Some people walk through life so petrified of others they can hardly breathe. That's social anxiety.
Here’s how I always felt it. Maybe you can relate:
Before I spoke with someone, I would think to myself, “Don’t screw this up. You might have a chance at them liking you. And to maintain that possibility, you must get to the end of the conversation without making a mistake. You need to be as pleasing as possible so you can hold their admiration. They determine what I’m worth, so if I make one mistake, my supply of worth will be cut off.”
The harder I tried to think of something to say, the less I could come up with. I wasn’t really communicating at all. I was only trying to say things that were pleasing, expected, and normal.
This is no way to live.
You can escape from this prison, but it requires you to make radical shifts in your perception and behavior. Here is a guide to getting started with that. My social anxiety was greatly reduced by following these four principles.
Let’s break this curse.
1. Make Small, Bold Leaps Against Social Anxiety
Before you can feel comfortable being social, you need to know what it feels like to initiate. Everything a socially anxious person does is reactive and dependent on their environment, so beating social anxiety requires proactivity. You might not want to join Toastmasters and give speeches just yet, so start with small, systematic leaps.
- Give someone a genuine compliment while you’re out doing errands.
- Ask a barista how their day is going.
- Ask if you can pet someone’s dog.
- Ask someone for directions.
If people ignore you or react negatively, good. That’s rejection. And it’s painful for everyone. But if you can handle rejection, you can handle just about anything socially.
I strongly recommend looking into Jia Jiang for this. He’s an entrepreneur who made it his mission to get rejected once a day for 100 days. He filmed his rejections too. Here’s his first attempt:
Once you’ve made the leap into a conversation, what do you do now? Practice listening.
Genuine listening is underrated, powerful, and rare. It’s a great quality to develop, both for being less socially anxious and for being a better human. The same can be said about developing curiosity in other people. Being curious gives you conversational starting points, and opportunities to listen.
When listening, the focus is on the other person, and not you. You are not digging for the next “normal” thing to say to ace your social performance. And the more the other person can tell you’re listening, the more they tend to speak. They start doing the work for you.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey said empathic listening gives people “psychological air.” This air gives people room to express themselves, and by showing them the dignity of being understood, you’re already getting better at communicating.
3. Be Vulnerable
Beating social anxiety is a process of revealing yourself to the world and ceasing to apologize. This is the idea of vulnerability, which can be defined as exposing our honest selves to others.
According to shame psychologist Brené Brown, “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depths of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
If people can see who you really are, they can criticize you, and that hurts. Especially when you’ve spent your life hiding. But if they resonate with the real you, those could be the richest connections you’ve ever experienced. This doesn’t mean you have to become an open book with everyone you meet. Just know that the only way to find connections is to risk being seen.
Taking steps to be more vulnerable can feel like setting yourself on fire. Believe me, I know. But these exposures compound over time, and eventually, you discover you can take pressure and scrutiny. And you can risk self-expression to reach others.
- Buy a piece of clothing you genuinely want to wear and wear it around people (Even if it’s a Bape hoodie or a fanny pack).
- If asked your opinion, share it. Don’t change it to please someone else.
- Do not force yourself to laugh at jokes that aren’t funny. If they were funny, you’d be laughing.
- Share a fear, a desire, or something embarrassing about yourself with a friend. You will find that other people hide their emotions too.
- Do not stifle an opportunity for expression. If you feel compelled to say something, say it. It might be exactly what someone else needs to hear.
- Say no. Set boundaries.
This is a gradual process. Do not feel like you’re regressing if you go back to hiding yourself. Anything you’ve done once can be done again. And every act counts.
4. Consider the Origins of Your Social Anxiety
The causes of social anxiety will vary from person to person. But there is a common theme among those who live at the mercy of other people’s opinions: The fear of abandonment.
In No More Mr. Nice Guy, psychologist Robert Glover exposes the roots of what he calls “toxic shame.”
To sum up, infants perceive the world egocentrically, meaning they see everything that happens to them as their fault. So, if they have a negative “abandonment” experience (abuse, neglect, scolding, smothering), they blame themselves. They believe they are inherently bad. And they carry this toxic shame into adulthood. They carry on both the shame of their action and the fear of being abandoned by their caregiver, which would have meant death.
This results in a person who needs approval to survive. Toxic shame prevents them from approving of themselves, so their only source of approval becomes the people around them. Social mistakes become tantamount to abandonment and death.
Understanding how your childhood fears manifest in your life is important for moving past social anxiety. You need to recognize how you processed painful events, and how the behaviors you developed for survival (avoiding exposure, people-pleasing) are no longer serving you. A therapist can help with this.
Change Your Perspective
Instead of treating social interactions like minefields, you can see them as opportunities for expression, connection, and even fun. You can discover people, as opposed to living for their approval. Eventually, you’ll be able to direct conversations, express your needs, set boundaries, and talk about things you care about. And if you aren’t feeling the conversation, you can leave, and not feel bad about it.
This is making the shift from “what do you think of me?”, to “what do I think of you?”
I always try to keep this in mind:
Express, don’t impress.
Live life from your own perspective. Trying to manage an impression will only make you feel isolated, anxious, and exhausted. Your attitude should be, “Here I am, and who are you?”
I’m not telling you to go from introversion to extraversion or to forego all social norms and become a jerk. I’m saying you need to strike a balance between respect for the world and respect for yourself.
If you choose to work on your social anxiety, be proud you are bold enough not to accept your lot in life. You don’t passively accept anxiousness as something you can’t change.
The work makes a tremendous difference, but you might always feel a bit socially uneasy. But as Mark Manson says, that’s ok. If you accept you’re socially anxious, you’ll put less pressure on yourself, and then you won’t be as anxious. It’s all an aspect of being on your own side.
If you ache to connect with people, which we all do, you need to recognize that other people are socially anxious too, even if they don’t seem it. There will always be tension as people open up to each other. With that in mind, here is your roadmap:
If you can…
- Make small social leaps on a consistent basis
- Listen intently and be curious
- Practice vulnerability
- Consider the origins of your anxiety
Then you can find a way to a better life. It’s a long road, but the rewards of freedom, self-respect, and meaningful connection, are invaluable.