Four Strategies to Help Conquer Social Anxiety

Whether chronic or fleeting, social anxiety can be life limiting.

Posted Feb 25, 2018

David Goehring/Flickr
Source: David Goehring/Flickr

If you’ve been following the discussion on introversion here (and there, and everywhere), you already know that introversion is not social anxiety. Social anxiety is fear of social interaction. Introversion is low motivation to seek it out. Social anxiety can be overcome. Introversion doesn’t need to be.

But of course, you can be a socially anxious introvert, and in this post we’ll talk about that, as well as the kind of social anxiety that bubbles up in all of us from time to time. We might suffer bouts of social anxiety around specific events or people or because we’re just feeling fragile at the moment.

I sometimes think introverts might be generally vulnerable to social anxiety because we often feel pressure—internally or from others—to behave counter to our nature. If we choose not to work the room, we are considered to have “failed” by some measures. Is it any wonder, then, that we sometimes anticipate social events—opportunities to fail—with anxiety?

Whether you suffer from chronic or fleeting bouts of social anxiety, psychologist Ellen Hendriksen’s thoughtful and engaging new book, How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, has tools and strategies to manage it. And yes, that means moving out of your safety zone and doing things that scare you—until they don’t. “You become less anxious by living your life,” Hendriksen says.

Genuine social anxiety develops when we start protecting ourselves from the moment-by-moment panics of social interaction through avoidance, which can be anything from turning down invitations to burying your face in your phone or lingering on the fringes at social gatherings.

However, the only way to transcend those moment-by-moment panics is by mindfully taking them on, over and over, until we learn that the world is generally safe. So yeah, it’s one of those “face your fear” things. Which is never very appealing. But to get you started, here are four concepts and strategies for understanding and managing social anxiety, chronic or fleeting.

1. Social anxiety is fear of “The Reveal.”

At the root of social anxiety is the fear of "the Reveal of some perceived fatal flaw,” says Hendriksen.

Often we worry about our appearance and the possibility that we will look as anxious as we feel. “You might worry that people will see you sweat through your shirt or turn red, or your voice will tremble."

Or the fear may be deeper. “We also worry that we will be revealed as having deficient social skills. That we’re boring or have no personality or we don’t make any sense. We worry we might jump from topic to topic, spew word salad, not be funny or cool, and no one will want to hang out with us.”

Or, Hendriksen says, deeper yet, we might fear “our whole personality is somehow deficient.”

Managing your social anxiety requires first figuring out what you consider your fatal flaw, what you fear will be revealed. I'd wager that the flaw you fear exposing is not a fraction as bad as you imagine it is, and that it's surely not fatal. 

2. Social anxiety tells you two big lies.

“Social anxiety makes us think the worst-case scenario is definitely going to happen,” says Hendriksen. But that’s a lie. The reality is that worst-case scenarios don’t happen often, and that the world is generally benign. 

To refute this lie, first imagine that worst-case scenario. Specifically. In detail. “If you can drill down and try to figure out exactly what you’re afraid of, what’s going to be revealed, then it’s easier to argue with,” Hendriksen says. “It’s harder to argue with the foggy mirage of fear.” By envisioning the exact threat, you can assess how likely it really is.

And then, don’t believe lie number two: that if the worst-case happened, you wouldn’t be able to handle it. Because you would. Believe it or not, embarrassment is rarely, if ever, fatal. Have you ever seen someone spill a drink in a restaurant and as a result immediately burst into flames? In fact, you might find that even if you do have moments when you fumble and bumble, people will find it endearing rather than ridiculous.

The best way to push back on these lies is getting out in the world and practicing. “When we avoid, we don’t get to refute these two things. We don’t get the experience to know that most people are nice, bad things don’t usually happen, people are happy to be helpful. Not all the time, but most of the time. And yes, bad things might happen, but we can handle it. We’re capable of handling interactions with our fellow humans.”

3. Your safety behaviors don’t work.

“Oftentimes we think that how we feel is how we look. If we feel anxious, we must be wearing that on our sleeve,” says Hendriksen. “But that is usually not true. Anxiety, while it feels very conspicuous, is not particularly visible on the outside.”

What is visible, however, are our “safety behaviors—the things we do to artificially tamp down anxiety. Things like scrolling through our phones, staring at the floor, speaking very quietly. These things make us feel better, but they actually also make us look a little odd. “They’re the life preserver that actually holds you underwater.”

Forcing yourself to drop your safety behaviors—put away the phone, look up, join the group instead of hovering around the edges—will not only make you feel less anxious, but you’ll find people enjoy your company more.

4. Social anxiety is in your head.

Yes, yes, obviously. But also in a less-obvious way. Because the more your attention is turned inward, the more power you give it.

“If our attention is focused inward, we might be thinking ‘she probably thinks I’m an idiot,’ or ‘she just shifted in her seat, does that mean she’s bored?’ We have this internal play-by-play of how things are going,” says Hendriksen. “But since we’re asking our anxiety how things are going, it always answers, ‘badly.’”

And all that internal processing and monitoring “takes up all our bandwidth and leaves very little for actually interacting. Too much bandwidth to not spill our drink or trip over our feet.” In other words, worrying about the things that can go wrong might actually contribute to things going wrong.

Fortunately, we have control over where we focus our attention. “If we turn our attention outward, focus on what’s happening around us, magically a lot of that bandwidth gets freed up and fills up with natural curiosity—what interests us, what questions we want to ask—and our own authenticity.”

Try this little experiment today: Have two conversations. In one, focus your attention inward. Monitor your body. Think about what you should say. In the next conversation, focus outward. “Now ask yourself which conversation was more pleasant, more productive,” Hendriksen says. “Which did you enjoy more?”

These tips of course just scratch the surface of the problem if you suffer from life-inhibiting social anxiety. You can learn more in Hendriksen’s book, and if you are truly suffering, the best course is talking to a professional who specializes in anxiety disorders.

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