Be the Life of the Party

Be the Life of the Party

You're minding your own business, not thinking at all about bouncy music, balloons or boisterous crowds. Then, out of the blue, it arrives: a party invitation. It depicts smiley faces, clinking glasses, musical notes.

What could possibly go wrong?

For people with low self-esteem, every party invitation is a promise but also a dare. The prospect of a party links us to some prehistoric human circuitry by which our forebears danced around bright fires: This fills us with both hope and panic as we know from instinct and from actual experience that at certain parties we say hello then suddenly forget our fears and think This is perfect; I want to stay, but from others we simply flee, sometimes in tears and sometimes still limply clasping curly ribbons.

But say we vow to take that chance and RSVP yes. How to tame those pre-party jitters that begin—three, two, one—now?

First step: Picture the best parties you've ever attended—the kindergarten picnic where you met your best friend; that slumber party at which you discovered your talent for styling people's hair; the two college dances (you know why); and last month's office brunch at which one sunlit waffle changed your life.

Use those memories as lessons and liturgies. What worked at those parties? What clicked? Know that you've been if not the life of parties past, at least among their guiding lights. And you can shine again.

It helps to think of parties as part chemistry and part arithmetic: Bringing his or her moods, likes and dislikes, each guest is a substance and is also an integer. What happens when this random, shifting, fleeting confluence of substances combines to form a gathering? How do these integers add up?

We who have low self-esteem imagine ourselves as the worst possible party guests: the ugly, boring, crazy, gauche and/or depressing party poopers whom everyone prays will leave. This is just another example of negative narcissism. Unless we're a party's guest of honor, it's not about us. It took me nearly a lifetime to realize that as an invited guest, I am asked only to enjoy myself, not to perform. A party's success or failure does not depend solely on me.

Each of us is just one of many substances and integers at any given moment amidst any given array of crepe-paper streamers. But we can better our odds by removing some choice and spontaneity from these equations. Choice and spontaneity are excellent in essence, but—especially amidst other party pressures—they often paralyze us with panic (I can't decide what to wear/say/do!) and wrack us with regret (I can't believe I wore/said/did THAT!).

Get ahead of the game long before party day by pre-assembling a few flattering, comfortable "party outfits"—fancy, medium and casual—to keep as permanent fixtures of your wardrobe. Ready to wear anytime, they'll save you from last-minute mirror mania.

Pre-select some fallback topics that you'd feel safe raising in conversation with almost anyone you might meet under the party lights: current events, celebrities, the color aquamarine: whatever interests you and invites others to share their thoughts. When awkward silences loom—and they will—you'll be poised and prepared. (Robots can play piano! Kool-Aid was invented in Nebraska!) Bridging those gaps can boost your confidence.

Attending a party is a kindness to whoever invited us. So this is our mission: Have fun. Be kind.

Piece of cake, right?

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