Even though introverts prefer a small circle of close friends, they still want to feel like they belong when it comes to social groups.
As an introvert, I yearn to be better understood — I wish my friends and family recognized that I prefer small groups to gigantic ones, deep, meaningful conversations to small talk, and that sometimes (OK, often), I need alone time (and it has nothing to do with them).
All this to say, even though I’m not extroverted, I still want to feel like I belong when it comes to social groups.
Ideally, many of us introverts would be spending most of our time with “our people” — our very small circle of friends who we feel completely comfortable around, and who “get” us.
But let’s face it — there are many times when we can’t avoid spending time in groups where we don’t exactly mesh with everybody. Whether it’s a networking group, a PTA meeting at your child’s school, or your work colleagues, it’s bound to happen, and awkwardness may ensue. You might find yourself smiling nervously, going hours without saying a word while watching others laugh and converse, or even hiding in the bathroom for a few moments of relief.
And, although the pandemic has hit pause on many of these social activities, there will be a time in the near future when they return.
You may quickly start to feel like the odd one out, like there is something wrong with you, or you’re just not smart or witty enough to belong. I think it’s one of the worst feelings, and I’ve felt it myself many times.
I used to handle it by doing my best to avoid groups where I didn’t fit in right away. But as I’ve grown older and started a family and career, it’s become an important part of my values to show up for others, for my friends, family, career, and myself, even when it’s not comfortable for me.
It’s never easy, but over the years, I have developed some strategies to make this experience less painful. Here are five survival tips for spending time in groups where you don’t quite fit in.
5 Survival Tips for Fitting in With a New Social Group
1. Acknowledge your negative thoughts with kindness, but keep an open mind — things might be different this time.
My introvert mind — which tends to overthink — loves to tell stories and try to predict the future, especially when I feel threatened or defensive. You, too, might be getting ready for a social event and saying to yourself:
“Here we go again. None of these people will understand me and I’ll just sit there awkwardly, as usual. This is going to be painful.”
It’s natural to think this way, especially when you’ve had negative or awkward conversation experiences with this group in the past. My advice? Keep an open mind. Acknowledge these thoughts with kindness and understanding, but also remind yourself that situations can, and often do, change for the better.
I don’t recommend forcing yourself to “think positive” — just try to remain open to the possibility of connection. Maybe someone in the group will be in a quieter mood and want to have a deep and open conversation. Or maybe there will be someone new in the group — I have noticed that even just one new (usually more introverted) personality added to a group can shift the social dynamic in my favor.
You can never be certain you will connect with others, but a closed mind will guarantee it won’t happen.
2. When you’re struggling, breathe and focus your attention on a small detail in your environment.
Introverts tend to focus their attention inward, on their thoughts and emotions — it’s what makes many of us so creative and empathetic. But inward focus can be tough when our thoughts are churning with self-conscious worries.
Even when I try my very best to remain open to connecting with others, it’s easy for me to go too far inward and get lost in negative thoughts and stories (especially when I’ve been at an event for a while and am ready to leave).
When I am really struggling, but know there’s no way I can leave yet, it helps to breathe and direct my attention outward — even if I can only manage it for a few moments at a time.
If you’re struggling, ask yourself: What else is happening besides your inner world? Is there a cool breeze blowing? Does the coffee or food smell delicious? Are your kids laughing and playing and having a great time?
Research shows that mindfulness helps you relax and stay grounded in the present moment, softening the edges of your anxiety. So notice what is actually happening, rather than the stories and judgments your mind is imposing on the environment.
3. Introverts don’t put themselves in awkward group situations just for fun. Remember your purpose for being there.
As introverts, we usually don’t put ourselves in awkward situations just for fun, so there must be a good reason why you’re at this event. Connecting with that reason can help you try to make the best of it.
Is this networking event important to your career or to a coworker? Are these people important to your significant other? Are they part of your extended family?
If you strive to be a supportive coworker, friend, or partner, then making an effort to show up in this social situation is part of living in alignment with your inner values.
I once attended a birthday party for my child’s preschool friend at a play gym. All the other mothers seemed to know each other, and they circled up to chat while the kids played. I stood nearby, smiling and trying to look open to conversation, but none of them acknowledged me or invited me into their circle.
Inwardly rolling my eyes, I started to go down a rabbit hole of negativity and judgment of the other moms, and of myself. But then I noticed my 5-year-old son giggling and playing with his friends, having the time of his life, and I realized this event was about him, not me. It made the rest of the party more bearable.
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4. Practice self-compassion before, during, and after the event.
Feeling awkward in social situations seems to be second nature to us introverts. But it can bring on a torrent of self-judgment and criticism, amplifying feelings of loneliness and rejection.
Remember, though, that you can always find unconditional acceptance in one person — yourself. If there was ever a time to be your own best friend, it’s now.
Notice when you’re suffering from imposter syndrome and your inner critic shows up, and replace them with your inner advocate. For example, if I’ve been quiet for a long period of time and feeling self-conscious about it, I will tell myself:
“Ivy, it’s perfectly OK to be quiet if you don’t have anything meaningful to add to this conversation. Talking for the sake of talking just isn’t your way, and that is OK.”
Self-compassion can also take the form of an inner sense of humor. You can tell yourself, “Well, I guess I could pet the cat for at least five minutes,” or “Ah, the peaceful oasis of this bathroom! Let’s see how long I can stay in here without anyone noticing!”
Be sure to give yourself kindness before, during, and after the event. When you get home, give yourself what you need — some quiet time with a book or movie and your favorite snack. After all, you’ve earned it!
5. Be persistent: Keep showing up.
If this social group is here to stay — meaning they are beloved family friends or coworkers you see everyday — it helps to stay persistent and keep showing up with an open mind.
I’ve been in jobs where it took me six months (or even a year or more!) to feel like I truly belonged. It wasn’t easy to keep showing up and sitting awkwardly in the breakroom at lunchtime when I could be eating quietly in my office, but because people got used to seeing my face, eventually they began to open up to me, and vice-versa. Plus, showing up sent the message that I cared about connecting with them, and it worked.
Staying persistent can also help you steal a few one-on-one moments with individual members of the group. Many introverts (myself included) feel more open and comfortable in one-on-one conversations; group conversations can be a nightmare for introverts (where we’re prone to turning into quiet observers).
The more people you can connect with individually, the more comfortable you will feel in the group as a whole.