Social Anxiety

Ever been in a situation where you’ve been a hermit for a while and forgotten how to talk to someone? Maybe you’ve been studying for weeks straight and the idea of “going out” doesn’t excite you, possibly even intimidates you. As you do your grocery shopping or workout in the gym, you think to yourself, “please don’t talk to me.” (slowly puts on ear phones)

However, you have probably also been in the opposite situation where it’s summer break and you see your friends on a weekly or even daily basis. During those times, socializing with others doesn’t seem so scary. Or when you’re with your closest friends, you can talk for hours.

I think some of us grow up thinking we’re antisocial. But I think it’s that we feel varying degrees of social anxiety. Social anxiety is that constant chatter in your head worrying about what others are thinking of you: “Should I say this or that?”, “How do I act?”, “That person didn’t like what I said”, etc. The crippling fear before you meet new people, or hang out in a new social circle and are scared that you might not fit in: that is social anxiety.

Most of us don’t lack social skills, but rather, we suffer from social anxiety when facing a new social situation.

The more you socialize, the less anxious you become. However, the more antisocial or stuck in your cave you are, the less social acuity you seem to have. There seems to be a momentum aspect to socialization. The more you do it, the easier and less threatening it gets. It is like a skill that can either be dormant or cultivated.

One unfortunate byproduct of social anxiety is that we lose all aspects of social awareness. The stifling fear prevents us from thinking clearly. I’ll give you an example. Does this apply to you?:

When you observe others, you seem to pick up on social and emotional cues. You may also think you have a good understanding of human nature as you observe others. Yet, when you are thrust into a social situation you become self-conscious, unable to connect and pick up on social cues, and unsure of your behavior. Why is it that you can pick up on social nuances when you observe others in their social circle, yet aren’t able to use these same skills when you do the talking or listening?

It’s because we’re all in our heads.

Biologically, social anxiety is a natural defense mechanism that exists to protect yourself, your family, and your community. If you look at humans on a timescale, most of human existence revolved around small communities and tribes where everyone knew each other. So, whenever an ancient human saw another person they hadn’t met before, the anxiety or “fight or flight” response would kick in for good reason.

That unknown person has capacity to kill and cannot be trusted. It is an evolutionary advantage to distrust strangers rather than to trust them, as you would rarely see anyone outside of your tribe. Only recently, have humans congregated our “tribes” into compacted cities with thousands of other people, where most faces are strangers.

So realize that it is okay to feel social anxiety because everyone else feels the same thing (to varying degrees). I struggled with this growing up because I always thought I was socially awkward, but really, I just had social anxiety. Worried to be myself and worried of not being able to connect with others. No one wants to be that weirdo, right?

So here’s some things that have helped me along my journey:

  • Realize that it is just a natural mechanism in your body that can be overcome just like any other natural reflex. A sword swallower trains his body to overcome the gag reflex to stick a 24″ piece of sword through his esophagus. Likewise, we can overcome social anxiety by facing it and not running away from it.
  • Do risky things that reinforce and train your mental muscle. Step outside of your cave and realize that your anxiety is not rational. There is no life threatening consequence. If something bad or awkward happens, realize that it’s okay and that no one else had the balls to do what you did.
  • Go on first dates, blind dates, practice with your grocery cashier with a simple “Hey, how’s it going?” Realize that nothing bad is going to happen and actively try to remember those positive experiences.
  • Recognize that you’re not going to connect with everyone. You can’t make everyone happy. Everyone is different and you cannot create rapport with everyone. Just accept it.
  • Stop trying to run away at every sign of awkwardness. It’s only awkward if you think it’s awkward. Just chill – it’s all in your head.

4 thoughts on “Social Anxiety

  1. All of this is good advice, but it’s also easier said than done. I’ve been living in the mindset for all my life that my default “mood” is to be anxious about anything and everything. For myself, I think having lived this way for years upon years, it takes more than just changing thinking style to make it stick. What I struggle most is the more I try to tell myself, “It’s fine, you’re not going to die by facing this situation”, the more my body and mind go into overdrive to push me towards falling back on my old habit of avoiding anything that gives me anxiety. The biggest challenge is to try to recall the positive experiences I’ve been in as a way to assure myself that I’ve done this before and nothing bad will happen. It’s not that the positive experiences aren’t there, it’s that I often instinctively recall the negative experiences (or perceived negative experiences) instead. The third hardest thing for me is accepting the fact I can’t make everyone like me. When I even do one awkward thing that’s so insignificant it hardly matters, I am convinced I should not have bothered to be social in the first place. I am extremely hard on myself when I really don’t need to be.

    1. Nat,

      Thank you for your comment. What you point out in your post are all very true. Sometimes we don’t have that pressure to motivate ourselves to action. You may have noticed this when you’re working for a bad boss and you don’t feel motivated to do a good job. Likewise, an awesome boss will apply pressure in ways that motivate you in the right ways. I think sometimes, we don’t have that external pressure that forces us into action, but rather too much weight is left to ourselves. The secret is figuring out how to find that external pressure that forces you to take action that you can gain momentum. Momentum is key. Getting there is the hard part.

      1. You’re right about how pressure from a bad boss can cause a decrease in motivation to do a good job. I experienced that at my previous job, exceot rather than my boss, it was a nasty coworker who was training me and always so critical of me to the point I just gave up and called it quits.

        Do you have any ideas on how to find the appropriate amount of (good) external pressure? I understand the concept of what you’re describing but I hope I am getting the right idea. The external pressure is supposed to be a factor in a situation that I am not in control of?

      2. I understand. It is very hard if you are in a position where you may not have as much influence and your peers or boss are negative, not helpful, and/or a myriad of other issues. In those situations you have a choice. To ignore or to confront, either one of those will depend on your experience level and social awareness of the situation.

        The best solution is to get out and find a team and/or company that creates a good working environment. Easier said then done I know. But people follow people, not companies.

        I don’t know your exact situation, but another thing to consider are your motivations and strengths. Maybe your previous company weren’t aligned to those two factors. Finding a job or career that aligns with your motivations as well as your strengths will make it a lot easier for you. Once again, easier said than done!

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