How To Feel Calm When Your Family Makes You Socially Anxious

Photographed by Ashley Armitage.
It's no secret that family can be stressful, especially around the holidays. But if you're someone with social anxiety, then the marathon of family parties and holiday obligations can feel like one long, terrible performance.
It sounds counterintuitive that your family could be capable of contributing to your social anxiety, because they're supposed to love you unconditionally and all that. However, for certain people, family triggers an especially uncomfortable blend of stress and anxiety. "Social anxiety is really that fear of doing something that would be so bad that you would get kicked out of the tribe in some way," explains Jennifer Shannon, LMFT, co-founder of The Santa Rosa Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and spokesperson for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. And around your nosy aunts and far-flung cousins, you might feel especially unsure of yourself and nervous.
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The good news is that the stakes aren't as high as they can seem, and there are strategies and tips that will make every family party around the holidays feel like less of a pressure cooker. Ahead, Shannon explains how to feel calm during the most high-strung holiday parties.
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Don't worry about being perfect.

Shannon has a theory that social anxiety is tied to perfectionism. People with social anxiety might feel like they have to say exactly the right thing, respond appropriately to everything, and basically just be charming at all times — or else they'll be shunned by their peers.

Unfortunately, perfectionism isn't something you can just undo overnight, but it can be helpful to remind yourself when you're going into a party or dinner that no one is testing you, she says. "You can decrease your sense of perfection, or needing to impress in order to not be judged, just by being friendly, asking a question, or answering a question," she says. If you can do those things, then you really can't screw up.
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Make goals beforehand.

Before you go to a family party or dinner, make realistic goals for yourself, Shannon suggests. "A tip I use when I treat people with social anxiety is to remind them that they don’t need to hit a bullseye in small talk or any social performance situation; they just need to be on a target," she says. Try to let go of perfectionism, and set a low, achievable bar for yourself.

In other words, you don't have to tell a hilarious story that makes the whole room erupt in laughter; you just have to smile, make eye contact, ask questions, and answer questions. "Afterwards, instead of saying, I sounded stupid. I can’t believe I brought that up, you can say, Did I make eye contact? Smile? I should pat myself on the back instead of kick myself in the butt," she says.
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Get comfortable with faux pas.

No matter how well you brace yourself or prep for a gathering, there's always a chance there's going to be an awkward moment or two — and that's totally okay, particularly in a small-talk situation. "Small talk is the most challenging for people, because there's a fear of saying the wrong thing, having awkward silences, or not sounding smart or intelligent in some way," Shannon says. If you haven't seen a family member in a while, then you might struggle finding common ground to chat about, but you're only human.
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Talk about stuff you do like.

If you fumble for topics to talk about, just turn the conversation to something you do enjoy, Shannon says. For example, maybe you love dogs, and notice that the National Dog Show is on TV. Talk about that instead of guessing what the other person wants to talk about.

And this advice goes for talking to other people who might have social anxiety, too. "Draw them out with the areas you know that person is interested in," she says. "If you can engage in that way, they can be more a part of the gathering, so it's useful for others."
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Pivot gracefully.

Many people with social anxiety tend to feel like they have to answer any question, or engage in every conversation that people hurl at them, Shannon says. "That's our tendency, because we want to please our family, but you also want to create a boundary," she says. If you know your family tends to be invasive when discussing certain aspects of your life — for example, your relationships — anticipate that. Know what you do feel comfortable talking about, and as Shannon puts it, "Remember you don't have to give everything a person is asking for in that situation."
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Keep in mind that your family is probably anxious, too.

Social anxiety is very common, and Shannon says that "most people have some degree of it." That means there's a chance you're not the most uncomfortable person in the room. Plus, anxiety disorders tend to run in families, so it's likely someone else in your family can relate to what you're feeling, she says. While you don't have to get super deep and discuss your anxiety with your family, simply knowing that you're likely not alone may be enough to put you at ease.
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