As soon as the biological clock strikes, oh, 26, social circles far and wide decide en masse to have a group dinner to celebrate birthdays. The guest of honor announces it as if it were a gift; that instead of allowing friends to swing by a bar at their leisure, they get the distinct pleasure of shouting over 12 people they don’t really know at a too-small table. For introverts especially, this situation can feel synonymous with “straight-up hell.”
Because the group-dinner struggle is real, socially anxious or not, clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD and author of Joy from Fear, has insight on how to survive—and even thrive—at a group dinner. Check out her five tips below.
“Allow yourself to be who you are,” Dr. Manly says. Knowing yourself will allow you to go in happily rather than feeling the need to simply brave it out. It’s also worth trying to make the situation more comfortable for yourself if possible; if you’re close enough to the guest of honor, ask if you can bring a plus-one. Or, try to sit next to your friend so there’s at least one person on your side (literally). Basically, accept your needs, share your needs, and hope those needs can be met.
To be clear, this isn’t a competition. It’s a family-style dinner. And if someone is taking center stage by recounting their fantastical vacation to Thailand, please let them! You probably don’t want to take the spotlight anyway, so focus on being an all-star listener.
This could be “your ability to listen well, exude warm energy, or simply smile quietly,” says Dr. Manly. Contributing good vibes to a group doesn’t mean being the ultra-performative life of the party. Before I thrust myself into any situation, I informally repeat some positive affirmations about my good qualities. Like, “I am at least moderately funny, and I don’t need to shout it to show it.” Or, “I am good at giving people counsel even though nobody really asked for it in the first place.” You, too, have something really special about you, and I’m sure you’re able to share it with these people. Regardless, nodding politely always helps you appear more approachable.
This is always a little tricky if someone made a reservation for 24 and you got stuck in a chair in the middle. (Pro tip: always grab a seat with easy-exit access.) But, don’t feel like you can’t get up and excuse yourself at any point. I repeat: Nobody is keeping you anywhere, and you are not as trapped as you feel.
“If the gathering begins to feel overwhelming, take a quiet bathroom break, get some fresh air, or simply focus on breathing,” Dr. Manly advises. Allowing yourself a meditative moment away from the chaos might be enough to give you a chance to reset and get through the occasion smoothly. And if you’re at a dinner party, she has a specific strategy for taking a break that’ll win you kindness and participation points as well. “As an introvert, I’m known for volunteering to clear plates or even help with tidying the kitchen,” says Dr. Manly. “These breaks and soothing tasks give my brain and spirit a chance to relax.”
Even though all social situations bring the stress of appearing vivacious and friendly to everyone, the only person you truly have to worry about is yourself. You know, unless someone starts choking and you’re the only one in the group who knows the Heimlich maneuver. But other than that scenario, yourself. “Self-compassion is key,” Dr. Manly says.
You’ll get through those two to three hours just fine. So sit back, breathe deep, and enjoy the apps you’re paying an equal cut for, regardless of whether you eat them.