Social anxiety—the sweaty palms, fear of rejection, and inability to make a simple phone call—it’s not fun for anyone. But if you’re an extrovert, someone who needs social interaction to function, it’s a misery.
And if you live and travel on a boat and find yourself isolated from people for stretches of time, anything that keeps you from forming connections when you are around folks can be totally demoralizing.
For most of my life, I’ve quivered at the thought of making a basic phone call. I’ve disappointed friends by not showing up for events I said I would attend. And I’ve felt genuine fear at attending a party where I didn’t know anyone.
The crazy thing is that I love people. I’m interested in people. But most of all, I need to be around people (like damn near all the time) to function.
You see, I’m an extrovert.
I can hear you now: “You’re not an extrovert. If you were, you wouldn’t have been so fearful.”
But people get confused by the terms. Just like introverts aren’t necessarily shy, extroverts aren’t necessarily confident around others.
When Jung defined the terms in the 1920s he wrote about being outward directed or inner directed. In recent years, the definition of introversion or extroversion includes where a person finds her energy.
My introvert friends and family are lovely people to hang around with. But I know they feel exhausted surrounded by others all the time.
They need alone time to recharge.
I’ve had to learn how to tolerate being alone. But it’s never easy. I need to be around the energy of other people to thrive.
It’s why I’ve often done my solitary work in a library, coffee shop, or even a mall. Anything that gets me into the presence of others helps me feel better and be more productive.
But my social anxiety has been counterproductive for making new friends and being social with others. Fortunately, my cruising life has helped me to rid myself of a great deal of my social anxiety.
Do you want to know how?
Social Anxiety On A Boat
Our first year cruising, we faced some challenges that led to us traveling well after the majority of other snowbirds. By the time we met up with more cruisers in the warmer states, I was feeling lonely and desperate for company.
But I was also fearful about making an idiot of myself in front of strangers or being rejected by potential new friends.
It was a bad mix.
But now, after four years cruising, I’m surprised to realize that much of my social anxiety is gone.
Apparently, there are things about the cruising life that have helped me move past it.
Living on a boat is an amazing conversation starter.
I recently mentioned to a Lyft driver bringing me home with a huge haul of groceries that I lived on a boat. He replied by telling me about his friend who cruised for several years on his Pearson sailboat.
But even people I meet with no interest in boating or cruising are curious about what my life is like. They ask me about buying groceries, working on board, and even going to the toilet.
The dog lovers are dying to know what my dog Honey thinks about life on board. (Click the link to my other blog if you’re curious too.)
With a good conversation starter, I worry less about uncomfortable silences with strangers. And I look forward to meeting new people.
Rewards for taking risks
Positive reinforcement is a powerhouse technique for training dogs. It’s not bad for humans either (although our complex brains work hard to deny us the benefits of basic behaviorism).
Luckily, the cruising life is very rewarding. If I stepped out of my social anxiety cocoon to dine on someone’s boat or attend a cruiser’s event I was often rewarded with kindness and encouragement (to say nothing of food and liquor).
I remember many invitations to have drinks with neighboring boaters in a marina stoking my anxiety. But if I pushed myself to not make up an excuse and just went I had a great time.
And if your brain is rewarded enough, it can make inroads against social anxiety.
I’ve always been a curious person. But cruising has amped my curiosity up to 11.
Maybe it’s because I’m learning new skills in middle age and it’s growing my brain. Or maybe the act of constantly moving and visiting new places and seeing new things is strengthening my curiosity.
And what I’m most curious about is people. My favorite hobby since starting cruising has become chatting with Lyft and Enterprise drivers who pick me up when I need access to a car.
So while I still feel a bit anxious calling the Enterprise rental car office to set a pick-up, the interesting stories I hear from the drivers makes it worth my while.
One Enterprise driver told us about hosting young people who were rowing Virginia’s backwaters to follow the explorations of Captain John Smith. Another told us about the time his scout leader became terribly seasick on a boat trip and the scouts had to get them back home safely when the engine failed during a storm.
But probably the most interesting driver told us (just as we were ending the trip; I’m still filled with questions) that he lived in the same home his family had owned since the 18th century. I’m dying to know more about the black family who held onto their property and freedom through the worst times for African Americans in Virginia.
I’ve learned to swallow my social anxiety to sate my curiosity.
But there’s one last way that cruising has helped me decrease my social anxiety.
Shortly after dreaming up my scheme to go cruising on a boat I realized that I felt no interest in doing long, short-handed passages.
I have no problem with being part of a crew crossing an ocean. But alternating watches with my husband for weeks of solitary on the Atlantic? That sounds like torture.
Even in our coastal cruising, we can travel for days without seeing anyone but each other.
My husband doesn’t seem to mind it. He’s more introverted (at times, even misanthropic) than I am. By a lot.
By the time we’ve been traveling and anchoring in solitary for a few days, I jiggle with excitement listening to chatter on the VHF radio. And if a sexy boat sails nearby, I fantasize about meeting up to talk boat stuff.
Social anxiety has no place when I’m desperate for company. I’ve pushed passed it enough that it has considerably less power over me.
Society Anxiety On Land
As I write this, I’m a CLOD (cruiser living on dirt).
The boat needs some serious TLC. So when my husband had a chance to work for a busy architecture firm in Delaware, we put Meander in a boatyard where it will get new rigging, electronics, and whatever other work we can afford.
We’re currently living in a one-bedroom apartment in Wilmington, Delaware.
I don’t know a soul here.
So when the wife of someone we occasionally chat with while exercising our dogs invited me to a reading group in the neighborhood I said yes right away. I felt none of the hesitation that usually signaled my social anxiety was taking over.
Tonight I’ll attend the first meeting. And I’m amazed to realize that I’m not even a little bit nervous at showing up at the front door of someone I’ve never met to discuss a book with a bunch of strangers.
Where did my social anxiety go? Because in the past, this would definitely be a frightening experience.
Maybe desperation from being a CLOD, separated from the boat I love, has wrenched the last bit of it from me.
All I know is that cruising helped me turn my social anxiety into a tiny barrier instead of its former insurmountable obstacle.
I wonder which of my many neuroses the boat will cure next?