In my previous blog post, I talked a bit about what social anxiety is and the many strengths that people prone to social anxiety often show. I recommend reading that post first, but as a little re-cap, people who develop social anxiety are often highly compassionate, conscientious and creative. They tend to feel deeply which can either lead to anxiety or an ability to creatively explore their world with curiosity. What stands in the way of the latter is an intense fear that they are not good enough. The following details some strategies to move past that fear while maintaining the many strengths.
How to Hold on to the Good Traits of Social Anxiety and Work Towards Growth
1. Get out of your own head and turn your attention outward
When we feel socially anxious, we tend to turn inward and start monitoring ourselves. Thoughts like “why did I just say that” or “what if I just offended her” circle around and around in our heads and take up all our mental energy so we often then freeze and can’t think of anything to say.
When you notice this happening, turn your attention outward. Focus on who you’re talking to and listen closely to what they’re saying. This takes our focus away from what we think we’ve done wrong and frees up our mental capacity to be able to engage in the conversation with natural curiosity. Studies show that doing this dramatically increases a person’s likability, and also calms anxiety.
2. Expose yourself to social situations and allow confidence to catch up with you
Don’t wait until you feel ready to give that toast or attend that party, usually when we start doing something, our mood follows – you’re more adaptable than you think. If it doesn’t go well the first time, keep practicing, if you persevere, the skill and confidence will catch up with you.
This allows you to refute the two lies your anxiety tells you:
1. The worst-case scenario will definitely happen
2. You can’t handle what life throws at you
When we face social fears, we learn that we can live through it and it’s never as bad as we think.
tip: sign up for an introductory improv class. In improv there is no script and you’re put in a situation where you’re forced to make mistakes in front of others. Sounds terrifying right? I thought so too so I tried it at the height of my social anxiety and it ended up being surprisingly safe. At first it felt embarrassing but then I realized everyone else was being embarrassed too. Improv helps us to develop the skills to navigate unstructured social situations that cause anxiety in the real world.
3. If you drink at a social engagement, do it because you want to, not because you have to
A lot of people drink to make themselves feel more confident in social engagements; after all, it is called “liquid courage.” The problem is that if you do have a good time while drinking, the tendency is to give the alcohol the credit, not you. In reality, that person who was having a good time navigating an otherwise anxiety-provoking situation was you without inhibition. You have that confidence within yourself and you can access it with practice facing you fears, you don’t need the alcohol.
4. Dare to Be Average (Dr. David Burns)
A lot of anxiety comes from our belief that we need to be perfect in social situations. We believe that if we stumble over our words or pause in a conversation, people will see our flaws and reject us. There’s a whole list of “musts” that come with that belief:
-“I must be entertaining”
-“I must sound smart”
-“I must carry the conversation for both of us”
Everyone pauses in conversations, loses their train of thought and says something awkward from time to time, it makes us human and it’s endearing. Dr. David Burns encourages us to “dare to be average.” He reminds us that people are attracted to people who own their averageness because most of us are average. It’s relatable, it’s honest and it’s human. As Dr. Kristin Neff says, “we’re all on this long, awkward journey together,” if you’ve experienced an embarrassing moment, a million other people have had that same embarrassing moment – you’re not alone.
5. Create structure for yourself in social engagements
Simon Thompson and Ronald M. Rapee (2002) found that in structured social interactions, people with social anxiety showed a much higher level of social skill than in unstructured social engagements. Dealing with the unpredictable creates anxiety for many people so next time you’re in an anxiety-provoking social setting, create structure for yourself. Dr. Hendricks suggests giving yourself little missions at parties such as taking to 3 people you don’t know and finding out as much as you can about them. This creates some predictability and some direction in the social interaction.
6. Dr. Hendrickson’s Tips for Making New friendships
A) Repetition – Show up!
It takes an average of 6 hangouts for someone to consider a person a friend. Many people with social anxiety become discouraged when they work up the courage to go to a social engagement and don’t come away with a new friend. But in reality, this almost never happens for anyone. The way to make new friends is to keep showing up and to see the same people over and over again. Some options might be joining a fitness class with consistent members, dropping the kids off at school and saying hello to the same parents each day or going to a café at the same time each day.
Many people with social anxiety have trouble talking about themselves for a variety of reason that may feel really valid after past hurts. Dr. Hendrickson urges us to push through and to gradually share a bit about what you think, feel and do with a person you want to be friends with. Friendships are reciprocal, so gradually the other person will begin to share about themselves as well. People are generally interested in what the world looks like from another’s point of view.
C) Just be kind
Many people think they need to appear confident and competent in order to make friends. People are drawn to warmth, kindness and trustworthiness. You don’t have to appear confident, just be nice and curious.
7. Practice self-compassion
Shame feeds social anxiety, but if you can think about yourself in the same way you’d think about another person you care about, it will help you to forgive yourself when you make a social blunder that feels so painful and isolating. Dr. Kristin Neff has an amazing website full of free exercises to help build self-compassion. My favourite is the self-compassion break which is a guided mindfulness exercise that takes only 5 minutes.
Find the exercises here: https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises
Social anxiety can be completely unbearable and painful and so it can be hard take any of the above steps on your own. A counsellor can help work with you, at a pace that feels safe for you, to remove the blocks of shame and fear that are inhibiting you from living the life you want to live. If you’re struggling please don’t hesitate to reach out to a counsellor who can help you with this. You’re too important to deprive the world of getting to know you.
Burns, D. D. (2008). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper: New York.
Hendrickson, E. (2018). How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social
Anxiety. St. Martin’s Press: New York.
Moscovitch, D. A. (2009). What Is the Core Fear in Social Phobia? A New Model to Facilitate
Individualized Case Conceptualization and Treatment. Cognitive and Behavioural Practice, 16, 123-124. Available from https://uwaterloo.ca/psychology/sites/ca.psychology/files/uploads/files/moscovitch_2009.pdf
Neff, K. (2018). Self-Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/
Richards, T. A. (2018). What is social anxiety? Social Anxiety Institute. Retrieved from https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/what-is-social-anxiety
Thompson, S., & Rapee, R. M. (2002). The effect of situational structure on the social performance of socially anxious and non-anxious participants. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 33(2), 91-102. DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7916(02)00021-6