How to Be Social Again

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Now, everyone is trying to navigate conflicting threat levels in a way that used to be specific to those populations, she said. Cues that used to be neutral or positive, like being around other people (I love my friends and family!) are now associated with threat (my friends and family might infect me with Covid!). And we are confronting the challenge of how to turn off that alarm. “What’s a true alarm and what’s a false alarm has gotten more confusing for all of us,” Dr. Kaysen said.

So how do we relearn how to be together?

Give yourself permission to set small, achievable goals. And accept that other people are going to have different responses than you — the friend or family member who wants to eat inside the restaurant when you don’t, for example, or who is ready to get on a plane and take a vacation.

Accept that certain activities may feel tough for awhile. Driving an hour to a meeting. Flying a red-eye to a conference. Attending a family reunion, say, or four pandemic-postponed weddings in one month.

All of this can prompt you to ask, of your family or your boss or even yourself: “Is it really worth the time?” and “Now that I know things can be different, do I want to go back to my old life?”

Recovering doesn’t mean you go back to the way you were before, Dr. Kaysen said, using kintsugi, the Japanese technique of repairing broken pottery with gold, as an analogy for coming out of hard times with awareness of the change, and stronger than before. “It’s that you create a new normal, one that’s functional and beautiful — and different.”

Dr. Keltner agreed that we may need to “re-educate ourselves” — “like, how do we hug again?” Your timing might be off for a hug, or a joke or even a compliment. “How do you look someone in the eye so that it’s not intrusive? How do you compliment someone? You might not have done it for a year.”

Rather than be overwhelmed by everything at once — for example, going to a party where you have to adjust to greeting acquaintances, eating with others and attempting to make small talk — all at the same time — why not take things step by step? This moment can be an opportunity.