Your palms get sweaty, your mouth gets dry, and you get shaky and nervous at the thought of socializing. Don’t worry, many people have some amount of anxiety when confronted with social situations. Why though would an individual get anxious at the thought of spending time with family members? What can you expect in interactions with a socially anxious family member at a gathering? Is there anything they can do or you can do to help?
If you are the socially anxious person, you may not even know why you feel anxious. After all, it’s only mom, dad, your siblings and their spouses, dear old Aunt Sue and her family and Oh gosh Uncle Joe and his family. Maybe by the time you got to Aunt Sue you started feeling the jitters. Normally, when you communicate with Aunt Sue or eat with her you don’t feel nervous but the thought of communicating or eating in the presence of so many other people is scary.
If you are the family member, you need to bear in mind that, a socially anxious person is extremely fearful of embarrassment or ridicule or being judged by others. Your insight will slow down your anger when the person suffers from anxious moments. What are some of the possible scenarios that may arise?
- Relatives like to speak of size and body shape, socially anxious people don’t like being judged or compared. They just don’t like the attention that goes with it.
- The individual may be called on to say something to address the group or participate in a group discussion. Socially anxious people may fear that.
- Relatives like to tease and poke fun. What is fun to you may be distressing for a socially anxious person.
In these situations, your relative or family member may shut down, withdraw, be uncomfortable and may even burst into tears. What you do afterward will determine whether the memories of the gathering are still pleasant or if they are marred for that person, if not for everyone. If the person starts getting anxious, it may be helpful to take them outside; just remove them from the festivities a bit and give them time to calm down. If they are strongly opposed to re-joining the group, don’t push it. They need to learn to interact properly but not necessarily this instant. Maintain your own composure and avoid judgmental or critical statements or looks.
For this season, in particular, we want to aim to make everyone comfortable so steps should be taken to prevent the anxious reaction or keep it at a minimum. Some practical steps can be taken to make the gathering as pain-free for yourself or your family member.
- Plan – Inform the individual of who will be there. Ask them where they would like to sit or who they do not want to sit near to. Encourage them to plan what to wear. Something comfortable, something that makes them confident and if someone stares, the first thought won’t be that it’s the clothes.
- Don’t over-engage but don’t ignore. At times, a socially anxious person doesn’t want to be seen but at other times they just wish you would talk to them. It really isn’t hard to be lonely in a big crowd. Make an effort to engage them in the conversation, perhaps asking them rhetorical or yes/no questions. Observe them though to make sure they are not uncomfortable.
- Don’t insist that they stay longer than they have to.
- Expect them to feel nervous.
- Smile at them.
- Practice to do these things before the gathering so you will not be stiff and awkward. If the socially anxious person agrees, inform other tactful family members of the problem and ask them to be understanding.
Remember it’s not the gifts, the family members or even the party that the person doesn’t enjoy. It’s the noise, the confusion (even if this is only in their head) and the expectation that goes along with it. The gathering can and should progress normally in spite of the person’s presence; you don’t want to leave him/her with a guilty feeling. So smile, laugh and enjoy!