Sitting at home isn’t the solution for shyness and social anxiety—try these ideas.
By Lori Hile
It appears in your inbox without warning: an e-vite to a holiday party! Hosted by a co-worker you barely know. Also on the guest list: 25 strangers.
For many extroverts, this is the stuff dreams are made of. What a great opportunity to meet lots of future friends! But if you’re more wallflower than social butterfly, a party invitation may cause a few, well…butterflies.
If you’re an introvert, the very idea of mingling with the masses can be exhausting. If you’re shy, imagining a sea of strangers adds an element of fear to an otherwise festive season. If you suffer from social anxiety, the thought of walking into a roomful of unfamiliar faces may instill terror in your heart.
“Uncomfortable” is how Tim, a man from Chicago, describes time spent at gatherings. When he was growing up, his strict parents wouldn’t let him attend parties. When he finally had the freedom at college to go out, he often found he didn’t know what to do or say.
“Since I wasn’t exposed to these events, I didn’t feel like I developed those [social] skills,” recalls the 35-year-old, who would often latch onto one person for the entire night.
These days, he’s selective about what events he chooses to attend. And when he’s in the thick of it, he gives himself a pep talk: “If I was invited to the party in the first place, I must offer something of value. I’m there for a reason, and whatever perspective I have is appreciated.”
Honing your interpersonal skills and bulking up your self-confidence are just two of the useful strategies that make social encounters more manageable. Not so helpful: Avoiding them altogether.
Research shows that an active social life correlates with greater well-being. But you’re not likely to master your fears and learn to navigate social situations with ease by sitting at home.
“Anxiety is a reason to do something, not a reason to avoid doing something, since the more you do it, the easier it gets,” says Martin Antony, PhD, chairman of the psychology department at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook.
So click “yes” to that e-vite and enter the fray. With practice and preparation, that dreaded party can be practically painless, or possibly even—dare we say?—pleasurable.
It’s a wonder parties have any guests at all. Although official statistics on how many of us qualify as introverted or shy are hard to come by, various estimates range from one-third to one-half of adults in North America.
According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health and the Canadian Mental Health Association, from 6 to 8 percent of us have social anxiety. The true number may be higher, however, because the line between painfully shy and a diagnosable disorder gets fuzzy.
Areesah, 44, has always had trouble making friends. She considered herself “overly shy” until she clicked on a pop-up Internet ad in summer 2014 and discovered from the quiz that she actually has social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia.
Anxiety limited her interactions at work, where she avoided chitchat and even eye contact with her co-workers. It kept her from attending her department’s monthly potluck lunches. Afraid that she wouldn’t know what to say and that everyone would think she was too quiet, “I just could not go into the room.”
People who feel paralyzed by shyness or social anxiety generally have a critical script running through their heads and a “deeply ingrained belief that they’re not good enough,” says Aziz Gazipura, PsyD, author of The Solution to Social Anxiety: Break Free From the Shyness That Holds You Back.
Therefore, “interacting with others is like walking on a narrow tightrope over a 200-foot drop. One slightly false move will result in harsh judgment, ridicule, and rejection.”
Cognitive therapy techniques can be used to counteract “catastrophizing” (assuming the worst possible scenario) and “probability overestimation” (giving too much weight to the likelihood of a negative outcome).
“You need to question your thoughts, rather than assume these anxiety-provoking ideas are true,” says Candy Katoa, PsyD, a psychologist at the University of California-San Francisco psychiatry clinic.
To get in touch with her thoughts, Areesah takes a few minutes throughout the day to check in with her breath and body. When she feels a big lump in her chest, she asks herself, “What’s going on, Areesah?”
If she finds that she’s worrying about what others are thinking of her, she reminds herself of something her therapist told her, “You have no psychic abilities, Areesah.”
SWITCH THE FOCUS
Worrying about how you are perceived by others could be called “outside-in” thinking—an extremely inhibiting attitude.
“If you’re worried people will think you’re weird and get caught up in your thoughts about it, you’re probably going to act even weirder,” Tim reflects.
Although not a quick fix, it pays to nurture compassion and acceptance for those parts of yourself you think are unacceptable—whether it’s a stammer or your sexual orientation. Or in Tim’s case, both.
He noticed a sea change in his socializing after he came out during his sophomore year.
“Coming out required some level of self-acceptance,” he said. “Saying ‘You’re OK, who you are is great,’ took away a layer of anxiety.”
When you attempt to control how others see you, conversations become a performance rather than a chance to forge a connection. “Inside-out” thinking flips the situation.
To start, make a point of observing what’s around you: the furnishings, the food, the way people are actually responding to you rather than how you fear they might. This takes your focus off yourself and might yield some conversational openings.
When Matthew of Portland, Oregon, is talking to someone new, he homes in on details such as what someone is wearing, and has “lots of fun observing and commenting on what’s going on around me.”
Another approach: Remind yourself to truly be present in that moment. Really listen, instead of wondering if you’re saying the right thing.
“If thoughts of yourself are crowding your mind, it’s hard to be natural,” Katoa notes. “The more present you can be, the more natural your small talk will become.”
Matthew says that in high school, he would adapt his personality to try to get people to like him. Now the 25-year-old asks himself: Do I connect with this person? Am I drawn to this person? Do we have anything in common?
He’s become more comfortable talking about the types of things that genuinely interest him—manga, card games, video games—because he’s gotten to a place where “it doesn’t matter how they perceive me,” he says. “Before I secretly wanted their approval. Now I don’t need it.”
Gazipura likens social confidence to a muscle that needs to be strengthened over time. “You must work out by taking healthy risks and testing out your negative predictions until you change your perception of yourself and others,” he explains.
Start with smaller challenges and gradually move up your fear hierarchy. Say you’ve set your sights on the company picnic next summer. Ease in, Katoa recommends, by “saying hi to a colleague in another cubicle. Then try chitchatting with a colleague in the lunchroom. Test out your fears, and observe how they respond.”
Are they giving you strange looks and backing away slowly? If not, you’re probably doing fine.
The important thing is to see it as a process, not a one-time, make-or-break event. An unsatisfactory experience “doesn’t mean you’re hopelessly broken or have some big, fundamental flaw,” Gazipura advises.
Jonathan Berent, LCSW, author of Beyond Shyness: How to Conquer Social Anxieties, says that many people with social fears are also perfectionists, striving to be extra-good at everything to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. While aiming high isn’t a bad thing, Berent says, perfectionists can become discouraged “if they’re not James Bond the first time out.”
Adjust your expectations. Realize you don’t have to be the suavest person at the soiree. Social success can look different for different people.
If you’re an introvert who prefers depth to breadth, it can mean having a few long, meaningful conversations. Matthew knows he’s not the life-of-the-party type, but, “I can carry on stimulating conversations one- on-one.” Finding that allows him to leave a party fulfilled.
Social success might mean giving yourself permission to leave early if a social event is simply not working for you. When Areesah left her last work potluck after 10 minutes, she counted that as a triumph.
“In those 10 minutes, I conquered a mountain,” she says. “That’s enough!”
It’s inevitable that some interactions will go better than others. It helps to recognize that all conversations have a life cycle, says Antony.
“Conversations with strangers don’t stay interesting forever,” he says. Furthermore, “it’s impossible for you to be interesting to every person.”
And if your worst fears are realized—no one talks to you, your skirt gets caught in your underwear, your boss frowns at you—look for the humor and laugh at yourself, or ask yourself what you can learn from the experience.
“Instead of blaming yourself, focus on solutions,” says Akash Karia, author of Small Talk Hacks: The People and Communication Skills You Need to Talk to Anyone and Be Instantly Likeable. “If you didn’t smile much, remind yourself to smile more next time. If you didn’t make eye contact, pay attention to eye color next time.”
At the least, give yourself credit for taking the risk. “The action we take is the victory,” says Gazipara, “not the result.”
One of first challenges Matthew set for himself was to say hello to 25 strangers. His critical script told him, “I’m being annoying. I shouldn’t bother them.” Then he found that almost everyone said “hi” back.
One thing he learned: “Most people crave interaction and are happy to engage on a friendly level.” And those that snubbed him?
“I went on with my day. I was not going to take reactions personally from people I don’t know.”
‘IT’S SO TREATABLE’
Feeling awkward or uncomfortable around other people might stem from shyness, which is considered a personality trait. Social anxiety takes that discomfort to a whole different level. Diagnostically speaking, social anxiety is considered a phobia: a strong and persistent fear of being judged by others and of being embarrassed in public.
That fear can literally cause your heart to race, says psychologist Candy Katoa, PsyD. In addition to a “pounding heart,” other physical symptoms include “sweating, stomach stirring, shaking, trembling, shortness of breath, dizziness, and muscle tension,” she says.
Both shyness and social anxiety can lead to avoiding social activities, which makes it harder to make friends, maintain relationships, or network. The lack of social connection may feed depression. So can the feeling that you’re not living up to social norms.
Like other phobias, however, social anxiety can be resolved with the help of psychotherapy and certain medications. In fact, Katoa says a social anxiety diagnosis can be something of a relief because “it’s so treatable.”
TIPS FOR SMALL TALK
Does small talk seem like a waste of time? Not so, says Akash Karia, author of Small Talk Hacks: “It’s really a way of taking time to build relationships.” And with the proper mindset and skill set, Karia maintains, anyone can win friends and influence people. Here are five suggestions to get you started.
Adopt a power posture. Standing taller, relaxing your facial muscles, unhunching your shoulders and breathing deeply actually helps you feel more confident and less stressed.
Ask open-ended questions. Try to frame questions that demand more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Thus it’s not, “Do you live around here?” It’s, “What’s your neighborhood like?”
Follow up. After a stock starter question (“What do you do?”), probe for details. Ask why they like their job, why they chose that school, anything that might build a stronger connection.
Volley and return. Don’t simply bombard your current companion with questions. After listening attentively, share a relevant personal story of your own. Karia advises developing a stock of stories about memorable events in your life and practicing them on friends.
Have an exit strategy. If things just aren’t clicking, pull out a canned exit line: “Very nice to meet you. I’m going to grab a drink/find my friend/scope out the other room. I’ll catch you later.”
A wallflower’s guide to social events
Call on your calm. Try some relaxation techniques before you leave the house to lower your baseline anxiety. Before her last work luncheon, Areesah listened to calming music, did breathing exercises, and visualized herself talking with co-workers.
Or amp up your energy. Do something to put yourself into a positive, naturally excited state. Play a song you love and sing along on the top of your lungs. Exercise, or just jump up and down. Yell.
Recruit reinforcements. Meet up with a friend or group beforehand and go to the event together.
Make up a mantra. As you go into a party, encourage yourself with empowering self-talk. Some examples: “People like talking with me.” “I’m interesting and engaging.” “The world is a friendly place.” It helps to remember that not everyone is judging you, even if you tend to judge yourself.
Go in with a goal: Your unconscious agenda may run something like this: I shouldn’t be here. I’ll grit my teeth and get through this. I hope I don’t mess up. Instead, create a positive intention: I will connect with people. I will enjoy myself and brighten someone’s day. I’ll compliment three different people in a way they can receive it.
Or an assignment: Areesah asked if she could come early and help set up at the monthly potlucks in her workplace. “It helped immeasurably,” she says. Not only did it make her feel more comfortable in her surroundings, it alleviated the problem of not knowing what to do.
GET THE PARTY STARTED
Pounce. When you arrive at a party, interact with someone right away, even if it’s a quick 20-second exchange of, “Hi, see you around,” as you put down your coat. The longer you wait, the harder it gets.
Be the driver. Instead of waiting and hoping that people will talk to you, throw out a conversational gambit or insert yourself into a group. Start with the least threatening person—perhaps someone else standing alone.
Give it time. It may take a good half-dozen follow-up questions—maybe even a few offbeat queries like “What do you do for fun?” or “What’s something in your life you’re really excited about?”—to engage someone you’ve never met before. Instead of immediately assuming the other person doesn’t want to talk to you, allow for a warm-up period.
Follow your fascination. Sincere interest is a fine social lubricant. If your conversational partner mentions her kids, her house, a recent vacation, ask yourself: What’s most interesting to me about this? “You don’t have to talk about their kids,” says Aziz Gazipura, PsyD. “Ask them about their villa in Tuscany.”
Printed as “Join the party,” esperanza Fall 2015
via bpHope – bp Magazine Community