How to go to a party if parties scare you

The party in DC was at a bar, which is a difficult environment for me, because I never go to bars. We were the first ones there because it’s our party. People started coming and I realized that the most awkward part of the party would be at the beginning, when you have to talk to whoever walks in because you can’t pretend that you need to be talking to someone else. The most claustrophobic time of a party is when only a few people are there.

This is the broom closet I hid in.

Photis saw me go in. He said, “What are you doing?”

“Taking a break,” I said. And I shut the door.

Remember when I told you Photis is a really good guy but a little bit weird? Here’s a good example of that. At the broom closet he said, “Okay.” And he walked back to the party.

I stayed in the closet thinking of how many people would need to be in the room before I could open the door. I thought that maybe everyone was getting drunk and that’s what I should do to fit in. I wanted to talk to Ryan Paugh, who is my social skills guide for moments like this. But I couldn’t talk to him because then I’d have to leave the closet.

My eyes started adjusting to the darkness and I found a sort of a shelf to sit on and then I worried that I was a little too comfortable. Because what if the CEO realized I was in the broom closet? He would start thinking that the farm is really making me crazy and he needs to do something to limit the impact of my craziness on the company.

Just as I was trying to figure out how long I could be in the closet, the door opened and a woman screamed.

“What are you doing here?!!?!?”

“I am just taking a break here,” I told her. I tried to sound really calm so she would not be scared. But I didn’t want to sound so calm that I sounded like a serial killer. I said, “It is my party. And I have social anxiety.”

She did not even pause to think of what that meant. She said, “Get out of the closet. This is against the rules.”

I asked if I could stay five minutes. I said I wouldn’t touch anything.

She was looking a little violent. Like maybe she’s the serial killer.

So I left the closet.

And the party was in gear. And I was blown away by how interesting people were. And how far they had traveled. And how easily Ryan Paugh talked to every single one of them. Here’s a photo of Ryan with Regina Twine, who came to the party from Raleigh, NC, and Junayd Mahmood, who came from Senator Gillibrand’s office on Capitol Hill.

I’m a big fan of Senator Gillibrand. She has two young kids and a seemingly high-functioning marriage, and she is a good legislator. I thought Junayd would give me a peek of insight on how she does it. But instead, he told me what every other person at the party with an extremely interesting government job told me that night: Nothing juicy.

Also, for the first time, I met the guy who has been the site manager for my blog for three years, Jason Unger. What do you call this kind of person? Blog administrator? I don’t know. Really, you call this sort of person a saint. Because when I make a mistake on the blog, I go nuts and call him. Typically what happens is that something on this site has been functioning a certain way for the last ten months and suddenly I notice it and I don’t like it and I call Jason up at 5am and wake his wife and his baby for something that is totally unimportant.

So, anyway, it’s appropriate that in the photo with Jason, I am giving orders instead of smiling for the camera.

Do you know what I like about a big party? When it really gets rolling, it gets intimate. When the room was full, people were discovering that everyone in the room was interesting and no one would notice if I was gone. That’s when the party got great. And I sat on the floor with Maggie McGary.

And she told me about her ex-husband who could not separate from his parents and she got a divorce. And you know how when there’s a car crash, you like to drive by slowly to see what happened to get that relieved feeling that it’s not you? Well, I kept not being sure if I was listening to Maggie like that, or listening to Maggie like I need to change course. (But maybe that’s how you listen to me, too.)

The way to go to a party if you hate parties is just to force yourself. Really. Everyone is nervous walking into a roomful of people they don’t know. There is no trick. There is nothing to do but go. I tell you this because I know: Because I had so much fun and I loved all the people who read my blog, and I loved all the friends they brought with them and I also loved all the guys at Brazen Careerist because I can tell things are going really well and I loved Photis for knowing that the closet was a reasonable choice.

Although by the end of the night, I could have used another broom closet break. But there wasn’t one. So I rewarded myself for going to a party and having a good time by laying down at the bar.

54 replies
  1. Jess
    Jess says:

    I love you because you make me feel normal.

    I don’t mean that as an insult, or even a backhanded compliment, but sincerely. You have a knack for showing the parts of you that we all have a little of, the parts inside us that are weird or dysfunctional or uncomfortable, the places where we’re lost or stuck or scared of moving forward, and then showing us how to walk through to the other side.

    It really is a gift. You have a way of humanizing yourself, your writing, your blog, that makes us feel a little more human and accepted too. I’m glad the party went so well. You look like you had a wonderful time.

    • Erika Harris
      Erika Harris says:

      YES! to what Jess said so beautifully.

      There is much peace to be found inside of broom closets. And, apparently, outside of broom closets. Posts like this sure help sensitive innies during this highly social time of year. Many thanks, Penelope, for being you.

      • Jonha |
        Jonha | says:

        I agree with you both, P has got this amazing gift in telling everyone how she feels and that’s when things get more interesting when she just tells us like we’re just talking face to face and like there’s nothing really to worry about.

  2. jim
    jim says:

    Parties scare me too, but I could never hide in a closet; what if somebody saw me come in or go out? I’d’ve died if someone found me in there, as happened to you. I’ve taken a brief walk outside during parties before, under the guise of getting a bit of air. You’re right, parties are hardest until the room gets full. Then I can usually find one or two people like me and go off in a corner and talk with them all night.

  3. Jen Gresham
    Jen Gresham says:

    I lived in Bethesda for 7 years, and NOW you have a party! Seriously, so sorry to miss seeing you in civilization. My work doesn’t often take me to farms, but I’m back and forth to DC often. Hopefully I can make the next one!

    P.S. The broom closet sounds pretty cozy. Had anyone else known about it they probably would have joined you. You’re right, Photis is weird! (Sorry, Photis)

  4. Mary Budge
    Mary Budge says:

    As an introvert I completely understand and empathize with you. Just yesterday I did a webcast (first time ever being filmed), I thought I did a really good job so I was happy, from there I rushed to a new client meeting where I was “on” for an hour straight. On my way home I started feeling overwhelmed so when I got home I went straight to bed. You know we can all do this – go to parties, be out there socially, but we all find our ways to cope, maybe it’s a broom closet (I love that idea) or maybe it is curling up in a ball afterward. We are strong women, no doubt about it, we make things happen everyday. I am proud of that for me (I am the sole supporter of my family, my husband has anxiety issues and has never worked), and Penelope, I am proud of that for you!

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Thanks Penelope for your story of the party complete with some great photos. I didn’t make it but your account of it sure did make me feel like I did. I think it’s so important to meet people in real life which you described in this post. Ideally it would be nice to meet and work IRL first (ex. – Jason) but that’s not possible many times and definitely not a trend. Your accounts of some of the BC crew at the party just had me ‘nodding’ in agreement as though I knew them or something. A sign of a great post and now one of my favorites. I’m glad you went to the party because it further reinforced your beliefs as to how well BC is really doing.

  6. me
    me says:

    I wanted to go but was too anxious — but your post on this makes me feel so much better. I wish I had gone. Next time I will. :)

  7. Genevieve
    Genevieve says:

    Thank you for posting this! It is really important for parents of children with social differences to read this and see how “normal” party anxiety is and how even adults need ways to cope. I’m a huge fan and hope to make it to a party someday!

  8. barbara de vries
    barbara de vries says:

    I actually have come to like the andrenaline nerves of going to a party, now that I’m married and no longer feel awkward about my purpose (finding a guy). However last Saturday I had a disastrous wardrobe malfunction just before leaving for a big fancy social event at the Fontainebleau in Miami.
    I’d bought an amazing dress at All Saints, you know that dress you covet for months and then finally the inner voices convince you that you need it.
    Well, once I was all fixed up, the matching hair, make-up, nails, silver stilettos, jewels, I even got one of those ridiculous stick-on front only bras cause the dress’ back is really low, I was ready: The dress was hanging high on the bathroom door so I could somehow dive into the mass of tousled skirt and find my way to the neck opening without upsetting all the complicated roping (Its called a parachute dress, I was going for the Aphrodite on D-Day look). Where it hung my eyes were kind-of level with the hem. But what was that? A speck of dirt? Actually what I saw was a bit more than just a speck. More like an area of dirt. Like three/four inches of dirt near the hem. I got a wet towel and tried to brush it off. I realized it was mold and as I rubbed the fabric parted into a hole. Here followed two swear words that you are not allowed to use. Now what? I slipped into it anyway.
    The hem draped around me, sweeping my very clean bathroom floor.
    My husband called up that we were late. So I decided on denial. But should I call the All Saints store and tell them I was wearing the dress with an existing hole cause I had no choice? Would they believe me, or would they say that I was the culprit who wore the dress and ruined that hem, tomorrow when I was planning to change it for a perfect one? Husband did not notice anything. I decided I’d have to be brazen. Yes, be the Brazen Party Girl! So I arrived at the Fontainebleau, all nervous but by the time I entered the ballroom I'd forgotten all about my hem.

  9. Chris
    Chris says:

    Glad the party was a success! My fiance has a huge family (Christmas is 80 people. Heck, 4th of July is 60), so I make sure I go outside alone when I need to. Christmas means taking a snowy walk around his grandparents’ neighborhood and 4th of July means going for a run on my own in the morning. Broom closets aren’t an option … there are probably relatives pouring out of there too.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Guess what? I took a Xanax before the party. Was it a lie of omission that I didn’t write about this in the post?

      I actually learned about psychiatric drugs from Ryan Paugh. And I knew I was a good student when I revealed the psychiatric smorgasbord in my suitcase, and he said, “Wow. That’s a lot of stuff in there.”

      Just one Xanax made things better for me, too. I mean, imagine where I would have hid myself if I had NOT taken a Xanax!


  10. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I wish I could have come to the party and met you. You look very beautiful and your necklace is brilliant. I’d write a post about your clothes. What to wear to hide in a broom closet. Fairly valuable, I’d say, even if it’s a metaphorical closet. Come to California some time. We are used to brilliant introverts. We make room for them.

  11. Kat
    Kat says:

    People tend to get scared about what they think things will be like. Their own thoughts in their head, which are just what they’ve made up themselves. You have to force yourself to not think too much and just live in the reality and get on with things. Usually actually doing things is never as bad as you’d imagine them to be.

  12. amy parmenter
    amy parmenter says:

    I must be weird. Even though I don’t drink, I love parties. I want to know who everyone in the room is, what they do and how they know the host…or don’t they?? (This is why I am a reporter…) I feel the same way when I go to a restaurant and see a table with what appears to be an ‘unlikely’ grouping. I want to say ‘who are you people and why are you out to dinner together?’. Sometimes I actually do it. See, I knew I was weird. But that’s what I love about your blog. You make weird normal. :0)

  13. lynne whiteside
    lynne whiteside says:

    Your blog was the first thing I read this a.m. and I wanted to cry. I had this exact feeling last nite at a dinner party, just me a 3 other friends, good friends, sitting around the table, I felt almost frozen. I too wanted to hide, and this fed into my feeling of lack or less than. The next morning, reviewing the dinner I felt even worse.

    Why I am so self-conscience , I don’t know. Why I feel like I’m lacking, I don’t know. BUT I will work at it, do everything I can. My business calls for me to stand-up, give information to my client and convey that I’m sure of what I’m doing. This is easier than sitting at a dinner table and trying to be relevant.

  14. Maggie McGary
    Maggie McGary says:

    I hate parties and hate driving from the burbs, but this was TOTALLY WORTH IT to meet you!! I hope you come back to DC again soon–DC would be a lot more interesting if you lived here.

    And I agree with Jacqueline–Xanax makes everything better.

  15. Nancy H
    Nancy H says:

    When I saw this post, I practically ate the words right off the monitor. I can definitely relate and I truly admire your candor. I didn’t go solely because of my social anxiety (no matter how many lame excuses I came up with). I knew there would be some great people there, but that wasn’t enough to get me out. If there is another party, I will definitely go.

  16. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    I don’t like the idea of parties, but I generally have a good time once I make myself go to one. However, I do like hanging out with friends. Maybe I need to think of parties as hanging out with friends I haven’t met yet.

  17. MBS
    MBS says:

    I feel the same way about parties. At the networking part of conferences I have to gird my loins to stay in the room mingling before I feel the urge to dash out and get room service while everyone else is going out to dinner and drinking until late at night. Someone suggested to me that I could make the networking thing work (and the same would apply to parties) if I just hit people with a barrage of questions about themselves, what they came there for, what they do at their company, etc. People will stay interested and engaged if they are talking about themselves.

  18. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I’m the opposite, I love parties. Well, let me rephrase that. I love parties as long as there is alcohol which makes me relax and be funnier and louder and more confident. What I have trouble with is one-on-one situations, or small groups. Sometimes I get lost in small groups. Unless there’s alcohol. In that case if I get lost it’s because I’ve gone off to dance on a table.

  19. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    This Thursday I have a dinner party to go to with my social butterfly husband and I am freaking out. He told me to pretend that it will only be me and him there. He also said it’s okay if I have a glass of wine before dinner so I can be a bit drunk and that will minimize my meltdown.

    The thing that bothers me the most about parties is the effort towards “small talk”. In my job I am required to lead people, so I am surrounded by people all the day at work and really the last thing I want at end of day is to be surrounded by more people.

    My default coping mechanism is asking open ended questions so people end up talking about themselves, which is great because most people really like to talk about themselves… which means I can just nod and smile and not really say too much, or I can just keep asking more questions and we can stay in endless loop of everyone else but me talking.

  20. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Hi Penelope……I too would like to thank you for sharing your feelings. I always feel awkward in that kind of a social setting. I always think other people have more interesting things to say, they look more polished & on & on. I end up trying too hard to fit in. I hope you had a good time anyway….you looked great.

  21. lb
    lb says:

    I really, REALLY wanted to go to your party, but: 1) I detest big parties; 2) I especially hate ones when I dont know anybody; and 3) I totally hate evil DC traffic (esp in the NE/CapHill ‘hood where the bar is).

    I’ll have to remember the broom closet option — hanging out in there with one or two interesting folks and a bottle of good wine sounds more like my social speed :)

  22. Ari
    Ari says:

    I think this is the first blog post of yours I have ever read that includes photos (of you). Wow. Keep doing more. Pictures speak a thousand words.

  23. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    Such a candid post and some very thought provoking comments. I think I’ll follow KateNonymous’ lead and think of parties as gatherings with friends I haven’t met yet and like Tzipporah stop worrying about being interesting and be actively more interested. And with several big meetings happening for work soon, this topic couldn’t have come at a better time.

  24. Mairzy
    Mairzy says:

    In a room full of introverts, I’m a wacky extrovert. But going the other way is really, really difficult for me. And I was the oldest person at the DC party, but I really enjoyed meeting Penelope, Ed, Jason, Osei, and the other delightful, outgoing folks. I found out that Jason just had his 24th birthday on the same day my son had his 31st. :-)

    Thanks to BC and especially to Penelope for a wonderful event. I have a photo of me and Penelope that is good enough to appear on one of my future blogs.

  25. Carlee Mallard
    Carlee Mallard says:

    It’s so cool seeing your perspective of the party compared to my own.

    The thing is, I was really nervous about meeting you and Ryan and Ryan and the whole BC crew, but more of the *excited* nervousness. That and I was intimidated because you’ve been known to be really blunt and call people out and I was hoping I wouldn’t get called out for saying something really dumb. Regina and I both made sure we had a drink before even getting to the party. Alcohol definitely helps!

    But then I met you and Ryan Paugh and totally felt at home! I thought “man… these are my people!” From then on I wasn’t nervous at all. I was just excited by how many interesting, motivated, and weird people there were to talk to! I would have stayed all night until the last person left if I didn’t have to drive 4 hours back to North Carolina that night.

    You did great Penelope!

  26. Oda
    Oda says:

    Thanks for the post, it is interesting to hear a different perspective on parties.

    I actually find the hardest phase of a party to be when the room is full and the background noise reaches chaotic levels like a massive cacophony of voices from all directions, because of the painful struggle to try to get the meaning of what anyone says (not to mention endure the chaos). I dislike the intimidating people who constantly stare into my eyes at a short distance and try to sell themselves, and these are the sort of people who flourish in party peak hours. I also hate camera flashes, and passionate party photo freaks tend to get hyperactive around party peak hours.

    I do however love talking to interesting people and can see the strong value of it in so many ways. Parties do represent vital opportunities to network, so it is a dilemma.

    This is how I (try to) solve it:
    I am reasonable OK with party beginnings, when there are a few well known people and maybe a few shy but curious strangers. I am also OK with the ends when the crowds have left and the remaining people are well drunk and less ambitious.

    So I will generally try to come early and sneak out early to return later, or arrive very late, basically when the party is almost over (it is of course hard to guess when that is, so an inside ally (although probably drunk) is valuable!. Coming late does require that there are at least 1 friend present at that time, otherwise it is completely awkward.

    Arriving late works much better than trying to stuck the peak hours out in a tortured condition, struggling to maintain meaningful conversations while only wanting to leave ASAP. Firstly, because that situation is intensely stressful and secondly because displaying what looks like social ineptness may brand me as a weirdo. Going missing is much better. It is socially acceptable, as long as you make up an OK story if needed.

    Towards the end of the party the veterans will have satisfied their needs to know the people already present and curious to talk with someone they have “missed”. Also they tend to be less judging because they consider the party to be over and everything that happens from that point to be a bonus.

    I’ve got fruitful contacts out of arriving towards the end of parties; people who would have dismissed me for my awkwardness had I staid through the party peak hours. They didn’t see me fail socially but still think of me as a person who was at the same party, somewhere in the crowds … which I wasn’t. Having been at the same party is a bonding thing. So we swapped contact details and had a brief conversation, and I got the chance to meet them later in situations that work much better for me, like in a small group of people with a structured agenda (like a business opportunity meeting) in the outdoor area of a nice cafe, having a great time (much better than a party!)

    That works for me…

  27. Oda
    Oda says:

    @ Elaine; I like your comment:
    “My default coping mechanism is asking open ended questions so people end up talking about themselves, which is great because most people really like to talk about themselves – which means I can just nod and smile and not really say too much, or I can just keep asking more questions and we can stay in endless loop of everyone else but me talking.”

    I like that technique very much too. People may even engage in genuine and detailed stories from their life when they are given time and feel they are being heard (Probably not at parties, though). Win-win… because while it can take the social pressure off a situation and provide insights (with clever questions & patience), it also makes people feel good and thereby generates goodwill. Which is always a good thing.

  28. jojo
    jojo says:

    P, Every time I go to party or crowded place, mentally I so want to be in a closet! Thanks for being human. This is what I don’t get about bar, How can you have conversation when the room is soooo loud you can barely hear? Any suggestions for people that can’t drink but would like to be social and network? I’m asian, I can’t drink alcohol without getting so sick.

  29. MCS
    MCS says:

    I have to laugh that you think Photis was weird for leaving you in the closet, when you were the one getting in it! Is that like the pot calling the kettle? :-)

    My son had an anxiety issue when he was in preschool. Selective mutism — he COULD NOT speak to people outside of our family. He literally went to school several mornings a week and did not even as much as say hello to his teacher. (Or, really even look at her.) We took him to a naturopath who literally cured him in days. He said hello to his teacher, who responded, “THANK YOU JESUS.” (She was so astounded that he would speak.)

    He’s made significant strides. Today (years past that first hello to his teacher), I attended his class play, convinced he’d have a silent part. Only to learn he was so excited to know they were doing a play and that he wanted to be the narrator, but he was absent on the day they gave out parts. Thankful.

  30. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    I suppose hiding in the broom closet was a panic reaction.
    Wouldn’t a stall in the rest room have been a better place for a break? I mean there could be a plausible reason for being there if someone was looking for you and found you there.

  31. Shawn
    Shawn says:

    I’m super outgoing but for some reason I really dislike forced networking and planned social events. Last week, I went to a marketing mixer and I was really dreading it. Should I go? Not go? Will I know anybody? Is what I’m wearing okay? Once I walked in, I decided my only objective was to get to the bar. From there, I would set up a base camp and see what happens. It worked. I started up a conversation with someone else who was ordering a drink and that broke the ice. Lucky for me as I’m not sure if they had a broom closet.

  32. Sara
    Sara says:

    You know when you laugh so hard stuff comes out your nose? I laughed so hard a mop came out my nose.

    I’m choosing to comment here because Broom closet therapy at the threshold of a party is something even the Social Butterfly with the Broadest Wingspan occasionally looks for.

    I just stumbled upon your blog. It’s mercifully perfect. I love the brave way you engage the everyday.

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