I am not a medical professional, and this information should not be taken as medical advice. If you have any questions, or think you may be suffering from a medical condition, please consult your doctor.
In the last post, we went over the myths that we tell ourselves when we’re anxious. We learned that our inner critic usually overrides all logic and reasoning; this, in turn, amplifies our feelings of anxiety. We also learned some ways to overcome those myths. In this post, we will continue our quest to quiet our inner critics, and learn to reduce social anxiety.
How to Reduce Social Anxiety
Change the way you respond to your inner critic.
When the inner critic starts shouting, stop and ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” And answer the question. Be very specific about it. Our inner critic usually yells things like, “Everybody will think I’m weird! Something bad will happen! People will judge me! I will do something stupid!” But those are vague answers. Who is everybody? What is something? Anxiety is vague because it’s often a gut reflex: we feel it, so it must be true.
Most of the time, being specific is enough to get rid of the anxiety. Our inner critic makes a catastrophe of everything, so when we question it instead of taking it at its word, we come to realize it’s not that big a deal. So we should ask ourselves:
- What’s the worst that can happen?
- How bad would it really be?
- What are the odds that worst will happen?
- How could we cope if it did happen?
The answers will surprise us, especially if we’ve been listening to our inner critic for years.
Create a safe environment where you’re allowed to fail.
Anxiety and our inner critic prevents us from achieving our goals. We need to create a supportive environment for ourselves, away from our own criticism. This is, in essence, self-compassion. It is the opposite of self-judgment.
That’s not to say we must cut off every negative thought. As someone who has been talking down to myself for decades, I know it’s impossible. But what we can do is:
- Be mindful of your thoughts. Acknowledge any negative thoughts, and rephrase what we say to ourselves. “Ugh, how could I have missed that?” can be changed to “I need to look out for that next time.”
- Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge your fear and anxiety, but don’t let yourself off the hook. “I am scared to death of this networking event, but I know it’s not as bad as I think it’ll be, so I’m going to be okay.”
This is where “fake it ’til you make it” comes from. We’re never going to be ready. No matter what it is, we’re never going to be ready for it, so we might as well get started. Confidence comes with competence, and the only way to get competent is to start doing and gain experience. The lack of confidence is amplified by comparing ourselves to other people, especially people who have more experience than we do, so stop it!
Give yourself a task to do.
Having something to focus on will take the attention away from your anxiety. Be specific about your task: “Get well acquainted with one person at this event.” Focusing on the task allows us to be ourselves; we can be more comfortable because we’re not worried about how awkward we are/look. It also helps to dress the part. Wearing clothes that we know we look amazing in will increase our confidence, because that’s one less thing to worry about.
The more you do something, the more comfortable it gets. Don’t let your safety behaviors (hiding, avoiding) get in the way of practicing. Something I’ve found helpful is to not care (or at least pretend). I know it’s counter-intuitive, but when we care, there’s too much at stake. We start to worry about whether we’re doing something wrong or what the other person/people will think. When something doesn’t matter, we do so much better. Case in point: the best job interviews I’ve had have been for jobs I didn’t want. I’m sure you can think of instances in your life as well when that was the same for you. If we pretend we don’t care, it makes it easier for us to keep practicing.
Time for some homework! In How to Be Yourself, Dr. Hendriksen mentions creating a challenge list. Start off small, and pick a few things that scare you just a little. Make sure they’re small, concrete things that you can work on. For example, a couple years back, I made the decision to always make small talk with my cashier. (Sometimes I copped out by using self-checkout, but there’s only so much I can do – no self-judgment!) Little things like that that won’t give you a panic attack.
As you check things off your list, add things that are a little bigger, a little more challenging for you. Ask yourself, “What would I do if anxiety wasn’t in my way?” Repeat the process as you go, and be sure to implement the things we talked about earlier! I haven’t personally made an official challenge list, but I’ve been working on little things here and there. You’ll be surprised at your progress; I certainly was! It’ll make a world of difference after a few months.
I fall back into my avoidance habits a lot without thinking. There will be times when I’m doing really well, managing my anxiety, and then I’ll fall off the wagon. It’s definitely not easy; there will be some things I feel like I’ve conquered, but there’s still so much more to work on. But when I look back on how far I’ve come (like the cashier example – now I’m trying to cheer them up if the previous customer was rude to them), it’s amazing and inspiring. I don’t want to miss out on opportunities anymore. I AM good enough.
What tips do you have on how to reduce social anxiety?