.” This helps so much!
- It’s ok to just sit and watch for a while. To get your bearings. It’s actually kind of bada$$ to be zen and quiet in the midst of a chaotic party. Get a drink, sit down on the couch. Let others entertain you. Chances are, when you’re ready, you’ll find yourself in a conversation and it’ll be swell. No need to force it.
- Take a breather! Go to the bathroom. Step outside for some fresh air. Leave early if you really need to. You came to the party and made an appearance even though it took some courage, leaving early is not a sin.
- Pat yourself on the back when it’s over. Don’t do what I used to do- replay all the awkward moments and chastise myself. Instead, think of some good moments- funny things that happened, cool people you met, a delicious appetizer you enjoyed. You are a work in progress, and you’ll have many parties ahead to keep sharpening your party skills.
These intentions have worked! I’m not totally cured of my party anxiety, but at least I know where it comes from and how to help curb it. I really did enjoy myself at all the parties I went to this holiday season, and did minimal Kristin-bashing afterward.
Did you experience party anxiety as a child? Do you experience it now? How do you cope?