By Lindsay Simon I Special to Moonshine Ink

After a year of isolation and disconnection, people are sharing the feeling of awkwardness and discomfort when socializing in person. As more people are getting vaccinated and light seems visible at the end of the Covid tunnel, we now have to make another adjustment: one of face-to-face interactions with people.

We are a social species and need connection in order to thrive. However, human beings are also very adaptive (that is why humans can live in drastically differing environments, from the Arctic to the Sahara Desert). Throughout the past year, we have adapted to a life of isolation and safety precautions. Many people have been living a significantly less social — and possibly a more sedentary — life, which is now their “new normal.”

As humans we like homeostasis, which means our “normal” is what feels comfortable (whether it is healthy for us or not) and changing our normal takes excess energy and often feels uncomfortable. The brain wants to do the least amount of work possible, so it won’t make lasting changes until you prove to it over time that you have a new normal. That is why habit changes can be so hard sometimes. Our brains will take us back to our baseline until we prove with repetition that we have a new normal to adjust to. How long this adjustment takes is dependent on the person and how big of a change it is.  (Research shows there is no magic number of days to change a habit; it depends on multiple factors.)

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Given that it will be normal to feel uncomfortable to socialize in person, I thought it would be helpful to share some tips to help strengthen social skills.

Tip 1: Stay calm. As we put ourselves in new social situations, our minds and bodies can go into an anxious state as we scan our environment for potential threats. When we are in an anxious state, it becomes harder to connect with people. We can regulate our physiological arousal by doing some calming breathing (five seconds in through our mouth, then six seconds out our nose), walking, or other mindfulness practices.

Tip 2: Attune yourself to and pay attention to the person speaking. Actively Listen. Don’t interrupt and don’t be on your phone. This means turning your phone on silent and putting it away! Practice being fully present and attentive to the person you are listening to without being in your own head thinking about your response or a story about yourself. The science behind memory is that it takes a memory 30 seconds to go from short term to long term. Therefore, you must fully pay attention to something or someone for at least 30 seconds in order for a long term memory to be created. It is through creating memories with others that we strengthen our relationships. So try training your brain to fully pay attention to the person or situation at hand by recognizing distracting thoughts, letting them go and refocusing on the moment.

Tip 3: Practice curiosity. Relationships are deepened by getting to know each other better. Ask open-ended questions (the opposite of a closed-ended question, which is answered with a simple yes or no). For example, ask, “How was your day?” rather than “Did you have a good day?” These types of questions will open people up and allow for more connection.

Try to summarize and reflect back to the person talking what they said. And finally, show nonverbal cues you are paying attention through eye contact, nodding, and turning toward the speaker with an open stance (no crossed arms). All these skills demonstrate they are important to you and you care what they say.

Tip 3: Practice Kindness. The saying, “you catch more flies with honey than vinegaris accurate. Talk positively about and to people and demonstrate empathy and understanding. When we communicate negatively about or to people, it leads others to not trust us and keep their distance. When we act cold or aggressive it might feel powerful in the moment, but ultimately, it leads to a lonely life. Also, you will attract like-minded people.

And smile! Smiling is a cue across the globe that you are safe and creates opportunities to connect. Remember to verbalize compliments, gratitude and appreciation for people very often! Having strong fondness and admiration is a core building block of all healthy relationships.

Tip 4: Practice healthy boundaries. Ideally, a conversation with another feels equal and you leave a conversation feeling like each of you shared about yourselves in a balanced way. Spend time listening and understanding, and roughly an equal amount of time sharing about yourself. Share more intimate details of your life only with people who have earned your trust. Remember, trust takes time to earn through someone showing up repeatedly by doing what they say they are going to do and by representing themselves accurately. Trust is also built through mutual respect.

Having healthy and assertive boundaries with others will decrease resentment, which otherwise will inevitably show up and negatively impact the relationship in the future.

Tip 5: Don’t criticize and avoid “you” statements. Criticizing someone is putting them down by implying there is something wrong with their personality. A standard criticism starts with “you always” or “you never.” Instead, if you have a complaint use an “I” statement in an even tone:

“I felt ___ (one word emotion here) ___ when  ___ (facts only of the situation) happened, and what I think would be more helpful in the future is if ___ (a positive need) happened.”

Example:

Critical “you” statement: You are so selfish — you only think about yourself. How could you not even consider letting me know you are going to be late, leaving me to worry and stress about you?

Alternatively healthy “I” statement complaint: I felt scared when you were an hour late and did not answer your phone. In the future, I would appreciate it if you would text me to let me know you are going to be late if that is possible.

Tip 6: Nurture relationships and be specific when setting up social plans. When you reach out to people or at the end of a social experience you enjoyed, try to proactively set something up in the future with specifics. Too often, people say, “we should do this again” and that never happens.

In an active ski community with so many small pockets of social groups, making concrete plans becomes very important. Don’t wait for people to reach out to you; reach out to them. Remember it takes time for relationships to deepen to the point of being the top of someone’s invite list. Keep putting in the effort and nurturing the relationship in order to get it to blossom. If someone is busy, it’s ok to not be someone else’s priority in life right now. Keep putting yourself out there until you find your tribe.

I hope these skills can help you feel more confident adjusting into social situations after such a long period of isolation. If you are having continued difficulty adjusting to life right now reaching out for help from a trained professional can be a brave act and help you with getting unstuck.

~ Moonshine Ink online monthly columnist, Lindsay Simon, is a licensed marriage and family therapist with over 12 years of clinical experience. She is the clinical director and owner of A Balanced Life: Individual, Family and Child Therapy, a private practice with 10 clinicians based in South Lake Tahoe.

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