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Going Solo: Cultivating Social Courage in our Daughters

(3.5-minute read) I’ve never considered myself to be someone who struggles with social anxiety. Put me anywhere and I will be okay. I guess this ability can be attributed to my gift of gab. That being said, I’m still able to empathize with my GAALSters when they share that they are worried about engaging in social activities – whether it’s signing up for an after school activity, going to a party, or attending homework club. Naturally though, that social courage seems to fade and their anxiety intensifies if girls don’t have anyone to join them. When you have someone by your side to provide support, it gives you the courage to stand tall, hold your head high, and feel comfortable in your own skin. But life doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, we have to do things alone.

At GAALS, one of the most beneficial opportunities we provide to girls is facilitating dialogue in a safe, supportive environment where they feel comfortable expressing themselves. Learning that others think and feel the way they do helps them feel less alone (and normal), which in turn builds self-esteem.  So when it comes to conversations about social fears, girls share strategies they’ve tried and even talk about experiences where the outcome was better than they anticipated. Even with this catalyst, many girls still can’t summon up the courage to do something alone. And it breaks my heart. But I could never feel the anxiety in my gut the way I knew they did. Without that feeling, I could only go so far in relating to them. That was until a few weeks ago, when I found myself in somewhat of an unusual situation: attending a big social event by myself.

I was going solo to the Bar Mitzvah of my childhood best friends son (my husband had another commitment that was equally as important for him to attend). Frankly, I was dreading it.  At the same time, I felt guilty that I wasn’t eager to celebrate one of the most important milestones in my best friend’s life.

The idea of being on my own for seven hours in this social setting, without a wing(wo)man was daunting.  I decided to approach it in the same way I have with some of my GAALSters: I would formulate some strategies and mentally prepare myself.

At synagogue, I would to listen, with pride, as this young boy read from the Torah and became a man in the eyes of Judaism.  Sitting by myself (or with strangers) and taking it all in was a piece of cake. But after the ceremony, I would have to wait my turn to congratulate my friend and her family. Not necessarily too difficult, but could be awkward.

Next was the party. And that was a horse of a different color. How was I going to make it through 5 hours of unstructured socializing ALONE? I began wishing the circumstances were different. But, as we all know, that’s a waste of time and energy. This required a game plan.

I would spend some time with my friend’s parents and sisters who I’ve known since I was 12. I could probably eek out another half hour or so by hanging with a childhood friend who would be there, even though it might be a little uncomfortable given that we haven’t seen each other or spoken in more than 20 years.  That’s an hour (if I’m lucky). Perhaps I could leave the party a little early and shave off an hour. Or, I could sneak out to my car in the middle of the party and steal a nap or some downtime. At best, I figured I could somewhat easily get through 2 hours. What would I do the other 3 hours?

About a week before the party my friend (the host of the Bar Mitzvah), included me in a group text with some other women. She asked if we would help out with a few things at the party, like making sure the bathrooms were clean. I replied that I was all over it “because I will need something to keep me occupied since I’ll be flying solo.”  One of the other women texted back saying I could totally hang out with her. It was so nice of her, but I knew things wouldn’t play out that way. It’s not that she wouldn’t want to spend time with me (a complete stranger), it’s just that she would have her husband, children and friends there occupying her time.

The morning of the Bar Mitzvah came. My daughters were sympathetic of my situation  yet couldn’t seem to understand why I didn’t just bail on the party. I explained that stepping outside of our comfort zone is not necessarily easier for adults, but we somehow find a way to suck it up and do what we need to do (at least most of us do). They wished me luck and sent me on my way.

As I expected, being alone at the synagogue wasn’t bad. I enjoyed the service but was still feeling uneasy about the party. There was a crowd of people waiting to congratulate my friend. I began wandering around looking for some water to settle my nerves (and to give me something to do other than stand around by myself).  When I stepped over to the drink table, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and introduced herself. “Hi, I’m Sherri. We were on the text together. When we get to the party you’ll come and hang with my friends and me.”  I was astonished that within minutes of the service ending Sherri made it her business to find me. Yes, it’s something I would like to think I would do, but I never actually expected her to follow through. This one simple gesture turned everything around.

The ball was now in my court. If I didn’t want to be alone at the party, I could find her and tag along. Doing this would also take some courage, but it was definitely within the parameters of my comfort zone.  

When I pulled up to the valet I politely requested that he keep my car accessible saying I might need to hop on a work call (I needed to leave the door open to duck out for a little while in case I really had trouble). He obliged and I was on my way.

I made the rounds with everyone I knew in the room and decided to watch the kids on the dance floor. I was working up the courage to go over to Sherri when she beat me to the punch. She came over and said,  “c’mon” as she pulled me over to her group. Sherri introduced me, and then suggested we grab some food. Before I knew it I was sitting and eating with her and her friends. The conversation was as if I’d known them all for years.

The rest of the party Sherri included me – on the dance floor, in conversations, for dessert. Even when I wandered off she made sure to check back in. Sherri had single-handedly changed my experience and enabled me to enjoy the party in a way I never expected.  

Sherri’s act of kindness may have seemed small to her, but to me, it was huge!  While I will continue to reinforce with our GAALSters that even the smallest gestures of inclusion go a long way, the conversation won’t end there. I will share this story and admit that I would never have repeatedly made overtures to the same person like Sherri did to me. Why?  Because I’d let my fears get in the way. I’d worry that I was being annoying or that the person may actually prefer to do their own thing. Yet this experience taught me (which I will in turn teach the GAALSters), that there are probably many social situations in which we can put aside our own insecurities and go the extra mile to try to ease others’ anxieties. If we all worry a little less about ourselves and repeat small acts of kindness, it will make a positive impact on others.

Thank you Sherri. I am so grateful for this lesson and am paying it forward by sharing your inspirational act with our GAALS community who I am sure will return the favor moving forward.

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