“So, what do you guys do, then? Like, what do you do at night and stuff?”
I was at my first wedding as a sober person nine months after I stopped drinking.
I wasn’t too worried. I trusted myself, I trusted my friends. I knew there would be plenty of people. I was just one guest out of hundreds, I could get through a night without needing a drink.
However, I was caught off guard by this question from a very well-meaning friend. She was genuinely curious how I spent my time with my then-partner now that we didn’t drink.
I began to try and formulate an answer, but I became increasingly self-conscious.
Did not drinking make me boring?
Would my friends reconsider making plans with me?
Did they think I was on a wellness pedestal, that I was better than them?
Was my life now an interesting case study about how long I would keep this up?
As I took in her question, I was trying my best to come up with an answer that didn’t sound condescending. The truth was, I was really enjoying getting to know someone without being inebriated and numbing out intimacy.
When I stopped drinking I didn’t account for what would come next. Everyone else’s opinions, judgments, and concerns about my own very personal decision.
However, navigating my sobriety journey in connection with others has taught me more about boundaries, confidence, communication, and personal rightness than I ever could have imagined. Who knew it would end up forcing me out of so much of the social awkwardness and self-doubt I used to walk around with?
The lessons I’ve learned and tools I’ve gained along the way now bleed into my dating and relationship coaching practice, and I’m always excited when I can help guide clients through similar life situations, to help them find more rightness in themselves, the decisions they make, and desires they have.
We like people who are their most authentic, confident selves, but that can be difficult to embody if you struggle with any type of social anxiety, self-doubt, or have a hard time connecting with others and feeling comfortable in your own skin.
If the now reopened world has you feeling like you forgot how to converse and act like an everyday human again, or has you unsure of how to be with others after a year of deep reflection, or you’re just generally lacking excitement to be talking with strangers and you’d like to feel more socially free, try on some of these suggestions:
1. Put Your Attention Out
The world exists outside your head, so it’s worth trying your best to be interested in others and what’s happening in and around your environment. People love to talk about themselves, so one of the best ways to get out of your own noisy head and become someone who’s available for connection is to ask questions.
Expand your attention so much that you feel yourself being guided by what you’re curious to know and learn. If you feel yourself wondering “Hmm, what did they mean by that?” ask for more details, ask questions outside the box. You’ll leave them with the experience of feeling seen and having received quality attention, and more than likely they’ll become quite interested in you, too.
If you feel nervous about what you have to talk about or offer, simply practice putting your attention out on others and be interested in what’s going on around you.
2. Be Prepared
When it comes to social events, meetings, and dates, it’s best to be prepared to talk about what you’re working on, excited about, or what you want people to know or remember about you.
One of my favorite teachers and coaches, Allison Armstrong, recommends positioning yourself as the one “being reacted to”. The more open and forward you can be in your sharing and expression, the more opportunities others have to determine if they’d like to continue connecting with you. Be prepared to share what you’re up to and turned on about. Reflect and think about what you would like others to ask you about.
This is an exercise I have my coaching clients really dig into. We have the ability to guide and train potential partners how to put attention on us in a way that would feel good for us.
It’s empowering to realize you aren’t at the mercy of boring small talk. Like Allison recommends, be the one that’s being reacted to and lead with what’s going on for you.
3. Predetermine Your Boundaries
In coaching, I call this setting the container. When we feel like we have a clear beginning and ending and know what to expect of an experience, our nervous systems can relax and it allows us to take on more challenges and risks.
Use the container technique in social situations, with family, or when you’re going anywhere you feel nervous about. Decide ahead of time how long you want to stay, how to leave when it’s time, what to say if you need to excuse yourself in a group, and brainstorm any potential curveballs that could come up. Sometimes it’s helpful to touch base with someone in your life before heading out. Say, “Hey, I’m walking into this event. Is it alright if I call you on my way out?” It adds an extra level of accountability and a knowing that someone is expecting to hear from you on the other side.
4. Check Your State
An old boyfriend once gave me a very sage piece of advice. We were about to leave for a dinner party with his family and he was making himself some food.
“Aren’t we about to be eating for the next few hours?” I asked him.
He replied, “Yeah but I’m starving. You’re never supposed to go to someone’s house starving.”
I think about that all that time and what state I’m in when I’m headed somewhere important. Chances are, if I’m starving, I’m going to be single-focused on getting something to eat, potentially at the expense of meaningful conversation or making important connections. Hungry or not, if I’m tired, irritated, overwhelmed, or in any heavy emotional state, there’s an opportunity to check in with myself and figure out what I really need before putting myself in the throes of social interaction.
Do I need to rearrange something in my schedule so that I can take a quick power nap or meditate for 15 minutes before leaving my place? Do I need to stop somewhere and grab a tea or coffee before making my way in? Do I need to call a friend, mentor, or coach and talk something out so I can offload some of my overwhelm and feel more mentally clear? Do I need to reschedule altogether and rethink if I’m in a good place? Sometimes that’s one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves.
5. Feel For The Peak
Have you ever been in a meeting that’s dragging on and all you can think about is “This would have been perfect and productive if this ended 15 minutes ago—we already accomplished everything we needed to”? Or maybe you’re on a date and the waiter is taking extra long bringing you the check and you think, “Ugh, we should have signaled to pay 30 minutes ago now we’re just resentfully sitting here staring at each other.”
If you’ve had either of those experiences, then you know what it’s like to be somewhere or be doing something that has passed the “peak” of sensation, i.e feeling good. When we stay past the peak in anything — at a social event, a job or relationship that no longer serves us — oftentimes we’re left with the sour taste of not following our intuition and leaving when the experience was still “good”.
Especially at social events, I do my best to leave just before the “peak.” To excuse myself and leave just as the conversation is getting good and I’m making good connections. I’ve had far too many experiences when I stayed past the “peak” and the connection expired, we tried to squeeze too much out of a good thing, and everything plateaued and I never heard from anyone again.
Start to notice and feel for the “peak” of things in your life. Having a great date? Call for the check earlier than normal and leave while there’s still sensation buzzing between you and the other person. Having a great time at a wedding or social event? Head out when you start to intuitively know it’s about to go downhill, get boring, or fizzle out.
When we leave before a “peak” we feel refreshed and excited for what’s next vs. resentful, drained, or depleted.
It’s a nuanced skill but if made more conscious, it will transform your relationships and social interactions.
If you’re one of the many that had a transformative past year, give yourself some patience and grace, because interacting with others again may feel really different. It’s okay to want to feel like you have some control.