- Sometimes what people label as "social anxiety" is actually a reasonable way of being.
- Most social anxiety comes from unrealistic expectations of ourselves or those of people with whom we're interacting.
- Different tactics are needed depending on whether that social anxiety is based on reasonable or unreasonable expectations.
Everyone gets nervous in some social situations — perhaps a first date, an important meeting, or giving a presentation. But when the fear extends to avoiding or being too quiet with other people, and it’s lasted for months or longer, it’s often termed “social anxiety disorder” or “social phobia disorder.”
But “social anxiety” is like a headache: The cure depends on the cause.
Perhaps it’s not a disorder but a reasonable way to be.
It’s possible that what some people label as “social anxiety disorder” is a sensible approach to interaction.
For example, a reasonable basis for accepting yourself as quiet rather than pathologized as socially phobic is to realize that wise people may choose to remain silent when they perceive the risk-reward ratio to be poor: that their idea needs more work, would sidetrack the discussion, or be better expressed later, perhaps in writing or in a subsequent meeting.
Another sensible rationale for remaining quiet is if you believe it’s wiser or kinder to listen and learn than to speak and regurgitate: By listening attentively, you’ve given the other person the opportunity to express and further develop their thoughts—talking can clarify. When I’ve worried that I haven’t provided a client with enough input, I’ve sometimes gotten a reassuring thank-you for having listened carefully.
But if you perceive your anxiety about social situations to be unhealthy, it usually derives from the fear that you’ll fail to meet either realistic expectations or unrealistic ones. Here are approaches to each.
When you’re unlikely to meet realistic expectations
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may not achieve what you’d hoped to, but these strategies can help you improve for the future.
Be better prepared. For example, if you’re scared about an upcoming meeting, would it help to make an extra effort in preparing for it, whether by reading, writing, or talking with someone? If you’re nervous about a first date, prepare a couple of conversation starters such as, “What do you enjoy doing for fun?” or “Do you want to tell me about your family?” Be prepared to answer those questions yourself.
Accept your right to be flawed. Realize that you have a right to speak your truth even if imperfect or not well-received.
When expectations are unreasonable
More often, social anxiety is caused by unreasonable expectations. One or more of these may help:
Self-reflection by thinking or journaling. You might explain to yourself why your anxiety is undue. For example, “Whatever the flaws in what I say, they’re unlikely to be deal-killers.”
If you’d like to look for other roots of your social anxiety, list significant recent or past interactions with your parents, siblings, friends, romantic partners, boss, coworkers, and clerics. For each, ask yourself if any are causing your current social anxiety. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from that review.
Progressive exposure. Below, derived from a Mayo Clinic list, are some social activities that are less challenging than, for example, going to a party. List them in ascending order from least to most scary to you. Then try the first one and progress to others when you feel ready.
- At home, eat with someone you trust. Make eye contact and small talk, even just, “How was your day?”
- Try the above in a restaurant.
- Say hello to someone who’s not too scary: for example, a friendly coworker or perhaps the person next to you in line at the supermarket.
- Give a compliment, such as, “Your scarf is pretty.”
- Ask a store clerk where some product is located.
- Ask a friend to get together. When you do, have something to say at the ready: for example, what you did today, are looking forward to, or are thinking about.
General stress reducers
Remind yourself that you’ll survive. Just before you’re about to begin a scary interaction, remind yourself that you can survive even saying something stupid, perhaps cutting your losses with something like, “Excuse me, I misspoke.”
Take a special breath. Then, and again later, if you start to feel stressed, take one special breath: breathe in slowly, hold for a moment, and then breath out even more slowly.
See a cognitive-behavioral therapist?
If the above hasn’t sufficiently helped, consider having some sessions with a cognitive-behavioral therapist. They tend to be effective in helping phobic people. You can find a therapist near you on Psychology Today’s Therapist Directory.
Social anxiety usually comes down to a fear of not meeting expectations, your own or those of the people with whom you’ll be interacting. That’s why even socially anxious people tend to be less fearful when interacting with children, developmentally disabled people, or pets. But the good news is that social phobia, indeed all phobias, are among the most ameliorable of emotional problems.
I read this aloud on YouTube.