I’ve got a piece in this month’s Red magazine about socialising – specifically, how to be sociable when you don’t feel like it.
I’d pitched it after seeing one too many ‘I’m sorry I’m late, I didn’t want to come’ memes, thinking that it would be interesting to delve into why we’re all apparently so keen to advertise how anti-social we are these days. As part of the piece, I ended up taking a course at the School of Life titled ‘How To Be Sociable’. (Ever willing to be a human guinea pig).
But I also had slightly selfish motivations for writing this piece too, as socialising – and specifically social anxiety – was something that has been on my mind for a while. This might be the most head-thunkingly obvious thing to say, but socialising can be difficult after miscarriage.
Quite apart from the immediate sadness that can mean you don’t want to see or speak to anyone, there can be a longer-term, ongoing identity crisis that chips away at your ability to be the life and soul of the party. Or even just sit through a nice dinner. At least, that’s how it’s been for me.
When I was pregnant for the first time, constantly sober and exhausted, I felt boring and detached in social situations. But, I would tell myself, at least people will soon understand why. Only we never got the big reveal that follows the 12-week scan; the ‘I knew it!’ moment that functions as excuse, explanation and social endorsement of your pregnancy – the threshold at which it becomes real to the outside world. And so I carried on feeling boring and detached, adding broken, sad and angry into the mix, too.
I was also constantly anxious – something that has intensified with each miscarriage. At a particularly low ebb last year, before I started therapy, I would dread Dan leaving the house for work before me in the morning, as the anxiety over whether I’d locked all the doors, shut the windows, and turned off my hair straighteners was almost over-whelming. More than once, I contemplated phoning in sick because I was too anxious to leave the house.
As time goes on, because you feel these things – anxious, quiet, tongue-tied, boring – you start to believe you are these things. They calcify; a slow but serious sclerosis of your personality.
There are other reasons socialising becomes complicated. There’s the painful reminder presented by pregnant friends, or friends with children, especially new babies. You may not feel brilliant about the way you look (as I’ve written about before, here). Any small talk scenario now carries the risk of a mortifying public breakdown: ‘So do you guys have any children? Would you like them one day?’ And your response will be maddeningly unpredictable. Some days such questions merely glance off you, and on others they will catch your heart off guard (and blow it open). This happened to me at the hairdresser’s a few weeks after our third miscarriage. It is a cruel and unusual form of torture having to sit and watch the wobbling gymnastics of your own face in the mirror as you try not to cry.
There are the obviously challenging social occasions, such as christenings, first birthday parties, mothers’ day lunches, or baby showers. But weddings and hen dos can run your emotions through the mangle, too. I remember feeling acutely jealous of friends who were getting engaged, married or buying their first homes – envious of their blank slate, as I saw it, whereas my own page felt splotched and tattered. 30th birthday parties also came laced with a kind of bittersweet nostalgia, reminding me of how impatient I’d been to be pregnant when my own had rolled around – and of how little I could have anticipated what was just around the corner.
There are two really important things to say if you finding it hard to socialise after pregnancy loss. The first is that social anxiety can be, or can morph into, a diagnosable psychological disorder – a close cousin to other anxiety disorders and one that can and should be treated. The second is that it can also be fine to be a bit anti-social. You can retreat for a while if that’s what you need. Real friends will understand and be waiting whenever you are ready. However, as Dr Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist and author of How To Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic And Rise Above Social Anxiety, told me when I interviewed her for the magazine piece, ‘while it’s fine to step back and take time for yourself… we need to remember to step back into the world,’ or we risk feeling even more isolated (and the fear of socialising only grows).
Knowing what is valid self-care and what is self-harming hermit-ing is something I’m still working on. But here are my (non-expert) pointers for how to make socialising a little easier when you do feel you need to ‘step back in’…
Find your no-effort people
This is something I was discussing recently with a very good friend, who has been through a truly shit time, losing their girlfriend last year: that there are some people who take energy and effort to be around. This could be for all kinds of reasons and is no reflection on how much you love and appreciate that person. But know that it is fine to say no to them (in the nicest possible way) if you simply do not have the bandwidth right now. You don’t need to think of iron-clad excuse.
Instead, identify and prioritise your ‘no-effort people’. This sounds like an insult, but I promise it’s not. To me ‘no effort’ is the highest of compliments. These are the friends who make no extra demands of you emotionally, who you’re not trying to impress or entertain, who let your twitchy, tired brain power-down for a bit. They’re the people who make you feel safe: They know which cupboard the mugs are in and you don’t feel you have to tidy up for them. They’re friends who you can fall asleep on the sofa in front of Britain’s Got Talent with; friends who’ve seen you without make-up; friends who’ve seen you cry.
I don’t think many people can honestly say they have lots of this sort of friend. And it may be that yours live far away, or are difficult to be around for other reasons. But if you possibly can, these are the people to make plans with.
Suggest anti-social activities
Socialise without actually having to do much socialising, in other words. For me, meeting people to do things that didn’t require much talking on my part were often the only thing I felt up to. Going to the cinema was perfect. I also have a very lovely friend who has obligingly accompanied me to various exercise classes, even though I wasn’t necessarily much fun over brunch or coffee afterwards.
There’s something about having a shared enterprise – whether it’s a film, a pub quiz, or yoga – that takes the edge off when you feel vulnerable and like you’re navigating a strange city minus a layer of skin. As does keeping things low-stakes and casual (meeting during the day, just for a couple of hours, in places you know well) rather than events with a lot of build-up or that make you feel on display (dress codes, people you don’t know well or haven’t seen for ages, expensive or far-flung places).
There are some social events that are to a certain extent unavoidable. Or that it feels like too much of a statement if you don’t go. Work parties, perhaps, or big family birthdays.
One strategy I’ve used for this kind of socialising, is imposing a bit of structure – some kind of artificial limit or rule to help me get through it. For instance, agreeing that you will stay at the wedding until the cake is cut and then you will drive home. Or setting an alarm for an hour’s time when you arrive at a party, and then quietly sneaking out when it goes off – with a pre-made plan to have pizza in your pyjamas when you get home. At the risk of offending our friends, we still make a lot of excuses not to stay places overnight. Somehow everything feels much more manageable if there’s the promise of waking up in your own bed at the end of it.
Give yourself a get-out clause
I’ll preface this one by saying that I think it’s fine to say no to things you know are going to be incredibly hard on your heart. And sometimes you will have to be firm and honest with yourself about what is too much and why, because even the most sensitive of friends may not remember every due date, or significant anniversary. (This is especially true for partners, I think. While people will often consider my feelings in the run up to a christening or a pregnancy announcement, Dan’s can seem like an afterthought. But these things are hard for him, too.)
But if you do decide you’d like to try to go to the baby shower (or whatever it is) I recommend giving yourself a get-out clause, because difficult days can sneak up on you. If at all possible, let your friend know that you plan to come, but, given the circumstances, there is a chance you won’t feel up to it on the day and could they plan around that? I know that sounds flaky, which just isn’t in some people’s obliging nature, but somehow simply knowing I have that get-out clause helps. (And it’s much less stressful than having to cancel out of the blue on the day, when you’re already mired in sadness and feeling unable to account for yourself).
As ever, I’m only speaking from my own experience about the things that have helped me. Perhaps you felt differently, and found throwing yourself into a social life that would exhaust Jay Gatsby a brilliant distraction? Either way, please do feel free to share in the comments. What worked for you – and what didn’t?