Do either of these scenarios sound familiar:
- You drink or use because it makes it easier to be social, decreasing your inhibitions and giving you a shared activity (everyone else is drinking/drugging too!) that focuses your interaction with others.
- You hide your addictive behavior (and its effects), shutting down how much you socialize with other people because it’s safer to be alone than to interact.
Whichever pattern you’ve followed, once you move into recovery and take away the addictive behavior, you’re thrust into the world of other people as your own, sober, not-acting-out self. It’s reasonable in such a moment to panic. How are you supposed to connect with others when you feel so uncomfortable and unfamiliar in yourself? The truth: slowly and over time. How successful your recovery is hinges on your willingness to feel these disturbing emotions and discomfort and take action anyway.
There will come a day (believe it or not), when you’ll be in the mood and ready to learn how to make new friends, or just more meaningfully connect with the ones you have. Here are a few actions that should help smooth the way:
- Be interested. In every moment there will be many thoughts competing for your mind’s attention. Turn down the volume on all but the ones related to the person(s) you’re spending time with.
- Ask questions. People feel good when they’re heard, appreciated, noticed and understood. Asking questions during a conversation shows your interest in what the speaker is saying, plus you’ll learn more about him or her; that lays a foundation for friendly and meaningful interaction and connection.
- Be empathetic. Being aware of someone’s emotional states allows you to connect with them. Offering support in moments of distress, consoling them through a disappointment or sharing in a moment of exaltation creates a sense of camaraderie. This is probably the single most effective (and definitely the simplest!) action of all social skills. Worldwide, a smile connotes friendliness, so the moment you offer the upward curve of your lips you send a message of openness to others and invite them to reciprocate. (This may feel uncomfortable at first, so practice with people around whom you feel safe, and make sure to actively maintain your physical and emotional boundaries.)
- Make eye contact. When we feel less than, embarrassed, guilty or ashamed we develop a habit of avoiding eye contact. Creating social connection, however, requires visual connection. Start noticing how and when and in what way you feel most comfortable (and uncomfortable) looking directly at someone. Then explore how to expand this skill in ways that feel manageable, even if it takes some time.
Coming out of addiction may cause those early sober social interactions to feel raw, unfamiliar and uncomfortable — all of which can activate survival mechanisms that can trigger addictive cravings. By understanding that becoming more social may at first feel disturbing you can prepare for the process by using any self-care practice that helps you feel calm and in control and slowly developing any of these new social skills.
Try doing just one at a time, building up confidence in one area before adding another. Or shift from one to another when any of these becomes uncomfortable. Like any learning experience, what feels raw and unfamiliar in the beginning will smooth out to something you do without thinking if you practice.