My husband and I threw a Super Bowl party many years ago.
We ought to have known better. Most of our friends weren’t football geeks, like us.
We’d invited about 30 people, and set up an extra TV in our living room. Our son, around 5 at the time, had created a colorful poster which was hanging proudly by said TV. His anticipation of the big day and the big crowd was off the charts. Mounds of “football food” graced our dining table.
6 folks arrived in time for the game. They stood around a bit awkwardly, not knowing each other well. Another 10 showed up two hours later, mostly for the food. The others? They were never heard from — not a peep.
We’ve long moved on, but have stayed away from another football event. (Luckily, other efforts have received a more generous endorsement.) Recently, a friend, who had thrown a big non-profit bash in her home and had invited well over a hundred people, wryly commented:
“I only had RSVP’s from 10% of the people I invited. I didn’t know how to plan — whether it would be a big bust, or people would come without letting me know. It was awful.”
Where are our manners? Miss Vashti Triplett, a grand dowager of my small Southern hometown and my etiquette teacher (yes… I walked with a book on my head and learned to recite Shakespearean sonnets…) would be turning over in her grave. People have tried everything – lavish wedding invitations with butterflies escaping from them, email invites with music and funny graphics, “Save The Date” announcements — all with the purpose of getting people to respond — and to commit.
Still, either too many people show up, and there’s a frantic rush to cut cheese into smaller cubes or redistribute the caviar, depending on how high-falutin the event is. Or it’s a painfully small crowd, the host is disappointed and all the effort that went into creating the event seems fruitless.
What’s going on that we’ve become so nonchalant and disrespectful?
I wonder if it’s about social anxiety.
The role of social anxiety and social media…
Anxiety is the number one mental health issue in the United States. Social anxiety disorder is a mental illness, and there are those that suffer horribly from it. They have panic attacks at the thought of facing a crowd, and at its worst, the anxiety can morph into agoraphobia, an intense fear of leaving your own home. It can be confronted, but it takes work. Yet apart from an actual diagnosis of social anxiety, It would not surprise me to learn that people are staying away from commitment, because their discomfort with being with other people has risen substantially
We text. We Facebook. We Snap. We Instagram. We Pin.
But we don’t look each other in the eye. When we’re staring at a screen, any screen, we can avoid being evaluated in the moment. We won’t feel on the spot. We don’t have to deal with questions about graduating from college (didn’t quite happen), our kid’s new job (was let go and is back home), what we’re doing for summer break (not planned and can’t afford) or whether or not we’re going to the gym (haven’t been in over a month).
So you tuck the invitation back into whatever crevice it popped up from, and wait.
“It’s too much to think about.”
“I don’t know who else is going.”
“I may not feel like it that day.”
All of these are about insecurity. Worry. Pure anxiety. So we stay away from the commitment. Instead of staying in the present, and focusing on what is happening in the moment, many of us constantly worry about what might happen in the future.
For example, many people talk about volunteering after retirement. Their concern? “I’m not sure I want to commit.” Is that all about appreciating the freedom of retirement? It could be. But could it also be that introducing yourself to a new environment, where you’ll have to learn the ropes — be a little vulnerable — causes anxiety?
So what can you do about it?
An exercise to help confront social anxiety…
If you have an unanswered invitation in your email or on your desk.. if you’re considering volunteering or joining a club… if you’ve received Facebook announcements of coming events and not responded… try this.
Sit down and write out the reasons you aren’t answering. What makes you nervous about going? What are you telling yourself are the reasons you would have difficulty there? How rational are those reasons? If they’re not, can you find a way to laugh at yourself a little, or get a more reasonable perspective? Can you decide to tolerate being nervous? What could you do beforehand — in order to help yourself be less anxious? What could you plan to do when going to an event to keep yourself calm? What options do you have that might help?
Not responding, not committing is a choice.
If you stay uncommitted, silent, you’re actually committed to hiding. At least for the moment, or the day, or the week.
And remember… everyone else has their own insecurity. Everyone.
You’re simply more aware of yours.
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The original of this revised post initially appeared on Midlife Boulevard.