You’ll Feel Less Social Anxiety if You Stop Trying to Fix Everything
Part 1 of 3 techniques to reduce social anxiety and improve mental health
If I told people in my life that I’ve struggled with social anxiety, they’d be surprised.
I fit all the outward signs of an “extrovert” — outgoing, energetic, participates in discussions with enthusiasm, likes big conversations, enjoys being the centre of attention, and more.
I’ve also said very dumb things, ruined friendships, and pushed people away.
I’ve done this because I get intensely stressed by social interaction. I often feel like I‘m performing, and that I have to be “perfect” all the time. The tension that breeds inevitably manifests in the interaction itself.
Over time, I’ve learnt to mitigate this stress, though I do still find it awkward on occasion. Conventional wisdom says you can’t get along with everybody, and you shouldn’t try to, but I feel like it is a great goal in self development to conquer social anxiety and be an attractive conversationalist with as many different types of people as you can.
As such, I’ve found that certain mindsets help me feel relaxed and be more natural in social situations. This is the first of three.
Part 1: You’ll Feel Less Social Anxiety if You Stop Trying to Fix Everything
Part 2: Most People Don’t Have the Mental Bandwidth to Judge You
Part 3: Fighting your Anxiety is a Surefire Way of Flaring It
But first, do you have social anxiety or are you just shy?
Social anxiety is when you feel immense stress in normal social situations, such as talking to people, being in a crowd, or being on stage. While some amount of nervousness or shyness is normal, anxiety is a more intense experience.
As the NHS says, social anxiety goes beyond just being shy. When you have social anxiety, you may have frequent behavior issues such as:
- worrying about everyday activities, such as meeting strangers, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working or shopping
- becoming reclusive and avoid social situations
- constantly fighting your body when feeling pressured
- finding it difficult to do things when others are watching
You may also have medical symptoms, such as nausea, profuse sweating, trembling, heart palpitations, and even panic attacks.
Read more about the medical side of social anxiety here: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/social-anxiety/
Also, we behave differently when we’re stressed. Social anxiety can affect your thoughts, your speech, and the way you interact with other people. It can make you an unpleasant person to be around, and because of that, it can exacerbate feelings of isolation, loneliness, and feeling unseen or misunderstood.
If you’re shy, you have the comfort to go at your own pace and live a relatively normal, healthy life. If you have social anxiety, you’d be best served getting some help.
When do you need professional help with social anxiety?
Everybody has moments when their mental health is challenged. That’s a part of living in a societal setup. However, when a mental health condition starts interfering with your daily life, that’s when it becomes a disorder.
Any mental health disorder needs medical or therapeutic intervention. If you feel frequently stressed by social situations and feel overwhelmed, consult a therapist to start.
A therapist does not (and cannot) prescribe medicine. Instead, they talk you through your issues in a systematic manner and provide you with exercises to have better control over your thought patterns. While I don’t have social anxiety disorder, I’ve personally benefited a lot from therapy for other mental health issues.
However, if your anxiety is infrequent or manageable, you can tackle it with some targeted behavior experiments on your own. The one that helped me the most is this:
You don’t need to fix everything
I grew up around people who talk in problems and solutions. The entire point of talking to someone was to get advice in return. Classic South Asian parentage and family. These were the patterns I learned to embody.
However, across time I found that people didn’t really like my way of talking. It came across as arrogant — that I was trying desperately to be the person who had the solution to everything.
I couldn’t get a bead on this problem until it was pointed out to me very specifically by a lady friend, who said “I’m a friend, not your mentee.” She said in no uncertain terms that I jump to the assumption that I’m being asked for help when she was just making conversation.
After that, I saw this pattern in conversations with other people, and I’ve been working on it. It’s not easy to change a habit so old, but the least I do now before offering advice is ask if they are looking for some. I’m also trying to feel okay with being silent, though this is more of a challenge.
Corollary: You should become comfortable in awkward silences
In college, I was looked upon as THAT guy — the guy who needed to be the first to answer a question, to be the first to volunteer information, the bit-too-enthusiastic nerd of the class.
What I was actually trying to do was fill the awkward silence that inevitably occurs when someone asks a question.
I noticed this when I was younger — nobody likes being the first person to answer a teacher’s question in class. The teacher ends up standing in place waiting, while an awkward silence permeates the room.
I was so uncomfortable with that silence that I would usually just say SOMETHING. If a lecturer asked if there were any questions, I would make one up, because I HATED that oppressive silence.
Most of the time after I asked a question, there would be a few more from the crowd.
Nobody likes being first.
Over time, I’ve learned that a silence is only awkward if you let it be. If you allow yourself to relax and be present in silence, you will be comfortable. It’s not your job to fill every silence.
When you feel a dip in a conversation coming, make a point of assuming a relaxed posture, take a deep breath, and smile. You can use your body to signal your mind that you’re not in an awkward (anxiety-causing) situation.
In fact, if you’re meeting someone for the first time or after a long time, you could initiate an awkward pause so that both of you can get the worst out of the way. This is exactly what late night host Craig Ferguson used to do on his show.
Isn’t that powerful? Imagine how comfortable you’d feel if you could own the silence.
Technique: the deliberate pause
A need to fix everything and be reliable often manifests as a lack of listening and an urgency to reply.
Not listening is not exclusive to this urge. Most people don’t converse to listen, but converse to respond. They wait till the other person is done speaking so they can jump in and talk about themselves or their stories. It’s a very common tendency, one that I still have as well.
A way to combat that is to introduce deliberate pauses. When you come to an important moment in conversation, introduce a pause on purpose. This will help you calm down and give a more measured and meaningful response.
Of course, when you start using this technique, you’ll find it difficult to identify important conversation moments. So an easier thing to do would be to take the pause every time you’re asked a question.
You can introduce pauses in a few ways:
- Try counting to five in your head before speaking.
- If counting to five doesn’t come to you naturally, simply take a deep breath before answering.
- You can also repeat the question to yourself so that you think about the answer.
Even better: repeat the question out loud back to your conversation partner. Not only does that give you the pause to think, it shows your partner you were listening to them.
Over time, the technique and the mindset becomes easier to enact. While it may take months or even years, it is a principle well worth internalizing.
This is part one of a three-part series. Part two is here:
Most People Don’t Have the Mental Bandwidth to Judge You
Part 2 of 3 techniques to reduce social anxiety and improve mental health
And part three is here: