I could tell that my hand gestures were making her feel nervous.
I was always one who could easily make a joke to lighten the moment. Not this time. Not even my good manners could save me from my rambling conversation. My sentences weren’t making sense, I was incoherently speaking, and I started feeling like Dr. Jekyll transforming into Mrs. Hyde.
I apologized to the school mom for my rambling and blamed it on the fact that I work from home, and that the only in-person conversation I have during the day is with my four-year-old daughter about how Doc McStuffins is now a big sister.
Luckily for me, she understood as she also worked from home and knew how rough it could be to have adult conversation face-to-face after spending your days behind a computer screen.
I was unnerved: what was happening to me? I am a smart individual. How could I not handle a simple conversation without immediately starting to sweat and throwing my hands like a wild animal? I was becoming a feral animal, not domesticated to live outside my small office space.
I have always been an extrovert, never dealt with social anxiety and as a child, and loved talking and making others laugh.
How was I losing my lifelong cultivated social skills?
My work-from-home career began in 2009 as my husband was returning from a 15-month deployment. My out-of-home job at the time was a one-hour commute each way, and by the time I got home in the evenings, I was beat. I thought working from home would be a great fit since I was going back to school, this way I could work and spend time with my 3-year-old-son.
It was the perfect solution.
Fast-forward to 2016…
…six years, 2 deployments, countless separations, 2 degrees, various business trips yearly, and an addition to our family: my beautiful daughter.
I didn’t start to see that I wasn’t the same until about this time last year. I was asked to speak at an event, one that I have done previously in the past. As I stood there ready to present, I froze. I stared at the audience wondering, Why am I here? I drove home that night thinking it was just my nerves from not getting enough sleep the night before. I would be good the next time around.
As I sat in the coffee shop, apologizing for being such a spaz, I knew I was lost. I, Angela Caban, was indeed an introvert. I said it to myself, my husband, and my best friend. It was my reality and now I had to work on getting myself back.
The solitude of my office, despite the interaction weekly via conference calls and productivity of my work, was eroding my social skills. As I sit in my office daily, I am forgetting was it is like to have an actual conversation that goes beyond my keyboard.
It also doesn’t help that my poor husband, who also comes home drained, is my only outlet to real-life adult conversation. I am lucky to have many friends, but most live out of state. How could I reclaim my social identity if differences in time zones and social media were all that surrounded me?
It’s not surprising that I was making that poor school mom feel uncomfortable. I think feeling like you have to make small talk is one of the worst things with someone who has social anxiety.
Reclaiming my social identity…
With everything I do in my life, business or personal, I have a game plan and a list. I was determined to turn myself back into the person I once was and stay that way. I knew it was going to take some work, since it is hard to stop working when deadlines are piling up. Isn’t the reason I started working from home so that I could have a flexible schedule?
I made the parents at school my water-cooler moment
What I have learned is that unlike others who work outside the home, I don’t have the “water cooler” moments anymore. I stopped making excuses and took small steps each day to connect with other human beings. No more forced small talk– a simple hello and how-is-everything-going before being on my merry way. I was a bit awkward at first, but once I explained what I was doing and why, other parents at the school drop-off were interested to see how my “socializing project” was going. They really called it that.
I found extracurricular activities
I became the friend who was in charge of planning everything. From concerts to coffee shop dates to Zumba… yes, it’s exhausting, but the socializing is totally worth it. I had a least one social gathering a week on my calendar. The difference it made? I felt like more than just someone who lives and works at home. On the weekends, I am out and when I am home, the office door is shut.
I didn’t discount my online friends
I didn’t need to ignore my online community of friends. I still pick up the phone daily and talk to my best friend who is 500 miles away. Even if it is just a quick chat online, this part of my life is still important to me and for my work.
I plan a minimum of 2 business trips a year
My goal is to not only socialize but to network in-person about my business matters as well. My trips are focused on either my job or professional development. I miss the office spirit at times, but am also happy to come home and know I have the flexibility to work.
So, am I an extrovert again? I am not back to my normal self, I may not ever be unless I start working outside the home, but I will say that I am happier now and realizing that I am not the only socially awkward work-from-home person out there.
Angela Caban works from home as a freelance writer and Community Manager for USAA. Her husband is a Medic in the Army National Guard, and together they have two children. In 2010 she founded the Homefront United Network to help bridge the gap between National Guard, Reserve and Active families. She currently sits on the Advisory Board for the Milspo Project. She has a bachelors in Business Administration and a Masters in Human Resources. She lives in the beautiful Garden State of New Jersey, and enjoys spontaneous date nights in New York City with her husband.