Leave Your House, Change Your Life

How to Defeat "Front Door Syndrome"

If you’re anything like me, you find the idea of snuggling pretty pleasant. Snuggling with another person is nice, as is snuggling with the cat, a book, or a cushion on the sofa. All of these things—people, pets, cushions—can be pulled towards you as you hunker down for a blissful evening of doing nothing.

And nothing might be what you need to do, sometimes. After a day at work and a long commute, you might be too maxed out to do anything except talk to the cat. Time away from people, especially for introverts, can be rich and restorative.

The problem is that staying in can become a habit. The New York University sociologist Richard Sennett argues that more and more of us are staying in as a way of coping with stress. In the short term, the strategy works: an evening with the cat is very relaxing. In the long-term, though, staying in can leave us more isolated—and isolation then compounds the stress we’re trying to avoid.

Richard Sennett, describing our retreat inwards, uses the term “uncooperative.” He means that as we pull away from people in our social lives, we become more isolated and less responsive to others in our work environments and in our communities. (As an example of what Sennett calls the “uncooperative self,” you can think of the driver who sees you standing at the curb by a stop sign and then drives through, pretending not to see you.)

I think that lack of cooperation is a growing problem: I have been that pedestrian on the sidewalk many times. But this notion of lack of cooperation didn’t really capture the reluctance I felt when I thought about leaving the house. I had a different name for this unwillingness. I called it “Front Door Syndrome.”

It went like this: I’d get excited about a connection opportunity—say, an orientation session for new volunteers at Greenpeace. I’d write the date in my calendar. When the date arrived, I’d plan my route, fish out some subway tokens, and then…collapse on the sofa. The sofa would be extremely comfortable. Pretty soon, I’d have House of Cards up on Netflix, and the whole meeting would be more or less forgotten.

It’s easy to associate Front Door Syndrome with laziness or sluggishness. If you’re an introvert, you can compound the problem by thinking that if only you were more extroverted, you’d rally at the prospect of a new social situation. But everyone I spoke to over the course of my challenge—introverts and extroverts alike—initially had trouble getting out the door.

That’s okay. The main thing that we need to acknowledge about connecting more broadly is that, initially, it will seem a bit unnerving. If you’re an introvert who loves order and routine, changing your social patterns (even slightly) can feel downright alarming. You’re anticipating a new, possibly strange, set of experiences: meeting people you don’t know, possibly in an area of town that’s new to you, in a church basement, community center, or after-hours office building you’ve never been in before. No wonder you feel overwhelmed.

But here’s the most important thing to know: it’s only overwhelming in the beginning. The number of outings necessary to overcome Front Door Syndrome will vary from person to person, but it does dissolve. After even a couple of sessions with a new group, you’ll have a lot more information to draw on. You know who’ll be there; you’ll have figured out the meeting space; and you’ll have a sense of what’s about to unfold. Leaving the house will seem less daunting because you’ll know what to expect.

In my next blog post, I’ll be providing specific tips about how to handle Front Door Syndrome. But before you start responding to what might feel like a gigantic hurdle, you have to recognize that it’s normal to want to stay in. Then you have to put that reluctance in perspective. It’s not a sign that you’re doing anything wrong. It’s a natural reaction (especially for us introverts!) to the prospect of walking into a new social situation.

It’s important to push past this initial discomfort because if you do, you’ll reap some amazing rewards. I agree with Richard Sennett when he says that trying to avoid potentially stressful situations can, in the long run, leave us with more stress—because those new situations are where we find new friends, new ideas, and more social support.

I’m not suggesting that we need to be barreling out the door every evening. But the rewards that come from joining even one new group are too significant to ignore. And remember: that group is only new once. Pretty soon, you’ll be out on the sidewalk without even noticing that you’ve left the house—because you’re very much looking forward to seeing people you know and like, people who used to be strangers.