I Spent A Week Introducing Myself To Strangers To Help Cope With My Social Anxiety
Ever since I had kids, my social skills have taken a serious nosedive. I had my first child right after graduating college (seriously, days after) and the sudden transition to stay-at-home mom was a major culture shock. Social anxiety replaced the feeling of confidence I once had interacting with others. I was plucked away from an active social life and a retail job that gave me plenty of human interaction and found myself suddenly spending my days staring at a tiny person who couldn’t talk or even smile yet. Life with a newborn was not very socially engaging and there were many days when my only adult interaction would be with my husband.
Even as my son got older, I found it harder to go out between babysitters and exhaustion and toting around a baby and the mountain of gear I felt was necessary to pack around with me everywhere I went. Before long, it seemed like the social skills I had gained over the past 22 years were fading fast. I became awkward with grocery clerks and on the rare occasion my husband and I went to a party, I was a wallflower — not daring to talk to anyone new.
I had always been a little bit anxious and awkward, but motherhood seemed to amplify these qualities within me. I found it nearly impossible to make new friends after my son was born. I needed adult interaction more than ever, but I found it so difficult. I joined a mommy play group and only went once because I felt nervous, out of place, and only talked to one person. I never introduced myself to moms at the playground or my son’s preschool.
I have found plenty of support online, and in many ways I feel like I have found my “tribe,” but my online mom friends are spread across the country. There’s no one I can invite over for wine night, or hang out at the park with. I decided it was time for me to face my social anxiety and start making some real-life friends who are also moms. I figured the only way to get past my fear of being socially awkward was to dive right into what made me most uncomfortable, and I decided to start introducing myself to moms at my son’s preschool and at the park.
I made a goal of exchanging numbers with at least three potential mom friends by the end of the week. The thought of that goal made me sick with anxiety, but it was high time for me to stop being so lonely.
On day one, as I dropped my son off at school, I realized just how ludicrous it was that I hadn’t introduced myself to a single parent and we're already halfway through the school year. There were parents who I'd talked to at pick-up and drop-off, but I had somehow never worked up the nerve to say a simple, “Hi, my name is Gemma.”
By the time I did feel comfortable enough striking up conversation (and by conversation, I usually mean a quick hello or goodbye), the window of opportunity to introduce myself without feeling awkward AF about it had long since passed. Now I was way, way past that point and felt insanely nervous about introducing myself. I practiced it in my head during drop-off, and after failing to introduce myself to the parents I talked to sometimes but whose names I didn’t know, finally worked up the courage to do it at pick-up time.
After a minute of talking while our kids were playing, right as we were about to part ways for the day, I did it. I said,
By the way, my name is Gemma. I don’t think I’ve ever actually introduced myself.
Which was a lie, I totally knew I hadn’t introduced myself. I knew because I thought about it every day and chided myself for how incredibly awkward I was being by never introducing myself.
She smiled and told me her name, and said it was nice to finally “officially” meet me. She said:
Isn’t it so weird how we do that? We know all the kids names then forget to mention our own.
And she was right. I felt so relieved when she said that, because it made me realize this was a two-way street. Yes, I had been supremely awkward by never introducing myself, but maybe I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Maybe I wasn’t in the minority here. After all, none of the other women had introduced themselves to me either.
After my first introduction, I thought I would feel far more comfortable introducing myself to another preschool mom the next day, but as I mentally prepared myself I was still wrought with anxiety. What’s the worst that could happen? I asked myself. You’ll know another mom’s name and maybe you won’t become friends? That’s fine.
I couldn’t figure out where my intense anxiety was coming from when I kept asking myself what the worst case scenario was here. The stakes were so low and the reward was potentially so high. Why couldn’t I simply say my name and maybe (someday in the future) put out the offer for a playdate outside of school hours?
I decided to introduce myself to a mom whose name I already knew (because our kids had gone to preschool together for nearly two whole years now) but whom I’d never formally introduced myself to. When I said my name and she said, “I know,” I wanted to hide for a thousand years, but then she graciously followed up with, “but I guess we never did actually meet, huh?” I was so relieved that she didn't act like I was a total weirdo for introducing myself to someone I talked to all the time. It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I was finally comfortable.
We talked for a few minutes in the school parking lot and she was so nice and so genuine. After I left I started imagining how I would go in for the big phone number exchange tomorrow. It was like having pre-date jitters.
The next day, I re-approached the woman I’d psuedo-known for the past two years. I could imagine myself extending an invitation to go get coffee or take the kids to the park. As we struck up conversation again, I found out she even lived right up the street from me, within walking distance!
Then she told me that their family was moving out of town in the next couple months.
I felt totally devastated. For nearly two years our kids had gone to school together. For two years I'd had so many opportunities to form a friendship with this awesome woman, and now I really had missed my chance. Still she extended the offer to go out for coffee and talk sometime, or maybe get the kids together before they left.
As we exchanged numbers, I felt a mixture of joy and sadness, hoping that we’d have a chance to solidify a bond before they left.
On the fourth day of my social experiment, I decided it was time for me to head on to the big leagues and exchange phone numbers with someone. There was another mom whose son has been in preschool with my son for the past couple years, and she also had a daughter the same age as mine. Luckily, introductions weren’t necessary (not because I had ever introduced myself, but because we had been around each other so often in social situations over the past couple years we had eventually learned each other’s names).
We talk most days while the girls play together, so it seemed like a logical choice that maybe we should take this relationship beyond the casual post-drop-off chat. We’ve both attended each other’s kids’ birthday parties. It was time.
Somewhat serendipitously, as my heart raced at the thought of suggesting an outing together and offering my phone number, she asked what kind of honey I was using to help with my son’s allergies. I asked for her phone number and told her I’d text her the name of the brand (which I honestly couldn’t remember, I swear). I sort of felt like a shy teenage boy trying very awkwardly to hit on a girl. Or at least I imagine that's what I felt like. I have never been a teenage boy. Then, as if having an out of body experience, I heard myself adding that we should try to get the kids together over the break. She smiled and said that sounded great. “We definitely should,” she said. “You have my number.”
Yes. Yes, I did. I felt so proud of myself I could have burst.
On the fifth day, it was raining fiercely and no one was hanging around at drop off or pick-up to chat. I felt relieved since all that social interaction had left my nerves feeling completely frazzled, but I knew that the experiment was still going, and I still had to do something to break me out of my comfort zone. I knew what I had to do. I had to use the number. I had to text another mom. I had to initiate texting with another mom.
Extroverted moms might not think this is a big deal, but for me it is. Texting another mom for me is the equivalent of texting a cute boy in high school. I get all nervous and overthink every word in my text. I get nervous about the time between texts, wondering the meaning of it all. It is a totally overwhelming emotional experience.
When I finally sent the text, however, I felt like I had made a breakthrough. I invited her and her kids to meet us at the children’s museum over the weekend. They weren’t able to make it, but she picked another date for us to go, and now there is a date set in the foreseeable future in which I will hang out with another mom. I felt so relieved that she put in the effort to reschedule, so I didn't feel like I was cornering her into an outside of school activity she didn't want to do. I will try my best not to let my awkwardness get the best of me, but can make no promises.
On the sixth day of my experiment, I took my kids to the park. I'm always in awe of the ease with which my son is able to make friends on the playground. In fact, everywhere we go he meets someone new. He assumes that everyone is his friend and that everyone will like him, and that usually pans out well for him. He always finds someone who wants to play with him.
He decided to play with a boy around his age, and I talked to the boy’s mother as they ran around the park together. I often find myself in this situation with my son, talking to other moms at the park, but every time I find myself exchanging information about the kids and never offering any information about myself.
This time I didn’t let the opportunity pass me by. I reached out my hand and introduced myself, no awkwardness whatsoever (OK, some awkwardness, but I kept that bottled up in my mind). The other woman seemed happy that I had extended an introduction, and we talked the whole time as our kids played. We didn’t exchange numbers (though I wish now that we had), but it’s nice to know that we may see each other at the park again sometime and not have the weird lack of introductions looming over us.
On the final day of the experiment, we went to the children’s museum as planned without any new friends. However, I still didn’t have my third phone number, which meant I might have to get bold and find a new mom friend who was a complete stranger. (Oh, how I wished I had exchanged numbers with the park mom from the day before!)
While I was in one of the rooms, my son, of course, had started playing with someone he declared his friend within seconds. There was only one other mom in the room, which made my approach feel slightly less intimidating. She wasn’t there with friends. She wasn’t on her phone avoiding eye-contact, so I went right in for the introduction, before I even introduced my kids from a distance.
Ultimately we didn’t exchange numbers, but I still felt like it was a huge accomplishment for me to reach out to a new potential friend without agonizing over introducing myself. I didn’t sit around waiting and imagining saying hello (like I so often do). I just did it. I found that it wasn’t so scary if you simply go for it without thinking about it. Rip it off like a Band-Aid, and it’s surprising how little it hurts.
Was I Now A Social Butterfly?
By the end of my week long experiment to make new mom friends I felt exhausted by the sheer amount of emotional strength it took to put myself out there. I’m not sure my social anxiety is something I'll ever fully overcome. Even so, I found it was more than worth the risk and the sweaty, nervous feeling I get every time I talked to a mom I didn’t know. I found that my fears stemmed from a totally illogical place. What was the worst that could happen? The other woman wouldn’t like me or wouldn’t want to hang out?
If the worst thing that could happen was landing with the same number of friends I had before, then that’s definitely a risk worth taking.
I learned that the only thing standing in the way of me making new friends was me. For too long I have let my social anxiety keep me isolated, even when I know I need to connect with other moms for my own sanity. From now on, I'm going to make an effort to introduce myself more often, no matter how nervous I may feel. Because at the end of the day, the effort, no matter how daunting, is worth it. Building up a community around myself is worth it. I am worth it.
Images Courtesy of Gemma Hartley (8)