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The Struggle of Choosing a Holiday Outfit When You Have Social Anxiety

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There’s a tape that runs in my head when I’m choosing an outfit for a social occasion. It tells me — and my social anxiety — that every event requires one truly acceptable clothing choice, and the boundaries of appropriateness are minute. It says I’m the only person who doesn’t know how to dress correctly. That I’m the only one who doesn’t know the secret to fashion.

I spend days obsessing over whether I need a dress for Christmas morning brunch, or if a dressy top and black pants will suffice. What constitutes “dressy?” How does everyone else know exactly what to wear?

I try to picture a person I know who will be in attendance, someone whose confidence tells me that she knows the right way to dress. I imagine her wardrobe, comparing it to mine, and I find that I’m doomed.

While I prepare to leave for the brunch, I get caught up in imaginary arguments in my mind. My brain makes me battle criticism from people I don’t even know, to whom I feel I need to defend my fashion sense. I can’t remember a time when anyone has had the nerve to openly criticize my clothes, but how can I know who will hate my outfit and yet keep her opinion to herself? This is the fear that taunts me: what are people thinking? So, I plan excuses for the clothes I’ve chosen.

It’s not that I have poor fashion sense. I’m secretly a quirky dresser, and I have my own, off-beat style. On my better, less-anxious days, when I dare to express the real me, I feel better about myself. But it doesn’t last.

My choice in this instance — if I can let myself make it — is my cranberry, hippy dress that contrasts nicely with a leather jacket and imitation Doc Martens. It’s comfortable for sitting on the floor, which is where I like to be so I can play with the kids who are excited about new toys. But will everyone whisper about my bizarre style? Will the children point and snicker?

When I walk into the room of people gathering to celebrate, I’m likely to focus entirely on the individual I’ve imagined will be dressed ideally. Even if I’m surprised by her choice, my brain will tell me she’s chosen correctly. I knew I should have worn jeans and Uggs!

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches me to question my assumptions of the longstanding tape in my brain.

Why do I believe all the other guests will be wearing the single, perfect outfit for the occasion? (And wouldn’t they be embarrassed to find they are all dressed the same?)

Don’t some people feel at ease when they’re more dressed up, while others prefer their own style of casual? For that matter, don’t individuals have different ideas of what is “appropriate” for a given event?

Am I able to look around the room and notice the variety of dramatic, conservative, lavish and trendy styles? Can I see individuals for who they are?

What will people truly think of my outfit? Many people are unlikely to notice it at all, especially on Christmas morning, a notoriously chaotic time. Someone is bound to share my taste and admire attire similar to her own. Imagine if someone interprets my eclectic style as a bold and unusual choice, perhaps someone who is impressed by my courage to do my own thing.

And wouldn’t it be nice if I could cancel out some of my social anxiety with an outfit that is comfortable on me, something in which I feel I belong?

Practice re-framing. Challenge your assumptions. Notice all the people around you. Dress for yourself.

Getty image via SomeMeans.

Originally published: December 3, 2019
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