Dear Dr. Diana: I’m dreading going to my office’s holiday party next Saturday night. I’m kind of quiet and would rather stay home with some hot cocoa and a good book. I worry that if I don’t go, my coworkers will think I’m rude. And I’m worried that if I do go, I’ll spend the whole time feeling awkward. On top of it all, I’m 5 years sober and our office parties are a time of year when my coworkers let loose and drink a lot. I don’t mind being around others who drink, but it just adds a layer of “this isn’t fun for me” to the whole situation.
Dear Person who Prefers a Quiet Party:
You’re not a party pooper. You sound more like an introvert. There is nothing wrong with that. And the holiday season can be an extra hard, demanding, and draining time on folks who lean toward the introverted end of the continuum.
Also, kudos on your sobriety and kudos for naming it. I know there can be shame and stigma around addiction and recovery, and I also know how common it is for folks to struggle with substances and how one way we can reduce stigma is through talking about it more. So, thank you for sharing that piece of your story.
If it helps to hear this, let me say that as a professional, you absolutely have my permission to not go to the party. This is your doctor’s note. You have no obligation or responsibility to show up outside of work hours to prove yourself. Extra curriculars are extra for a reason — they should be optional. And if folks decide to hold your absence against you, that is on them, not you.
Now, if some part of you wants to go, that too is fine. I have some tips for you on how to party, as an introvert, with intention.
• Monitor your “social battery.” It can be helpful to think about our ability to be social as a battery. Some folks (folks who are more extroverted) have a high charge to begin with and socializing just charges them up more. Folks who are more introverted tend to have a lower social charge and might feel drained by socializing. Holding that in mind can help you monitor when your charge is running low and allow you to be proactive in doing what you need to do to recharge.
• Rest before you go … try to avoid anything too “extrovert-y” in the day leading up to the party and try to honor what you need to feel nurtured and to recharge your social battery before you go.
• Think of a few conversation topics or questions ahead of time that you can use if you’re not sure what to say.
I do this before parties and it’s really helped me have more meaningful 1:1 conversations. There is no right or wrong way to do this, but some suggestions are to think of things that most people could relate to and to think of things that can lead to deeper conversation (rather than yes or no questions that can be conversational dead ends).
For example: “What book or movie have you found interesting, lately?” or “What’s something you’re looking forward to?” or “I’d love to hear more about that vacation you took this summer … ”
• Give yourself permission to listen more than you talk. For the most part, folks really like to talk about themselves and their lives, so you’d be surprised at how much a good listener will be appreciated at a party.
• Have an exit strategy: This might mean that you take a friend and have an agreed-upon plan about how to let each other know when you’re ready to go. You could also just set a time in your mind when you know you’ll give yourself permission to go home.
• Go earlier rather than later: Folks tend to drink more as parties progress, so if you want to engage in more sober conversations, it’s probably best to be on the earlier side.
• Give yourself permission to step outside and step away. If you notice you’re becoming overwhelmed, find a quiet corner or step outside. Sensory (and socializing) overload are real burdens to our stress systems and finding a quiet corner can calm our nervous system. Bonus points if you a: take a few deep breaths, b: practice mindfulness, and/or c: find a way to be in, near, or looking at nature.
• Find a purpose: It can help us feel more settled if we have a purpose such as helping to set up or clean up, playing with a child or pet, or engaging in an intentional conversation.
• Notice and talk back to negative thoughts. Many of us have worries such as “What if I say something stupid?” “What if I look awkward?”
• Remember, you’re not alone in these sorts of worries. Most of us are just pretending to look like we feel comfortable and know what we’re doing.
It can also help to externalize (separate you as a person from the thoughts that float through your head) your thoughts through imagining them as something outside of you. Some folks like to imagine their thoughts are clouds floating by on the sky, leaves floating by on a stream, or an unfriendly bully who likes to talk trash but who shouldn’t be given the time of day.
• Bonus: Google “cognitive defusion leaves on a stream” exercise.
• Leave when you want to leave. And don’t feel pressured to lie about why you’re leaving. A simple, “Thank you so much for having me,” or “It was great seeing you,” make for fine farewells.
In sum, be kind and compassionate toward yourself. It’s OK to be how you are and be who you are. No apologies needed.
Send your advice questions to Dr. Morelen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Diana Morelen is a licensed clinical psychologist, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at East Tennessee State University, and an associate director for the ETSU Ballad Health Strong BRAIN Institute. Her passion for learning and exploring started as a child of the Chesapeake Bay and her steady curiosity now finds itself rooted in the Blue Ridge mountains of Southern Appalachia, where she calls Johnson City home.