We all feel socially anxious sometimes but these feelings affect some of us more than others. They can stop us having fun when we're out with people or even put us off going out altogether. Here are five ways to help yourself when these feelings threaten to overwhelm you.
STEP ONE: COMMIT to yourself, to being your own best friend. That means you don’t say lots of nasty things to yourself. If you stop and check, you’ll notice that you are bombarding yourself with unhelpful thoughts. Like I’m not good enough, people don’t like me, I’m not funny/intelligent/knowledgeable. Maybe you do it so automatically you hardly even notice. From now on, you are your biggest fan, you give yourself pep talks, you cheer yourself on, you pat yourself on the back, you focus on the positives and everything that is involved in being your BFF. And you’re no fair-weather friend! Everyone can be nice to themselves when things go well. True friendships are about being there in the hard times, and that goes for you too. When you think after a night out, oh no, that was a disaster, then more than ever, it’s time to prove what a good friend you can be to yourself. If you continue to be mean to yourself, you will not move forward. That's why it's about commitment.
STEP TWO: ACCEPT. Often there's the problem (being socially anxious) and then there's how we feel about the problem (like a failure/loser/worthless etc). This just adds another unnecessary layer to the problem. Now we not only have the problem itself to cope with, but we also have much higher stakes because of the meaning we attach to it in terms of what we decide it says about us. That just creates more pressure. So instead, let's just admit it. You’re shy. And….? And nothing. It's fine to be shy. So say to yourself, that's okay. If I feel a bit awkward just accept that's how things are for me right now. Being your own best friend will help you accomplish this so you don’t have a go at yourself. Paradoxically, accepting your anxiety will lead to less anxiety.
STEP THREE: CHANGE THE TEST. I’m guessing that you treat social events as a test. Did you pass? Did you manage not to embarrass yourself, offend anyone, make a fool of yourself, etc.? Rather than enjoying the moment, any enjoyment you get from social events is about how well you did, rather than how much fun you had. We need to change the nature of the test. Passing this new test is about putting yourself out there. Every time you take a risk socially (i.e. talk to someone you would normally not talk to, go to an event you would avoid, just smiling at someone) you win a prize. The prize is more confidence. Passing this new test isn’t about whether each of these forays into the unknown went ‘well’, it's about the fact that they happened at all. Each time you take a chance like this you expand your comfort zone. Expanding your comfort zone is the name of the game. As you do this, your anxiety will naturally reduce.
STEP FOUR: STOP LOOKING FOR EVIDENCE. After a social event you might be tempted to root around for evidence that you got it wrong in some way. You offended someone, you said something stupid, you made an unfunny joke. The thing with evidence is we always find it! Whatever belief it is we're trying to confirm, we will find something that supports it. Instead, try a positive belief. Try looking for evidence that people like having you around. If you look, you will find that too.
STEP FIVE: GET SOME STRATEGIES. So, there's no harm in having a few strategies up your sleeve for the next social occasion. A strategy would be something like having a few questions lined up. You've heard it a million times before but it doesn't make it less true. People like people who take an interest in them. Ask questions. Plan ahead two or three you can open up with. Be genuinely curious. Find the subjects people are passionate about. Ask about them.
If you struggle with social shyness or social anxiety, it can often be about some deep held beliefs we have about ourselves and our acceptability. It's often an issue of not really accepting ourselves. If you are unhappy about being shy or find yourself debilitated with social anxiety, psychotherapy can help. In psychotherapy or counselling you can understand more about your belief systems and learn to challenge those beliefs and move forward with more confidence.