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Anxious woman sitting on couch in white sweater holding a coffee mug

Recently, while out with a friend, I found myself sharing a table with a lovely woman – I’ll call her Nathalie – whom I really enjoyed talking to. We were discussing travelling, a topic that was clearly dear to her heart (and mine), and she lit up as she described in detail a recent trip.

My friend, who has a refreshingly candid demeanour, joined us mid-conversation, and the conversation moved onto other topics. My friend, in her typical banter-y fashion, lobbed some direct (but not inappropriate) questions at Nathalie, but she couldn’t seem to respond. She became vague, then deflected altogether. Her face turned red, her body was clenched, and she seemed to be searching for the “right” way to answer.

This clearly intelligent and interesting woman turned into a deer in the headlights – as soon as the conversation became more spontaneous and moved outside her control. I felt a wave of compassion for her as I recognised the signs of social anxiety.

What is social anxiety?

One way to think of social anxiety is excessive and irrational embarrassment in some or all interpersonal situations. This is often accompanied by anxious anticipation before the event, and a self-critical ‘audit’ (that can last for days) post-event.  Some examples of situations in which people experience social anxiety include:

  • Meeting new people
  • Performing in front of people
  • Taking or making phone calls
  • Asking for help 
  • Dating
  • Answering questions in front of people
  • Eating in front of people.
  • Participating in an interview

 

The core  feature of social anxiety disorder is a fear  of being judged, rejected and/or humiliated – and a corresponding tendency to overestimate judgement in a social context. 

Like any form of anxiety, social anxiety symptoms can range from mild to severe. Nathalie, who we met at the beginning, likely had mild social anxiety. She was, after all, out in public interacting with new people, and even easing into a conversation (before she was thrown off). However, if left untreated, social anxiety can have a debilitating impact.. Another social anxiety sufferer, Oscar, works for an insurance agency and dreads making phone calls. This has seriously threatened his career; his work performance has suffered due to clients complaining about him not getting back to them in a timely manner.  Jessica wants to meet someone, but the online dates she’s been on have been stiff and uncomfortable. Making conversation, answering questions, and eating in front of someone is painful for her.

How do I know if I have social anxiety?

People with social anxiety often describe feeling their mind “go blank” and not knowing what to say to other people. If this is you, I want you to know something: this ‘blankness’ is due to anxiety, not a lack of intelligence or personality.  Your brain is in fight or flight mode, and your prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain responsible for thoughtful, reflective dialogue, has gone offline. Racing heart, sweaty palms, even lightheadedness can accompany people when they are in a triggering social situation, which makes conversation very difficult!

We are nothing if not adaptive, and everyone who struggles with social anxiety will  come up with hacks and adjustments to get through conversations and events. These strategies usually fall into one of two categories: avoidance or control.

Some examples:

  • Controlling the conversation (either by asking all of the questions or sticking to ‘safe’ topics)
  • Avoiding certain events or cancelling at the last minute
  • Using distraction strategies such as being glued to a phone to look busy
  • Mentally rehearsing conversations before they happen, and scripting what to say next in a conversation
  • Avoiding eye contact and avoiding being near people you don’t know
  • Using substances such as alcohol to reduce inhibitions and feel more confident

 

Despite all of this, you’d be surprised at how well people with social anxiety are able to fly under the radar. Most sufferers are quite adept at masking their symptoms and are experts at blending in. Ducks appear calm above the surface, too: nobody sees them frantically paddling below.

 Internally, it is a different story. Anxiety is a very embodied experience. Racing heart, sweaty palms, even lightheadedness can accompany people when they are triggered. While these strategies may help you feel more in control, they also, sadly, prevent people from really getting to know you. In this way, social anxiety can be a very lonely experience.

Can I get over social anxiety?

Yes. You absolutely can – if you want to. But it is going to take consistency and commitment.

Social anxiety is treatable, and actually responds well to counselling, particularly evidence-based interventions found in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) or ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). 

If you are waiting to start therapy (or sitting on the fence), here are some ways you can start trying to help yourself. At the very least, attempting some of the interventions described below will make you a lot more aware of how your social anxiety operates, and that is half the battle.

1. Make a commitment to choosing awkwardness.

Social anxiety presents us with a dilemma: stay comfortable, and don’t move forward. Or, pursue activities, conversations and opportunities that move you closer to your version of a meaningful life, and experience a temporary surge of anxiety.

What’s your choice: comfort and stagnation, or awkwardness and growth?

Here’s the catch: because the physiological symptoms of anxiety are so uncomfortable (blushing, pounding heart, sweating), the choice to stay in our comfort zone often gets made unconsciously. In therapy, we teach you how to be just outside your comfort zone – enough so that you are growing, but not so much that you are flooded with anxiety symptoms and dysregulated. 

These days, the going assumption is that if something doesn’t feel natural and effortless, we’re doing it wrong. In fact, it’s the other way around. Awkwardness is a sign that you are swapping comfort (and stagnation) for growth and meaning. 

2. Tap into your inner critic

Of course, the running commentary in your head will start yammering away at you as soon as you start taking social risks. It might tell you you’re boring, or stupid, or ugly, any why are you wasting your time? It can be astonishingly convincing, and that’s a big part of why other people seem like such a threat.

It can also be sneaky. Sometimes it gets you to opt out by judging other people (what’s the point of trying to engage, these people are shallow, not your type, inferior,  and why are you wasting your time?

It also claims to have the superpower of mindreading. It tells you how poorly other people are going to perceive you if you talk to them, look at them, or open up to them. 

 Your inner critic may seem like a total a$$hole, but if you really pay attention, it’s more like a bodyguard. Perhaps you’ve been hurt before, and it is working overtime to prevent you from further threat to your ego. It influences you by asking “are you SURE?” or “DON’T!!” when you try to take small steps forward. 

What does your inner voice say? Write it down. If you don’t, it will continue to run on auto-pilot. Once you record it, you’ll hear it in your head, and you can say “oh – it’s you again!”

Sometimes, this inner critic is pretty tenacious and will just keep upping the ante to get you to pay attention. And sometimes, we’ve bought in for so long that our entire sense of self is fused with the narrative of our internal critic. In therapy, we work to dismantle this neural networking and replace it with a healthier relationship to yourself.

3. Build self-worth

It will be hard to motivate yourself to do the very hard work of being more genuine and less avoidant socially if, beneath it all, you really doubt whether you have something of value to offer. But how do you build this self-worthiness, when your inner critic has devalued you for so long?

A lot of people struggle with this. What if that critical bodyguard has tagged along for so long that you don’t really buy into your own loveable-ness, likeability, and overall worth? 

Self-compassion is an accessible and effective way to build the self-worth and encouraging self-talk needed to do hard things. What I love about self compassion is that it makes space for acknowledging all the tough feels that come up in social contexts. Fear. Shame. Loneliness. Grief for what our social anxiety has cost us. And yet, it is eminently practical. 

Three prompters that you can give yourself to activate a kinder stance towards yourself are:

  • Turn towards the pain with a vibe of caring curiosity. Sometimes I even say “ouch!” to myself when I want to acknowledge how hard it is just to be inhabiting this difficult moment. “Yep. This is stirring up a lot of stuff for me.” Try to put a name to the painful feeling you’re having. You might even put your hand on your heart as you think this, a powerful gesture that makes the caring process more embodied.
  • Name the internal conflict. The growth oriented part of me wants _____________ but the protective bodyguard wants ______________.  “I want so badly to find a romantic partner, but my inner critic won’t let me risk the potential humiliation of being rejected.” Can you make contact for a moment with the growth oriented part? How does it feel to desire something healthy for yourself? How can you respond to the intruding thoughts that try to talk you out of it?
  • Where could I start? If it feels like it is overwhelming to edge towards taking more social risks, remember that any action that serves your healthy desire for growth is a vote for yourself. 

4. Drop coping strategies that keep you stuck!

One thing that I often hear as a therapist is, “I want to challenge myself, but my anxiety is still too high! I’ll do the hard things once I feel less anxious.”

My response? “That’s awesome! But you’ve got it the wrong way around.” Anxiety goes down when we consistently do things that make us anxious. 

The next time you are in a social context, I want you to observe yourself like a diligent detective and take an inventory of all the subtle and not subtle behaviours you enact that temporarily regulate your anxiety. Turning away so that you don’t make eye contact with someone, forcing you to talk. Talking nonstop so that there isn’t a break in the conversation that might invite spontaneity. Not talking at all, lest you say something offensively boring, or too stupid, or too brainy. Using a public restroom, lest someone overhear your body functioning like a body. 

Remember, these strategies are not making you a better socializer. They merely help you ‘get through’ something that your brain has told you is unbearable.  The strategies that you think are helping are actually keeping you stuck by reinforcing that being in the presence of others is a tyranny that you could not possibly get through without [insert favourite strategy].

Make a list of every coping strategy you notice, and write them down. Pick one of them to drop. Start with the one that would be the least terrifying to get rid of. But commit to dropping it, not so that you can torture youself, but so that you can see that it is actually unnecessary. 

Also. This will feel awkward AF (at first!). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Remember, these strategies are not making you a better socializer. They merely help you ‘get through’ something that your brain has told you is unbearable.  The strategies that you think are helping are actually keeping you stuck by reinforcing that being in the presence of others is a tyranny that you could not possibly get through without [insert favourite strategy].

5. Commit, and don’t go at it alone.

You’ve been struggling this way for years, and rewiring your brain’s reaction to being around other people will take time, patience, and commitment. If you are trying to implement some of these steps and are finding that it is just too hard on your own,  counselling can help give you the accountability to keep at it, as well as the encouragement and tough love to help you believe in yourself.

Would you rather slavishly uphold this house of cards, or would you prefer to form meaningful relationships and enjoy social connections? Only you can decide.

Curious to see if someone on our team can help you?

About the Author

Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.