by Page Wooller and Melissa DaSilva
When we first meet people, there is a period of introduction. Some people open up slowly, awaiting cues from other people and their surroundings. For others, expression comes more easily. As we emerge from COVID-19 isolation and end separations we have experienced over the last year, many of us at one time or another may feel out of place, out of practice, or even a little jaded. Social interactions seem rushed, and sometimes feelings of social pressure, anxiety, worry, and depression can present themselves. Some of us can’t wait to get back to the lives we led before, and others have gained a deeper appreciation for time for oneself. Whatever the situation, there may be moments when we feel a little unsure about ourselves and others. Here are a few helpful tips to regain the confidence to interact and shine when it feels right to do so. There are also tips to support those sacred moments of self-care that we may have discovered during these unprecedented times. I discuss these themes here with licensed social worker Melissa DaSilva. - Page
Page: When first meeting people, introductions can be generally challenging, and more so if one fears their gender or sexual identity may not be respected. Do you have any tips for ice breakers that won’t shut down an interaction before it gets started? I have approached this in different ways depending on the situation.
Melissa: I have struggled with my own social anxiety for many years. Recently, I moved to Puerto Rico by myself, and I often have to navigate these situations at networking meetings and general dinner gatherings. Here are some of the ways that I have addressed them.
For a planned gathering, I will contact the host ahead of time and let them know I may be a little anxious meeting new people and why. If you are concerned about being introduced to others with the wrong pronoun, review that information with the host, and they will probably be supportive and introduce you to new people with the correct name and pronoun. Go with a supportive friend and have them take the lead on introducing you, using the correct pronouns and name.
For unplanned meet-ups, take the lead on introductions. Ask the other person's name and what pronouns they use. This will also give an opening to share yours when you introduce yourself.
Generally, I like to use people's names or “they/them” until they indicate what pronouns they use. Mirroring other people’s language can be very important.
Page: Is there any correct way to start a conversation? What are one’s responsibilities in keeping the conversation flowing?
Melissa: There are many ways to start conversations, and the most natural way can be different in different environments. A good trick to get a conversation going or moving is to say something positive about the situation both of you are currently in, or ask a friendly question about the person you are speaking to, but not about the person's physical or mental attributes. For example: Those are great shoes you have on; did you get them around here? Conversation is like a game of tennis: there should be a good back and forth. Ask clarifying questions to keep the conversation going if you find it may be dying down.
Page: In difficult situations, one might recall advice like, "Breathe. Take your time. Don’t rush. It’s ok to say 'no' when you feel uncomfortable." But it's often hard to implement these coping mechanisms in the moment. Any advice for that?
Melissa: I like to give myself space if I am in a difficult situation. Going to the restroom or my car "to get something" are ways to pause and think things through. Sometimes texting a friend to process or get some quick support is all that is needed. Sometimes leaving is the best option.
Page: How might creative processes, such as drawing, painting, writing, sewing, and crafts, help during these turbulent times?
Melissa: Creating can be very therapeutic. It can give you time to slow down and process the thoughts that may be running around in your head. It can also be therapeutic to create for others. I enjoy making paintings that I frame and give to friends. You can get a lot from making something meaningful for someone else. Remember, it doesn't need to be perfect; it just needs to come from the heart.
Page: A counselor once told me that keeping a journal is a good way of mapping out goals and ideas, and it can help in separating ourselves from negative thought patterns. How might one set out to use creative writing and goal-setting in their day-to-day lives, and what benefits might this have?
Melissa: Schedule time each day to do journaling and goal-setting. I like to do them in two separate notebooks. One is for processing my thoughts and feelings, while the other one is focused on my goals, the steps that I have taken, and the steps that are still ahead. This is an area I tend to help most people with in my coaching program. Having accountability increases the chances of making progress on your goals.
Page: I read that more than 70 percent of communication is nonverbal. For those of us feeling a little out of practice socializing, how might a physically interactive activity – such as exercise, yoga, or walking – help us to be more social, and attenuate anxiety we may feel?
Melissa: I have found that doing activities with others that don't require a lot of eye contact is a great way to start feeling more comfortable with being around others again. Inviting someone to go for a walk gives you the opportunity to talk but not have to worry about body language. Try going out shopping, fishing, or even to the movies.
Page: How does meditation fit into all of this?
Melissa: Practicing quieting the mind at some point every day is a good practice to get into. It can provide space for clarity to arise. This can look different for everyone, but three minutes is a good amount of time to start with. There are now devices that can help with meditation by providing neurofeedback, such as Muse Headband, something I have used in the past. Popular apps such as Insight Timer, Headspace, and Calm are good ones to try. You just need to figure out what is best for your needs.
Page: What advice would you give someone struggling to maintain patience while anticipating positive results from any of these practices?
Melissa: Give it time, and try different approaches. One method isn't going to work in all situations. Remember that everyone is trying to figure themselves out after being isolated for so long. It’s okay to go back later and apologize for any awkward introductions or conversations. Sometimes that in itself is a great icebreaker for a new conversation.
Page: As we experience variations in requirements for mask wearing, social distancing, and expectations about where we show up in person, what techniques can we lean on to reinforce healthy habits we have adopted during isolation, such as giving oneself personal time or practicing a new interest or hobby?
Melissa: Schedule time for yourself to: (a) be quiet, (b) be social, and (c) engage in activities. Structure is very important for a lot of people, and ensures we don't forget new activities and relationships we have created.
Melissa DaSilva is a published author, artist, and owner of East Coast Mental Wellness in Providence, which specializes in various areas of counseling for the LGBTQ+ community. Melissa currently resides in Puerto Rico and holds transformational retreats for members of the LGBTQ+ community and other creatives looking to create change in their lives. Information and consultations are available at www.eastcoastmentalwellness.com.
Page Wooller is an artist, performer, biologist, and published author of the nonbinary-themed graphic novel Emily Corn Discovering Darkness. They hold an undergraduate degree in sports and exercise science physiology, a post-graduate diploma in contemporary dance, and a master’s degree in biology (genetics). When not being creative, they spend time working on their farm, orchard, and forest land in Rhode Island. They also volunteer with Pride Foundation of Washington State, helping to distribute awards to LGBTQ+ students who require assistance.