Who doesn’t love a party? The food, the decorations, reconnecting with family and friends…. It’s wonderful, right?
My husband thinks I’m totally anti-social, reflects Brachi. I don’t like parties. I’d seriously rather clean my entire house for Pesach twice than attend a Chanukah party. I don’t like the crowds, the noise, the mess, the pressure to be SOCIAL for so long. My husband doesn’t understand me. He tells people I’m shy, but I’m really not. I just don’t enjoy parties.
Of Introverts, Extroverts, and the Socially Anxious
Parties and Introversion
Brachi is not shy. Shyness is a fear of social judgment that causes people to withdraw from social settings. When shyness is extreme,we call it social anxiety.Brachi isn’t afraid of social situations. She doesn’t fear parties. She just dislikes them. Brachi is what we call an introvert.
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking, attorney Susan Cain discusses how introverts are pathologized in a world that prizes extroversion. We tend to see introversion and extroversion in terms of social preferences. Introverts dislike extensive socialization, and extroverts are outgoing, right?
In reality, it’s about the level of stimulation people prefer. Extroverts require a great deal of stimulation to feel comfortable. They like variety and constantly shifting situations. Introverts prefer quiet. They’d rather focus on one thing for a long period. Compare a loud Chanukah chagigah —with music blasting, food being served, and people doing several things at once — to a quiet, candlelit dinner.
Introverts, in general society, often feel pressured to force themselves to be more social. What about in frum society? Does this apply? Do we consider extroversion to be a healthier personality type? In my research on Orthodox Jewish girls’ development of self, I asked school principals to describe that “top girl” so many mothers had described as their ideal for their daughters. Many principals talked about the “leibedige” girl, the life of the party, as being one component of a “top girl.”
A secular researcher who spent a year observing frum teenage girls reported the same finding. The “loud” girls were the most popular. Extroversion as the norm seems to be part of our society as well, at least for adolescent girls and women.
But what if you’re not an extrovert? Introverts have to believe that their stimulation style is not bad or deficient. It is perfectly legitimate, just not “in style.” Hashem doesn’t make anything bad, and introversion is hardwired into our neurology. Of course, it’s worthwhile to develop social skills and to push ourselves out of our comfort zones, just as it would be worthwhile for an extrovert to occasionally sit still and contemplate. So the first step in solving party anxiety caused by introversion is to fully embrace the stimulation style you naturally have and thank Hashem for its gifts.
Now that you are aware that the party is pushing you out of your comfort zone, you need a plan. How will you handle it? Since overstimulation is painful for you, it’s important to think about how to reduce the level of stimulation bombarding you. Is there a place you can go to escape when the party is getting too loud or too crowded, or you just need to breathe? Are there people you find it pleasurable to talk to? Can you make a plan for whom you’ll sit next to, or how you’ll handle a game that you don’t want to play? Once you have a plan, the whole situation doesn’t seem as unmanageable.
Shyness, on the other hand, needs to be fought. As we said, shyness is fear of social scrutiny. Any time a decision is based on unrealistic fear, that fear needs to be overcome. In order to deal with shyness, we have to act contrary to what the fear is telling us to do. If the fear says “don’t go to that party, people will judge you,” it’s easy to see what the opposite course of action is. You have to go to the party and force yourself to socialize with as many people as possible.
This only works if it is done as part of an overall plan to combat shyness. We know that in order to fight any type of anxiety, we have to engage in a combination of desensitization and cognitive restructuring.
Desensitization means that we have to do the thing we’re afraid of, over and over again, while telling ourselves, “The fact that I did it and nothing terrible happened means that my fear is lying to me.”
Telling ourselves this is called cognitive restructuring. We are slowly changing our minds about the fear by proving to ourselves that in fact, there’s nothing dangerous about socializing.
Ayala is a socially anxious teenage girl. She withdraws from all social events because she is afraid others will judge her. I ask Ayala to detail her “what-ifs.” They are myriad, everything from “What if I can’t figure out what to do with my hands?” to “What if I say something really dumb?” to “What if no one talks to me?” We begin with an exercise I call “down the rabbit hole,” where we follow the fear as far as it takes us.
For example,the fear “What if no one talks to me?” is followed up with, “Well, tell me, what if?” Ayala responds, “I’ll be all alone. Everyone will look at the nebach case who is all alone.” “And then what will happen?” I ask. Eventually, after following all the twists and turns of her reasoning, we come to an ending point. “And then I’ll feel bad and really embarrassed.”
When we get to the point of describing discomfort, Ayala has to do something that is really hard for most people who suffer strong emotional reactions to common life events. She has to accept the possibility of discomfort.
The fact is, life is going to contain some discomfort. You can look at a baby and hope to shield her from life’s bumps and bruises, but you as the mother know something: that little girl will experience embarrassment, physical pain, anger, hurt, jealousy, sadness, anxiety, fear — the full gamut of human emotion — and this is a good thing. Discomfort is part of life, and can’t be avoided.
A lot of psychological distress is caused by the attempt to avoid discomfort. This rarely works. Yes, Ayala might feel discomfort. She might be really embarrassed and feel bad. But that’s all that will happen. The thing about emotions is that they don’t remain intense for very long. At first, Ayala will feel bad. But slowly, that emotion will fade.
In Targeted Parenting classes, one of the key things we teach parents of cautious children is to instill this message in their children — that discomfort is part of life, you will feel it, and you can tolerate it.
We have a badge for children who learn this lesson that says “I can tolerate discomfort.”You earn the badge by practicing simply tolerating discomfort without trying to lessen it. Practicing anything from holding an ice cube until you’d really rather release it, writing with your non-dominant hand, or staring into another person’s eyes until you’d rather break the gaze are all examples of small activities we can do to practice handling discomfort.
Parties as Time-Markers
Ever since my divorce, I don’t want to go to social events, says Shifra. I feel like people are staring at me and judging me or talking about me. My sisters say I have a chip on my shoulder, and most people don’t even realize I’m divorced, or consider it old news. But every time I’m in social situations, I feel exposed. I just don’t want to go.
Sometimes, we don’t want to go to social events because of our situation or status in life. If you think about it, parties aren’t only social events. They’re generally held to mark significant time periods in life. Chanukah parties, family simchos,reunions — these are all events that are connected to the passage of time. Without such events, life could flow seamlessly from year to year, and we wouldn’t take stock of its passing. But when marker events occur, we tend to reflect on the year that passed. Where was I last Chanukah? Have I grown and changed? Is my life headed in a direction I expected it to?
Shifra isn’t wrong, though the judgment she feels is probably more self-judgment than social judgment. Other people may be uncomfortable meeting her after her divorce. They may feel awkward about simple things, wondering what name to use, whether it’s appropriate to express sympathy, or how she’s handling things — which are all more about their own desire to be sensitive than judgment of Shifra.
If there’s been some gossip spread due to the divorce, they may feel uncomfortable simply because they’ve heard it, not because they are judgmental. So Shifra takes that sense of discomfort, marries it to her own self-doubt, and sees the world as a judgmental place. Of course she doesn’t want to be out in it.
Parties and Self-Reference Points
I so don’t want to go to my high school reunion, sighs Elisheva. Everyone else is going to come in all accomplished and gorgeous, and I’m going to feel worse about myself than I already do. I have a decidedly unglamorous job, each pregnancy that I’ve had has left a few pounds of souvenirs (and after six kids, that’s a lot of weight), and I don’t really have much to show for the past fifteen years. All these classmates with their fancy jobs and titles, their size-six figures and double-digit families will be there, and then there will be me, boring and ordinary.
Because reunions and parties are places where we meet others similar to ourselves, we tend to use them as self-reference points. Whenever we’re around people we consider similar to ourselves, we tend to engage in self-scrutiny. When that is married to an event that marks a significant time period, like a fifteenth high school reunion, we really start scrutinizing, and it’s easy to see ourselves as lacking.
Elisheva needs to realize that she is conglomerating all of her classmates’ achievements into one. One may be a well-respected high school principal, but she is also consistently unsuccessful in her attempts to shed unhealthy weight. Another may have maintained her perfect high-school figure, but is dealing with major financial challenges. A third may have a large family and seem to be a perfect housewife, but is really dealing with a shalom bayis issue. What we see on the surface is rarely the whole story. We can’t compete with anyone, because we don’t know what they are dealing with, and we certainly can’t compete with a conglomeration of everyone’s strengths.
Elisheva needs to appreciate herself and celebrate her own achievements. She should remind herself of the decisions she made that led her to this point. She could have been a career woman, or extremely slim, or famous for her housekeeping, but she chose to throw her energies into other things. If Elisheva can remind herself that her current life is based on good choices she made, choices that were right for her and her family, she can hold her head high as she meets her former classmates.
No matter the reason, parties are often a source of stress. Beneath the glitz and glamour of the party hide pitfalls for many people. If you are one of them, that’s OK. Just because the world has labeled parties as “fun” doesn’t mean they always are. Chances are you are going to attend at least one party this season, so make a plan of action and stick to it. Don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back just for attending. And afterwards, make sure to reward yourself with something you do consider fun.