“Go out and meet new people”
“Networking is key to success”
“You need to socialize more”
As a young professional, I can’t recall the number of times I’ve heard such phrases. As a social-phobic, introverted wallflower, I can’t recall the number of times I wished to say “Bugger off.”
“After Hours Social,” “Office Holiday Party,” “Networking Event,” they all scream “Welcome to the guillotine, please place your head here!” to my ears. As much as I’d love to avoid these situations forever, my expectations are not only unrealistic and unreasonable, but it is also unproductive to my social and professional life.
Mysteriously empowered by the elusive “You can do this” mood, I signed up to attend a networking event featuring two young female entrepreneurs. The eve of the event, I enthusiastically re-affirmed my attendance. The day of, I decided to hide myself—vanity protects my sanity. I dressed nice, made sure my make-up was on full and color-coordinated, as I comforted my flighty-self under the weight of designer accessories and a handbag. If I look nice, perhaps people will overlook the fact that I am a nervous wreck ready to jump ship at any moment.
They say never let show your weakness to the world, and boy, were they right. Life decided to throw curveball of lemons that night. The building security had my name wrong and kept calling me by different variations of my name, which infuriated me. Once at the event floor, I couldn’t figure out the speakers from the attendees from those just using the co-working space. Everything just became very overwhelming, and I sought solace in a corner, where I chose to remain glued to my trusty sidekick and lover, my smartphone. I was lonely but relieved.
In a moment of spontaneity, I decided to wander away from my corner to grab a coffee. A young woman was struggling to make a latte, and we had a small three-minute chat about the complexities of the coffee machine. This moment filled my human interaction quota for the evening.
Two days after the event, when the visible stress was gone, I experienced anxiety attacks. At the time of writing this, I am now on Day 2 of sporadic chest tightness and hyperventilation, coming and going as they please.
Some people prepare to meet new people. Some people prepare to share their insight and experiences. I prepare to not have mental energy depleted. This is why I often decline events when not given enough time to mentally prepare myself. This is why I decline events where I don’t know anybody. This is why my friends see me as anti-social, but I’m really social-phobic. It’s not that I don’t want to be in such settings—I just can’t handle them well.
Some may be disappointed, but I’m actually quite proud of myself. I’m proud of having attended the event. I’m proud of having a conversation with a stranger. The lack of full engagement is not going to set me back further, it’ll only provide a layer of experience I can use for other events in the future.
I can’t avoid social events, not forever. Might as well embrace my reality and tear down my safety wall, brick by brick.