Party Anxiety

Dreading the round of holiday gatherings? Experts advise on how to navigate the social terrain this time of year.


The bar is open, the buffet is plentiful, and in the festive glow, couples and trios mingle, trade one liners, guffaw heartily.

Enter the free radical. That's you. Feeling pariah-like, not sure where to land, afraid to break into one of those cozy clumps of people; even more afraid to strike up a conversation with other loners.

Why exert all of that psychic energy when you can study the melon balls or pretend to get a phone call from your best friend? Anything's better than breaking through the barrier of your own dread and risking humiliation - even if it means that you might miss having a good time in the process.

Parties at any time of year can be intimidating. But in this season of forced merriment and heightened expectations, the prospect of an endless string of fetes, office gatherings, cookie exchanges and open houses can be particularly excruciating.

"I absolutely hate it," says Jada Jean Fletcher, who works in the correspondence unit of the Baltimore Mayor's office. Parties return Fletcher, 30, to her "earliest situations" when, "I never felt like I fit in. I never did fit in."

A naturopath or acupuncturist would say that holiday parties are human nature's way of forcing people to confront winter's dormant emotions and extract joy from its depths. That's a good thing, but it often means confronting ancient demons.

"We constantly are looking for connection as well as validation," says Geoffrey L. Greif, associate dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland. It is a dynamic that has changed little since childhood, he says. "Essentially, the party is the re-creation of the playground or the first day of school. So that's always an operating premise for us," Greif says.

Toss in the added pressure of the holidays, and it's a recipe for regression, Greif says. "The holidays are very infantilizing. Every time you go to a Christmas party, it brings up when you were a kid and it was supposed to be a magical time." As adults, we're still searching for that magical time, whether or not it ever existed, says Greif, author of numerous books on families, single parenthood and child rearing.

Holidays heighten our inherent anxieties, says Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University. And, "when you increase your sense of anxiety, you intensify all emotions, thoughts and feelings. If you're in a positive mood, anxiety energizes you. If you're tense and nervous, it turns up the volume [on those emotions]."

Anxieties recalled

Party anxiety is amplified by the propensity of people to "focus on things that stand out," Carducci says. "When we review our previous social history, we don't recall all the successes we have; that's too common," he says. "What stands out are the rejections we've had in the past, [such as when you made that] stupid comment."

In his book, The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk: How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything (Pocket, 1999, $11.95), Carducci provides tips for overcoming social apprehension. He's a firm believer in the capacity to overcome debilitating patterns of behavior. "The way to change that behavior is first and foremost to recognize it, find an alternative response and practice that response," he says.

In a section that takes a "holistic approach" to small talk, for example, Carducci advises readers to "focus on what others are saying," instead of "focusing on the conversation you are having with yourself mentally."

For self-protection, Fletcher says, she used to take a novel to parties, "until I was instructed not to do that." Still, her preference for books that few others have read and what she describes as her tendency toward non-sequiturs continue to make parties painful. "My small talk is always inappropriate or unrelated to the general mood," she says.

But Fletcher has also developed what she calls "social towing mechanisms" that pull her through an evening, including attending a party with a handsome man, dancing all night, or becoming immersed in a board game. "Latching onto married couples at parties is also good," Fletcher says. They create "a little safety zone," she says.

Not all feel fear

Not everybody quakes at the prospect of parties, says McDaniel College psychology professor Paul Mazeroff, who teaches a course on stress. Those who tend to seek positive reinforcement externally find strength in meeting new people, he says.

Fletcher's friend, Joanne Christian, for one, is undaunted by the holiday social whirl. "When I first walk into a party, I feel excited," says Christian, a software development analyst at Constellation Energy. "If I [arrive] alone, I usually look around for someone I know and say hello," says the 30-year-old Mount Vernon resident. "Then I try to find out where to put my coat. The next thing I do is find the food and the bar!"

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