A few years ago, I started noticing a slight hesitancy to sign my name on a credit card tablet in front of the store clerk. I also noticed that if I suddenly become the center of attention during a group conversation, I blush and feel hot, sometimes forgetting where I am going with my story. When debating (arguing?) with my son over politics, parenting or anything, I often find myself without a comeback or rebuttal to his points, despite the fact that every nerve in my body is alert and wants so badly to seem knowledgable and competent. While I did/do not like these feelings and reactions, they do not hold me back from enjoying life in general. I am uncomfortable or embarrassed for a few minutes but then the feeling passes. I forgive myself for not performing perfectly.
Forgive yourself, for sure
I owe some of that ability to get over my imperfect performances to author Brenda Ueland and her encouragement to recklessly make mistakes. She said make them doozies. The bigger the better. If we are not making mistakes we are not living real or vulnerably enough. People will find us interesting and relatable if we are honest and authentic. I expanded her message to include accepting when we are imperfect and forgiving ourselves quickly afterward.
What is social anxiety?
For many introverts, social anxiety is part of their life, although not all introverts have social anxiety. Social anxiety is a fear of being judged, criticized, embarrassed or rejected. Introversion is an innate trait based on a sensitivity to stimulation and social anxiety is a learned behavior. Social anxiety stems from experiences that taught us we don’t measure up to expectations. Scrutiny was not our friend in those instances. We fell short somehow and it was pointed out. Social anxiety disorder causes consistent distress and causes us to avoid situations, thus greatly affecting our way of living.
With social anxiety every activity/task/movement can feel like a performance. Walking across a room. Ordering food at a restaurant. Talking on the phone. All bring up a fear of negative judgment. Sometimes the fear grips us so hard we feel paralyzed, which makes it difficult to “perform” well, thus fulfilling our beliefs.
I don’t know what to say
One fear introverts and the socially anxious have is a fear of not having anything to say. Introverts are known to draw a blank when asked to speak extemporaneously. Anxiety and our loud inner critic can put so much pressure on us that we believe we have to deliver perfect, witty, intelligent, funny, insightful, well-positioned comments or else be ridiculed (by ourselves or by others). That kind of pressure has us sweating and speechless, confirming we are bad at conversation.
I’ve had clients tell me they had good days or bad days based on how well they talked (performed) during an interaction or conversation. The quality of their “performance” makes or breaks their day. Those with social anxiety disorder, rate their performances harshly most of the time.
Unhealthy ways we cope
Unfortunately, many people (including myself) find unhealthy ways to deal with their anxiety around social interactions.
- They simply avoid such situations — by feigning sick, taking the long way home to avoid running into someone they know, hiding in the bathroom, etc. — and therefore miss out on what could be fulfilling experiences.
- They depend on drugs or alcohol to loosen their tongue and create an “acceptable” and fun personality.
- They stay in lousy relationships just to have someone familiar navigate life and do the things they find uncomfortable such as talking to salespeople or attending school functions.
- Deflect attention from themselves by pointing to others or using humor at other’s expense.
All of these stave off stress for a while but do not build true resilience and social confidence.
Healthy ways to build social resilience
Wouldn’t it be better to learn habits that strengthen our abilities and heal our fears long-term? Here are a few ways to work with social anxiety positively and more permanently:
- Use humor in a positive and creative way. I’ve been known to laugh, fan myself and call my intense blushing a hot flash.
- Increase the time spent with people who make you feel safe and at ease. Decrease time with unsupportive and discouraging people.
- Start small with little advances of social assertiveness like asking the waitress a question about the menu or smiling and saying hello to a friendly face on the bus.
- Remember Brenda Ueland and Brenda Knowles give you permission to flounder in a conversation or accidentally drop kick your lunch bag on the way to the trash can. It’s cool to be imperfect and embarrassing situations make great stories later.
- Desensitize with repetition and preparation. Go somewhere like the gym or library every day. Get to know the people who work there and the people who visit regularly. I worked retail for years in high school and college. I did not like talking with strangers but I learned certain phrases to use from other employees and I memorized store systems and routines so I could answer questions confidently.
- Instead of feeling like you have to entertain or dazzle people with your sparkling wit, turn the tables and ask questions, make others the center of attention. Pretend you are a journalist for a hometown magazine. Interview others by asking open ended questions. Always keep a couple handy mentally. I like “What was your favorite part and why?” I also like to use, “Tell me more about your trip to England, hobby rebuilding classic Mustangs, fear of antiques, etc.”
- Set a goal to reach or a value you want to honor, and use that as motivation to push you outside your limited comfort zone. Ex. You want to earn a leadership position at work or you have always valued strong family connections.
- Get help from a therapist or coach if your anxiety becomes debilitating.
Now when I take the pen dangling from the signature tablet at Target, I imagine signing “Scooby Doo” instead of my real name and it shifts my focus from the clerk observing my handwriting to something dorky.
Do you suffer from social anxiety? If so, what have you tried to work with it? What has been the most successful?
If you would like help easing your social anxiety, please contact me for personal coaching. I’d love to ease your worry and fears.