We have all felt nervous in a social situation at some point, whether it’s going to a party, striking up conversations with strangers, asking someone out, meeting your partner’s parents for the first time, or giving a big presentation at work. But sometimes the anxiety becomes so overwhelming that you begin to avoid social situations and dread interacting with others.
Research shows that 7 to 13 percent of people struggle with social anxiety disorder.
People with social anxiety often have a fear of being negatively evaluated by others. They have shaky confidence in social situations and believe that they are not liked or respected. These beliefs may cause anxiety and fear in multiple areas of life. Sometimes, it causes them to be rigid and withdrawn in social situations, which leads others to think they are unfriendly or unapproachable when actually, they want to have meaningful connections.
Sound like you? Wondering what can you do about it? As it turns out, a lot. Here are my top three tips to overcome social anxiety:
Tip 1: Challenge your negative thinking.
Every emotion and behavior is preceded by a thought. But thoughts are not facts, they are mere mental events that don’t necessarily line up with reality. So it’s important to adopt the attitude that thoughts ≠ truth.
Next time you notice a negative feeling (such as fear or sweaty palms), stop and ask yourself, “What was I thinking just before this emotion or reaction?” Once you identify the thought, examine it. Ask yourself if the thought is accurate, fair (recognizing both the positives and negatives of the situation), and realistic (versus catastrophic).
Finally, form a helpful thought using the “Yes … but” technique. This quick strategy encourages you to acknowledge both the negative and positive aspects of a situation. For example, “Yes, I feel scared about going to this party where I’m a newbie … but I know the host and I can ask her to introduce me to one or two other people to strike up conversation with.”
Tip 2: Stop anticipatory anxiety in its tracks.
Our social fears are always rooted in the future or what you fear may happen in a particular social setting, and we often form worst-case scenarios in our minds. If we can bring our thoughts back to the present moment and take things one step at a time, it becomes a lot less overwhelming to follow through with what you planned to do—and helps when you are in the middle of the feared situation.
If you find yourself considering all of the terrible things that might happen at an upcoming social event, take a few deep breaths and direct your attention back to what’s going on right now. You can do this quickly by focusing on a physical object in your environment like a pen, chair, or water bottle. Reach out and physically touch the object, noticing its texture and how it feels in or on your hand. Once you’re in the actual feared social situation, direct your attention outwards (such as really listening to what your new friend is saying) rather than to your own thoughts (including negative self-judgements about how others are responding to you).
The more you avoid social situations, the bigger the fear gets, because every time you avoid an uncomfortable situation, you take away an opportunity to challenge your fears and learn that they are likely unfounded. So, challenge yourself with one social experiment every week. Think about this the way you would training for a 10K: the more you do it, the stronger your social skills become.
You can also use a laddering technique—starting small and building gradually—to deal with your most feared situations. Write down what you are afraid will happen each time you’re about to enter a feared situation. Afterwards, jot down what actually happened. You’ll find that most of the time your worst fears are never realized, and every time you’re able to get through an uncomfortable social situation you’ll find you’re more resilient than you give yourself credit for.
Shop pieces you’re sure to feel confident in: