Living with social anxiety can be a nightmare.
Even thinking about looking a cashier in the eye, or asking directions can cause the socially anxious to panic.
Common symptoms are sweating, rapid breathing, blushing, dry mouth, a heart pounding so loud you worry others can hear. The nervous person may try to speak but the words only come out in a shaky, low-volume stutter.
These symptoms expose to both ourselves and the world our own inner feelings of inadequacy.
By avoiding social situations, we avoid the reality that we may in fact lack social skills, confidence and other desirable traits. This allows us to set the boundaries of a very limited comfort zone. We can pretend life is perfect as long as people don’t try to ask us questions, or invite us to things.
But every time you avoid a social interaction out of fear that comfort zone will get smaller and smaller until it feels like a noose tightening around your neck.
So how do you overcome social anxiety, expand your comfort zone, and build confidence?
1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
This method asks social anxiety sufferers to reassess the reasons behind their fears. Next, you gradually expose yourself to those fears. The socially anxious person might start by practicing self-introductions, then ask strangers for directions, and engage in increasingly scarier situations. This incremental exposure helps people overcome their fears.
This is seen by psychologists as one of the most effective methods. Most people who go through CBT make progress in overcoming their fears.
You don’t need a PhD to understand why it works so well. When you avoid social situations, it reinforces the belief that people are threatening. Imagine how inhibited a person will become after thousands of interactions avoided out of fear! The avoidance becomes the automatic response at that point. It can feel a bit hopeless when all the connections in your brain are compelling you to stay away from people no matter how harmless the situation actually is.
But those connections are based on habits you’ve built overtime. It’s like a dirt road in the forest. Drive over it often and the path will remain clear. But if you start taking a different road, the path to avoidance will begin to disappear.
By investing in the opposite reaction to fear, you begin to build a habit of facing fears, accepting your uncomfortable emotions and openness to the possibility that social situations aren’t as life-threatening as your fears indicated.
2. Mindfulness Meditations
Incrementally exposing yourself to fears is a proven method of overcoming fears. However, some people have had very traumatic experiences, or experience a very intense social phobia. This phobia makes it impossible to even complicate taking even the smallest of steps out of their comfort zones.
Mindfulness meditations are a very helpful complement to taking the first steps in any Exposure Therapy efforts because they ask you to observe an experience without trying to change or control it. When faced with an opportunity to socialize, this practice helps you accept that fear without running away.
During these meditations you can start by paying attention to your breathing without trying to control, change, or judge the experience. Observe the sensations in your body without resisting them. Then, start applying this practice to your daily interactions.
Combine mindfulness with exposure to fear for a powerful method of overcoming fear because it helps you relax in social situations.
3. Open Your Mind to a More Confident You
People might say they want to be confident, but then feel too scared to face the required fears to become that confident version of themselves. You can’t become a champion weight lifter without lifting heavy weights. You can’t become a professional level guitarist without spending hundreds of hours or more practicing. You also can’t become a confident person without facing fears. Courage comes after you do the things that scare you, not before.
The difference with skills like guitar, and confidence however, is that if you love guitar, you might find all those hours you invest in practice very enjoyable. But starting conversations and practicing confident body language may seem like torture to a socially anxious person. It’s easier to give up on training you need when you assume it will be painful.
But every time avoided social interaction is a sacrificed opportunity to face challenges and grow up.
Since starting a conversation with a stranger seems scarier than skydiving people need a convenient excuse to avoid these uncomfortable situations. They might invent an identity as “the socially awkward person with no social skills.” They take on this identity and refuse to accept that developing confidence is even an option. Because it is easier to blame this assumed identity for lack of social success rather than to take responsibility for it.
It would be too embarrassing to face fears and fail. It would only add to their confirmation bias that blinds them to the possibility of building confidence.
We can acknowledge that all people are biologically different. They have different capacities for growth, addiction, sensitivity to pain, and many other differences. Combine these physiological differences with various environmental factors, and traumatic experiences and it’s plausible that the experience of social anxiety could be much more excruciating and debilitating for some people.
But that is no excuse to not be open to the possibility of becoming a more confident person. When you close yourself off to any potential at all you limit the slightest bit of progress you could have made.
4. Seek Out Social Interactions
Meditation, and openness to living with confidence can help you build a more positive mindset.
But it must be backed up by evidence for you to actually start believing it. This is why positive affirmations sound like a good idea but are ultimately ineffective when not combined with action.
You can tell yourself, “I’m confident!” hundreds of times a day, but you won’t believe it until you actually do things that prove to yourself it’s true.
Put yourself in situations that you usually avoid. Start with the situations that are the easiest to confront. Whenever you face one of those crucial situations where you must decide to engage others in conversation or avoid, encourage yourself to choose to interact with people even though you feel nervous about it.
Accept the nervous feelings, and take action anyway. This helps reinforce the belief that you can actually master social confidence. With each interaction, this positive belief can gain strength as long as you allow it to exist.
5. Find Something Positive About Every Interaction
The socially anxious might not realize all the genuine smiles, praise, and positive attention they may actually be receiving. They often pay more attention to indications of rejection, aggression, and insensitive behavior.
Because of this, it can often be more difficult to focus on the positive aspects of every interaction.
Before you worry about any word you mispronounced, or how your grip was as weak as a dead squid when you shook someone’s hand, first acknowledge something positive about the interaction.
This should be your first thought because it helps you to build positive habits that support confident beliefs. You may have enjoyed the way someone smiled, a joke you told, or were proud of your ability to hold eye contact longer. This is also a good time to remind yourself of things you’ve learned from this interaction that can help you in the future.
After you’ve acknowledged what went well, you can then honestly assess what you can do better next time. Maybe you need to speak louder, or share more of your own opinions for example. Be happy that you know what you need to improve on and keep making progress.