Ever since I can remember, I've been predisposed to saying "no" to social plans. If something isn't within my comfort zone, I tend to avoid it. But there's a problem: when you don't experience new things, life can get boring. Mine had recently landed somewhere between extreme doldrums and "what does it even matter what day of the week it is?"
Image by Tina Mailhot-Roberge
I am not debilitatingly socially anxious, but I am shy enough that it takes me a while to warm up to situations and people. There's certainly nothing wrong with introversion, but it's still worthwhile to challenge yourself. As such, over the last few years I've stuck with safe social activities. I'll meet up with friends for drinks or food. I'll happily bring over snacks to a barbecue. I'll meander and meet people, but stick to my corner.
When I took the time to look at myself and my life, I realised I was in a rut, both creatively and physically I felt burnt out and bored. I needed to break out of my comfort zone.
So, on a whim, I decided my new answer would always be yes. I'd agree to do whatever friends and family asked me to do. This gave way to all kinds of new experiences where I tasted brains, drank a Bangkok-inspired "men's health" cocktail, and travelled halfway across the world with a stranger. And now that I've returned home, I feel like I've crawled out of that rut. I'm happier, less burnt out, and ready for adventure for the first time in forever.
A Night Of Karaoke Reminded Me That Nobody's Watching
Like most people, I don't like being embarrassed. But I'm also not a fan of watching other people embarrass themselves. Karaoke, which seems to relish in both of these things, is therefore not my cup of tea. Even when you're not participating, it's still a cringe-worthy experience that simultaneously makes you giggle and die on the inside.
Yet, without a better plan, when a friend suggested we do karaoke for my last birthday, I obliged. This was the start of my "yes to any plan" initiative and karaoke seemed an easy entry point.
I'm not a stranger to a stage, but there's something about karaoke that's always been off-putting to me. I'll go along with it, I'll participate occasionally, but I never want to be there. But again, this was the time of "yes", so I dove in head first. I sang a couple of songs, I relaxed, and eventually, I enjoyed myself. At least a little bit.
I've spent basically my entire life learning how not to make a fool of myself in public. That's good for the most part, but standing around, singing Taylor Swift to no-one, I realised it had also made me far too serious for my own good. I'm well aware that nobody cares what I do, but it'd been too long since I reminded myself of that. People don't care and in most cases, they don't notice you even exist, let alone that you're making a fool of yourself.
At the end of the day, I wasn't finding social situations relaxing because I wasn't relaxing during them. Maybe it was overhacking. Maybe it was overanalysing, but either way, going out felt like work. When I realised that and stopped caring as much, I calmed down a bit and by George, actually had some fun.
Drinking Weird Cocktails Reminded Me To Try New Things
Put a drink menu in front of me and 90% of the time I'll skip straight to the beer section. Put a food menu in front of me and chances are I'll go for something I've heard of. It's not that I'm particularly picky, but I like the comfort of what I know, so I gravitate toward the usual. This makes for pretty boring meals. One night, out with friends, a friend spotted a pretty bland looking whiskey drink with a curious addendum:
Infused whiskey with Elephantopus Scaber, fresh lime, St. Germain. Recommended two drinks a day. (Plant name: Yaanaichhuvadi means " This plant looks like stamp foot of an elephant." It is highly medicinal: Natural treatment poisonous bites, Hair fall, Heart diseases, Liver diseases, Arthritis, Fever, Promotes men's health.)
This was the type of silly, Dad-friendly drink I tend to avoid at restaurants. But, in the age of "why not's" and "yes", we both decided to order one. It was terrible.
Yet it was this simple, seemingly innocuous order that sparked a whole new approach to eating. I started seeking out the weirder menu items, whether it was food or drinks. I'd convince friends to try the pork brain at a Chinese restaurant. We ate chicken feet. We drank cocktails based solely on how ludicrous the names were. It was all a gentle reminder of just how much easier it was to push yourself outside your comfort zone when you're around other people doing the same thing. That little baby step into new foods also made it a lot easier to experiment in other areas of my life. I ventured off to new parts of town, new types of places, and more. It's amazing how trying one little new thing can push you even further. When you do it with others, bonds are sure to form.
There isn't a lot of research on why we tend to bond over new shared experiences, but at least one study points out that it doesn't matter if those experiences are good or bad. What matters is that we grow closer with the people we share them with. Beyond that, as we've pointed out before, new experiences also positively affect your perception of time. When we process unfamiliar information, time seems to slow down. Which is to say, doing something as simple as foregoing those familiar menu items now and again can do wonders for both your friendships and your perception of time.
Holidaying With A Stranger Taught Me The Importance Of Spontaneity
Back in March, I connected with a friend of a friend on Instagram. We'd known of each other's existence, but hadn't ever been in the same place at the same time. At some point, we started talking about the fact we both regretted never travelling in our 20's. Half-jokingly, she asked me if I wanted to come to Europe with her. Half-jokingly, I responded "sure."
Within a week we both had tickets to Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany. There was a healthy "what the hell are you doing?" vibe in the air when I discussed this with friends and family. But I always came back to one thing a friend told me when I first mentioned this plan: "It doesn't matter if you hate each other. You'll still be on holiday in some of the best cities in the world."
I am not spontaneous. Quite the opposite, in fact: I'm meticulous with my planning to a fault. I'll overthink and overanalyse to the point of inaction -- which is why I'd never travelled further away from the US than Vancouver. This Europe trip felt reckless, but it also opened my eyes to a side of myself I hadn't seen in a long time: I was excited and amazingly calm, all things considered. Once we purchased the plane tickets, the anxiety was gone. By the time we were on our way to Europe, I'd forgotten this was even a spontaneous decision to begin with. The trip went great and as I was travelling back home I tried to figure out how I'd tricked my brain into remaining so chill.
It was in these moments that I discovered it wasn't just about saying "yes" to break out of a comfort zone. It was about tackling fear. I'd often say "no" because I being uncomfortable scared me and that kept me from all kinds of new experiences. After too long in my comfort zone, I started to feel cowardly. Working my way through several yes-moments over the last few months prepped me for this kind of travel. It made me a little more comfortable in my skin. It also finally afforded me the gall to take a much-needed actual vacation from work to help get over that sense of burnout.
None of this is to say you should hit up a random person on the street and ask them to take a holiday with you. For me, it was about taking the time to look at what I wanted and instead of shying away from an opportunity because it felt unusual -- to say "yes" and figure out the details later. Otherwise, I could have ruminated on that decision for months. It's been an easy way to challenge myself without having to exert the mental effort to find new things. It's surprising just how many new experiences present themselves throughout the day when you start paying attention.