I personally believe each one of us has experienced a certain amount of social anxiety at some point in our lives. The intensity and frequency varies.
I have my range of social anxiety as well. I can rarely be the center of a dance party, sometimes I’ll take a safe corner while most of the times, I avoid social gatherings. Surprisingly, I have mostly been good at public speaking. Exceptions are the times I was present at a speaking assignment which was not my subject area. I don’t have many friends. To be honest, I barely have one or two at any given time.
To solve any problem, acknowledgment is the first step which you have already taken. The second is understanding the root cause. The third is to take the step-by-step approach to changing yourself (situations never do).
- In my opinion, social anxiety has low self-esteem, lack of confidence and high self-critical nature as its root causes. What can we do to change these? This is the first part of the solution. It is also the most sustainable one.
- The other more effect-based approach would be to develop distress tolerance and coping skills. For instance, when you are at a party surrounded by people, how do you open up to talk? Or how do you deal with the anxiety when you have to speak in front of 100 people? This skill would come in handy on the spot.
- The third approach would be the fake it till you make it approach. This means to develop defenses (fake confidence) which help you deflect, mimic or act in a conversation, with a person or a situation so your anxiety doesn’t surface. Easier than option 1 and 2 but I don’t advise it for the long haul while short-term, it could work. I’m sure many people employ these tricks and internally live unhappy suffocated existences.
Of course neither of the options (1,2 and 3) can be put into action suddenly. All of these would take time, practice and change in habits.
Option 1: Healthy self-love
Healthy self-esteem is a byproduct of healthy self-love. Healthy self-love destroys excessive self-criticism. Confidence results from healthy self-esteem. The question then is, what and how should one self-love?
To be clear, self-love isn’t selfishness. It is liking, loving and being nice to oneself. Treating oneself with unflinching uncompromising compassion. It comes from radical self-acceptance; that demands one to accept one’s flaws and strengths equally. It means to not castrate, berate and criticize oneself all the time.
The idea is go from image 1 to image 2.
Option 2: Developing CBT Skills
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel.
CBT taught me to notice my emotions as they arise in my body, how my mind interpreted them as feelings, the thoughts that resulted and the (often unhealthy) behaviors I employed to cope with them. Once I understood this TFB (Thoughts, feelings and Behaviors) cycle, I could learn to change it.
To further elaborate, here’s TFB cycle with an example:
Okay, it’s all fair and square but how does this help my social anxiety?
Once you learn to observe and understand your emotions, even before feelings and thoughts start, you can self-soothe yourself by positive self-talk and self-affirming thoughts.
For instance, you have to go to a party in 3 days which you cannot avoid. It is laying in your sub-conscious. You ignore the thought of going because it triggers stress and fear instead of dealing with it. Eventually, the day creeps closer and closer until you have to face it. If you observe, you would notice that you are getting more and more fatigued and irritable as the day is coming closer. As a result, your behavior is further aggravates so your body feels low and wants more rest, less talking and worn out. At this stage itself, if you start listening to your emotions, you can initiate an alternate thought and behavioral cycle by reminding yourself that you are ready to go, it would be fun, so-and-so is coming who you like, you have a lovely dress etc.
Option 3: “Fake it till you make it”
The idea is to act as if you aren’t anxious but confident. Join a theater class, it would help overcome your feelings of social ineptness, get over shame and loosen up in public. Learn few clever one-liners, jokes, idioms and quirky responses. Play these up the next time you are nervous in people. It is akin to wearing a cloak of invisibility that hides your true self and presents the fake confident facade. You might never be physically alone. Yet, the loneliness felt around people would be palpable.
This is basically what it does, confidence being a superpower courtesy the invisibility cloak that hides true self.
While your psychiatrist (and any sane person) would advise against it:
because your psychiatrist would know that these defenses you feel as superpowers are actually unhealthy coping strategies which do more harm than good. Getting rid of them is difficult in the short term while the rewards last a lifetime.
Once you learn to manage your anxiety around people by accepting yourself and your emotions, you can begin to communicate more freely with people. One step at a time. That’s when you should ideally join group-based activities. Follow your hobbies and passions where you are bound to mind at least a few like-minded fellows. Book clubs, social dancing, hobby classes are great ideas to pursue. If it all sounds like too much, start by finding one friend you can connect with and hang with individuals separately. It is easy to connect one-on-one with people than to join a group. Give yourself time and space to heal. Healing is a process. It has few benchmarks while at the same time, one might need to step back or fail and start again. Be kind and loving to yourself, and it would reflect, people would follow. Good people, mind you!
Hope this helps. I tried to keep this as concise and lucid as possible.
*Grammatical corrections welcomed.