Managing Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety is a curious thing. It can range from nagging discomfort in social situations, to a debilitating disorder that can drastically impact your quality of life. Chances are that, like me, you fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe the thought of public speaking makes you want to crawl into a hole, or maybe networking events make you feel like an awkward cave dweller who’s just emerged into the daylight for the first time.
The truth is that social anxiety is a slippery thing. It’s been noted that it’s a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. If one of your parents is socially anxious then you have an increased chance of being anxious. This genetic contribution is compounded by the fact that if your parents are socially anxious then you’re less likely to have been exposed to experiences that would challenge your own tendencies towards anxiety.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social Anxiety covers a range of issues ranging from Glossophobia (the fear of public speaking), to general ‘performance anxiety’ which covers that feeling of awkwardness in regards to how we’re perceived. This can be triggered at a social event like a party or networking event, or in line at Starbucks before you need to place your order. The root of all of these issues is based on the perception that there’s a fatal flaw in us that other people are going to see. That our true flawed selved will be revealed and we’ll be left feeling embarrassed and rejected.
Four Categories of Social Anxiety.
Social Anxiety can be broken down into several categories. Ellen Hendriksen, author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety breaks them out as follows:
This is the negative self talk (and often anger) that comes up when we’re feeling self-conscious about our physical appearance. If a prominently placed pimple has absolutely ruined your day, or you’ve changed your pants five times before heading into the office then you’ve been impacted by this type of anxiety. This compulsion to fixate on an aspect of our physical appearance stems from a fear of being seen and judged those around use
The Symptoms of Anxiety.
This is the gnawing fear that people will notice how anxious you are. That your friends or colleagues will see that we’re not cool and collected. The fear here is that people are going to see that we’re weak. That we’ll be revealed as an anxious freak - scared and unable to do what others can seemingly do with ease. Some of the common physical symptoms of social anxiety that further perpetuate our own discomfort are:
Face and ears turning red
Sweating through shirts
Voice strained or trembling
This one is obvious, and a true horror for those who experience it. Networking events! Birthday Parties! First Dates! For some of us these events trigger an innate fear that the world will notice just how poor our social skills are. This is the fear that makes you feel isolated in a room full of people. Maybe you’re spending energy trying to look like you’re happily texting a friend while your mind is spiraling into negative self talk. You tell yourself that you’re boring, or not funny, not cool, and that no one really wants to talk to you.
Compounding on the other categories is character self-assassination. When we constantly audit ourselves and beat ourselves up with negative self talk. Maybe the voice in your head has told you that you’re stupid, or annoying, or incompetent. Or maybe you’ve told a story and then though “Why the hell did I just say that?!” These negative thoughts go beyond our fear of how others perceive us and instead imprint our own fear and criticism on ourselves.
What Can We Do To Combat Social Anxiety?
In many moderate cases of social anxiety there’s something that we can do to lessen the impact. In a socially anxious moment our attention turns inward to self monitoring and impression management. We fixate on what we’re going to say, what we’ve just said, or how we’re going to position our body to look more natural.This does nothing but leave us more tightly wound.
The tendency to replay the past, and to worry about upcoming moments consumes a vast amount of bandwidth leaving us drained with little left to actually be present in the situation we’re in. Below are some key techniques you can try in various situations to lessen the impact of social anxiety
Turn your attention outward
Instead of focusing on yourself and the voice in your head try to turn your attention outwards. If you’re talking with someone then be present to the situation and look at them intently. Listen to what you’re saying and practice your active listening skills. Don’t rehearse what you’re going to say while they’re talking. Listen to them with curiosity and respond when it feels natural. If you’re truly been listening to the other person rather than the voice in your head it may take a moment to compose your response once they’ve done talking, but it will be a truer, more natural response. If we focus on being genuinely interested rather than composed, that with time and practice that voice in your head will be less threatening.
Recognize and drop your ‘Safety Behaviours’
Safety behaviours are things we do in order to hide and protect ourselves when we’re anxious. Many are actions you take unconsciously, but becoming aware of them can help you become more in tune with yourself. We use these actions to artificially push down our anxiety and just get things over with. Some common behaviors are:
Talking quickly to get through a conversation or presentation
Deflecting questions away from yourself
Keeping personal stories private
Keeping your hands in your pockets
Drinking to relax
Sitting at the back of the class
Check your phone constantly
Structure Your Experience
As a socially anxious person your instinct may not be to throw a party, but in fact many people find that hosting a party is easier than going to one. The reason for this is what when hosting a party we have a role to play and we know just what we need to do - to make sure that people have a good time.This principle, of having a role to play in any given situation, can be applied to any social event that you attend.
By taking away the uncertainty around what you should do in a social situation you’ll be able to better focus on being present - executing on your goal, and turning your attention outwards to accomplish it.
Before going to an event set a goal for yourself that you think you can accomplish. If you’re going to a party set a goal of having a conversation with 2 new people. If you’re at a networking event you might say you’re going to exchange business cards with 4 people. Be the unofficial host of any party you’re at. By building a structure for yourself and setting goals you’ll, over time, learn to feel more relaxed in social situations.
Finally, in the words of Dr. David Burns - “dare to be average”. So much of social anxiety comes from this fear of how we present ourselves to the world. Fear that we’ll be seen and exposed as someone who just doesn’t fit in. The fact is that no one expects you to be witty, charming, perfect, or even competent all the time. The root of that pressure is internal and when you’re out in the world just dare to be yourself. Average, weird...whatever it may be - it’s sufficient.