How to survive high school as an introvert

Transitioning from the teeny tiny parochial school I’d attended for nine years of my life to my slightly-larger parochial high school was a huge deal for me. None of my friends had accompanied me to this new world, and three years of middle school drama (some of which I had been the victim of and some I had actually started) had left me awkward and shy. I thought that no one could possibly want to be my friend, and that I was doomed to be labeled a “loser” forever more.

As an introvert, the thought of spending four years surrounded by people I didn’t know terrified me. But have hope, my fellow coy introverts! I’m happy to report that I wasn’t actually doomed to lonely loserdom. But I did have to work through some fears to actually enjoy high school, and you will too. I’ve had three and a half years of navigating lunch tables and friend groups, fretting over projects, and trying to figure out which clubs and sports to join. However, I also discovered some new passions, had a lot of fun, and most importantly, learned to accept myself. Here’s my advice for overcoming your fears of socializing — without trying to be someone you’re not.

Don’t be scared of joining clubs and sports teams.

Everyone tells shy kids going into new schools to join after school activities. However, they usually don’t realize how stressful that is to do. For example, fun fact: I was so nervous in the car on my way to my first cross country practice that I almost told my mom to turn around. But then I realized I’d be giving up something potentially fun over a fear of making a fool of myself. The worst thing that could happen is that I’d make a bad first impression or end up not liking running.

With this in mind, I actually got myself to go to the practice, and ended up falling in love with running and actually met some people whom I sat at lunch with during the first week of school. These people ended up becoming my best friends. So yeah, it’s going to feel super terrifying at first, but join the school newspaper or the cheerleading squad or even the cross country team; just something that you are genuinely interested in doing. You don’t have to be amazing at it, just being in a group of people will give you a higher chance of making some new friends.

The lunch room is not like the one in Mean Girls.

As I said before, I was lucky and met some girls through cross country that I sat at lunch with. But I still have had semesters in which I had no friends in my lunch period. There are only a few times when I have felt more uncomfortable. It is terrible walking through the cafeteria, hoping SOMEONE will take pity on you and wave you over. Sometimes that happens, but when it doesn’t, you have two choices: you can hide in the bathroom, or you could approach a table. If you’re the new girl, just go up to the friendliest looking group of people and ask to eat at their table. Unless they are complete jerks they won’t say no; and who would want to spend half an hour with jerks anyway? If you participate in the table’s conversation, find things you have in common with the people sitting there, and feel genuinely comfortable, great! If not, don’t feel obligated to sit there again. Keep trying different tables until you find one that fits you.

If you have a situation similar to mine and are separated from your already-established friend group, don’t panic! Try to look for an acquaintance from a class. You will already know their name and a little bit about them, which greatly reduces any feelings of anxiety that you may have. If no one seems familiar, again, just try and look for someone friendly. If, after all this, you still can’t deal with the cafeteria scene, look for groups of people who don’t eat lunch in the cafeteria. I spent a few semesters eating lunch in my school’s bookstore and actually made quite a few friends who also weren’t fans of the loud and slightly frightening cafeteria. Also, keep in mind it’s just lunch. It’s 30 to 45 minutes of your day, and it in no way defines how well liked or cool you are.

Group projects are the worst, but you can get through them.

Ah, the group project. Some people actually enjoy these. They can be fun…if it’s on a fun topic and you’re working with your friends and each person actually does their fair share of work. But alas, they don’t usually end up that way. You’re frequently assigned to work with people whom you’ve never really spoken to before or who don’t pull their share of the weight. Or, possibly even worse, you’re told to pick a partner in a class in which you have no friends at all, leaving you in possibly the most awkward position of all time. In both situations, try to suppress your shyness (or your lack of motivation to talk to other people) and speak up.

If you feel like you’re doing too much of the work, try and ask the individual you’re most comfortable with in the group for help. It’s a lot less scary to approach one person than an entire group of people. Just calmly ask if they mind giving you a hand on one part of the project that you’re struggling with. Remember, the fact that it’s a GROUP project makes them obligated to help you. If you need to find a partner and can’t find a friendly face, pick someone who seems not too intimidating and ask to work with them. You may feel a 100% certain they’ll say no, but all the times I’ve done this, no one’s rejected me yet. Just go up to them, smile, and say “hey, my name is *blank*; do you mind if I work with you?” If, in the EXTREMELY unlikely event they say no, just keep smiling and say “alright, I’ll try to find someone else” and then repeat.If you just step outside your comfort zone for a little while, you’ll feel a lot better in the long run AND get a good grade.

Public speaking is completely terrifying, and everyone agrees.

I’m taking a public speaking class this semester, and my teacher told us on the first day that public speaking is one of the most common fears. “In fact,” he said, “some people would rather face death than have to give a speech in front of an audience.” With all the presentations I’ve had to give in high school, I can confirm this to be true, at least for me. When I gave my first real speech in tenth grade, my hands were shaking so much that I almost dropped my index cards. I could also feel my face heating up as I stuttered over simple words. Needless to say, I was a nervous wreck.

Thankfully, I have gotten better at giving presentations in front of large groups of people. I pretend that I’m having a conversation explaining something to my brother or my parents — basically, someone I feel comfortable with. If your hands shake like mine, try to keep them grounded on a podium if there’s one available. If there isn’t, just use your hands to point at graphs or to make gestures. Also, don’t try to imagine anyone in their underwear; it just makes it ten times more awkward.

While all these things I’ve learned are very useful, I have to say the most comforting thing I’ve learned is that fact about many people preferring danger to public speaking, which I can confirm to be 100% true for other people as well. I’ve seen confident, popular kids stumble and blush just as much as me while giving presentations. It’s a fear a lot of people relate to, so people are less likely to judge you if you’re a little nervous. To keep it simple, the best advice I can give you is to be really prepared, act confident, and make eye contact with people (for only a few seconds!) around the room. You got this!

You don’t have to like partying to hang out with other people.

I feel like every movie set in a high school EVER shows kids only hanging out together at some loud party where nobody really knows each other. Gatherings like these do exist, but you don’t have to pretend to enjoy them or even attend them at all to spend time with your friends. A Netflix marathon or baking cookies with a few girlfriends can be just as fun, or even more fun than attending a party.

That being said, not all parties have to fall into the category of loud and overcrowded. Dinner parties with wacky dishes, tea parties where everyone is dressed to the nines, and even tried and true  slumber parties can be a quieter and more enjoyable substitute. It allows you to do the stuff you love or want to try while connecting with people; all the while in an environment you’re comfortable with. Just figure out what type of gathering works for you and your friends, and remember that hanging out isn’t supposed to be stressful. If it is, either pick a new activity, or try to find some new friends who share your love of quiet nights in.

Don’t overdo it.

This is possibly the most important piece of advice I can give you. LEAVE SOME TIME FOR YOU TO UNWIND. Introverts get their energy from alone time, so it is necessary for you to have some quiet time. This doesn’t mean you have to sit alone in your room in the dark or something. Go outside for walk, go shopping, visit the library, or volunteer at a pet shelter. Just do something that makes you feel relaxed so you don’t have the urge to bite someone’s head off the next time you go to school. It’s really simple but vitally important that you do this for your own mental health.

High school is scary for us introverts at first, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. I often feel as if I am the most awkward person on the planet, but I still pulled off being involved in my school, and acquired a great group of friends along the way. From what I’ve experienced and observed, as long as you are true to yourself and kind to others, you WILL make friends, you WILL have someone to sit with at lunch, and you WILL find your niche. Unfortunately, you WILL also have some hard times when you feel like you’re alone in the world. But it’s the tough times that make you realize you’re not ever truly alone, and that there are people who care about you. All it takes to survive your years of adolescent education is a little faith and a little courage. You’ll do just fine, I promise.

Catherine Olsen is just your average, quirky teen obsessed with her Norwegian heritage, Audrey Hepburn, long distance running, history, vegetarian and lactose free baking, and of course, HelloGiggles. You can follow her on Twitter and on Tumblr.

(Image via here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)