Introverts have it rough around the holidays, so Lynn Beisner offers a survival guide for all the over-stimulating festivities and family gatherings.
If you hate the company Christmas party or the big family Thanksgiving dinner, you are not necessarily a bad person. You may just be an introvert, which likely means that you are drained, not recharged, by time spent with people. Since the holidays typically demand extra time with people, here are a few personally-tested tips to make it through in one piece:
1. Acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with you. Just because other people are energized by family gatherings and love the holidays does not mean you are a bad person for dreading them. I have a friend who recently lamented how screwed up she is because this Thanksgiving is the first that she has spent with her family in more than a decade. She believes our society’s motto that family is the most important thing and that she is a failure because she does not enjoy time with her family. What she fails to recognize is how much she gives her family in one-on-one encounters.
2. Pace yourself. Do not try to spend the entire weekend with family. Just because other “normal” (extroverted) people can do this does not mean that you “should” be able to do it or even attempt it.
3. Recognize the symptoms of being “peopled-out.” They include:
(a) The sudden realization that everyone in your family has the same IQ as the turkey.
(b) Being seized by the need to tell a family member exactly what you think of his or her politics.
(c) Wondering how and why your family is uniquely screwed up and why no one else seems to be noticing it.
(d) Your ears actually start twitching from the amount of noise, or you find yourself having some other physical response. My husband’s coping mechanism here is to discreetly plug one ear by putting his hand alongside his face in a way that looks like genuine interest.
4. Most introverted people are easily overwhelmed. Vegas is hell for us, for example. So try to stay in areas that are less noisy, less crowded, and have fewer flashing lights. Believe it or not, attention to these small details can really make a difference.
5. Recognize that you are far more likely to get into arguments and to behave in ways you might later regret. So when you are taking care of yourself—even if that means limiting your time at a family event, or skipping it, and seeing individual family members separately—you are not diminishing family bonds, you are actually protecting them.
6. Try to get a task at a social gathering. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who has introverted tendencies, will only attend NBC social functions if they allow her tend bar. Having to pay attention to her work gives her an excuse to have mini-breaks in social interactions. I always try to be the cook or child-minder. Yes, these are traditionally feminine rolls, but whatever gets me out of having to mingle is good with me.
7. Scope out a retreat spot when you first reach an event, a place where you can go without looking odd that will allow you a few minutes alone. Use this spot before you think you need it.
8. Prepare for large social occasions as others would prepare for a taxing journey. Think it through, be well rested and prepared physically and mentally. If you are going through a time of physical or emotional stress, try to have informal or scaled-down events where you can control the number of people you have to be around at any given time.
9. Prepare an emergency exit plan just like you would on a first date—a way of getting the heck out if it all becomes too much. Conveniently, we have a dog with social anxiety who bays loudly at the window causing our neighbors to text complaints just when a social event is getting overwhelming.
10. Learn four or five social questions that you can get other people talking about to alleviate yourself of the pressure to communicate. My favorites:
(a) “What kind of work do you do?” or “So, how do you keep yourself busy?” Followed quickly by “How do you see your field changing?” If there is one thing that is constant it is change, and everyone’s role is changing, even stay-at-home parents and retired people.
(b) “How did you meet …?” This can be the host of the party, the person’s date, or partner, etc.
(c) If you have an idea who will be at the party, prepare by thinking of conversation starters. For example, I know that my husband’s boss had a baby this year, and that he has an older son. My plan at this year’s holiday party is to ask, “So how is your oldest son liking his role as big brother?”
11. Use family gatherings and other social occasions to test your limits with what it takes to get peopled-out. Not all people “count” the same as a drain on an introvert. Your own children and close friends often count for only half a person, meaning you can spend twice as long with them as you could with your average colleague at a department mixer. For those of us who are in loving relationships, our partners barely count as another person. I can spend days with Pete before I need a break. There are some people, however, who are twice as draining as your average colleague. Each of your parents generally counts as two people, bosses count as a dozen people, and a Republican relative, for me, is a veritable mob. I have made it a game in recent years to see how long I can make it through social events by hanging around people who cost me less.
Above all, remember that introversion tends to run in families, and plan for your own nuclear family accordingly. Our little family—my husband, daughter, and son—can wear each other out pretty quickly if we are all in a room at the same time. And suddenly, we start exhibiting the symptoms listed above. So, we have changed how our family celebrates holidays to accommodate this. For example, rather than having one large terribly over-stimulating Christmas Day, we celebrate the 12 days of Christmas with small gifts and family outings. Do what works best for you, but just remember that not loving all the holiday gatherings does not make you a bad person, it may just mean you’re an introvert. And that’s perfectly OK.