Published: 12 August 2021. Written by: Marina Gask.
We’ve all been hiding at home for so long that we’ve forgotten how to have confident conversations. Here’s how to get your voice back, whether you’re a natural extrovert or not…
It feels like lockdown has left us with a weird kind of hangover. A feeling of tension, anxiety and exhaustion has become pretty commonplace as we re-enter society and get back into crowded spaces.
Even the most out-there extrovert has developed an introverted tendency, yearning for the safety of home when confronted with the public. Overthinking social situations and struggling with imposter syndrome at the prospect of putting our heads back over the parapet has become a problem for many. Sound familiar?
Why are we feeling tongue-tied?
Sarah Ambrose is a business psychologist at the workplace wellbeing and mental health consultancy BeingWorks. ‘This loss of social confidence is really common among the teams we coach. It’s due to living with uncertainty, change and fear over the last 18 months, and it’s impacted everybody in different ways,’ she explains.
If you’re finding the prospect of conversing with people again strangely daunting, you’re far from alone. We’ve become so used to living in our little bubbles that, in some cases, it’s become preferable to us, communicating intermittently, often digitally, with a small circle of friends and family… so inevitably, there’s a certain amount of social anxiety around going back to work and socialising. What if we clam up or find we have nothing to say to each other once we’re back in the workplace, pub or other social setting?
‘On top of the impact of the pandemic on our mental health and our feelings of apprehension around commuting and having to talk to people all day when we’ve been used to being alone, there’s the anxiety about the communication demands of work,’ says speech therapist Shermeena Rabbi. ‘These are social skills that we develop between the ages of zero to seven, so they’re innately built in. You can’t lose them. It’s the confidence around using them appropriately that’s been impacted, and in some cases this has turned into social anxiety, affecting people’s verbal skills.’
If your job or studies are soon to involve being around other people again, you may have mixed feelings. Research from Microsoft found almost two-thirds of full-time employed or self-employed workers said that they were ‘craving’ more in-person time with their teams. Yet the enthusiasm is tempered with apprehension. Rabbi has seen an increase in adults wanting help with building their verbal confidence so they can cope with the demands of being around people again. The challenge of conducting team meetings, pitches and presentations can be especially daunting.
Understanding your inner extrovert
We’ve all got used to our own company due to WFH and limited social activities, and it’s brought out the introvert in us. This, says Ambrose, is because everybody’s been living under enhanced stressful conditions, with persistent fear and uncertainty about being around people, feeling safe and the many impacts of the pandemic on our lives. ‘We take for granted that we’re protected while in our bubble, but the pandemic has activated a part of our brains that we use for consciously remembering behaviour around social social interventions and decision-making. Over a period of time, this affects us physically and psychologically, impacting on our sense of self, confidence and self-esteem.’ Hence the imposter syndrome we may feel, overthinking our social interactions and even worrying that we have nothing of value to say.
Even people who are normally the loudest and most self-confident feel awkward about social interactions. ‘Typically, extroverts are more sociable compared to introverts and get a real boost out of social interactions. But in lockdown, extroverts have lost the spontaneity of connection that boosts their mood and supports their wellbeing, leaving many struggling.’
Introverts and lockdown
For introverts, while social distancing and isolation may have played to their strengths, there have been challenges, too. ‘Being at home with family or caring for people at home has meant living with a lot of noise and a lack of personal space and this has really impacted their mental health and wellbeing, too.’
Many experts believe extraversion and introversion are on a spectrum, so you may not necessarily be one or the other. ‘You can get people that are energised in a social environment, but equally feel energised while being by themselves. What we have seen in the past few months is a real blurring of these traits as people have been thrown into very different and unfamiliar situations. Some have flourished and some have really struggled – on both ends of the spectrum,’ explains Ambrose.
As the world opens up and we contemplate ‘the new normal’, here’s how to embrace our sociable, confident side and feel less anxious about all these welcome but slightly scary social and work-life situations – whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, or somewhere in between…
Interactions at work
If you’re meeting with your manager or colleagues in the office, those spontaneous conversations might feel a bit of a strain at first. ‘We’ve been living in our heads far more over the past few months, so suddenly having to think on our feet and respond spontaneously may feel like too much pressure, which could result in some stammering-like behaviour and loss of fluency. Keep your breathing slow when talking so you’ve got enough air to get the words out, which will slow you down and help you enunciate better,’ says Rabbi. And don’t be surprised if you’re extra tired in the first few weeks. ‘You’re going to need plenty of downtime.’
Actually connecting with people – perhaps one-on-one to start with – will really help. ‘Human beings are social animals and connecting plays a crucial role in our emotional stability. Nurturing relationships makes us feel happier and more secure,’ says Ambrose.
Remember that it’s OK not to be OK, and other people probably feel as awkward as you do. So be a good listener. Ambrose explains: ‘When you ask people how they’re doing, really listen and engage with what they’re saying, rather than replying, “Oh, me too,” and brushing over it. That social connection and genuine, authentic engagement is really important to making you both feel comfortable.’
Regaining dating confidence
With dating opportunities off the cards in the last 18 months, the thought of finding the confidence to meet for drinks and gaze into a stranger’s eyes may make you feel like running for the hills. If nerves are a huge issue for you, the answer, says Ambrose, is to show your cards. ‘The only way that we can really break through that lack of confidence and feel stronger and have a better connection is by allowing ourselves to be honest. Say how nervous and awkward you feel and you may find your date feels the same way. The courage to show vulnerability creates an authentic and honest connection, and it’s a really supportive and safe way to grow confidence.’
Discover how to live life in the new normal here.
As a Vitality member, you could get partner benefits and rewards with a range of big brands. Available with qualifying health insurance, life insurance and investment plans. Log in to Member Zone for the details.