Social courage: How to Make Friends when People Make you Nervous
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.
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.
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!
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?