Social anxiety is something that ruled my life, inside and out, for most of the time I’ve been alive. In fact, it was so normalized, I took the pervading and paralyzing sense of terror and shame, chronic fatigue, bad breath no matter how much I brushed my teeth and chewed gum, hyperhidrosis, and desperation to disappear... to be bad genetics and some original-sin curse special-made for my born-into-the-One-True-Cult (as I had been told) self.
In nearly every situation, I would become as invisible as possible, unless I saw some sort of opportunity to suck in some validation with the one area I felt confident / comfortable in (knowing facts, school-test style). Getting close to people was an absolute disaster, no matter how deeply I wanted it to go well. The mask would either fall off and I would inadvertently reveal the seething, pitifully immature, emotional child that I really was, or I would purposely be as difficult as possible to “get it over with”. In both cases, awkwardness and rejection was such a given in my mind (and for good reason, granted my lack of understanding how to be an emotional adult) that I self-sabotaged until I had made sure the inferiority/rejection prophecy self-fulfilled--then immediately regretted it while wondering why I was apparently cursed from birth while everyone else was almost supernaturally “on the in”.
It took a long time, but not only am I able to do the once-impossible (approach a stranger and ask for extra napkins and directions to the restroom), I am able to make conversation that usually goes well, and not take it personally, make it all about me, or hash, rehash, and beat myself up for weeks when it doesn’t.
Interactions (favorable or unfavorable) are finally TRANSIENT, not immediately assimilated into a shame-&-blame identity.
Here are the tools and mindsets that lead me down the long road of social adeptness and social anxiety-less PEACE:
HERE'S HOW TO (FINALLY) REDUCE AND RELEASE SOCIAL ANXIETY, INSIDE AND OUT:
REJOICE IN YOUR INSIGNIFICANCE, YOU’RE FREE
You’re going to hear this and read this from literally everyone, and that’s because there’s just no helping it, it’s true: most people are ever so much more interested in themselves, their own lives, the million and one trials and happenings happening to them, ideas swirling in their heads, their own general fatigue, stress, and excitement, how they are presenting themselves and the impressions that they themselves are making...to pick you apart, focus on you, or hold you as their object of attention for long at all.
If you have been picked apart, condemned, and guilted / shamed all your life, this can be a hard unbelievable pill to swallow. This kind of (usually-starting-in-childhood) conditioning is what leads to the kind of miserable obsessive self-condemnation, feeling never-good-enough, and desperately slavering for any and all validation that can be gleaned, despite just *knowing* you don’t deserve it for whatever reason (feeling awkward, unappealing, inappropriate, embarrassing, too shy, whatever). But acceptance of this fact, that flies in the face of every poisonously secretive, emotionally retardive and abusive training you have had, is the first and most foundational step to becoming the captain of your own ship instead of the sad, socially marooned, approval-pirating wash-up who needs a flagon of rum just to make chit-chat.
When it comes to validation (as with fun), if you don’t make your own, you won’t be having any. The best high is from your own supply.
A good place to start is to study transactional analysis and the games people play.
HEAL YOUR PERSPECTIVE; FIND SOME GOOD PEOPLE AND OBSERVE
If you’ve been in a toxic, mixed-signaling, dark, smothering, rigid, emotionally chaotic, disdain-filled environment, it sure is easy to lose all hope and faith in humanity (most especially yourself).
When that is all you experience, how are you honestly suppose to NOT assume that you are inherently shameful, not assume that everything is your fault (for existing), not assume that everyone is tearing you apart behind your back, and not assume you are a giant burden (just from being present)? I’ve been there. Good luck.
I will never forget a major turning point that came by being surrounded by the right people. I had finally broken ever so slightly free from my creepy cult-like environment when I attended public school for high school. I was in band, and back in the bandroom, after a football game with a particularly snooty, rich school, an acquaintance named Cierra (who played clarinet and had a locker right next to mine) threw her instrument in, slammed the locker door, looked me straight in the eye, and declared with deep indignation: “Can you believe those people? I smiled and said hi and they totally ignored me. How RUDE!”
I was completely floored by this because of the contrast between her reaction and what I know would have been mine. She reacted like a healthy, normal person, who was shocked at the ill manners of others that said everything about the kinds of people they were.
Me, on the other hand, was so broken that I wouldn’t have even dared to smile or wave out of terror for this very reaction from them, that would have done nothing but rub my face in how unacceptable and easy to reject I was. I literally couldn’t even smile at kindly classmates I saw every day, much less potentially hostile strangers. I would have perseverated for literal DAYS over “how stupid” and “cringey” I had been to do something as simple as smile and say hello and get ignored, and it would have literally ruined the rest of the week for me. I would have been paralyzed with self-disgust over something the other band members would never have thought of again.
Until I saw Cierra’s reaction, it never even occurred to me that I could possibly feel differently. My life didn’t change instantly, but the door to the ability to change my feelings about myself did. It was a start.
This is just one example of how surrounding yourself with the right people literally makes all the difference in the world. And if you can’t find actual live humans (as I couldn’t for the vast majority of my life), surround yourself with good examples in other forms. Watch happy kids’ shows and read / listen to young-adult books with healthy, happy, constructive social interactions if you have to (old shows like Hogan’s Heroes and Star Trek: The Original Series work great too). Peoplewatch happy families in the supermarket and park, not in a intensely creepy way, but in that self-satisfied, all-is-right-with-the-world, granny-feeding-the-pigeons way. 7cups.com is also full of kind, non-judgemental people who can offer reassurance and support.
Once you know how, be a authentically kind, attentive, lovingly supportive, wholesome listener and be-er who it is safe to be REAL and vulnerable around. If you can put people at ease and really SEE them...you do the same for yourself. And you’re golden. It's only ever awkward if you make it awkward.
ACCEPT THAT THE WRONG KINDS OF PEOPLE ARE SH!TTY, AND THAT’S OKAY
“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” --Elinor Roosevelt
Ever has it been, and ever will it be so. These people will always continue to exist, but you don’t have to loan any legitimacy to their self-proclaimed importance. You can, as Boldomatic said, “If you don't like something, take away its only power: your attention.”
I used to give so much authority (in the form of fear) to classmates and then co-workers who made sure to be the loudest, most negative, most critical, most unfoundedly-confident braggadocios, most condescending, most menacing, and most rude. I mistook the fear, the sycophancy, the enabling-via-silence, and the non-confrontational attitudes of those around me to mean that these nasty people had the full support and admiration of a population they had completely fooled.
Conversations years later revealed that *everyone* had seen through these backstabbing toxics as clear as day, and these “popular” toxic people were universally disliked (most notably amongst the most toxic people themselves, since they were perpetually turning on each other).
These kinds of people, far from their intended effect, give you the incredible gift, as subtle as a Las Vegas-style neon sign, to disregard their opinion (especially the ones they have of you and other decent people), remain guarded, and give them a wide berth instead of turning into the court fool for their entertainment in the hope for a scrap of assigned value in the midst of humiliating derision. Accept that gift for what it is and give *yourself* the gift of realizing that you aren’t alone, most people aren’t fooled (however much they pretend to be), and that this vicious reign of terror (that is a giant amplified reflection of who they are, and has nothing to do with their victims, whose only real “crime” is proximity) WILL end. Someday, you will not have to face them every day. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the prize (you) and remember what TheraminTrees said: “DO NOT VALIDATE YOUR OWN INVALIDATION. DO NOT VALIDATE POWER PLAYS. STOP OVER-VALUING YOUR ABUSERS’ RESPECT.”
You don’t have to make a huge scene and carry on and on (it’s probably better not to). It’s enough that YOU know (always has been, always will be).
TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY AND SOUL
You KNOW this, anyone and everyone will tell you this (including yourself), but when you don’t look good, you don’t feel good...and when you don’t feel good, you don’t tend to look too good. Looks may not be all-important...but you’re not stupid. They DO matter. The outside reflects the inside.
So drink that water, eat something nutritious that makes you feel as good as it tastes (healthy food is an acquired taste, but it gets quite tasty), wear clothes as elegant as they are comfortable (like they do in Narnia!). try fasting (if your healthcare professional says it is okay for you to do), move your body, pamper your skin and hair, lay down and rest your eyes when you feel spent (it’s just about impossible to feel okay when you are beyond exhausted). Do more of what feels good.
Anxiety is usually systemic and has many causes, some surprisingly more physical than mental. You might consult a holistic medical practitioner who can help more than you even imagined possible.
And don’t forget your soul. The more you DO, the more abilities you can use and the more completed or even works-in-progress you can point to, the more you have: *Tangible proof of effort and ability (huge confidence booster)
*Experienced the joy of creating, doing, being, and expressing
Scott Adams said it best in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life: “Recapping my skill set: I have poor art skills, mediocre business skills, good but not great writing talent, and an early knowledge of the Internet. And I have a good but not great sense of humor. I’m like one big mediocre soup. None of my skills are world-class, but when my mediocre skills are combined, they become a powerful market force.”
BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF
When we start to build up interactions and events to gargantuan heights of importance, to the point we become shaking wrecks with a royal flush of broken-out skin and Victoria Falls for armpit pores, so socially incoherent that we alternate between being unable to make eye contact, much less speak, and spilling every last inappropriate detail no one but the wrong people wants to hear...
We need to stop trying to fool ourselves that we can handle this as is, that everything is okay (when it's truly not), that “this time will be different...for reasons”. You KNOW this leads to sad, (often inebriated) failure.
“Demons hate fresh air.” --Ingmar Bergman
Somehow, when you are honest with what you are going through, expose it in the open, and face it…
Much like making a list of overwhelming things you have to do, when you can see it all laid out…
It just isn’t so bad after all.
Your brain can handle it in a way that makes sense, instead of a raging-anxiety throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks-I-don’t-know-what-to-do fight-flight-freeze bid for social survival.
This is why I will continue to swear by Emotional Freedom Technique Tapping (where you tap on various acupressure points on your body while you say your thoughts and feelings aloud and reassure yourself that you still “totally and completely, love, accept, and forgive myself”) and Doctor David Snyder’s “Magic Frame” and “Spinning” techniques (partially influenced by Doctor Richard Bandler).
I really don’t know of anything that works faster, cheaper, easier, better, or more wholesome-er. Invest 20 minutes of the most peace and love you will have today in yourself. There are a jillion videos that will do it with you, so you are literally never alone.
Wishing you all the communicative grace, mutual peace & ease, and experiential elegance possible, this holiday season and always.
All My Love,
Additional great resources:
And, of course,