Does Social Anxiety Keep You from Fully Enjoying Life?
Sharon would later cheerfully admit that she had been dreading meeting me; but for now, it was still a sickening nightmare.
Social anxiety is more than just shyness. Just thinking about meeting or mingling with others can cause a pounding heart, shaky voice, rapid breathing, sweating, blushing, an upset stomach… It’s no wonder it sometimes feels easier to avoid other people completely.
For Sharon, even seeing people she’d met many times before – such as family, friends, and colleagues – felt like an ordeal imagined by the Spanish Inquisition. Actually, it was curious:
“I’m okay in a work context or when things are a bit more formal. I know what to talk about. But as soon as it’s kind of unorganized – you know, just mixing with other people – I go to pieces. It’s like I need a well-defined focus or I panic!”
Social anxiety spoils life by getting in the way of what should be fun opportunities to connect with others. Crippling self-consciousness, nervousness, not knowing what to say: all add to the unpleasant mix.
Yes, most people get a little self-conscious at times or feel somewhat shy around others, but social anxiety significantly worsens the quality of life. When you become more confident socially, you open the door to so much – new job opportunities, new friendships, and, of course, more fun.
How do I get rid of social anxiety?
It will come as no surprise that the key is in learning to relax in social situations. When you feel calmer socially, thoughts like: “What do I say next?” disappear. You go into flow and allow conversation to take its own natural path, without feeling you have to force it.
And that horrible feeling of ’all eyes on me‘ fades as it starts to feel much less important if others are focusing on you or not.
The following tips for social confidence will help you feel more relaxed when out with others and allow you to begin your journey from being socially anxious to being the confident person you really can be.
1) Practice being relaxed
Not many people think of worrying as self-programming, but it is. When you worry intensely about upcoming social situations, you are repeatedly linking anxiety to the events. Then when you actually go into the social situation itself, you feel anxious – you’ve programmedyourself to feel this way.
You can start to change this response by taking time to think about the future gathering whilst relaxed – maybe when sitting in a comfortable chair or relaxing in a warm bath. Imagine seeing yourself at the social event, looking relaxed and confident. Do this repeatedly and your body and mind will forge a new and better automatic association to these times.
2) Seek out social situations
Imagine living in a house for thirty years, but always avoiding one room. When you finally ventured into the mysterious room, you might feel a little tense and anxious. Why?
The more we avoid something, the more we send the message to the unconscious mind: “I am avoiding this because it is dangerous.” Your mind, trying to be helpful, builds up the fear of what it is you’re avoiding even more. In nature, we avoid a clump of trees because it might have lions in it or we avoid cliff edges because falling off means death.
We avoid what frightens us and, in return, are frightened by what we avoid. So start actively putting yourself in social situations. In fact, even imagining doing this, as well as doing it for real will help show your unconscious mind: “This is normal.” (See Tip 1)
3) Focus your attention outward
Studies have found that people who rate themselves as shy in social settings have much worse recall for external environmental details because they’ve been looking inward (focusing on their feelings), not outward. So it makes sense to focus outward to lower anxiety. When in social settings, make a mental note of three aspects of the situation you’re in.
- The colour of the furniture.
- Any pictures on the walls and their subjects.
- What clothes other people are wearing (I must confess I never recall that).
This might seem strange, but it will get you accustomed to focusing away from yourself – which is, after all, the purpose of social situations.
Another way to cultivate outward focus is to ask questions. Social anxiety has us worrying what other people think of us, so focus on other people instead. Be curious. Ask people open-ended questions that require more than just a “yes” or “no” answer. Make a point of remembering what they say and referring back to it later to demonstrate your interest. Again, this forces your focus of attention to shift outward. It’s also nice for other people, meaning you might accidentally make more friends as a ’by-product‘ of this strategy.
Now, overcoming social anxiety is as much about stopping doing certain things as it is about doing new things, so…
4) Use care in how you use your imaginative mind
Your imagination is a wonderful thing. Used constructively, it can be a massive help (see Tip 1 above). But social anxiety often has you using it to scare yourself. This is like using a hammer (a potentially useful tool) to wash the dishes.
Years of public speaking taught me that trying to imagine what people are thinking of you is a big no-no. If you catch yourself ‘mind-reading’, tell yourself the truth: “Look, I really don’t – and can’t – know what these other people are thinking right now!” Ultimately, we caninfluence what others think of us, but we can never control it. And as you become more socially confident, you’ll care less anyway.
To change any behaviour, your mind needs positive instructions. Don’t think: “I hope I don’t feel terrified as usual!” – this is like someone asking you directions by telling you where theydon’t want to end up. Instead, ask yourself: “How do I want to feel in these situations?” And get into the habit of focusing on that.
Find your ‘target feeling’ by looking to times when you are comfortable with others (say, old friends or trusted family members). Then you can use these situations as templates for preparing your mind to perform the way you want in social situations.
To do this, close your eyes and get yourself nice and relaxed. Take time to remember how it feels to be with these familiar people until you get a strong feeling of comfort. Imagine seeing yourself in a formerly less comfortable social situation, but behaving like you do with your trusted friends. This sort of mental rehearsal is extremely powerful and can make a massive difference over time.
5) On being yourself
Part of social anxiety treatment involves teaching people to be relaxed enough to be able to present a less-than-perfect image. That’s right; people who are relaxed about sometimesmaking a ’bit of a fool of themselves‘ tend to be much more socially confident. There’s no need for you to become a party buffoon, but being prepared to show a less-than-perfect side of yourself is a sign of great confidence. For example, being humorous is a (slight) risk because it might just produce a stony silence (it’s happened to me – no, really!).
The point is that social anxiety gets us caring too much about what others think. Trying to present a perfect front makes us stilted by driving out spontaneity.
Typical self-conscious thoughts are:
- “I hope no one notices I’m tense.”
- “What if people think I’m stupid?!”
- “Who would want to hear anything I have to say?”
- “I think I’m coming across as a weirdo!”
These all imply that occasional tenseness, weirdness, and inappropriate speech are somehow out of the norm for human interaction. Believe me, they’re not (even, I’m sure, inside Buckingham Palace!).
Worrying about ever ’putting a foot wrong‘ is a form of perfectionism. Being a perfectionist is fine when doing surgery, but not for meeting the in-laws or going to that neighbour’s party. Even socially confident people occasionally act a little weird or get the wrong end of a conversation or feel flustered. The difference is, they relax with these things when they dohappen.
I worked with Sharon for seven weeks. At the end of that time, she invited me to a party with her husband. We had a real laugh and I could see she was relaxed and having a fun time with many people she’d never even met before (and without too much booze).
I liken overcoming social anxiety to rubbing the rust off a valuable ornament. It may take a little while, but soon enough, the real beauty is evident and things become what they were supposed to be all along.