Last Sunday, we had dinner with one of the top managers of my husband’s company and his wife. Yes, having to go to this dinner seemed way too “wifey” for me, but anyway, of course I went there. And it eventually was okay (meaning it wasn’t the best fun I had in my life, but it wasn’t too boring either).
These people are professional expatriates, and moving every couple of years in a different part of the world made them professional networkers. They probably have contacts in every country, and in every line of work. And more : they really want to help other people, especially other expatriates like us.
So, the man (let’s call him Mike) offered to take us in a place where they sell good (hear “as good as in France”) cheese, and sent us a list of nice restaurants in our neighborhood. Super nice. He also worked on introducing my husband to important people. Extra nice. I’m very happy that someone has taken my husband under his wing.
Then, he tried to help me. Not nice. I have never asked anything. (What is it about us that we hate people helping us ? Maybe I’ll talk about that another day.) Anyway, Mike knows tons of people in my domain, so he felt he had to invite me at a networking lunch (a “luncheon”) a couple of days ago.
I can’t even tell the level of pressure I felt when I read this invitation. I knew I had to go, I knew it was a nice gesture from him, I knew it couldn’t harm my career. But still, I felt almost sick.
I’m a pretty social person. I am. Not a real social animal, always easy going, able to make any stanger into a friend in a few minutes. Not the kind of people that every single person want to be friends with, and who can make every single person feel that they are the most important person in the world. But, I’m average, okay social. I have friends, I know how to talk to strangers, people in general like me (after some time).
But still, there are some kind of situations that really stress me out, and going to a networking event where I just know one person was definitely one of these situations.
My husband didn’t understand : “So what? You just go there, meet some people, have a good time, easy.” Oh yeah. EASY FOR YOU.
All the worst case scenarios were flying in my head. What if Mike spends all of his time talking to other people while I stand alone, not knowing what to do with myself? He doesn’t show up? Nobody talks to me? I make weird jokes, slip and fall in the middle of the room, lose my English, eat in a disgusting way and end up with food between my teeth? What if everyone ignores me?
Along the days we were getting closer to this event and I wasn’t feeling better. On the morning of the event I even went into full child crisis mode : “I don’t want to goooooooooo !”. And this parallel is not lost here : in these situations, I really feel like a child. Like I’m not a grown up and yet I have to go to a grown-up event where I didn’t know how to behave. I felt exactly the way I felt when I was a child and had to go with my parents to a place where I knew I would be the only child. I was in need another child to be there with me, to support me, to go through all of this with me.
But, I had to go. For my career, for being polite, but mostly for my social anxiety. I put on the outfit I had purchased just for this occasion, doubted whether I had put some deodorant, put some deodorant for the third time, checked my make-up, checked the way for the tenth time, checked how long it will take me to go there, checked my make-up, put some deodorant just in case.
Then I decided that I couldn’t walk there because I was already feeling sweaty, so I waited for 5 minutes for the perfect time to call a taxi, the time that would make me on time, but not too much in advance so the guy I know wouldn’t already be there.
When I arrived, he wasn’t there. The room was big, full of people, and I had pretty important things to do like getting my name tag and put my coat on a hanger somewhere. I made that very slowly, so I saved 5 minutes. The guy was still wasn’t there, and everyone was ignoring me.
So, I did the only smart move : took my phone, make the “wow this email is important” face, and take refuge in the toilets for another 7 minutes. (If you wonder, my bladder is fine, thanks, I was doing a puzzle on my phone.) Got out of the toilet, thoroughly adjusted my shirt and my lipstick in the mirror, and went out, full of apprehension.
Fortunately, Mike spotted me at this point, when I had no plan C. He introduced me to another really nice guy with whom I had a very interesting talk. Then we went to our table, where people introduced themselves to me, and they were, well, normal.
People who were grown-ups, humans, professionals, working in my field. People like me, as it appears.
And nobody laughed at me, nobody looked at me like I didn’t belong. Probably because we’re not children anymore. We all know how to behave.
It finally went pretty well (meaning it wasn’t the best fun I had in my life, but it wasn’t too boring either). Anyway, I survived. I am not going to tell you that my social anxiety is cured, but it made me think: why do I inflict that to myself? The most horrible part of this event had actually not been the event itself but my fear of it, something I did to myself, alone. Hurting myself with scary scenarios, not trusting myself to behave or just not being interesting enough.
At least now I know that I can behave, I can be interesting, I can survive an event like that, even after days of feeling like a social parasite. I’m better than I thought, and I don’t deserve all of this anxiety.
Next time, I promise, we’ll see how it goes when I show up feeling confident and powerful. Or at least a little bit closer.