Kicking The Social Anxiety Habit
I’ve cultivated a skill set many only wish they had. I can talk to anybody at any time when I either want to or have to. I’m naturally curious. Some have called it nosey and that brings a hearty laugh for both of us. My response is that I like people. I’m fascinated by them. I also believe even my mundane moments are worth talking about.
I have no problem telling the grocery store cashier about all the good buys I found during my excursion. My approach is upbeat so I always get a response in kind. All of a sudden, we have a wonderful and friendly conversation about food. A topic most love to discuss. Oftentimes, I learn something new whenever and wherever I strike up a conversation no matter how short it was.
Yet, a stumbling block for many is social anxiety/phobia. Some suffer mightily and it costs them greatly. Interacting with parts of or the entire world is too scary. First, realize being nervous is common. Knowing you’re not alone may already put you more at ease. If not managed, social phobia causes people to miss out on all the awesomeness the world has to offer.
A lot of people come to me with this dilemma. Many times there’s incongruence between what one wants and the way they behave. I had someone who wanted to meet new friends. She began a new job where she had been working for five months. I was stunned to find out she never introduced herself to the clerical staff or colleagues. She shuffled without making eye contact and bolted for the door when it was time to leave. Before she was hired, she talked about a desire to meet new friends. Talk about missed opportunities. Her thinking was incredibly faulty. She believed she wasn’t very interesting and strange. With thoughts like that, no wonder she was uptight.
Another client thought he outgrew his core group of friends but had a hard time trying new things by himself. He took people way too seriously. I can’t tell you enough. People don’t have the same assessments or experiences that you think they do. If you show up to a restaurant by yourself, the server isn’t walking away thinking you have no friends. They have their own stuff to deal with.
The twist is the people I come in contact with, who struggle with social settings, actually want to meet people. Humans are biologically social creatures. Lonely people yearn for at least one good friend. Loners tell me they wish they had someone to do things with from time to time. People with a decent social circle seek to evolve in ways the old circle isn’t willing to move towards.
Common characteristics of those suffering from social anxiety are captured in at least one fear based thought. People are very self-conscious of how others perceive them. I often hear people say they feel weird or they don’t think they fit in. Having this mindset prevents people from living the best life they possibly can.
Luckily, those are just thoughts and you have the ability to change those faulty thoughts at any time. There are ways to reduce or even eliminate the stressful thinking that causes social anxiety. It takes some simple changes. It’s time to reinvent you.
1. Breathe. You got this. The simple but effective process of slowing your breath does the mind and heart a lot of good. Deeper, slower breaths slow both the heart and overactive brain. In sessions, I actually practice this with clients using soap water. If this isn’t possible for you, think about blowing the biggest bubble you could possibly make in your imagination. Close your eyes and simply pretend you have the container your mom bought at the grocery store when you were a kid.
Take ten minutes or so and slowly inhale, hold it for about two beats, and slowly exhale. Don’t let your imaginary bubble pop. Envision creating a huge bubble as you’re gently creating a gigantic bubble. Don’t let it burst. Let it release from the wand when it’s ready. Whether you’re actually doing this now or just thinking about it, I bet you’re smiling or laughing and that’s a positive shift already.
2. Smile. I can’t emphasize this one enough. Smiling activates the parasympathetic nervous system which reduces your fight or flight survival mode to a calm state of mind. Those that are good at social interactions have happy or positive thoughts. When you’re happy, you smile. You want to be in a relaxed mood when interacting with other people. No matter how terrible you feel at the moment, smiling sets off a chain reaction inside your body, releasing chemicals that change mood. The same study found that smiling automatically makes those around you feel better. Therefore, if someone is feeling just as uptight as you, their mood can change without you saying a word. The world is a better place if we create a positive ripple affect.
3. Notice your thoughts. If you have crummy thoughts, soon to follow will be crummy feelings. I often have to work on reframes with people who think the worst of themselves or other people when they start describing how they see social interactions.
4. Plan ahead. Know your audience. If you have a school or work event, first date, or something playful, anticipate the conversations. Do some research about the location, neighborhood, or activities.
I always tell people a simple introduction and handshake is probably the most effective ice breaker of them all. Don’t overthink it. Go right up to someone at the venue and introduce yourself. If nothing changes, nothing will change. Get out of your comfort zone. Practice making this a consistent habit. Think that you’re worthy of an introduction.
The introduction can easily segue other anticipated topics. If you introduce yourself and ask questions from a curiosity standpoint you’re halfway there, at least. There are typical conversation starters whether you ask or the other person does. Usually, they’ll be, “Have you been here before?”, “Where are you from?”, and “What do you do?”.
5. Good social cues. Act interested. Nodding or a few verbal inflections (uh huh, oh, and um) demonstrate you’re listening and interested.
6. The great escape. Develop a good sense of knowing when a first conversation has run its course. There are times where it’ll seem like the stranger you just met is someone you’ve known your whole life. Some conversations can go on for minutes. However, some won’t. Especially in the beginning of your reinvention. If you’ve hit a fork in the road, excuse yourself. Be subtle. Telling the other person you’ve got to go to the bathroom or make a call are solid escape tactics. If you bail, shake hands again and tell them it was great meeting them.
7. Remember names. You may bump into them again depending on the event. If it’s a wedding reception, work gathering, or a place you plan on going to again, you’ve laid the groundwork for meeting an acquaintance and perhaps a friend. A tip: If you’re going to top off your drink, ask them if they would like a refill. Doing so shows you’ve got class.
8. Silence isn’t always awkward. Sometimes a pause can help recalibrate your mind or observe your surroundings. Something may dawn on you about something that was said earlier that you want to expand on.
You may notice someone interesting across the room that may initiate another topic to banter about. You may smell some food cooking that’s working on your taste buds. A good song may be playing in the background that stimulates a great conversation about music and concerts.
9. Share an interesting story. I’ve been working with a middle school student for years. His parents told me he didn’t talk to even them a lot. I worked with him on shares. Rather than asking a question, even if it was pretty good on the open-ended question, he’d typically reply with one-word answers. On a good day, he’d offer one short sentence. I had him share one interesting thing that happened today either that day or in between our bi-weekly sessions.
Surely on your drive to work or to the venue, something had to occur. A study in 2020 found that people have about 6,000 thoughts a day. If that’s true, it should be easy to share a few at just about any time. Maybe the drive was longer or shorter than you imagined. Did you have difficulty finding a parking spot or did you get one right in front of the establishment? What’s going on at work or school?
As I’m writing this in my hotel lobby in Austin, Texas, the guy sitting across from me has some very interesting, space-aged shoes on. At least five people came up and asked him about them. He’s dressed casually hip and has an infectious personality so that could’ve helped people be drawn to him as well. He put no effort into initiating conversation. My point is, to be interesting and look approachable. Here is the picture of the shoes. Yes, I asked him if I could snap a photo and struck up a brief conversation with him.
I remember a friend of mine telling me he used to frequent a salon after he got his hair cut there one time. The salon was within walking distance of his apartment. The typical salon is either predominantly or exclusively female based from customers to staff. This place was no exception.
Jeremy had a persona that was light in nature. He didn’t take himself too seriously. Therefore, people weren’t threatened by him and enjoyed his presence.
Jeremy’s need for a morning jolt of caffeine often took him to the nearby, locally-owned, coffee shop. He did his usual routine and stopped at the coffee shop before heading to the salon to find out if any of the girls cut guy’s hair.
All were willing. That coffee cup set off a chain reaction that got all the girls talking about the shop and their selections. People he didn’t know prior to that time were now acquaintances with a common bond – the coffee shop. Conversations are information gatherings.
I should tell you that Jeremy was single. Since he got the game, he was savvy enough to use the information to his advantage. A few days later he went back to the salon. Obviously, he didn’t need a haircut. He brought coffee for the staff. Coffee and casual conversation. That’s the epitome of ballsy and smooth.
Being considerate and generous was the cherry on top. Do you think Jeremy developed an abundant amount of female friendships at that salon? You bet he did.
Guess what? If you do any of these things, you won’t bleed out and die. If you look at social interactions with these approaches in mind, you have absolutely nothing to lose. It’s not life or death but people sure make it seem like it is. Stop doing that. When in the right setting, introduce yourself. Be interesting or notice someone else being interesting.
Start small if you must. Say hi and smile at one person. You just may surprise yourself.