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Candle and string lights in front of outdoor dinner party

Expert Source: Sandy Coughlin, creator of the Reluctant Entertainer blog and author of The Reluctant Entertainer: Every Woman’s Guide to Simple and Gracious Hospitality. 

Enjoying a meal with friends and family is supposed to help dust away life’s daily anxieties. But in a recent British survey, half of those questioned said throwing a dinner party is more stressful than going to work. A quarter of respondents found it more traumatic than sitting down for a job interview.

A significant share of that anxiety, according to author Sandy Coughlin, is rooted in self-consciousness. When we host, we worry about being judged. Is our furniture OK? Is the bathroom spotless? Will the food turn out?

Coughlin’s mission is to help people see event hosting as an opportunity to reconnect. “The real point of entertaining isn’t to display the perfection of your domestic arrangements or your party-hosting skill,” she says. “The main thing is making people feel warm and welcome in your home.”

Barriers to Overcome

  • Perfectionism. “People often feel that their house isn’t nice enough, they don’t have the right space for entertaining, their kids aren’t well behaved, whatever,” says Coughlin. “I think of perfectionism as the No. 1 source of entertaining stress.” Authenticity is way more fun.
  • Overpreparation. Readying your home for entertaining can plant unrealistic expectations that you need to clean absolutely every surface, polish the floors and maybe even paint the walls before you can have anybody over.
  • Fear of the unknown. Anxiety over whom to invite, the amount of food to prepare and how to keep the conversation flowing once the festivities begin can make the prospect of entertaining overwhelming.
  • Absent or bad role models. Many people are fearful of hosting, says Coughlin, “because they were simply never shown how. Maybe they didn’t have hospitable parents or their parents got so stressed out in party-throwing situations that they made entertaining seem forbidding.”

Strategies for Success

  • Keep it small and simple. People have different levels of comfort with entertaining, says Coughlin, and if throwing a huge holiday bash isn’t easy for you, invite a few friends over for tacos instead. You can work up to larger groups and more complex spreads as your comfort grows. Or not. (Try these prep-ahead recipes to bring some ease to your next holiday gathering.)
  • Clean selectively. Coughlin advocates for moderation. “You do not have to clean the whole house when guests come over,” she says. “Pick things up, wipe off the counters, clean one bathroom, have one entertaining space that you’ve made comfortable. Then shut the doors to the other rooms.”
  • Be a connector. Coughlin suggests building your guest list around the idea of who would enjoy meeting whom. Bringing people together who will enliven and inspire one another is the best way to help keep things lively, and almost guarantees your guests will have a good time.
  • Scale back the self-critique. “People are coming to your home to see you,” not to scrutinize the silverware or judge the wallpaper, says Coughlin. “They’re probably very grateful to be invited over.” When Coughlin attends a gathering, she’s so thrilled to be reconnecting with friends, “the last thing I’m going to do is criticize my hosts’ housekeeping.”
  • Know that guests empathize. Almost everyone has been in your shoes, so your guests will sincerely appreciate your efforts. If dinner doesn’t turn out or the dog keeps misbehaving, good friends will understand, not find you lacking.

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