How to Deal with Approach Anxiety
Wayne Elise on how to overcome approach anxiety.
Posted Apr 11, 2008
If you suffer from clinical approach anxiety, go see a therapist who can prescribe the appropriate drugs, or take you back to 1984. I can't help. I'm more of a mechanic of human interaction. Thankfully I'm the type of grease monkey most people need. That's because most people suffer from non-clinical approach anxiety—a common sort of thing that frustrates us, and prevents us from approaching a stranger we want to get to know. Most of us can function normally day to day, but when we see someone attractive across a crowded room... ZONK! We become locked into a catatonic state I call FGB, Frozen Guy Behavior or Frozen Girl Behavior.
FGB happens to everyone. Maybe it's happening to you right now as you read this on your laptop at Starbucks. See that pretty girl? Go talk to her. See what I mean? ZONK!
A couple of years ago I was being interviewed by a good-looking, cocky television reporter who worked for the program Inside Edition. She wanted to know about the coaching I did with men who wanted to get better at meeting and connecting with women. After listing the trophies on her mantle, she got around to asking me a couple of questions. "So what's wrong with these loser guys you're teaching?" she asked. "Why are they afraid to talk to girls?"
That's when I grabbed the microphone (wrestled it away, more like it) and said, "See that hunky guy over there?" I pointed out some poor soul, minding his own business, eating lunch on a curb. "Go talk to him and make him like you. But no camera, no microphone, no reporter-credential."
You can probably guess what happened next. ZONK! She couldn't do it. She was frozen. There are people just like her all over America and the UK and Australia. They're not losers. They're regular people frozen with the anxiety that comes from initiating an interaction with a stranger. We're all afraid of rejection and the unknown. If you look closely, you can spot FGBers everywhere. It's as if the J.-crew mannequins have been allowed out of the store.
Ask a person on the street what to do about the fear of approaching a hottie in a bar and you'll likely get a lecture on how easy it is to meet people. "Just get drunk," advises my brother-in-law Andy. "Worked for me." For the record, Andy is getting married in a few weeks to a great girl so maybe he's onto something. But I can't help thinking it's not realistic to be drunk all day. And like all of the popular cures for FGB, it's not based on awakening people to action, but on seeking to avoid that feeling of fear.
Avoiding fear is profitable business. People spend wads of cash trying to drink the courage they think they need to talk to people in a bar. Some estimates indicate that if people stopped relying on alcohol to hook up, the beer and wine industry would lose 95 percent of its business, and nightclubs would have to close their doors. Okay, those are my personal estimates, but you get the point. People are looking for courage in a bottle, or in a pill or in voodoo. Maybe you've heard of NLP. Neuro Linguistic Programming is a pseudo science (my opinion) that single men take courses on in order to trick their minds into being unafraid to talk to pretty girls. They use flash cards of bunny rabbits and leggy models. Voodoo I say. Waste of your time, money and good intelligence.
OK, now I'm going to tell you what I think you ought to do about approach anxiety. Nothing. That's right. Nothing. The problem is not the anxiety. The problem is the lack of action. If you experience FGB, don't look for a way to magically reduce your fear. Instead, I want you to do something revolutionary that most "experts" would never recommend. I want you to suck it up and go talk to that hot guy or girl anyway. See the hottie, feel the fear, go approach anyway, act nervous and stupid, be rejected (maybe), chalk a victory up to action, become better at tackling a fear.
Over the next month I want you to develop the habit of confronting fear. It's my opinion that the human body needs fear. You may not have noticed, but on the government's chart of recommended daily allowance of essential vitamins and minerals, just under Vitamin E and above Folic acid, is Vitamin F for fear. A healthy person has a bit of fear in their lives every day. Without fear, you're not challenging yourself and growing. You have your choice—I'm prescribing ten minutes of apprehension or two minutes of utter terror, every day.
I want you to develop the habit of taking action in the face of fear. Go toward the dark, scary thing. Everyone should have a fear-confronting ritual they perform every day. One of my fear-approaching rituals is riding my Vespa in Los Angeles traffic. Yours can be approaching and talking to strangers. If you're afraid of that, you're lucky. You have something convenient on which to sharpen your habit of confronting fear.
During your daily life, seek out the people you're hesitant to interact with. I'll give you an example. One spring day, I was walking through New York's Central Park. The sun was shining and people were laughing and playing. A sparrow chirped on the path ahead. And that's when I spotted them. Two old ladies sitting on a park bench. Bump-a-bum-mm (dramatic music). Without knowing how I knew, I knew they were going to try to start a conversation with me. Maybe they'd comment on the weather. Maybe they'd offer a cookie. Who knows what goes through the minds of old women? But I wanted to avoid the whole painful affair of making small talk about the latest AARP bulletin.
I saw my way out. A side path veered off to the left toward the softball field. I could just go that way, all nonchalant, with no one the wiser. But then I realized something. ZONK! I was contemplating avoidance behavior. My inner guilt kicked in. I have promised myself not to avoid social fear. It might start with Maude and Genevieve on the park bench today but could easily escalate into full-blown FGB when I'm demonstrating how to approach a hottie to a client. That would be a costly ZONK. I had no choice. I had to walk by the old ladies.
So I did it. I walked by them. They tripped me with their umbrellas and pounced on me. Just kidding. They said hi and smiled, and it was all right. I stopped and chatted for a while. I found them interesting. There was no forced small talk about Geritol. Rather, I found them to be hip old ladies. They were practicing their lines for the Neil Simon play they were acting in.
I know that story sounds ridiculous. I'm a grown man. I teach social interaction for a living. I lecture in front of hundreds of people on a regular basis. I consider myself a social badass. And yet, I can feel approach anxiety. We can all feel approach anxiety. But that's okay. Don't be permanently ZONKED. Take action anyway.
Next time, I'll tell you the best line to use when approaching an attractive stranger.