A few weeks ago, I was at a birthday party that would easily win the award for “Awkward Social Event of of the year”. It was a tiny event, with only about 16 people, from two different social circles, and a whole lot of weird dynamics and history amongst the people participating. (Did he sleep with her? Is she speaking to them? What’s going on with those two? IS THIS EVEN HAPPENING?!)

awkward momentNo matter which way I turned, it was painfully uncomfortable. Everyone I knew at the party was dealing with their own awkwardness, so there was no relief in sight, but I didn’t exactly want to leave. After all, I wanted to celebrate my friend’s birthday, not to mention there was also a sort of train-wreck fascination I had with everything that was not being said.

I was stuck, trapped in conversations I didn’t want to be in, with people who weren’t admitting what was really going on, even though I could see it.

In a word, it sucked.

Now, as a rule, I don’t drink in social situations to handle discomfort. I prefer to stay with my feelings and see what can be discovered there, or to consciously choose to leave the situation rather than checking out. But in this case, I was on my way to the bar when the voice of my good friend Kye came into my head, saying “If you don’t like the experience you’re having, do something different. What is the experience you want to be having?”

Suddenly, everything crystalized for me, and I knew what I wanted to do.

Kye and I have had this conversation many times over the 10 or so years we’ve known each other. All group social events — parties, bars, clubs, workshops, Disneyland, you name it — are set up to produce a certain kind of experience. Some are set up well, and some are set up poorly, but there is always something on the part of the people putting it together that is “supposed” to happen.

Most of us just go into the experience, get swept up into whatever is going on, and kind of get spit out on the other side, having had whatever happened to us happen. Sometimes the experience is satisfying, and we might go back, trying to capture that initial feeling again. Other times, like at this party I was at, it can be head-scratching or downright anxiety producing.

The secret is in those two sentences my friend said to me. Let’s break it down:

If you don’t like the experience you’re having, do something different.

Anything different will give you a different experience, although that might not be what you want, either. Still, taking action puts in you in the driver’s seat. And making a conscious choice to do something different keeps you from doing whatever unconscious behavior you would normally do that keeps you stuck in a pattern (like leaving, or drinking, or checking out, or flirting with someone to get validation, or picking a fight with your partner… not that I’ve EVER done any of those!)

If you can’t get so far as to actually creating the experience you WANT to have, you can at least start having a different experience than what you are having, simply by trying something different than what you’ve been doing.

What is the experience you want to be having?

It’s not uncommon before going out for me to ask, “What’s your intention tonight? Why are you going out?” By asking before we even hit the party or club, I have an opportunity to ground myself in why I’m even doing the thing I’m doing. If the answer is “because it seems fun” or “because all of y’all are going,” that’s a clue to come up with something more internally motivated, or to consider bailing.

But even if you haven’t thought about it in advance, asking what the experience you WANT to have opens the door for you to get what you want in a situation.

As I looked around the room, I took some time to notice what I was drawn to. Soon, it became very clear that I wanted four things:

  • To cuddle and talk to one of my good girlfriends who was having a hard time.
  • To play with and celebrate the birthday girl in her silly fun ways.
  • To try to connect with one of the people I had my own awkward history with.
  • And to surrender to my not-so-enlightened desire to watch the awkward social train-wreck unfold. (Hey, I never said I was a good person. :) )

What happened next was not all sunshine and roses…

My friend and I clung to each other for dear life for a little while, and eventually relaxed into feeling more playful and less stressed due the physical contact. (That was nice.)

I got to see the birthday girl shine in her particular way, and I felt closer to her for having been there. (Awwww… cute.)

And when I finally admitted I actually wanted to watch everything unfold like it was a soap opera (instead of trying to help or avoid it), I was able to enjoy the silly machinations that humans go through to try to belong and feel safe. I began to have compassion for the people involved. And, yes, I did laugh at some of it, because I am not always that good of a person. But you know, giving myself permission to be a bad person can often make me a better person. (Score one for embracing imperfection.)

As for the person I had the awkward history with… well. Let’s just say I accidentally managed to make things HOLY CRAP JESUS MUCH MORE AWKWARD. Sometimes, it’s shocking how massively I can stick my foot in my mouth. I mean, seriously, a clusterfuck. An OMG-Did-That-Actually-Just-Come-Out-Of-My-Mouth, I-Totally-Didn’t-Mean-That clusterfuck.

(The jury’s still out on that one. I don’t know if I will ever be able to hang in the same room as that guy without wanting to hang my tail between my legs. You can’t win them all.)

But you know what? I stayed til the end of the party, and Mega-Awkwardness aside, I actually ended up having a really good time. Even at the Awkward Social Event of the Year.

So next time you find yourself not sure what you’re doing or why at a social event, check in with yourself: “If you don’t like the experience you’re having, do something different. What is the experience you want to be having?”

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