Social anxiety develops when social situations trigger feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. When we fear others are going to judge and evaluate us in a negative light, we react by becoming self-conscious and internally preoccupied. This sequence often happens quickly and outside of our awareness. Before we know it, we are acting in ways to keep self-consciousness at bay by camouflaging our perceived inadequacies.
When we are not aware of our social anxiety, the mechanisms we use to prevent it can actually make it worse and lead us to judge ourselves even more harshly after an event. Here are four signs that the ways in which you are handling your social anxiety might actually be keeping you distant and disconnected from others:
1. The Life of the Party
Instead of having meaningful conversations with others and slowing down to hear and be heard, you dominate the event by being extra. Extra gregarious, extra drunk, extra silly. Whatever it is, it is not your true self, but a façade you are putting on to keep others from seeing the real you. Sure, people may think you are hilarious and a lot of fun, but over time it becomes exhausting for you to have to always perform when in a social situation. You may find eventually you avoid events, because you just don’t have the energy. And, too, it’s hard to have close relationships, because you never let people get to know the real you. Drop the “fun” persona, or at least decrease it. Try to talk and be serious with people during your next social encounter, even if only for part of the time.
2. The Over-Sharer
Some feel so preoccupied—“What do I talk about?” “What if there is awkward silence?” “What if I bore them?”—that they turn this anxiety into constant chatter. This person shares about their poorly behaved dog, their mentally disabled mom, their toxic romantic relationships. Nothing is off-limits. The person listening may be so overwhelmed that they can’t really process all of this, so again they don’t get to know or experience the real you. Next time you find yourself worrying about “What to talk about?” take a deep breath. Remind yourself you are not the only one responsible for coming up with things to say. The person you are speaking with has some responsibility too. And also, a few awkward silences are okay. Silence gives us time to really take in a person and a situation so we don’t fill the space with empty noise.
3. The Aloof, Mysterious Type
The guy or gal in the corner, not really talking or being particularly socially generous, attracts attention. People sometimes work hard to bring these types out of their shell. Their distance creates a mystery, causing some to want to try harder. However, the aloof, mysterious type is locked in a cage of their own making. They can’t share or be open or ask questions, because the anxiety paralyzes them. They stand still and let others do the work, because then they are safe and never have to put themselves out there and risk being judged. If you are the aloof, mysterious type, recognize that others are doing all the work. Eventually, they are going to give up. You want a connection, so start with small steps. When you feel frozen, force yourself to make eye contact and ask questions of others. Reflect back what you hear others saying.
4. The Accommodator
Instead of sitting with the awkwardness and anxiety of not knowing people or feeling uncomfortably new to a situation, the accommodator over-functions. They agree or volunteer themselves to do too much. The accommodator volunteers to host, drive, check everyone in, make the reservation, help people to their car, carry people’s purses, help mediate the drama, manage payment for the bill…. If you are an accommodator, no one knows anything about you except that you are overwhelmingly helpful. As magnanimous as being helpful is, it is not enough for forging fulfilling connections with others. Next time, notice when you have the ongoing urge to be helpful or do more. Instead of gratifying the urge, breathe in and out. Let it pass, so you can see what else is there, what else you want to share or experience about yourself in the presence of others.
All of these styles tend to take us away from what truly builds meaningful connection and makes others want to be around us: being present and bringing our real selves to the table. Before you enter your next social situation, take some time to consider your social anxiety and how it may manifest in ways that are self-defeating to your social goals. Drop the façade. Welcome the anxiety. Tolerate it; don’t act on it. Tell yourself: “If I give it space, this anxious moment will pass.” Instead of trying to be perfect, just be present, even if it means you have a bit of anxiety. In my book, Be Calm, I offer proven strategies to stop anxiety on the spot.
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