In addition to strong boundaries, I have come up with some strategies to help protect myself in social gatherings.
You know the kind – where there aren’t enough people for you to just be unknown, but more than the 1 or 2 that would be easy to hang out with. Office parties, weddings, funerals, church,… (Sidenote: I think this is a big reason why church is so hard for people who are going through something hard.)
Now, I pretty much always have a plan. (A couple weeks ago we were at my parents’ house, and I suggested we all do the short hike up Star Creek. My mom eyed me warily and asked, “Why?” I was a little taken aback… “Um, Vitamin N(ature), exercise, um… quality time?” You know, all the things implied. But she knows me. She thought I might have a secret agenda. HA! No mom, I’m an adult now. I don’t have to trick adults into buying me ice cream by asking to go for a bike ride.)
Going into social events, I usually have a few people I specifically want to see, or some conversations I want to have. It doesn’t mean I don’t spend time with other people, or that I don’t have unexpected conversations, or that things always go according to plan, but I plan to have meaningful interaction.
In this last season, it has been important to make sure that I have an out if I get too tired, or if it gets too hard. (There was a specific church service that I really wanted to go to in September, but it meant that as soon as they announced the greeting-shake-hands time, I went and hid in the bathroom until it was over. I mean, is there any more awkward and anxiety-inducing social event than greeting time at church? Is this just me?)
Also in September, there was a wedding I really wanted to go to. I knew there would be a lot of people there that I know a bit, but am not close to (these have been the hardest people to be with), and a few things about the wedding that would be particularly painful. When we got there, we were at a table with a couple who we have been getting to know over the last few years, and who we like a lot. They are wise, sensitive, and safe people. So we just hung out with them for most of the time we were there.
One thing I know: if you are already engaged in a conversation, other people (who might say difficult things) are less likely to come and start talking to you. So this became a strategy for engagements that I wanted to go to, but knew would be a stretch: ahead of time, I identify one or two people who will be there, that will be easy for me to hang out with. (And aren’t crucial to the event, like the bride or the family of the bride.) I haven’t even always stayed with these people, but knowing ahead of time that there is someone who can be an oasis has given me the courage to rejoin the land of the living.