Social courage: How to Make Friends when People Make you Nervous

26/07/12

I’m walking into the university cafeteria, nervously scanning the seating area. Where are they? I can’t see a single familiar face. My heart sinks.

And then it starts beating – fast.

I glance around again and decide to take a quick walk around. I check the time. We did say 5 pm, right? I’m starting to get sweaty.

The café is full of people, all chatting lively. No one is paying me any attention, yet still I feel like all eyes are on me. Who is that girl? Who is that loner? Oh my god, what is she wearing?

And of course no one says that. Heck, chances are that no one even thinks that. But I do. And saying it’s making me feel pretty bad is a huge understatement.

I take out my phone as if to prove that I’m not a loner like that voice in my head is telling me. I do have friends – look! – I’m replying to a text message right here and now.

After walking around the room once without finding the people I’m supposed to meet, I seek refuge in the bathroom. By now I’m seriously considering to bail out. My instincts are telling me to get out of the situation and go home – fast as hell.

And yet I decide to get out there one more time.

I walk out of the bathroom and suddenly – there they are. The volunteers and editors of my student newspaper group that I’m suppoed to meet are sitting at a table right in the middle of the room I just passed through. Nervousness has given me tunnel vision and I had walked straight by them without realizing. I don’t know these people yet, but I’d love to write for the paper. I’d love to get some real friends at this university too, but that’s another story.

I walk up and introduce myself.

And this is where the real fun (read: sweating, beating heart, nervous laughing and shaking) begins.

Making friends and meeting new people does not come easily to me. I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way, and yet we all try to hide this fact and play cool. As you can tell, I am learning a lot from Brené Brown these days – one of the things she advocates is being uncool.

So, let’s be uncool together.

Being nervous around new people sucks, because I really do want to make friends. I am afraid of people, but I like people too! And I know all too well that I life in (what feels like) isolation is not the way I want to live.

So I frequently put myself out there and try to meet new people. In doing this, I have learned a few tricks and tips that work for me. I’d love to share them with you with the hope that it might help you too:

Choose your type of events

I have found that one of the things that really helps me is to make sure I only go to events I’m comfortable with. To me, that means that mingling and dinner/coffeé meetings are okay, while dance parties and gatherings where I’m the only one who don’t know anyone are not. I’m also more comfortable if the meet-up is in a familiar location, if the meeting is 1-on-1 or a smaller group. Figure out what works for you and then do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

Experiment with time goals

Experimenting and challenging myself is something I do a lot (obviously), and I have found it really helpful to set a time goal for myself when I don’t really feel like socializing. Sometimes the goal I set for myself is just to show up and then immediately leave. That, or I give myself a limit like 20 minutes. And guess what? Once I’m there, I often end up enjoying it a lot!

Create an exit strategy

If you get too nervous or just feel really bad, it can be useful to have a good exit strategy. Honesty is always best, but I totally get that you don’t want to tell everybody you have to leave because you’re having a panic attack. A good (and socially acceptable) excuse is to say that you’re feeling tired or just not feeling well. Or, you could say that you’re in a hurry, but wanted to come by and say hi. Sometimes just knowing that you have an exit strategy will make you so comfortable that you don’t have to use it.

Ask questions

If you, like me, are struggle with coming up with something to say – a good idea is to ask questions about the people you’re meeting. Most people enjoy talking about themselves (unless they’re highly introverted or shy) and either way – asking questions is a really good way of getting the conversation started. If you’re tired of where are you from? and what do you do? you could prepare a few questions related to topics you’re interested in. What blogs do you read? What is your favourite book? and what are your plans this summer/winter/fall/holiday/weekend? are my safe bets.

Prepare

If you get easily overwhelmed and/or nervous when meeting new people, it’s useful to plan a little bit in advance. If figuring out what to wear is a big question for you, lay out your outfit in advance. If you are afraid of getting lost on your way there, visit the venue earlier the same day. If you know you’ll feel better with someone you know coming with you, ask someone to join you. Try to make it as easy for yourself as you can!

Use support-thoughts and affirmations

Support-thoughts are similar to affirmations. While affirmations are often written in first person, support-thoughts are more like an internal dialogue with yourself. “You can do this” is a good support-thought. Ask yourself what you would say to support someone who were in your situation. If this was your friend, what would you say?

Don’t judge yourself

It’s so easy to beat ourselves up for not achieving better in social situations, after all, the norm is that it is expected of us to be outspoken and extroverted. However, beating ourselves up will only make us feel the pain twice. The first time because the social setting is really uncomfortable, the second time because on top of it all you’re telling yourself you’re a failure. Try to accept yourself or who you are and don’t judge. You are doing your best! You should reward yourself instead…

Reward yourself for trying

Whenever you have tried really hard to socialize, give yourself a nice reward. It can be anything from taking a long bath to buying yourself a little present. Do something good for yourself!

Go slow

Getting to know new people is hard work, especially if it does not come naturally to you. Take it slow and go in your own pace. There is no reason to rush the process, it takes time to teach your body new automatic responses. The good news is that the more you do something you’re afraid of, you’ll become used to it. It does get easier with time, but don’t go to fast. Setting the bar too high will only re-inforce your fear!

To sum it up, the main point is to work with yourself, and not push too hard. And like everything else, you do get better with practice. After a while, you will start to feel less nervous, I promise.

Oh, and in case you wonder – I did get to know the students in the newspaper group, I did get one of my articles published – and I made friends that I’m looking forward to see again when I get back to Norway in August. Going to that meetup was a big challenge. Getting to know wonderful and unique human beings is the even bigger reward.

 Do you get nervous when meeting new people too? How do you make it easier for yourself? 

 

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

lora kathleen July 26, 2012 at 3:31 pm

I really love this post Marthe. I too feel very awkward when meeting new people. I am a private person and come off as really stand offish when I get the standard “What do you do?” questions… I just get sick of answering them.

I also like to be a little early, so I can scope out the situation without feeling like anyone is waiting on me. It also gives me a few minutes to collect my thoughts and prep myself!

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Marthe July 28, 2012 at 1:27 am

Thank you, Lora! I don’t think you’re the only one who dislike the standard questions! And they really do nothing to get the conversation started..

Being early is a great tip, as is being late. To be honest, I am sometimes late on purpose to avoid the situation I described above..

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Karen July 26, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Bless this post. I’m the kind of person that once I start talking to people I’m fine and outgoing and whatnot. But it’s the being alone in a crowded situation that gives me the sweats.
If I’m meeting up with someone and they’re late or I’m really early I usually start to second-guess myself. Time to work on that.

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Marthe July 28, 2012 at 1:27 am

Karen, me too! When the conversation is started, I feel so much better.

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Mandy July 26, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Love this post! I get really nervous in situations where I don’t know anyone. I start thinking crazy thoughts like, “No one here wants to talk to me. Gah, I’m such a loser”. It’s like I go straight back to being an awkward 15 year old. I’ve learned that I just have to force myself to start talking to someone. Once the conversation starts, I can focus on that instead of my crazy thoughts.

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Marthe July 28, 2012 at 1:29 am

Thank you, Mandy! You are not alone, I really recognize myself in what you descrive. Once the conversation is going, it is so much easier!

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kristin July 26, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Thank you so much for this post. It is so easy to think that you are all alone in that kind of thinking/feeling. It is so easy to think that you are some kind of freak for being that way. It helps to know I’m not alone.

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Marthe July 28, 2012 at 1:32 am

It is so true, it is so easy to think that you are alone in feeling this way – while everybody else is confident and happy. Luckily, and sadly, we all feel like this sometimes!

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Lauranne July 28, 2012 at 5:10 am

This came at the perfect time. Thank you so much for being vulnerable (brene brown for the win!) and posting this. It’s good to know that while I love people, I’m not alone in this. :)

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Melanie July 31, 2012 at 9:39 am

Marthe, thank you!!! This was exactly what I needed today! I am trying to reboot my life and needed this little nudge in the right direction. Have a beautiful day ^_^

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Elizabeth August 1, 2012 at 8:21 pm

I’ve definitely had a similar experience in my school cafeteria before (many times, actually)! A lot of these hints have helped me too!! Thanks for the post!

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Jen August 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm

I just stumbled upon this blog and this post couldn’t have rang more true for me. Throughout my childhood and up through high school, I was bubbly and outgoing. Somehow, afterwards, that changed. Even through my first year of college, I had no remote “shyness”. Somewhere along the line, I became so self-concious, wondering what everyone in the room might be thinking. It’s a strange feeling – especially when I know that I don’t scan the room and make judgements about the people – why would anyone else? I enjoy talking to strangers and sparking conversations but I have a hard time making relationships from those moments or even wanting to. I think these are great tips and I’m sure to be a regular reader!

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Sarah November 19, 2012 at 4:36 am

Wow, you are still in university? Such a talented, insightful writer and blogger. Very cool. Keep it up!

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samanta January 28, 2013 at 7:17 pm

You are a great writer. I loved every single word of yours because I am always in the same situation as you mentioned. I always think of what other people is thinking about me. How they are going to react on my actions and easily get nervous. And I end up mentally torturing myself for not doing things the way I want to do. Your article gave me a little courage to improve my situation wisely.

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Tiffany April 13, 2013 at 6:43 am

This is wonderful. I think most of us feel this way, but as you said, try to mask it by trying to be as cool as they can be. I can’t be cool to save my life (although my friend did once mention to me that I’m always cool in most situations. So weird cause I rarely feel that way!). But I always find meeting new people to be very difficult, even more so once you’re out of university like I am. When you get out and begin looking for work, there’s just not many ways to meet new people, unless you go out and I have a hard time finding events I’d like to go to. I’m sure they’re out there (I live in NYC after all) it’s just an overwhelming search that I get discouraged.

But these are very good tips for the next bar birthday party I attend! Maybe I’ll be more encouraged to talk to people I don’t know, rather than stay and speak to the people that I already now and have known for years, just to feel in my “safe zone.” I suppose being slightly uncomfortable when meeting new people is good in the sense that it does get you out of your comfort safe zone. Idk…your blog has me thinking quite a bit about a whole range of things, even myself more than I’m used too! I love it!

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Kristin B April 17, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Hey lovely!
I know this post is old(ish) now, but as I realised I hadn’t commented, I figured I should. I read this when you initially posted it, have had it bookmarked since, and come back to re-read every now and again. I still find it so helpful and encouraging as it touches on everything that I relate to so well, and your tips and suggestions have been provided a real sense of calm for me. I’ve started seeing a psychologist/therapist a few months ago for dealing with my social anxiety, and with her and your help here, I can see there is a way to put myself into this terrifying situations and learn not to be as terrified.
x

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Jenn September 20, 2013 at 3:25 am

Hi Marthe!! I love this post. I’ve been always labeled as the weird girl because I would always freeze up and not say very much when meeting new people. I am trying to toss out that label and force myself out of my shell. I’m starting to see that it isn’t that bad! Thank you much for this post. It gives me comfort knowing I’m not the only one who has a difficult time with meeting new people and making new friends!

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Princess February 21, 2014 at 6:23 am

When I notice that my heart is beating faster than normal or my throat is getting tight during a conversation, I take a break from talking and then mentally tell myself to breathe and stay calm. I proceed by really trying to focus on what I want to express rather than the thought that I’m getting nervous. Once I’m aware of my nervousness, I consciously tell myself to speak at a even-pace or to try and slow down my speaking- pace. I have the tendency to want to get over with it (the conversation) or get through the time it takes for me to respond to someone as quickly as possible. If I let myself rush to speak due to my nervousness, I panic.

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Jen April 12, 2015 at 4:11 am

I can totally relate even though I am now out of university and have been working for 5 years. I have worked in customers service and I now teach so I can talk to people to do my job, no problem. However, I still feel like I am incapable of making friends! The thought of striking upna friendly conversation with someone gives me such anxiety. You’re not alone!

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