Re-Learning How To Socialise When We’re Out Of Practice

When we’ve been living with depression for a while, it’s all too easy to become isolated. Often people will try to stay in touch with us, but we might push them away and stop going to social events until it can reach the point where we barely see anyone outside of our house. People might not reach-in as we’d hope and it can impact our pre-existing relationships. Eventually, we might want to start socialising again, but when we haven’t socialised for a while we can feel a bit ‘out of practice’ and completely outside of our comfort zones.

Re-Learning How To Socialise When We're Out Of Practice

Returning To Socialising

Returning to socialising is hard. When we’re unwell, our world can become increasingly small. Our comfort zone can shrink down to the walls of our house, or even to just our bedroom. The world outside can feel noisy, busy and unpredictable.

Starting to leave the house again after so much time in our carefully-controlled environment can fill us with anxiety. We might worry that we will have forgotten what to do, what to say, and how to act.

Don’t Underestimate How Much Energy It Takes

Socialising takes energy, especially to begin with. There can be a huge amount for our brain to process – sights, sounds, smells, textures, conversation, and even tastes. We might have to focus on conversation and on what we’re doing – focus and concentration can both be a big challenge when we have depression.

When we first learn a skill such as driving a car or riding a bike, we have to think about every move we make and really concentrate on what we’re doing. Once we’re well-practiced we can do it without thinking and talk or listen to music at the same time. But if we don’t do the ‘thing’ for a while then we have to think about it carefully again when we return to doing it – if we haven’t driven in a year or so then we will probably take the quieter roads and turn the radio off for our first few trips as we re-remember how to drive. Socialising is no different. When we are used to socialising, we don’t think about certain things – they happen naturally. But when we’re re-learning how to socialise we might have to think about where to put our hands, we might overthink what we’re saying, we might have to re-learn how to tell when people are being sarcastic, or what certain facial expressions mean. There might be subtleties in conversation or quirks that our friends have that we have to get the hang of again.

All of these things can be utterly exhausting, especially to begin with, and after a relatively short amount of time, we might need to go home and rest. It’s important that we have enough downtime surrounding our people-time to allow us to re-charge.

Start Small

If we go from absolutely nothing to doing a 3-day stint at a festival, it’s likely to feel too much. When we’re re-learning to socialise, we need to consider the place we’re starting from. We might have been the life and soul of the party before becoming unwell, but even if the ‘before’ version of us was out dancing every night of the week, the current ‘us’ will still need to build things up gently.

It might be nice to invite one or two friends round to our house to begin with. That way we can control the environment that we see them in, and hopefully, with it only being two people, we can manage our levels of overwhelm. For some of us, meeting at our house might not be something we want to do because we want to keep our house as our haven from the world, so we could ask to meet at one of our friend’s houses.

From there we could begin to meet in more public places. It can be a good plan to visit quieter places at quieter times of day, to begin with, rather than immediately attempting to go to the middle of a city on a Saturday afternoon.

Building the number of people we see, the length of time we see them for, the busyness of the places we go to, and the regularity of our social engagements up slowly can help to stop socialising from feelings so scary. We need to listen to our body and take its lead. There might be times when we become frustrated with how slowly things are moving, but if we try and push it too fast then it’s likely that all we will achieve is wiping ourselves out and breaking our confidence.

Talk To Cashiers

It might sound like an odd suggestion, but with the emergence of self-service checkouts and self-serving petrol stations, our interaction with people can be reduced. When our anxiety is unbearable, this can be helpful because it can allow us to go to places that we might otherwise struggle with. But these self-service machines can also become a way of avoiding human interaction because it can be difficult.

We don’t have to talk about anything deep or meaningful, we can talk about the products we’re buying or the weather. They’re also unlikely to be long conversations because we often only interact with cashiers for a couple of minutes at a time. Having a chat with people who serve us in a shop, our librarian, or the postman can give us regular practice at simple conversations which can help to build our confidence. Also, if they tell us something interesting or funny, or a podcast to go and look up, then it can give us an anecdote or a topic of conversation for the next time we see our friends or family.

Have A Plan

Though we can’t plan for every situation in life, we can plan certain things to make social events a little easier. It can help to plan our timings and travel the day before we do something and to write them down so that we don’t have to worry about them. We might have certain tools for managing out anxiety, this could include things to fiddle with to pop in our pockets. It might help to have some numbers stored in our phone of people we can text or ring if we need some reassurance. Some of us might find it helpful to have an ‘emergency exit plan’ – a plan on how to leave the social situation if it all becomes too much.

Meet Up And Do Something

Meeting up with friends to chat can be really intense. If we’re meeting up to chat, then a coffee shop is often a good bet. Having something to hold in our hands, especially if it’s a comforting warm drink, can help us to feel calm and ‘okay-er’ about what we’re doing. Also, if someone asks us a question we’re not sure about answering, we can just take a slurp of our drink or a bite of cake to give us some time to think of an answer.

If it’s possible, meeting up to do something more active can be a lot less intense than constant conversation. We could try things like going on a walk, going to a book group, finding a mini-golf course, or going to the cinema.

Don’t Worry If You Get Stuff ‘Wrong’

Everybody makes mistakes all the time. When we first start socialising again, we might make some mistakes or get things a bit wrong.

Certain things might have changed – a café that we always used to go to might have moved the cutlery since our last visit and we might not be able to find it. One of our favourite shops might have relocated to a different street. A road that we used to drive down daily might have become part of a one-way system and we need to learn a new route. We might misinterpret bits of conversation. There might be things that people talk about that we don’t understand because we haven’t seen a particular TV programme. We might not realise that someone is joking or being sarcastic when they talk about something.

Things like this happen, and it’s not our fault if we make mistakes. It’s all part of a learning curve.

There is nothing wrong with getting things ‘wrong’ or making mistakes. Often we will big up our mistakes and turn them into something far bigger than anyone else sees them as. Others might not even notice some of the mistakes we make or might laugh them off. We really don’t need to worry about getting stuff a little bit wrong.

Think Of Some Conversation Starters

One of the things that can be difficult when we first start socialising again is knowing what to say to people or how to have a conversation. Going to a social event armed with some conversation starters can help us to get going. Have we seen anything on TV lately? Watched any films? Read any books? Has our pet done something funny? Have we seen anything on the news? Are we looking for book or TV recommendations? What are our family up to? If we don’t have much to say about our own life, it can often help to talk about our family or friend’s lives.

Having these conversation starters can help to prevent any awkward silences, and if we start a conversation then we can choose the topic which can help to prevent a situation where our friends are talking about something we know nothing about.

Prepare An Answer To Where/How You’ve Been

One of the questions we all dread when returning to socialising is ‘so, how are you?’ from someone we don’t know too well or ‘I haven’t seen you in ages, where have you been?’ from someone we have no desire to go into details of our depression with.

Preparing some stock answers that we can whip out to close the conversation and move on can help to manage situations like this. We could answer ‘how are you?’ with ‘I’m doing much better than I was, thanks’, ‘I’ve been worse’ or even something like ‘well I watched a really good TV programme the other day, have you seen it?’ and change the topic of conversation altogether. When the ‘where have you been?’ question comes up, we could say something like ‘I’ve been working on myself for a bit’, ‘I just needed to slow down for a while’, ‘here and there. I’ve not seen you in ages, how are you?’, or something along those lines.

It doesn’t really matter what our stock response is as long as it’s a response (or a couple of responses) that we’re comfortable with using should we need to at any point.

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Join A Gentle Group

Sometimes it’s easier to socialise when we’re ‘doing’ something, and sometimes it can be nice to socialise with people who didn’t know us ‘before’ and don’t know that we’ve been unwell.

It can be nice to join a gentle group of like-minded people to do an activity. This could be something like a book group at a local library, a healthy walks group, or a group we come across on meetup.com.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

It’s unlikely that we will ever feel 100% ready to start socialising again. Sometimes we have to pretend that we’re confident and comfortable until we really do feel that way. That’s not to say that we should be completely fake and never tell anyone how we feel. With our close friends and family, we might choose to be open and honest about how we feel. But when we’re at wider social events, sometimes it can help to put on a smile, and we might even find that by the end of the event we’re beginning to feel a flicker of a smile re-appearing within us.

Don’t Be Afraid To Walk Away

Unfortunately, there are some people in our lives who walk away when times get tough. Sometimes this is for a valid reason – they might have things going on in their own lives. But sometimes that’s just how they are. There’s no harm in reaching out to them again when we’re re-learning to socialise, especially if the reason we’ve not seen them for a while is that we pushed them away. But it’s important to notice how different people and groups of people make us feel. If people are leaving us feeling uneasy, upset, frustrated, used, or disrespected, then it might be time to be more boundaried or to walk away from them altogether. We deserve to be treated with dignity, respect and kindness.

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