By Lauren Presutti
We all get nervous around new people from time to time, but does the fear of social judgment keep you from making new friends? Do you struggle to put yourself in social environments because there may be someone you don’t know? Is it hard to be out in the community because of fear that other people may be judgmental? You’re not alone. Many people struggle with social anxiety. It’s important to remember that social anxiety and shyness are not the same thing. Shyness can make you feel uncomfortable sometimes, whereas social anxiety may feel like your discomfort is so strong that it is beyond your control and interfering with your everyday life. You may even have physical symptoms of anxiety when you’re around people, such as sweating or a faster heartbeat. Your social anxiety may impact all different areas of your life, from school, work, activities, and any other environment with people. Thankfully, there are many ways to combat this. It takes time, but with patience, practice, and often the support of a therapist, you can overcome your social anxiety and start enjoying life around others.
First, remember that growth happens outside of your comfort zone. You might think it is impossible to stretch your limits, but the trick is setting manageable goals for yourself. If you can just take one tiny step forward, you may be surprised by how things unfold. As a therapist, I always say avoid jumping into the deep end of the pool. There is no need to insert yourself into overwhelming situations that you know will be too much for you. If you know that attending a large party may cause a panic attack, practice self-care, and skip the party. But, is there another type of social engagement where you could slowly dip your toes in the water? Could you try having coffee with one person at a time? If that feels like too much, could you try having a video chat with someone? If that still feels too taxing, how about a text conversation?
I want you to consider the smallest opportunity where you could just go one or two inches beyond your comfort zone, and don’t ever compare your starting point to anyone else’s starting point. We all have a different level of comfort with social engagement. If all you can do is send one text message to one person at a time, that’s great! Start there. Allow yourself to be comfortable with that. Then over time, push yourself to take one step further. And then another step further. You can pause at any point. Monitor your thoughts and feelings, practice self-care, take breaks when needed, and recharge yourself throughout the process. There is no deadline, and the best results usually come from people embracing the journey at their own pace.
In addition, it’s helpful to remind yourself that your theories can be disproved. In our minds, we all have theories about how things will unfold. It can be challenging to maintain flexibility and say to ourselves, “I’m not sure how this will turn out, I guess we will see what happens…” This can be challenging because more often than not, we feel strongly about our predictions. You may find yourself believing that what you think will happen will – with certainty – happen. Your internal self-talk may sound like, “I know this will go terribly, I know they won’t like me, I know that putting myself out there will end badly.” Let’s pause for a moment. How do we know – with certainty – that those statements are accurate? Is it possible that we may be making assumptions or unnecessarily predicting negative outcomes without evidence to back up our theories? Where do these theories come from? Challenge your assumptions and consider the possibility that your theories may be disproved. I know this is asking a lot – after all, it’s not easy to trust the unknown – but one of the most helpful things you can do to overcome social anxiety is to face the social situations you fear.
Releasing the pressure to be perfect can also help you feel calmer in social situations. People who struggle with social anxiety are often very focused on themselves in public, how they appear, how they’re acting, and how they are being perceived by others. There is often a strong desire to be perceived perfectly, which only makes your anxiety feel more intense. Getting away from this habit might start with remembering that nobody is perfect. Remind yourself there is no need to be perceived in any specific way. Your anxiety is probably not as visible as you think it is, and people are probably not paying as much attention to you as you think they are.
It can also be helpful to switch your focus from internal to external. Start to think about the things happening around you. Focus your mind and energy on external stimuli, rather than your internal fears. Concentrate on the conversations that you’re having, the environment that you’re enjoying, or what you think about the people that you’re with. Do you have much in common with these people? What do you think of this location? If music is playing, do you like this music? If you’re out to eat at a restaurant, are you enjoying your meal? Thinking about these external factors can help your mind distract away from anxious thoughts.
Most importantly, if you’re struggling with social anxiety that doesn’t seem to be improving, working with a mental health therapist can be extremely helpful. Having a safe space to talk through social situations, to practice coping skills, to learn more about what drives your fears, and to feel safely heard and understood by a nonjudgmental listener can make a transformative difference. A therapist can also help you learn how to control the physical symptoms of social anxiety through relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. Sometimes it’s difficult to reach out to a professional for help, but if social anxiety is limiting your ability to feel your best, it’s worth speaking up about. You’ll be surprised how much progress you can make.