What is the best advice to overcome social anxiety?
What is the best advice to overcome social anxiety?
I personally believe each one of us has experienced a certain amount of social anxiety at some point in our lives. The intensity and frequency varies.
I have my range of social anxiety as well. I can rarely be the center of a dance party, sometimes I’ll take a safe corner while most of the times, I avoid social gatherings. Surprisingly, I have mostly been good at public speaking. Exceptions are the times I was present at a speaking assignment which was not my subject area. I don’t have many friends. To be honest, I barely have one or two at any given time.
To solve any problem, acknowledgment is the first step which you have already taken. The second is understanding the root cause. The third is to take the step-by-step approach to changing yourself (situations never do).
In my opinion, social anxiety has low self-esteem, lack of confidence and high self-critical nature as its root causes. What can we do to change these? This is the first part of the solution. It is also the most sustainable one.
The other more effect-based approach would be to develop distress tolerance and coping skills. For instance, when you are at a party surrounded by people, how do you open up to talk? Or how do you deal with the anxiety when you have to speak in front of 100 people? This skill would come in handy on the spot.
The third approach would be the fake it till you make it approach. This means to develop defenses (fake confidence) which help you deflect, mimic or act in a conversation, with a person or a situation so your anxiety doesn’t surface. Easier than option 1 and 2 but I don’t advise it for the long haul while short-term, it could work. I’m sure many people employ these tricks and internally live unhappy suffocated existences.
Of course neither of the options (1,2 and 3) can be put into action suddenly. All of these would take time, practice and change in habits.
Option 1: Healthy self-love
Healthy self-esteem is a byproduct of healthy self-love. Healthy self-love destroys excessive self-criticism. Confidence results from healthy self-esteem. The question then is, what and how should one self-love?
To be clear, self-love isn’t selfishness. It is liking, loving and being nice to oneself. Treating oneself with unflinching uncompromising compassion. It comes from radical self-acceptance; that demands one to accept one’s flaws and strengths equally. It means to not castrate, berate and criticize oneself all the time.
The idea is go from image 1 to image 2.
Option 2: Developing CBT Skills
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people's difficulties, and so change the way they feel.
CBT taught me to notice my emotions as they arise in my body, how my mind interpreted them as feelings, the thoughts that resulted and the (often unhealthy) behaviors I employed to cope with them. once I understood this TFB (Thoughts, feelings and Behaviors) cycle, I could learn to change it.
To further elaborate, here’s TFB cycle with an example:
Okay, it’s all fair and square but how does this help my social anxiety?
once you learn to observe and understand your emotions, even before feelings and thoughts start, you can self-soothe yourself by positive self-talk and self-affirming thoughts.
For instance, you have to go to a party in 3 days which you cannot avoid. It is laying in your sub-conscious. You ignore the thought of going because it triggers stress and fear instead of dealing with it. Eventually, the day creeps closer and closer until you have to face it. If you observe, you would notice that you are getting more and more fatigued and irritable as the day is coming closer. As a result, your behavior is further aggravates so your body feels low and wants more rest, less talking and worn out. At this stage itself, if you start listening to your emotions, you can initiate an alternate thought and behavioral cycle by reminding yourself that you are ready to go, it would be fun, so-and-so is coming who you like, you have a lovely dress etc.
Option 3: “Fake it till you make it”
The idea is to act as if you aren’t anxious but confident. Join a theater class, it would help overcome your feelings of social ineptness, get over shame and loosen up in public. Learn few clever one-liners, jokes, idioms and quirky responses. Play these up the next time you are nervous in people. It is akin to wearing a cloak of invisibility that hides your true self and presents the fake confident facade. You might never be physically alone. Yet, the loneliness felt around people would be palpable.
This is basically what it does, confidence being a superpower courtesy the invisibility cloak that hides true self.
While your psychiatrist (and any sane person) would advise against it:
because your psychiatrist would know that these defenses you feel as superpowers are actually unhealthy coping strategies which do more harm than good. Getting rid of them is difficult in the short term while the rewards last a lifetime.
once you learn to manage your anxiety around people by accepting yourself and your emotions, you can begin to communicate more freely with people. One step at a time. That's when you should ideally join group-based activities. Follow your hobbies and passions where you are bound to mind at least a few like-minded fellows. Book clubs, social dancing, hobby classes are great ideas to pursue. If it all sounds like too much, start by finding one friend you can connect with and hang with individuals separately. It is easy to connect one-on-one with people than to join a group. Give yourself time and space to heal. Healing is a process. It has few benchmarks while at the same time, one might need to step back or fail and start again. Be kind and loving to yourself, and it would reflect, people would follow. Good people, mind you!
Hope this helps. I tried to keep this as concise and lucid as possible.
I recently had a coaching client with the same issue. Telling him to “be courageous”, “Face his fears” would not help - because if he could - he would not have come to me anyway! I gave him an analogy which I would like to share with you.
Before that, let us identify the beliefs you hold which are keeping you stuck.
The test said “Your fears that others will criticize or make fun of you are exaggerated and unrealistic, but your awkwardness and discomfort may make these fears a self-fulfilling prophecy”
You agree: “This is true and it is frustrating” You wonder why your mind acts this fearfully in these situations. You cannot figure it out. It keeps behaving that way…
So now you have a belief: “It has stopped me from being successful and achieving things which I could have, if I didn't have this problem”
At a level deeper, the belief is:
“Unless I overcome these thoughts, I cannot move ahead. Both cannot exist at the same time. I can either have these fearful thoughts, or I can move ahead without them”
An even deeper belief is:
“I am my thoughts.”
Hence the limitation of either holding fearful or positive thoughts at a time. After all, you cannot be two things at the same time right?
But is that true? Are you your thoughts? Are you your mind? Does your mind have to be ‘controlled’, ‘reigned in’ before you can do what you want?
Imagine you are sitting at home waiting for a few good old friends. You are meeting after many years. Your faithful, new dog Bruce is also waiting along with you.
But every time a friend rings the door bell, Bruce goes crazy. He barks and brings the house down.
Why does he bark? Doesn’t he know that you can have friends?
Well he barks - because that is his JOB. Anything new is a potential threat to you. And his job is to protect you.
Your mind is like Bruce.
It’s job is to protect you from anything new - anything that is uncertain. Anything where the ‘protection of your identity’ is not guaranteed. So it makes a noise whenever you do something that you are not used to.
Coming back to Bruce.
When Bruce barks, do you cancel meeting your friend? : “Oh my God, Bruce is barking. This must mean danger. How will I meet my friend? How will I let him in?” OR
Do you assign special meanings? Do you say:“Bruce usually doesn’t bark THIS much. Today he is. What might be wrong? I have to take him to do a psycho analysis on him and figure out the reason so that he does not do this. Until then I cannot meet any friends.”
Do you try to ‘fix’ Bruce? “Why is Bruce acting this way? Barking at my friends? Unless I fix his psychological issues, I cannot go ahead with meeting my friends”
Why don’t you try to fix him?
Because you know Bruce is designed that way! He is just doing his job. Even though his barking might be too loud or even scary or irritating some times, it still depends on you whether to go ahead with your plans or not.
You are not Bruce. Bruce can bark all he wants. And he should. I would be worried if he does NOT. But you are not at his mercy.
You are not your mind. Your mind can produce all the fearful thoughts it wants. And it should. I would be worried if it does NOT. But you are not at it’s mercy.
When your friend steps in, Bruce’s barking might reach a crescendo. You don’t devote your attention to the barking. You devote it to your friend. Bruce just needs to be ignored or simply commanded with a quick “Bruce! Sit! Quiet!”
Sometimes Bruce doesn’t obey. Which is irritating. But still, you do not make a fuss about it.
You do not associate the experience of meeting your friend with Bruce’s scared barking or the intensity of his barking. You go ahead and meet anyway.
once you spend a few minutes with your friend, and nothing breaks - that is when Bruce begins to settle down. That is the only way he can settle down. And it’s not his ‘fault’. Sometimes he takes 5 minutes, sometimes 15. But he will certainly settle down, if you go ahead with doing what you were doing.
But you need to give him that chance. Instead of “believing his barking”.
If you ‘believe’ his barking, and refuse the open the door, Bruce thinks that he was right in his belief. You just made it real for him. If he ever smells that friend again, his barking is going to be much louder.
Yes, your mind makes a lot of scary noises when you put it in certain situations. Does not mean that what those noises are saying is real. Any more than Bruce’s barks are. The noises are normal.
Don’t wait for them to go away. Don’t hold your life on pause. The pause is what is making them more real, and hence making them stay.
Just take a deep breath. See those mental noises emerging. They seem really scary.
But you take a step ahead anyway. Not because you are brave. But because you know they are not real.