Adult-Onset Social Anxiety: Making Friends as a Grown-Up

Self on 04.06.11
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photo credit:  fontplaydotcom via flickr Creative Commons.


The social butterfly returns to her cocoon.
At my high school graduation party, my friend Rob rushed upstairs from my parents' teenager-packed basement, yelled, "I don't know anybody here, and I love it!" and zoomed off to meet more people. There were 100 people at that party: friends from the old neighborhood, friends from the new neighborhood, camp friends, Hebrew school friends, friends who I met through friends, friends friends friends.

Things are different now. 

Getting Older; Also, Boring
People moved. I moved. I met my husband and curled up in our nest. I took a demanding job that I love with smart, hardworking, fun coworkers I'm lucky to spend time with. I became a homebody. I became reserved. As life became more stressful and I craved stability, I developed an annoying knee-jerk tendency to say no to new experiences before realizing that I'd love to say yes.

Now my closest friends, save for a few and the great people at work, live all over the country (and across the ocean), so it was shocking when I realized I was ready to start a family but no longer had a cohesive crew to share it with. While I feel easy in established relationships and do well socially, in new situations, I was out of practice and became, in my eyes, shy. Shy! I have more than 600 Facebook friends, most of whom I've known at one time or another, and I still feel shy! I'm just not as good as I used to be at making new friends. It is embarrassing and very annoying. (Shy!?!)

Starting Over
Making friends as an adult is an entirely different gig than doing it as a child. When we were kids, parents, neighborhoods, school, camp and extracurriculars threw us together. Now we have to seek out a niche. As adults, the increased level of intimacy that comes with partnering up or having children gives you more to protect, and you adjust your standards as you learn how you want to spend your ever-diminishing free time. How do you get close to people while holding what you deem sacred close to your chest and toe the line of taboo subjects? (I lost a friend because I talked about money, which is a nonthreatening topic when you don't have any, but is uncomfortable for the person who does.)

Before my son was born, I wanted to meet people but was stalled by a foreign sense of intimidation. But if I was going to encourage a child to make friends, what kind of mother would I be if I didn't take that risk too? Since his birth, I've been thinking: This social anxiety and resulting awkwardness must be common among new parents, whose lives and identities are suddenly very different from their old ones. We have to learn how to navigate the world in a completely different way. Our growing pains precede our children's.

Making the First Move
I once worked with a lovely woman who invited me to lunch several times, and each time I said no. I did not feel confident at my job so I did not feel confident with the people there, and I hibernated in my cubicle. Clearly she wanted to hang out. Clearly she didn't think I was the misfit I felt I was. But I said no.

It's my turn to make the first move now.

Thing is, the women I've been meeting since having my son are so friendly that they've gotten to me before I've gotten to them. They asked me out and I said yes and we had awesome first dates for which I may have put on makeup. A woman from swim class invited me over for brunch and introduced me to her friends, all the while apologizing for the last-minute invite. I subscribe to a parenting listserv in my neighborhood, and literally five minutes before I was going to send an e-mail searching for a moms' group, a woman did exactly that and now I'm in a community with about 30 new moms and their babies, all born last March.

Still, I find myself slinking to the edges of conversations until I find my groove. Each time I receive an invitation, I say yes, but I get nervous about what to talk about, what to wear, who I'll know. And almost every time, it turns out I'm the dolt who won't leave, staying until the shoes are kicked off. It's still in my nature to be social, it's just not currently in my mechanics to start off that way.

It's not you, it's me.
Clearly, it's a confidence thing. I know I'm a good mother and a nice person, I'm good at my job, and while I don't agree with the three FABULOUS EXCELLENT BRILLIANT people who recently told me I look like Elizabeth Taylor, I don't think I'm busted. But when life is stressful — and life is very stressful right now — my verbal prowess with new people sputters like an Edsel. It's difficult to remember how to keep conversation light when my head is foggy, and I become anxious that I'll Debbie Downer or nerdify a good time. It's getting silly at this point.

Baby Steps
My parents know everybody. They probably know you. They've been linked to a tremendous network of social, loving, loyal Detroiters since I was a kid ...

... which means these men and women are my childhood friends' parents. Which means my parents met their longtime friends when they were adults thrown together by their children. Which is what I'm experiencing right now. And no posse forms overnight. So I know I'll have that emotional and geographic closeness I crave, I just won't have it today.

The good thing is, once you're a parent, the baby is an entry into conversations with other parents, and taking the baby out of equation with childless friends forces you to engage the crucial nonparent part of your brain. But also, the pal-making tips you'll pass to your child are the ones you want to implement in your own social life:

Be nice.

Play fair.

And if you have a good feeling about somebody, share your lunch.


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