If you’ve been reading some articles online, you already know that introversion is not social anxiety. Social anxiety is fear of social interaction. Introversion is low motivation to seek it out. Social anxiety can be overcome. Introversion doesn’t need to be.
But of course, you can be a socially anxious introvert, and in this post we’ll talk about that, as well as the kind of social anxiety that bubbles up in all of us from time to time. We might suffer bouts of social anxiety around specific events or people or because we’re just feeling fragile at the moment.
I sometimes think introverts might be generally vulnerable to social anxiety because we often feel pressure—internally or from others—to behave counter to our nature. If we choose not to work the room, we are considered to have “failed” by some measures. Is it any wonder, then, that we sometimes anticipate social events—opportunities to fail—with anxiety?
Genuine social anxiety develops when we start protecting ourselves from the moment-by-moment panics of social interaction through avoidance, which can be anything from turning down invitations to burying your face in your phone or lingering on the fringes at social gatherings.
However, the only way to transcend those moment-by-moment panics is by mindfully taking them on, over and over, until we learn that the world is generally safe. So yeah, it’s one of those “face your fear” things. Which is never very appealing. But to get you started, here are four concepts and strategies for understanding and managing social anxiety, chronic or fleeting.
At the root of social anxiety is the fear of "the Reveal of some perceived fatal flaw,” says expert.
Often we worry about our appearance and the possibility that we will look as anxious as we feel. “You might worry that people will see you sweat through your shirt or turn red, or your voice will tremble."
Or the fear may be deeper. “We also worry that we will be revealed as having deficient social skills. That we’re bored or have no personality or we don’t make any sense. We worry we might jump from topic to topic, spew word salad, not be funny or cool, and no one will want to hang out with us.”Or, expert says, deeper yet,
We might fear “our whole personality is somehow deficient.”
Managing your social anxiety requires first figuring out what you consider your fatal flaw, what you fear will be revealed. I'd wager that the flaw you fear exposing is not a fraction as bad as you imagine it is, and that it's surely not fatal.
“Social anxiety makes us think the worst-case scenario is definitely going to happen,” says expert. But that’s a lie. The reality is that worst-case scenarios don’t happen often, and that the world is generally benign.
To refute this lie, first imagine that worst-case scenario. Specifically. In detail. “If you can drill down and try to figure out exactly what you’re afraid of, what’s going to be revealed, then it’s easier to argue with,” expert says. “It’s harder to argue with the foggy mirage of fear.” By envisioning the exact threat, you can assess how likely it really is.
And then, don’t believe lie number two: that if the worst-case happened, you wouldn’t be able to handle it. Because you would. Believe it or not, embarrassment is rarely, if ever, fatal. Have you ever seen someone spill a drink in a restaurant and as a result immediately burst into flames? In fact, you might find that even if you do have moments when you fumble and bumble, people will find it endearing rather than ridiculous.
The best way to push back on these lies is getting out in the world and practicing. “When we avoid, we don’t get to refute these two things. We don’t get the experience to know that most people are nice, bad things don’t usually happen, people are happy to be helpful. Not all the time, but most of the time. And yes, bad things might happen, but we can handle it. We’re capable of handling interactions with our fellow humans.”
“Oftentimes we think that how we feel is how we look. If we feel anxious, we must be wearing that on our sleeve,” says expert. “But that is usually not true. Anxiety, while it feels very conspicuous, is not particularly visible on the outside.”
Forcing yourself to drop your safety behaviors—put away the phone, look up, join the group instead of hovering around the edges—will not only make you feel less anxious, but you’ll find people to enjoy your company more.
Yes, yes, obviously. But also in a less-obvious way. Because the more your attention is turned inward, the more power you give it.
“If our attention is focused inward, we might be thinking ‘she probably thinks I’m an idiot,’ or ‘she just shifted in her seat, does that mean she’s bored?’ We have this internal play-by-play of how things are going,” says expert “But since we’re asking our anxiety how things are going, it always answers, ‘badly.’”
And all that internal processing and monitoring “takes up all our bandwidth and leaves very little for actually interacting. Too much bandwidth to not spill our drink or trip over our feet.” In other words, worrying about the things that can go wrong might actually contribute to things going wrong.
Fortunately, we have control over where we focus our attention. “If we turn our attention outward, focus on what’s happening around us, magically a lot of that bandwidth gets freed up and fills up with natural curiosity—what interests us, what questions we want to ask—and our own authenticity.”
Try this little experiment today: Have two conversations. In one, focus your attention inward. Monitor your body. Think about what you should say. In the next conversation, focus outward. “Now ask yourself which conversation was more pleasant, more productive,” expert says. “Which did you enjoy more?”
You are often thinking about how badly things will go. For example, you predict that you will fall apart and make a fool of yourself. You predict that everyone will notice that you are sweating--and that they will all talk about it. You think it is a catastrophe that your mind will go blank. You can challenge these thoughts by asking yourself the following: “Have you really made a fool of yourself or are you just predicting the same thing over and over?” Is it possible that people don’t notice your sweating, because they are thinking about what they are going to say?” “What is the evidence that people talk about your anxiety? How do you know?” “Why would anyone really care if you are feeling anxious? How is it relevant to them?” “Have you ever noticed that someone else said, ‘I forgot what I was going to say’? Did anything terrible happen?” Argue back at these negative thoughts.
Once you have identified the situations that make you anxious and you have rated the hierarchy from least to most anxious then you are ready to confront your fears. We find it helpful to start with “imagining” each step in the hierarchy. So, imagine that you are thinking of going to the party and stay with that image until your anxiety drops. Then move on to imagining the next step in the hierarchy. You can also remind yourself of your rational responses to your negative thoughts. For example, when you imagine walking into the party and the thought pops up, “Everyone can see I am anxious”, you can remind yourself that people have a very hard time noticing your internal feelings and that they are focusing on their own concerns (perhaps their own anxiety). Keep imagining and let the anxiety flow out and away.
Then, you can start with the “exposure”—or practicing what you fear. Don’t take that extra drink—instead, go to the party, walk in, notice that your anxiety might be there, acknowledge it and then say, “I am going to do this even if I am anxious”. It’s OK to be anxious when you do the exposure—that is the point of exposure. You can learn that you can actually do things when you are anxious and there is no catastrophe.
I know that I have been saying these things to people for years--- but people often say, “Yeah, but what if my mind goes blank?” So, a number of years ago I decided to fake my mind going blank. I was giving a workshop on anxiety and I decided to make-believe my mind went blank and I announced, “My mind just went blank. What was I saying?” As you can imagine, no one seemed to care. Why should they? What is so bad for them if your mind goes blank?
In fact, it might be helpful to even exaggerate your anxious symptoms. For example, if you are afraid that people will notice that you are sweating then you can douse your shirt with water and go right in. So, people will notice you are sweating. Big deal. I’ll bet that almost every day when it is warm we notice people who are sweating. Why do we forget it? Because it is irrelevant.
These tips, of course, just scratch the surface of the problem if you suffer from life-inhibiting social anxiety.