“I want to want to be social”

So it’s Friday night and my friends have invited me to a girls’ night that is sure to be an evening of silliness and fun. I find myself thinking about how tired I am all throughout the day and questioning, “Do I really have energy for this? Maybe it would be best for me to stay home.” The closer I get, the more I notice my brain running through the mental task list of all the things I was supposed to complete that remain undone, and the feeling of internal pressure increases. An hour before the gathering, the pressure has continued to build and I finally say to myself, “I think it’s best for me to cancel. I just have too much to do and wouldn’t be able to have fun.” I text my friends with an excuse of not feeling well. I initially feel relief that there is one thing off my checklist, but, as I settle in for the night and continue to intermittently do work or waste time on social media, I start to notice a feeling of sadness creep up. I think about my friends being silly and having fun and notice a slight twinge of envy. The next day I see pictures and messages about the evening that unfolded and the regret and feeling of being left out hit full force (though I try to lie to myself and say I didn’t want to go anyway). 

Have you ever felt the urge to flake on social plans right before you were supposed to attend? Ya, that’s a pretty common thing for OC folks who may notice that “eek, I’d rather stay home” feeling. Rather than anticipatory reward before a social event, OC folks can actually start to feel social dread, feeling stuck, and urges to cancel or find an excuse to stay home. Why? Well there are probably a lot of factors that contribute ranging from biology to past experiences, but I think it’s also important to note what type of behaviors we may do that could increase this desire to cancel on social plans. Some behaviors others have shared with me are: thinking about how much they don’t feel like going, focusing on what aspects will be outside their comfort zone, or thinking about all the work they need to do and exhausting themselves before they have even arrived. 

As you could imagine, if they do end up attending in this state it is very easy for them to be preoccupied during conversations and less present in their social connections thus confirming why they should have stayed home in the first place. So okay, sure, it’s their choice to attend or not attend so why not just say, “Do what you want to do. After all, it is your life.” The problem happens if they identify that they are not living by their values and “want to want to be social”. Sometimes I have clients, family members, friends, or myself notice that they want to be a person that is consistent in their friendships or close relationships or they want to be a person that sends the signal of being interested in relationships and yet they don’t act this way. And, furthermore, despite the fact that it was their choice to stay home, they often reported feeling left out or excluded later on when they hear about funny anecdotes from the social event. It’s the ultimate internal OC struggle between wanting and not wanting connection. 

Sometimes when OC clients are in their threat system they may have a desire to isolate and avoid social risk and yet when evaluating their values in the safety system many report truly wanting close and genuine connections deep down. Now don’t think they miss out on the irony of feeling left out after self-excluding, but unfortunately they can often use that as ammo for self hatred or beating up on themselves for not living by their values. “Look, I suck and should just have more self control and force myself to go.” But the tricky thing about this is we also don’t want people to attend social events out of obligation or after self-shaming like, “I should just stop being a baby about it,” because that is not really what fun social events are all about. So what do we do to help these folks (or ourselves) in these moments? 

Well, in RO DBT one of the things we explore with people is how to increase their own social affiliation desires PRIOR to a social event. The idea here is helping ourselves increase our own desires to attend social events for valued relationships and actually look forward to some aspect of connecting with others. We generally do this by influencing our nervous system to activate the social safety system and connect ourselves with experiences of affiliation desires. RO DBT has multiple lessons all about activating the safety system (see Lesson 3 and Lesson 4 on the Loving Kindness Meditation) which we recommend clients try out before socializing. And as I have discussed this concept with clients and friends, I have heard a diversity of ways folks have used the principle of creating social affiliation desires through impacting their nervous system.

  • A teenage client discovered that looking at certain pictures on her phone of enjoyable times she had with her friends and remembering the fun they had prior to hanging out helped her follow through with attending. She reported that it helped her remember she enjoyed their company.
  • I have had friends report doing things to “rally” like an athlete does before getting on the field. Big gestures, loosening their bodies, and encouraging themselves.
  • A family member mentioned reminding herself of her values to send social interest signals and getting herself a soothing yummy drink to sip on as she leaves for the event. 
  • An OC colleague shared that she uses a shower before socializing to help herself feel less drained and turn back on.
  • Another OC colleague mentioned trying to focus on the anticipatory reward and increase and name excitement rather than focusing on anticipatory anxiety.
  • I sometimes will think about a topic I am really looking forward to chatting about with a friend to purposely activate my own curiosity. For example, I recently thought about how curious I am about my friend’s experience of fostering a dog and it helped increase my desire to attend even when I was tired.

So, if you find yourself wanting to increase your desire to be social, remember that rather than trying to white knuckle party attendance, explore ways to impact your nervous system to actually increase your own affiliation desires and social curiosity.

Jamie Martin, M.Ed. Ed.S. LPC

Jamie is a therapist that specializes in working with personality disorders in Greenville, South Carolina. She implements the evidenced based therapies of standard DBT and RO DBT to help those with too little or too much self control. She is passionate about learning to appreciate the benefits and challenges of each personality style.