I stood in someone’s kitchen and talked about the weather for almost an hour yesterday. It was the hardest thing I did all week.
You see, I come from a family of, well, hermits. Socially awkward types? Introverts? Loners? Not sure what to call it. But the three other members of my family of origin have lived alone for the majority of their adult lives, and loved it that way. We all have a few close friends but not a group of them. Parties and social engagements either don’t come naturally to us or we didn’t learn how to “do” them.
Then I had kids.
Kids who have friends and go to birthday parties and get togethers and are generally part of a community. Which means, to a certain extent, that I have to be a part of that community too. My kids love being a part of their community. And I love my kids. So, if my kid gets invited to a class party on a Friday afternoon that is not drop-off, I go.
I go, and I talk about the weather for an hour. Until I feel my skin start to itch and my anxiety start to rise. Till I start looking around, in a panic. Am I the only person struggling with this? I am, I think. Everyone else here is more social than me, so much more natural in a crowd. I bet they’re all extroverts. Extroverts who see there is something wrong with me. Clearly there is something wrong with me.
And so I continue talking about the slush that remains on the streets from this weeks’ bomb cyclone.
Social anxiety is still my Achilles Heel. I’ve overcome vast amounts of anxiety that I’ve had all my life. Panic attacks since 6 years old. Generalized Anxiety that generalized to, well, almost everything. For years.
I’ve worked hard. I’m mindful and intentional about my thoughts much of the time. I have so much less anxiety at this stage of my life than any other.
Except when I have to make more than the briefest of small talk. In a crowd.
I actually love talking to people. One-on-one connection with another person. I’ll talk about deep dark secrets with a stranger all day, every day. Or, let’s have a heated discussion about the market opportunity for a new medical treatment. (Conversations I often have with my biotech company clients.) I also enjoy the intellectual challenge, the adrenaline rush, of speaking in front of a crowd.
But the weather? Where we’re going for spring break? I die a little inside.
I’ve learned that most people don’t want to have a deeply connected conversation standing over a veggie tray in someone’s kitchen at 4p on a Friday afternoon. I now understand that comes off as intense. I have no problem accepting that I am an intense person. It comes with a lot of great qualities. But, it doesn’t mean I need to hit every person in my path with my conversational tractor beam. It took me years to realize this, but I’m here. So I’ve come that far at least.
But, I’m not sure where to go from here. Why would I still care what a loose group of acquaintances think of me? Honestly, I don’t. And then it hits me.
I realize the crux of my fear. Why making small talk with other parents at a kid-driven social gathering is a particular struggle. It’s because I stand there and worry that my social anxiety is contagious, and I will give it to my kids. And that they will suffer because of it.
I fear that they will wrestle with social interactions the way I do.
Neither of my kids are the chandelier-swinging type. But they are much more comfortable in a crowd that I ever was at that age. That said, My older son is in 5th grade and dipping a toe into the murky social waters of adolescence and middle school. Private conversations and social strata. He is confused by some of the social interactions he sees. How capricious other kids his age can sometimes be.
But my inept conversational skills are irrelevant. He is going to have to figure out his own social path himself. And that path will have bumps. He will trip and fall. I have no control over that. As much as I’d like to wrap him in gauze until he graduates high school.
But my failure or success at small talk will not save him from pain, or confusion, or heartbreak.
I wish more than anything that it would. But it won’t.
So, I will continue to attend social gatherings for my kids. I can do that for them. And I will continue to be awkward, and intense, and unable to talk about the weather. That’s who I am. And they will do the best they can to navigate the world around them. And they will fall. And I will be there to help them through. Because when they are ready to have a deep, intense talk about their feelings. Or they are trying to make sense of the world. That’s the kind of conversation where I shine.
Please, just don’t ask me about the mild temperatures in the coming days.