How to Navigate Big Family Gatherings as a Socially Anxious Introvert

an introvert at a big holiday gathering

If you feel a pang of dread every time the holidays come around — bracing yourself for another round of forced merriment — you’re not alone.

Do you ever feel a pang of dread when you have to brace yourself for yet another round of forced merriment, including conversations where you have to bite your tongue? Plus, your aunt asks you — for the 100th time — why you still don’t have a boyfriend. 

Do you feel like a horrible human being, too, for wanting to avoid what is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year”? While this year’s pandemic has fortunately (or unfortunately) helped us avoid the bulk of family get-togethers, I even find myself dreading the idea of them when the day comes that we can do so safely again. Anyone else?

As a major introvert, any social gathering with more than four or five people (even two or three) is the bane of my being — and family gatherings are no exception. They can be awkward and exhausting, especially with family you see only once every five years, or if there are weird family dynamics going on. (My aunt’s questioning is nothing compared to other things that come up.) 

Ever since I can remember, I have dreaded them, and as a teen, I really had no choice but to go and awkwardly sit at the dinner table. My parents thought I was being a brat and didn’t understand why I didn’t want to be there. I mean, it’s only family, but even family can be draining, especially with the regular barrage of questions and the need to be polite and keep up conversation. Introvert or not, it can be too much for anyone at times. And since most introverts hate small talk, these get-togethers seem even worse for me.     

I’m Not Only an Introvert, But I’m a Socially Anxious Introvert

Not only am I an introvert and would much prefer spending the holidays reading a book — alone — versus attending a family gathering, but I’m also a socially anxious introvert. In other words, not only would my introvert self prefer being alone, but my anxious self adds fear to the mix, too, sometimes making it impossible for me to leave the house.

Although introversion is an innate quality and a disposition we “quiet ones” are born with, anxiety is something that we’re not born with and that I continually work on. But the combo of the two definitely makes family gatherings more challenging.

Thankfully, I’m an adult now, and while I do reject some invitations (yes, you can do that!), others are mandatory and leave you with no option but to come up with coping mechanisms so you don’t feel like bolting the minute you get there. These are some tips that have helped me get through those tedious moments and even — sometimes — helped me enjoy them.

6 Ways to Survive Family Gatherings as a Socially Anxious Introvert

1. Be on time (even early, if possible) to allow yourself to settle in.

I always try to show up on time because not only is it courteous, but it also gives me time to settle into myself without a ton of people around. I like to get there while people are trickling in. That way, it’s not so full-on like it would be if I were to arrive late and everyone’s eyes would be on me as I walk in.

I also find that having even a few minutes of alone time at the beginning will help me decompress a bit before all the forced socializing begins.

2. Give yourself a time limit, but leave early if you feel yourself turning into a grouch.

My family sometimes likes to party till 3 or 4 a.m., and even in my college days, I didn’t enjoy staying out that late. Instead, I’d rather dip out early before I turn into a grouch. 

So give yourself a time limit at the party. Depending on how things are going, 2-3 hours should be enough time to grab a bite and catch up with cousins before your social timer runs out. 

If you get really uncomfortable, you can always use an excuse to leave (food poisoning, anyone?). Try not to force yourself to stay, as it will only make you feel worse. Besides, at least you got out of your comfort zone and showed up — which is not easy, especially with social anxiety.

3. Hang around the people you’re most comfortable with so you’re less tired at the end of the event.

Sit next to your immediate family, cousins, or anyone you’re close to or feel most comfortable with. This will help you connect meaningfully, and the conversation will flow and feel less forced and tiresome. 

You can also take the conversation to a part of the house or venue where there are fewer people. Feel free to bring a good friend along, if possible, to act as a buffer between you and others in case your social timer starts ticking.

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4. Don’t carpool or room with others.

First of all, taking a separate car, cab, or using a rideshare service (thank the introvert gods for Uber!) is a great choice, so you can leave at a moment’s notice without inconveniencing anyone.

And if you’re staying overnight, opt for your own room or housing instead of staying with a dozen people at your aunt’s house. This will help you get that much-needed introvert recharge time away from everyone. 

After all, there’s nothing worse than rooming with a ton of people, especially when you’re cooped up with them the whole weekend (or week!). Giving yourself separate space from everyone — at least late in the night and early morning — will help you be a much more pleasurable person to be around. 

If you can’t afford either option, don’t be afraid to bow out early. Make up an excuse (like a work commitment) or simply state that you can only stay one day.

5. Run away (as fast as you can)!

Run away (as fast as you can) … just kidding! 

Unless it gets really bad, then by all means, high-tail it out of there. If you feel extra uncomfortable, run (not literally) to the bathroom or take a walk — nature tends to soothe the introvert soul

You can also offer to help out (preferably, in the kitchen, away from most of the crowd) or run to the store for something the host forgot. These are my go-tos; this way, I’m out of people’s way.

These small breaks between socializing can also help make interactions a bit more bearable and will distract your mind for a while instead of focusing on the overwhelm to come.

6. Don’t feel you have to attend every family event: Skip a few or alternate holidays.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, and every holiday in between, the number of family events can add up. Most families usually only get to celebrate a few of these (lucky for us introverts!), but if you struggle with mustering up the energy for a dozen events a year, then I welcome you to skip the ones you’re not into. 

As introverts — and especially as socially anxious introverts — every day can be just as exhausting as running a 5K. So skipping a few events won’t hurt (as long as your family gets to see you from time to time). 

A good rule of thumb is to skip one and then attend the next one; that way, you’re not always MIA and people still know you’re alive. For example, if you went to the Hanukkah dinner, feel free to skip the New Year’s party.

All in all, we do ultimately love our families. And as fearful or awkward as it may be for us to see them — even when they annoy us — they are there to stay. However, they won’t be around forever, so try to make the most of your time with them, as limited as it may be. Even we introverts need people to lean on from time to time, and that’s what family is for. 

What are some of your go-to introvert tactics for family time? Let me know in the comments below.

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Written By

Nicole is a graphic design graduate trying to find her place in the world. She loves to spend time alone, but will occasionally enjoy venturing into the outside world.