Q I am often in situations where I have to interact with groups of people: extended family, different teams at work, a sports league with my son, and a group of friends. I find myself being afraid to really be part of a group. I like most of these people, but I find myself getting self-conscious and wondering if they like me or if I fit in? That makes me even more nervous and awkward and I don’t know what to say or who to talk to. Is there a way to deal with this?

A Inquire into the origins of these inhibitions or fears. Did you have a bad experience where you felt rejected, ostracized, or shamed? This happens in school where groups begin to form. In teenage years belonging with a gang of friends becomes more important. This can be challenging for some children. Insider/outsider issues, being popular, and the challenges of being yourself with close friends become paramount.

If some of these issues aren’t dealt with, they become part of one’s identity and social interactions. We start believing negative things about ourselves: “People don’t find me interesting;” I don’t have much to contribute;” “Others think I am weird.” Since we believe these things of ourselves, we naturally imagine that others are thinking that of us as well. This keeps us in our shell.

Some of us are simply happier in smaller and more intimate settings. Were you raised in a small family where you didn’t have to interact much with siblings?  Was extended family a common part of your life or did it come later and less frequently? We are highly conditioned by our environment and begin to find comfort in certain configurations of people. While we may need to expand beyond our areas of comfort, we also need to respect our personalities and styles of relating.

There are ways to feel more open and connected to a group. When you first enter a social setting consider meeting and chatting with one or two other people you are interested in getting to know or have some things in common with. Asking a question and listening is an easy way to get to know someone. People enjoy sharing about themselves. Most people are challenged in group settings and appreciate someone who reaches out to them. In the kind of groups you have described, it’s also appropriate to mingle. People worry that they can’t join a conversation if three or four people are already engaged in one. However, most people are open to including others and letting the group grow. If part of a team at work, pick a colleague or two to work closely with. This can ease you into the group. There are also various kinds of psychotherapy groups to help people explore issues, feelings, and relationships facilitated by a psychotherapist. These can be very powerful and well worth the commitment and cost.

Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com

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