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Managing Holiday Parties as a Sober Introvert

Photo credit: Roberto Nickson via Unsplash

Parties have always been challenging for me, even as a young child. Lots of people, lots of noise, lots of expectations I wasn’t sure I could live up to. But when I hit my mid-teens, alcohol acted as a salve, helping me navigate my social anxiety and boost my confidence. 

My attitude toward socializing changed when alcohol became a part of the picture. It was so much fun when I had confidence, and back then, I didn’t recognize—or care—that this newfound bravado and self-possession wasn’t real, because it came from a bottle and not from within. So for years, I relied on alcohol to help me survive parties. When it came to the holiday season, it was my must-have accessory. Why would anyone want to choose to spend Christmas Eve sober or welcome New Year’s without a steady supply of champagne? 

When I stopped drinking in June 2016, one of the many things I had to get my newly sober head around was the fact that I’d never had an adult social life without alcohol. In fact, booze was more than an accessory. It was a requisite. My nighttime social life revolved around drinking—and often my daytime one, too. I thought nothing of opening a bottle of wine with lunch on a Saturday or washing down Sunday brunch with a Bloody Mary (or three). 

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And so I ended up, at age 38, having to learn how to socialize with people without having wine as my wing-woman. That was difficult enough on its own. Throw my natural introversion into the mix, and even the most low-key social situations became a catalyst for anxiety. Of all the new stuff I learned about my freshly unwrapped sober self, one of the most eye-opening was the realization that I drank largely to tolerate social situations that would otherwise have been unbearable. It turned out, I hadn’t changed that much since age 4. I still hated crowds, being part of large groups of people, and being the center of attention. For many years, I lubricated myself with booze so I could pretend I enjoyed those things, and it worked. Nobody suspected a thing. I got away with dancing on tables because I looked like I was having the best time of my life. The truth was, I wasn’t present in those moments. Often, I didn’t even remember them. 

I’ve been through two holiday seasons as a sober introvert, and I’ve lived to tell the tale. Here are my top tips.

1. Think before you commit.

I try not to accept an invitation if I know there’s a good chance I’ll cancel at the last minute. This reduces the risk of over-committing. For a sober introvert, consecutive nights of holiday parties can be enough to make you want to lock your front door and turn off your lights until February. So know your limits and stick to them by spacing out your socializing. 

Personally, I can’t handle two consecutive nights of big-crowd, high-intensity socializing. I need at least a couple of days in between to recharge. I’ve learned that it’s just the way I am, and it doesn’t make me any better or any worse than anybody else.

2. Don’t worry about saying no. 

In fact, don’t even think twice about it. If you just can’t face your friend’s New Year’s Eve party, politely decline and arrange a daytime, one-to-one catchup early in January. No good friend will ever grumble if you favor a booze-free lunch with space and time to properly connect over a couple of brief snatches of chat in a crowded place with dozens of other people vying for their attention. 

I try not to be too hard on myself when I don’t live up to expectations—whether those expectations come from myself or other people. In the bigger picture, it’s all part of learning to accept myself for who I am instead of trying to be someone I’m not, and giving myself a break when I don’t get it “right.” 

3. Don’t pigeonhole yourself. 

You can identify as an introvert and still be spontaneous. You can find parties difficult and exhausting and still have a great time in a crowd of close friends. Don’t let a label paralyze you. 

If you get a last-minute invitation and your gut reaction is to go, then go. Most people are complex and contradictory—sober introverts are no exception. When I’m around people I’m comfortable with, I can still be the most vocal, confident person in the room. 

4. Tell the host you might slip away early. 

During my drinking days, my disappearing act was my second-best party trick (after blackouts). I’d be wracked with guilt the next day, of course, and beat myself up for a lot longer than that for leaving the bar or the club without telling my friends. 

Now that I’m sober, I have manners and wouldn’t dream of leaving a party without saying goodbye. But equally, I don’t want an audience for an early exit. So I let the host know I’ll probably make an early exit—typically before everyone else gets too drunk—and touch base with them tomorrow. Again: Decent, understanding people don’t have a problem with this. 

5. Forget “should.” 

Self-acceptance is up there with some of the hardest stuff I’ve had to deal with in sobriety. It will always be a work in progress. I still struggle with the idea that other people might think I’m flaky or unreliable or selfish because I have a natural aversion to certain types of socializing. At those moments, I remind myself that their reaction actually has little to do with me, because I’m not any of those things. 

By and large, we’re brought up in a society that values extroversion over introversion, that celebrates the party animal and mocks the “wallflower.” So the majority of people go along with that because it’s what they’ve known from an early age. 

6. Redefine what the holiday season is all about. 

One of the unexpected bonuses of being sober during the holidays—aside from the absence of a month-long hangover, which will never get old—is that I’ve had to find new ways to celebrate this time of year. 

This year, we’re going to a silent “snow disco.” We have festive movie marathons. I try out different mocktail recipes. We spend as much time as we can outdoors, getting fresh air and precious Vitamin D into our bodies. I’m not religious, so you won’t find me worshipping at that particular door. But I do have faith in my sobriety, and in my ability to embrace the holiday season in my own teetotal, introverted way. 

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At the end of the day, the best thing to remember around the holidays is that your sobriety is still the most important thing. It’s okay to take time to see friends and family. It’s also okay not to. Hopefully, with these introvert party tips, you can make the most of your holiday time without overextending yourself and ending up needing to crawl under a big blanket for the entirety of January. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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