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Surviving party dread

by Nick Black

They like me, I like them. Some are friends stretching over almost 20 years. So why oh why do I dread the annual office Christmas party? Thankfully, the party has been and gone for another year.

If there's one trait of a highly sensitive person (HSP) that has limited my life, it is an overwhelming aversion to parties of any kind, shape or form. Unfortunately, I have the kind of job where an extra layer of torment is added... industry functions and cocktail parties.

If you share this strange character quirk, you'll know exactly why the combination of strangers, bad acoustics, booming voices, inane chatter, and drink makes such a toxic brew. But I was born with this particular difficulty and from my earliest years of going to kids parties have been more miserable than I care to mention.

It is not shyness, though easily mistaken for shyness. It is not dislike of humanity, because I love people and enjoy hearing life stories. Nor is it social ineptness. HSPs usually know what to say and say it in a tactful, unassuming manner.

But whatever this "something" is, it is as familiar to me as one of my worn-out shoes. Parties for me mean an excruciating inner pain, and often simply become too overwhelming. I will inevitably leave as early as I can and feel like I've been let out of prison. At some cocktail parties that I've had to attend for work, I've walked in, and promptly slipped out of the exit door as I face that familiar surge of sound.

Partly it's because social gatherings seem to work on the lowest common denominator and revolve around topics that HSPs can find frankly wearisome. Office parties for example bring up gossip, back-biting and sarcasm. Cocktail parties seem to me to be especially brutal exercises in social Darwinism - if you don't fit in, you will be quickly found out. The loudest voice wins out.

The worst aspect of parties is their setting, which HSPs usually find particularly draining - large anonymous venues with no corners or nooks and crannies to hide in; music that drowns out everything else; harsh lighting; the noise of people talking in ever-rising voices. The HSP will find their attention drawn to puzzling things - why does so and so laugh like a donkey? Why does this person look away at the end of every sentence? Do their shifting feet mean that they are bored with me? The HSP can find themselves feeling crushed, bit by bit, by the sheer weight of normalcy, the endless petty interactions. If you are like me, you might find yourself struggling to understand the intricacies of a subtle ritual that you will never properly understand.

How can all this be explained to someone not so oversensitive to atmosphere and - that over used word - vibrations? Give me the joys of intimate gatherings in quiet, gentle surroundings, where conversation can be heard, where boasting, conversational cut and thrust is kept to a minimum.

On this particular topic I have to frankly admit I have no real coping strategy beyond avoiding parties where and when I can. My current partner is incredibly understanding and tolerant of this. But other partners have often been puzzled and in the end annoyed at this seeming anti-social trait. My partner says it is agoraphobia but it is not that.

The ultimate nightmare for me,the one that wins all the prizes, is the New Year Party. It has it all. People shouting; the countdown to the new year; someone getting so out of it that they get aggressive, or sick, or just act stupid. The balloons, the thump-thump of music. Aaargh. Why, why celebrate such a silly thing as a new year?

If this makes me sound like the Grinch then you probably don't share the trait. Certainly none of my family do. nor my daughters, thank goodness. For them parties are what I guess they should be, fun ways of celebrating our humanity and letting our hair down.

In fact I've never met anyone else with this kind of challenge so would love to know if it is, as I sometimes suspect, simply me.

The best new years I have ever spent have in fact been on various spiritual retreats - likewise Christmasses. The worst? The very worst, the king-emperor of worseness was a party I had to go to when I was 15. It was at a strangers house, I knew no-one, just kids my own age who all knew each other, and for five excruciating hours I sat in a corner drinking watered-down punch thinking I was probably the saddest teenager in the world. I tried to mingle in the beginning. I retreated, rebuffed. I have never forgotten that searing experience. I crawled into my parent's car like clambering onto a life raft in stormy seas. Never again, I vowed. How little did I realise that adult life would be littered with such painful occasions.

Parties. Don't you just love em.

Nick Black

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