Social Anxiety and the Cocktail Party

While flipping through one of my favorite bedside stand-bys, Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion, I came across the following passage and chuckled out loud:

“My experience is that I can feel that I’m in the Grail Castle when I’m living with people I love, doing what I love. I get that sense of being fulfilled. But, by god, it doesn’t take much to make me feel I’ve lost the Castle, it’s gone. One way to lose the Grail is to go a cocktail party. That’s my idea of not being there at all.” p. 76

I smiled thinking about my audience of highly sensitive people who also struggle socially (not all HSPs struggle in social situations, but the vast majority are introverts so social challenges come with the territory). I smiled thinking about all of the times I’ve stood at a party feeling so awkward that I wanted to shrivel into the floor. I smiled tenderly remembering the adolescent-me who chose not to attend the high school parties, who even spent New Year’s Eve alone one year because for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what was so interesting about standing around drinking beer. I was lonely that year, yes, but I admire the Self who stood for herself and chose to watch a movie and write in her journal instead of losing her Grail at the party.

Our Western world, and especially this American culture, worships the extrovert ideal and, as a result, sends the message that if you’re not jazzed up by parties, drinking alcohol, and watching sports there must be something fundamentally wrong with you. It’s not a kind message for introverts. Part of reclaiming the vital Self that is our compass and rudder on this journey of life is learning to respect how you’re intrinsically wired and listening closely to the needs that result from that wiring. It’s also recognizing that the root of the problem isn’t you but rather lies in being a round introvert in a square extroverted culture. As Robert Johnson writes in his autobiography, Balancing Heaven and Earth:

“Politicians and officials lament the loss of family values in American society and rack their brains trying to figure out how to repair our social order. Perhaps the root of the problem is that our feeling function is nearly bankrupt. As an individual, I have spent much of my professional life working as a therapist to help patients develop and gain access to their feelings. I am, by birth, an introverted, feeling person – just the opposite of what is prized in American culture. One of the things I want to argue with God when I get the chance is this: Why on earth did you drop someone like me into that kind of family, in that kind of society, and in that century? I was total misfit!

“In any case, in India I was in the majority for the first time in my life, for the culture there favors introversion and feeling… After arriving on Indian soil I gradually understood why I was continually bursting with happiness: my feelings sense and my quiet, introverted nature were respected and even valued.” p. 222

What a validating passage for introverts everywhere! What a sigh of relief to know that you’re not the only one who struggles in social situations, and that if you were born in a different culture you likely wouldn’t struggle at all! Once you realize and accept that there’s no problem with how you’re intrinsically wired, you can get down to the business of learning how to work with your wiring more gently and successfully.

For example, it’s essential to know that most introverted highly sensitive people need a lot of time alone. The temperament of introversion is defined, in fact, by the need to recharge in solitude. Where extroverts recharge with groups of people, introverts recharge when they have time to slow down and process the day’s and night’s events. We simply cannot thrive without these charging stations – not only commas in the run-on sentence of a typical life but a full-halt period.

This isn’t to say that we don’t all need to push ourselves out of our introverted bubbles from time to time and attend that cocktail party or social event even when we’d so much rather stay home and snuggle up with a favorite book and cup of tea. In fact, those of us with a strong introverted temperament must, at some point in our lives, consciously work to strengthen our inferior function, which will naturally be extroversion. This means that we must pick up our right hand with our left in order to make a plan with a new friend and almost kick ourselves out the door to attend a gathering of people. But if we’re going to push ourselves out of our comfort zone it’s so much better to do it with kindness than with self-judgement.

As I’ve written before, much of what we label as “social anxiety” is simply sensitive introverts contorting themselves to try to fit into the extrovert ideal. I’ve had multiple sessions with multiple clients who talk about their anxiety in different types of situations – airports, family dinner parties (especially with their partner’s family), work events –  where they describe what sounds to me like very normal anxiety for any introvert. When we can reframe “social anxiety”, which carries some stigma and indicates that there’s a problem, to “typical anxiety for an introvert in an extroverted culture”, we can find more compassion for ourselves. And, as we know, it’s the self-compassion that allows us to grow our tolerance for uncomfortable situations and expand our comfort zone. We change not through judging ourselves but through accepting ourselves exactly as we are. Attending large social gatherings may never be our first choice but when we enter such situations without the heavy cloak of a stigmatic self-diagnosis and instead enter with the silky attire of self-acceptance, everything changes.

It’s also helpful to have some practical tools when entering uncomfortable or overwhelming social situation. “Bathrooms are excellent refuges for introverts,” is a tip I’ve shared with my clients who struggle socially. They always laugh, but it’s true: introverts needs to know that they can escape into a private place, even if only for a few minutes, to gather their thoughts and process their feelings, and restrooms offer the perfect retreat for just that. We live in a very loud, very overwhelming, very fast-paced world. Even if we’re lucky enough to create a peaceful bubble world in our homes, we still need to venture out into the big world from time to time. And when we do, it’s important that we have simple tools in our emotional toolbox so that we don’t lose our center completely. Perhaps if Mr. Campbell has utilized the bathroom-refuge he may have been able to hold onto his Grail even at the cocktail party ;).

One of the foundational principles of my work is breaking down the “shoulds” and “have-tos” so that we can step into the Holy Grail of who we really are, and from this place first of self-acceptance and then self-love, we can bring the fullness of who we are into the world. We heal not only for ourselves, but also for the world. And the first and most essential piece is shedding the messages of “not enough” or “too much” or “broken” so that we can learn to accept ourselves for who we are, exactly as we are. This is what means to drink from the Holy Grail and to become fully alive.

23 comments to Social Anxiety and the Cocktail Party

  • Emmy

    Sheryl, your weekly blogs align so beautifully with what I’m feeling every single week! Lately, as a 24 year old, I have been so frustrated with hearing “you’re so young” “you SHOULD be living it up and going out” “you should embrace this time” “you should be traveling the world”. I truly believe these comments are a huge source for my anxiety. I love my alone time, I don’t love drinking, I love walks with my partner, I love going to bed early, I love cozy nights, I love using my weekends as a time to recharge, and I absolutely love the idea of a simple life with routine. I’ve been working hard to accept myself for who I am, but it gets so hard when majority of my co-workers make fun of me for being so “boring”, and some family members constantly reminding me of how much they partied and “lived it up at my age”, and majority of my friends who are so extroverted … I always feel so judged! I feel like I’m always defending myself or explaining why I am the way I am and sometimes this makes me feel more anxious and depleted. I certainly need to work more on shedding the messages of “shoulds” and strengthen my well of self, but i was wondering how you feel I should respond to others with these constant remarks?

    • Alyssa

      Hi Emmy, I am the same exact way and I have the same exact thoughts/anxiety about this that you do (I’m even the same age). My friends call me “Mom” and I guess I kind of embrace it! It took awhile though to embrace it instead of feeling shame. It still pops through a lot though, especially at the concept of “settling down” with my boyfriend. I feel that the way I felt better about it was knowing that I’m not alone and that I’m not the only one. While you have a lot of extroverted friends, do you perhaps have some introverted ones too that enjoy staying in? Invite them over for dinner, or just one or them. Or a game night, or just for a movie! While it may seem boring to extroverted people, finding people that enjoy the same things as you certainly is comforting.

      • Emmy

        Hi Alyssa.

        You are honestly so sweet for writing back to me. It’s nice to know I’m not alone with these feelings xo thanks for the suggestions!

  • J

    I relate to so much of this. I’m not ‘awkward’ or ‘rude’, I’m just an introvert who likes people, but quickly gets exhausted around them.

  • Ctang

    Dear Sheryl,
    Thank you so much for your work!
    I really struggle if I do not get time alone and now I am considering having a child in the next couple of years, but I am so afraid, that I will not be able to take time alone as much as I need, if I have a baby. Have you any advice, or knowledge to sheed on that situation?

    I would probably do the mothering course on this site, if I got pregnant 🙂

    • The beauty of motherhood is that we expand our capacity to mother – which means putting ourselves aside much of the time – and then we regain chunks of our self-time with each piece of independence that our children gain. Somehow we do figure it out and find our way – even intense introverts!

  • Corina

    How serendipitous to receive this article, just as I was writing in my journal about my anxiety over a social dinner I have to attend this week! I will aim to approach it with more softness and self acceptance rather than fear xx

  • Catherine

    I can’t tell you the amount of times I go to the bathroom and sit on the toilet for 5 minutes at social events, just to re fuel and re energize! Thank you for this post Sheryl. I always anticipate these wonderful insites and words of wisdom each week. 🙂

  • Marlene

    Beautiful. Couldn’t agree more💗

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl,
    I needed this blog today as well! Today I was feeling a bit panicky at work. I only justed started this job as a receptionist. So im finding it a bit hard to relax. When fear sets I freeze. I see myself a bit extrovert, but more introvert. Since a child, i get nervous around people. I put pressure on myself to be something im not. I am not a huge smiler but i am a approachable and friendly. My problem is i expect too much of myself. Sometimes in social situations i can get paranoid and full of fear. More at work i feel this way. I feel terrified of coming across nervous and i get embarrassed. How do i conqueur my paralysing fear?

    • It sounds like part of what’s happening is normal new job anxiety. It takes a while to learn the lay of the land and feel comfortable in a new work environment, so I encourage you to remind yourself of this and give yourself a lot of compassion as you’re adjusting.

  • Giorgia

    Giorgia:
    This was such a lovely article Sheryl, thank you! I’ve been struggling for quite some time figuring out what I really want and who I really am. Years ago I used to be really narrow minded and a bit arrogant in my values, like “Oh yeah, I don’t like going out and partying till dawn and getting wasted and making out with random people, I’m not into that kind of things”. But now I that I have changed I have the opposite problem: I feel like a sponge which wants to try everything that seems “fun” and “healthy for building character” and an “experience absolutely worth it”, and absorbs all these ideas. I don’t just limit myself to contemplate those activities, but I suddenly want to absolutely TRY all of them. I like sex and the sexual world. What if I read of the great experiences and lives of sexual workers? I want to be one of them. Meanwhile I’m very shy and reserved and I don’t like physical contact if not with my boyfriend, whit whom I become really clingy and “promiscuous”. Who am I?!
    I used to be really romantic and I wanted nothing but true and warm love, and I wanted sex to be meaningful and pure. But now I contemplate the fun of having casual sex and living the promiscuous life and dating around. Who am I?!

    I always thought I’m an introverted person: I don’t like going out too often. I get headches and cloudy minded when I’m in crowded places. I like playing videogames and surfing the Internet and staying in bed all day and cuddling with my boyfriend. Going out and socializing is just tiring for me, and I need my alone time to recharge. But then I have all those impulses which are really frustrating because most of them would implicate leaving my wonderful (and first and only) boyfriend, and they feel so STRONG and REAL. They feel like a part of me, something I can’t resist, but also something I want to sacrafice for my boyfriend because I don’t want to lose him. But not being able to do those things does feel restricting. Who am I?!

    This is tiring and confusing, because I don’t want to want these things, and I don’t want to try them to feel in peace with myself. But I guess I’ll have to work with my true self to figure out why I’m feeling all these contrasts in my life. Thank you, Sheryl. I just don’t want to leave my sweetheart in the process.

  • Bee

    This weekend my head has been better. I’ve been keeping myself busy at work so my head couldn’t wander to the thoughts. At home I’ve felt more calm, I had a cuddle with my partner last night and a thought popped into my head of “I love him so much”.. when I’m around in and my head isn’t at its wits end with thoughts, I feel warm, calm, safe, happy, and there’s nobody else I’d rather be with. I’m telling myself that it’s okay to not feel love all the time, it doesn’t work that way. Love is the moments like I had with him last night.. is this right? Is this a start?

  • Angela

    I second Emmy word by word. I’m currently working in an extremely extroverted working place and more then one time, my manager made fun of my quiet weekends (of which I feel I should not even be asked about) or alluded that “right” way of networking was the extroverted way, which I should learn. I mentioned a few times to her the fact that I’m an introvert and although by now people know about extroverts and introverts conceptually, I don’t think they understand what that means in practical terms. I owe my introversion with acceptance and respect, but the rest of the (extroverted) world often does not. That’s also so funny that Robert Johnson had this experience in India… I lived in that country for over 5 years of my adult life and I consider it one of the most extroverted (and less private) countries I’ve lived in. There is so much sociality, sharing, high population, noise, etc. that if you live in the city it is impossible to find a quiet place or be by yourself (unless you go somewhere remote, like an ashram or the mountains).

  • Holly

    Hi Sheryl, this is an important topic for sure. I think there are two ways to look at this. For example, I have fallen into the trap of calling my social anxiety “introversion” or just being an “hsp” (of which I am both). I do agree that introverts should not try to act extroverted or force themselves to socialize if they don’t want to. However, I think if there is fear of scrutiny from others, worries of what others may think of me, and general inability to be spontaneous in a social situation, then the possibility of social anxiety should be examined. (Spontaneity doesn’t mean acting extroverted, but just feeling free to be oneself without obsessing about potential negative judgement.)Because if social anxiety is indeed there, and we just label it as being introverted, then we are missing out on real healing opportunities and the possibility of deeper self-discovery.

  • Cait P

    I just wanted to share this little story…
    Last weekend my boyfriend of almost a year and I went to meet my friend for lunch. Still learning to work my thoughts I kept thinking, “what if she doesn’t like him?”, so when we got there, he didn’t say much to her. She is not a close friend and I know that her opinion of him does not matter, though my Ego side would say “yes her opinion means fact!” I know this is not true. So there he was just eating his breakfast, listening to us, chiming in when he felt he wanted to. I said to him in front of her “you can say something…”now today a couple days later I realize that my mother says the same about my father. They have been married for 26 years and she might not understand that is who he is. F on the other hand, I learn more and more how much I love our bond, we are best friends – two introverts who love low key dinner, improv, a good book, game of uno in the quiet apartment. It marvels me that my generation loves the loudness of clubs and he and I are okay with playing cards with my family on a Saturday night. I also wanted to share that I was dwelling on him not being vocal enough but something changed…we were driving home and I was saying a song on the radio and he just listened…then his song came on and he sang the whole song! I smiled and I felt my fear rise, but it’s those moments that even if it doesn’t seem that way on the surface, my heart smiled at the introvert who forever surprises and supports me, teaching that I am introverted and sensitive and I should love myself as I am 🙂

  • Kelsey

    Hi Sheryl Thank you so much for this post. I felt my whole body relax and peace in my soul reading it. I really resonatated with the quote from Robert Johnson- I often wonder how I would have fared in another time period because the one we live in today is so loud and fast paced. Thanks to you, Elaine Aron and Susan Cain’s work- my whole mindset has shifted and I’m eternally grateful 💓😌

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