For the last five years, I’ve been trying to attend one convention every year.
That doesn’t sound like a lot, but for someone with nearly debilitating social anxiety, it’s a huge achievement and a measure of my commitment to my work. This year, I’m attending four cons of various types, including one for fiber artists, one for pagans, GenCon, and World Fantasy. That’s a record for me, and I have very mixed feelings about it.
Cons are great. They’re a chance to meet people, to learn things, to get new ideas, to see individuals we look up to, to enrich friendships and connections we can now make over the internet. But they’re also expensive, exhausting, and stressful, at least for someone who has actual sobbing meltdowns when she has too much social interaction.
When I say I have near-debilitating social anxiety, I don’t mean I get butterflies about going to parties. I mean my hands shake when I call to order pizza. I mean I once rode a bus its entire route because I needed to interview the driver and I was too scared to talk to her. I mean I cry when my friends want too much of my time. Talking to people I don’t know actively frightens me.
I’m not playing around when I say I’m introverted and shy. I’ve come out of my shell a lot in the last decade, primarily because I worked as a reporter—which, in retrospect, was not a brilliant career choice—and I had to talk to people if I wanted to do my job.
So, for me, going to cons is a bit of an endurance test. Over the years, however, I’ve learned a few things about how to do it without inducing nervous paroxysms of overstimulation.
- If you’re attending with a friend, explain to them that you may need breaks. Hell, even if you’re not attending with a friend, if you need a break, explain to your companions that you need some time to yourself. Most humans understand that other humans need rest.
- Actually get some rest. Parties last all night, and most of the fun that’s had at cons is had at those parties. But the human brain mends itself or something while we sleep (ask a scientist if you want details), so even if you’re sleeping during the day, make sure you’re getting some sleep.
- Don’t feel like you need to do everything. Not really all that interested in “Underwater Basket Weaving in Ancient Civilizations” or “Flax: From Plant to Garment”? Well, you can skip those panels. Yes, I know you paid for the con, and that includes all of the panel topics, but you really don’t have to attend every single session.
- Remember that other people are people, too. For every terrified soul like myself, there’s at least one extroverted person who will introduce herself and take you around to meet all her friends. And really, if you introduce yourself to a terrified soul like me, I’ll introduce you to my friends, too. I’ll just be quaking in my boots while I do it.
- Learn your triggers and your warning signals. Does loud music stress you out? Maybe cut out of the dance party early. Do you get a headache when you’re reaching the breaking point? Time to bail. This one is tough, and it takes some trial and error, but you have to know yourself to be able to take care of yourself.
- Finally, learn to say yes—and no. If you’re not at your limit, saying yes to a random invite may just set you down a path to meet your new best friend. But if you are at your limit, saying no can keep you from having a bad con experience when you could have had a great one.
Honestly, if I can survive four cons in one year, anyone can do it. And remember, if you are a person who enjoys making new connections, reach out to someone you don’t know—your act of friendliness may save one person from a terrible, lonely experience.
Do you work the con circuit? What are your survival tips?