Social anxiety FTW
January 10, 2013 6:20 PM   Subscribe

I would like to hear about experiences of overcoming social anxiety from people who have a) successfully done so or b) embraced and made a happy life despite it.

If you look at my question history, you probably see the experiences of a person with a lot of doubts in social situations-- some borne of inexperience, some of limited and/or poor boundaries. But I am determined to deal with my issues in this new year of 2013 and am seeking tips on how to do so.

This question is complicated by the fact that I am not sure exactly what the reasons for this anxiety are. Going down the personal weird rabbit whole of introspection, I feel that I've always just wanted people to "get along" and part of my anxiety is related to the inability to be aggressive. Sometimes I fear this doesn't really serve me in social situations. Generally, I have very high self esteem and self confidence but sometimes i feel like people perceive me as a "sucker." This is a huge source of anxiety.

At the same time, I feel like part of my anxiety is related to high standards about how to behave in social situations. Perhaps related to the above, I have a hard time "rejecting" people.

Any tips related to the above would be great. Social anxiety is such a complicated issue. Has anyone else had luck understanding it in relation to the desire to be "nice"/"a good person" and/or managed to dial down these issues?

Have been in therapy, didn't find it helpful. YMMV.

posted by kettleoffish to Human Relations (12 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
I have a lot of social anxiety and anxiety in general. I have a lot less social anxiety than I used to (and you'd probably never guess I had it unless you knew me well) and I also have a good, happy life with what I still have. Here's how:

1. I really, really got it that people are not spending their lives judging me, that I am not the center of their universe, and that what is important is what we can both get out of our interactions. Technique-wise, I "faked it until I made it", observing others who acted the way I wanted to act, taking social risks, and being bold.

2. I stopped psychoanalyzing so much. Instead of thinking about my childhood and why and blah blah and my being a pleaser and my parents being abusive and whatever, I focused on DOING things differently. This really helped.

3. I started dating someone with social anxiety who just simply avoids situations that he doesn't like. This is a good balance for me because I've always pushed myself to be better, and overcome things and be more perfect and whatever. When he's feeling anxious, he just stays home and watches a movie.

There are drawbacks to this approach, of course, but it also taught me that you can have a great life doing amazing things without conquering your social anxiety. Einstein, Al Gore, Frida Kahlo, and a thousand other world-changing artists, leaders, scientists were all weird messed up people who probably had lots of social anxiety. So who cares if you just stay home. Keep painting!

So, tl;dr:

- Fake it until you make it
- Don't push yourself too hard; it's okay to be anxious

Feel free to write with specific questions if you want.
posted by 3491again at 6:49 PM on January 10, 2013 [15 favorites]

Yes, absolutely.

I suffered through crippling social anxiety in high school, and gradually (and painfully) practiced until I could hold full conversations with acquaintances without freaking out about it. It took a long time. Six years later, I still get anxious in social situations, but I can control my anxiety well enough to put it aside.

There are three big things that really helped me get on the road to enjoying my social life:

1) Committing myself to embracing awkwardness. This meant walking head-on into a lot of painfully embarrassing situations. I survived, and learned from them, and my life is now less awkward as a result.

2) Dealing with the other sources of stress and anxiety in my life. Getting my general anxiety levels down really helped me put my social anxiety in perspective.

3) Approaching life like a lesson. Life is not win or lose. As long as you're learning, your efforts are valid and worthwhile. Committing to "learning" instead of "improving" was really helpful because it took a lot of pressure off me.

Best of luck! You are not alone :-)
posted by jjjjjjjjane at 7:16 PM on January 10, 2013 [8 favorites]

kettleoffish, we could be twins on this issue. I was raised to be hyper polite and social and conscious of others' feelings and it had the opposite effect of making me unsociable, for fear that I would not be "perfect" for the other person and might do something to upset them.

There are a few principles that I have learned to believe that have made me much, much less meek. They are:

1.) There is no one more deserving of your compassion and your prioritization than yourself, by virtue of you being a person just as the rest of us are. That doesn't mean you should be going around selfishly taking from everyone else, but it helps to learn how to recognize your own worth as equal to everyone else's so that the needs of others don't automatically supercede yours. Relationships should be mutually beneficial. Like you, I'd say I have high self-confidence but it's more high rational self-confidence. I recognize my good traits in my head absolutely, but if I don't focus on feeling my self-worth (all the time) or in the moment reminding myself of my equality to others, I'll give myself up for others. Always.

2.) I'm not sure if this is something you struggle with, but it's common with people who try to be "nice and good" always, so I'm putting it out there. A non-offensive personality will win you some friends for being nice of course, but if you're scared to offend or turn people off with your opinions/humor, people will sometimes feel like they don't really know you. Like there's nothing drawing them to you. I certainly noticed that when I started letting more of my real sense of humor through, people around me started enjoying me more. Letting people know who you really are shows you're comfortable with yourself. It creates intimacy, which leads to a more satisfying life. The more you show people who you are without worry of offense, the less anxiety you have about seeming "not nice" over time -- because you see that people like you best when you are real.

3.) And of course, everyone else is worried about how they're coming off. Most of the things you say or do aren't nearly as worthy of apology or embarrassment as you might think they are. I have learned this by paying attention to the reactions of my most blunt friends to my "sorry"s for perceived offenses. These people would tell me up front if they were bothered. It's more often that they tell me they're bothered by how often I say "sorry."

The general gist of everything is that you need to learn the dignity to apologize for yourself less. I'd suggest next time someone asks you to do something you don't really want to do, in the moment really ask yourself WHY you should prioritize their needs and time over yours. Explore the specific answers you come up with, if you've got any. Try saying no and see what happens.

If you ever want to talk, please message me! Good luck.
posted by houndsoflove at 7:33 PM on January 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

I am not unfamiliar with social anxiety. What helped me to a TREMENDOUS (as in, "I cannot even tell you how much") degree was meditation -- in my case, simple mindfulness meditation (focusing on the breath, in and out, in and out). I would have rolled my eyes at this suggestion five (or even three) years ago, but I am now a convert who will preach of the incredible benefits of ten minutes of meditation every morning.

I think the real proof lies in what happens to me when I skip meditating for a week. I can feel the effects in the way my anxiety levels start creeping back up -- not only when I'm in social situations, but also when I'm lying in bed at night with all sorts of thoughts tumbling through my head. Conversely, when I'm meditating on a regular basis, I not only feel less anxious and self-conscious, I also recover more quickly from social situations in which I felt rattled. I guess I' to myself, somehow. It's a nice way to be. (I also fall asleep a lot more quickly at night!) Finally, through whatever magic meditation works, I am also very aware of the exact moments when I am starting to get anxious, and am able, through focusing on my breathing, to short-circuit that cycle that would normally lead toward flat-out "Oh my God, what am I saying, I am being such an idiot, get me out of here" panic.

If you're interested in this at all, I strongly recommend Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. There is no woo in this book, which was important to me (spiritual texts not being my thing). It not only addresses how to meditate, it also looks at the clinically documented effects of meditating, which are pretty neat in themselves.
posted by artemisia at 7:34 PM on January 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

I just force myself to go out - I usually schedule my life so I'M forced to interact with people constantly. Loving live music helps. I also see a therapist and use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 8:19 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have social anxiety and I was raised to be the best doormat possible (raised female by a dominating mother with fairly strict gender roles, who only got worse when she got cancerous tumours in her brain). Let me first say that I had a lot of the feelings you describe in your post when my anxiety was at its worst.

I finally stopped navelgazing and began a strict "I will only do what makes me happy" policy, which led to me making several radical changes (such as cutting off toxic people, creating a queer identity that suits me, creating a social sphere completely void of jerks and haters, transitioning, etc.). I decided that nothing was worth the pain I was feeling: the constant panic attacks, the crying fits when I had to order pizza over the phone, the immediate shortness of breath when all someone asked was what kind of hot dog I wanted, the freak outs and the loneliness. I gave myself permission to be selfish and stay home if I needed to, or to say no to people/places I didn't really enjoy.

And even with all that, I still needed anti-anxiety medication to get to a "normal" level of function.

But I am so so so incredibly better off having made these changes.

Hopefully some of my experience is helpful to you!
posted by buteo at 9:10 PM on January 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

What 3491again said, especially #1. Trying to objectively evaluate situations where I felt anxious helped me a ton-- if you find yourself extremely nervous because you're worried about saying or doing something unacceptable or that others will judge, ask yourself when the last time someone did or said something that was so offensive to you that you wrote them off as terrible and gave a lot of thought to it. Most people rarely notice some small embarrassing thing or faux pas, and even if they do, they don't give it a lot of attention.

You say you have high self-esteem and confidence, and I imagine you do. But I personally found that while I was suffering from social anxiety, even though I knew I was an awesome person capable of great things, I still felt undeserving socially. Like I was always walking a tightrope of social standards and the slightest slip would send me plummeting down to the pit of social pariah. I think this ties into a type of self-esteem-- not your overall self-worth, but how you relate to people socially. Positive self-talk helped me with that, even if it feels dumb to remind yourself that you're deserving of attention, respect and love, that you have value.

Finally, the biggest thing that helped me get over social anxiety was to slowly, painfully, learn to stop caring about whether or not other people thought I was nice or a good person. I shifted the definition to something more concrete: as a good person, I don't cause harm to others, I show respect to others when it is due, and I show respect to myself. Personally, the biggest part of this for me was accepting that I'm kind of weird, I've always been kind of weird, there are other people in the world that may not like me because I'm kind of weird, and that is OK. There are plenty of people in the world that aren't going to like you for whatever reason. It doesn't matter. There are plenty of people who will if you give them the chance to. We don't have to pretend to be people we're not to satisfy some shifting goalpost of social normalcy.

I don't know how much of what's above relates to you personally. I guess the tl;dr is just don't be afraid to be yourself over worrying about people perceiving you as a "good person."
posted by girih knot at 10:35 PM on January 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

I used to feel self-conscious about other cars behind me judging when my brake lights were on, because I thought they would think I was braking at inappropriate times.

In college, my checking account was overdrawn and I had money to transfer from savings in my account, but the lady at the bank was my friend's mom and I sort-of knew her so I kept getting overdraft fees even though I had the money, because I was too anxious about making small talk with her.

I am now a still sometimes anxious person, and still "shy" but much more in the normal range.
One thing that really helped me was going to a support group for social anxiety. As a socially anxious person, my brain told me HIDE YOUR ANXIETY AT ALL COSTS. Don't show others you are anxious!! This made me way more nervous, and it was really powerful (and HARD at first) to share my fear with others faving the same issue.

I've read Feeling Good by David Burns, and it made me realize that the MAJORITY of my thoughts at one point were irrationally based on anxiety. I heard that you can refute these thoughts by saying "so what?," but that never meant anything to me because the anxiety was so real. So now, I say, "I can cope with that," or "I can handle that," if I have an anxious thought and catch it. (So if I think, "OMG THAT LADY IS LOOKING AT MY HAIR AND THINKING IT LOOKS BAD," I can think, "Oh, she probably isn't. But if she was, I could cope with that.")

I am a speech therapist at a school, and I work well with my coworkers, and I enjoy working in small groups or individually with kids. I was voted teacher of the year by my coworkers last year, even though I eat lunch at my desk alone for some alone-time and I am a very introverted and not a networky person.

I've been using online dating and am actually pretty comfortable meeting people now. I have friends, but am still trying to make more in the town where I live. I think professionally it is easier to be outgoing/less anxious than it is in my personal life, maybe because, like you, on my free time I want to have down time where I am not anxious and use it to relax.

Like 3491again said above, realizing that everyone was focused on themselves and not constantly jugding me helped tremendously!

I want to say more but have to go to work. Please message me if you want to memail about experiences.
posted by shortyJBot at 3:46 AM on January 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

I had a lot of social anxiety for most of my life, like heart palpitations before calling my best friend anxiety. I totally agree with most of the above, and a few specific things that really helped me break through:

1. Talk therapy was amazingly helpful for me, and I think part of what helped was my therapist actually walking me down all the negative thought paths that I set up for myself. Forcing me to say "And then I might say something wrong....and then my best friend might hate me and never hang out with me again...and then I'll never make another friend...and then I'll die alone" and really examining each link of that sequence. Also, I think it was very helpful having a space where I was allowed to be totally vulnerable and confused and imperfect for an hour a week and be ok with that part of myself.

2. Learning some conversational techniques helped me feel a lot more comfortable in group situations. A big thing for me was learning to ask more questions. For a long time, I thought when someone said "I'm from Detroit" I was supposed to respond with some interesting insight or fact about Detroit, so I would feel a lot of pressure to come up with something. But really, the best response to "I'm from Detroit" is "Oh really? I don't know much about Detroit, what was it like growing up there?"

3. Like 3491again said, the key is really GETTING that you are not the center of the universe and no one is watching you waiting for you to mess up. Once that sunk in, I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. It helps me to constantly flip the tables, and look at how little it actually bothers me when one of my friends says something that annoys me or when someone at work is acting weird. To remind myself that people's reactions to me doing something "wrong" would probably be "huh, that's weird. oh well. Wonder what's for dinner?" rather than "EmilyFlew is SO WEIRD WE HATES HER TAR AND FEATHER HER"

4. Just recently, I was having a perfectly nice conversation with a work acquaintance at a work party and in the middle of it she blurted out "I'm sorry if I'm acting a little weird, I get so nervous at parties like this!" It was the most endearing thing, and it really helped me remember that EVERYONE ELSE is nervous and wants to say the right thing, and that I'm probably not acting as weird as I think I am, and that it's totally ok, even sweet, to acknowledge the nervousness that we're all feeling.
posted by EmilyFlew at 6:56 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have never been diagnosed with social anxiety but I know that I spent many many years being a painfully shy person and am much less so now. For me the following has helped:

1. Mindfulness exercises - Being aware when my stomach muscles are clenched and my jaw is tight for example. I think the mind-body connection is such that when your brain gets messages that there is tension in your body, frequently you'll start thinking worrisome/catastrophizing thoughts to match the sensation: E.g. "Oh my god, this is so awkward. She hates me for creating this awkward silence! It's horrible! I am a failure at interaction!" I have found when I "non-judgmentally" just identify the physical sensation, it helps me refocus and often just magically loosens the anxiety. In a lot of situations, by just identifying that I'm anxious, I'm able to have a very easy going conversation a few moments later. After a while I just started feeling less anxious about interacting with people in general.

2. It's partly context dependent. I'd say the first eight months of starting the job I am in now, I was fairly terrified of my coworkers. Now that I've established relationships with many of them I feel comfortable and like it is "my place."

3. This is related to mindfulness, but I noticed I was comparing myself to others an awful lot, frequently subconsciously. Like I realized I was going around my life with this script saying, "She is sooo much more competent and organized than me" and this was making it difficult to truly connect with people. A tenet of Buddhism that I like a lot is the idea of "non-self." This gets a little, um, metaphysical at this point, but essentially, instead of thinking, "I am such an organized person" or "she is so competent," I try to think, "That was an instance of being very organized" and it removes identity judgments from my thinking. It makes it feel like we're all on the same team and I find this naturally just makes me feel more convivial with people. Sorry if that was a little long winded. I don't know if that has any bearing on your issue, but it did on mine.
posted by mermily at 8:08 AM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ditto what artemesia said about meditation. I think people have a spiritual/religious context around meditation, which is no doubt appropriate for some, but you can also look at it in strictly scientific terms of being able to assist you in emotional regulation, well being and focus on being present. That's how I manage my anxiety so I'm able to be more present with people. When I feel things getting off track internally, some aspect of being mindful helps me just get present again, and again, and again.
It's also helpful to have mental tools that you can use when the internal monologue goes wrong. There's lots of info available about that on the Interwebz. Ping me if you want suggestions. As a suggestion, when you start building a case in your head about someone/something, just ask yourself if that's really true or a story you're telling yourself. Usually it's just a story.
posted by diode at 4:44 PM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hi. Let's begin... at the beginning. What is anxiety? What is below anxiety? Where does anxiety come from – social or otherwise?

'Anxiety' is the psychological manifestation of physiological signals. There is an adage in psychology which says that 'excitement' and 'anxiety' have the same physiological root. The perception that something is going to change, often with a lack of control on the perceiver's part. The body provides signals to the mind, and the mind then interprets them. 'Excitement' is prediction of a positive/enjoyable outcome. 'Anxiety' is the prediction of a negative/painful outcome.

An example I heard was think about the difference between first and second dates. First dates tend to provoke anxiety. You are walking to a cafe, to meet someone for the first time. Your body is providing signals of something new. You are alone. You normally don't go to this cafe. You are dressed differently than you would normally be on a Tuesday evening at 7pm. Something is going to change. You are going to meet a new person and have an interaction. You consider both the positive aspects – having a great conversations and feeling the chemicals of love flow – as well as the negative aspects – having a poor conversation and feeling awkward.

The key point is that the stimulus is the same. You are alone, going to a cafe you normally don't go to, and you are dressed differently than you normally would be. That is the stimulus. The next layer are the projections, positive and negative. You have three options.

1) You can attach to the positive prediction, and feel excited. "This is going to go great! I'm really excited to meet this person. They looked great on, and we seem really compatible."

2) You can attach to the negative prediction, and feel anxious. "The last few first dates haven't gone so well. They don't call me back. This is probably going to be the same. Why I am doing this?"

3) You can attach to neither. "This could go really well. Maybe I'll meet my life journey partner and parent to my future magical spirit children. Or maybe it will be a wash. At least they make that cocktail I like. How bad could it really be."

The important thing is that it comes from the same stimulus. Which path is chosen probably depends on previous experience. If you've had a string of successful first dates, it's probably the first one. If you've had a string of unsuccessful first dates, it may be the second one. If you've had a mix of the two, it's probably the third.

The key is that you don't have any control over the outcome. They may like you, they may not. So the mind runs scenarios about what could happen, which is what the mind is good at doing. Projecting possibilities. This is a primordial thing. If there is a blind curve, the mind must ready for the chance that there is a tiger or bear behind it. So the brain is doing what it needs to do in running scenarios. Thus, we can consider the difference between excitement and anxiety to actually be a result of one's previous experiences. The brain makes it's scenarios from memories, therefore, more negative memories will probably produce anxiety. More positive memories will probably produce excitement, yeah?

So the date is what the date is. If there is a second date, you will probably be de facto excited, because you have more information. The other person also considers the first date to be a success. You go back to the same cafe, in a different set of clothes, yet your emotional state is completely different. Now you are really excited. Because you have more information. There's no reason to be anxious, for you know this person doesn't dislike you.

If you do feel anxious, that is irrational anxiety and perhaps that's what we're talking about when we speak about social anxiety. Irrational anxiety is predicting a negative outcome in the face of contrary experience. Irrational anxiety is feeling nervous about meeting good friends or family whose company you love. Irrational anxiety is worrying about failing a final exam, when all previous exams have been straight A's.

Irrational anxiety is when the mind generates scenarios from the wrong source material. If you're on the fifth date, and the mind generates scenarios from a string of bad dates last year, rather than from the first four dates, for example. The straight A student about to take a history test thinking about their failure to tidy their room last night.

One of the distortions in cognitive behavioural therapy is called "overgeneralisation", and it's including too much irrelevant information in making decisions or choosing emotional states. Take the numbers on unemployment. Unemployment in the US is 14%. Yet, for college graduates, it's <3%. If you are a college graduate and you are terrified by unemployment, it means you are overgeneralising. You're not dealing with the appropriate data set for the situation.

By now, perhaps you have anxiety about how long this reply is going to go on. If you've made it this far. Not much longer. Maybe you're excited now.

The point of looking at where anxiety comes from will help you identify the appropriate solution to manage it. You may need a new data set. When you say social anxiety, you need to locate exactly which situations bother you. Do you feel very confident in small groups and fearful in large groups? Do you prefer the company of a group of strangers to the company of a few good friends? What is the specific dynamic when anxiety manifests itself? Who is around? What is your emotional state?

Once you have established a situation – or several situations – where anxiety manifests itself, you can begin retraining yourself. First, make sure those situations actually matter to you. I had a friend who felt massive anxiety when we went to dance clubs. He would nearly have panic attacks. One day, I said to him, "Do you even like dancing?" and he said no. He was trying to fit in to a place that in the end just didn't matter to him. There's a good chance some of the situations that provoke anxiety are best dealt with by ending your association with them.

When you do find something specific where you want to change the anxiety – first dates, family picnics, work social events, public speaking scenarios – it's probably best to focus on a single type to begin with. What you need to do is re-programme your mind to make scenarios from different evidence. The way you do this is by succeeding. Creating memories of positive outcomes. And you need to do it experientially, across the whole process.

When I first got into business, I felt very anxious about wearing suits. I didn't come from a suit culture, so I just didn't feel right in a suit. I always felt off, that people were looking at me and judging me. That the fit was wrong. So I started wearing suits in situations where I was very comfortable already. Social events. Parties. Bars. People told me I looked great. In a few months, all of my memories of feeling out of place in a suit were replaced with memories of women telling me that I looked good. Through that process, I often felt uncomfortable at work in a suit, but less so each time. I gradually replaced the negative thoughts of wearing a suit, with real, positive evidence.

It's a crap example but should illustrate what the process of challenging yourself and replacing your memories actually looks like. It's specific. It's narrow. It's repetitive. It's a challenge but not too much of a challenge. You basically need to make sure you will succeed at creating the positive memory. If you aim to high and fail, you're only going to make it worse by creating more negative memories.

I found programmes to be great at this. University. Grad school. Job trainings. Conferences. Structured environments focused on education. These environments are designed to support learning. And what is learning other than a process of failing less, or succeeding slowly. ;)

Public speaking for example. Toastmasters starts you out with a short speech, a minute or two. Then gradually progresses you to a 30 minute speech. You practice the one and two minute speeches until you're great – comfortable and happy. Success. Then you move on to a five minute and practice there until you are great. That process should work with pretty much anything. Gradual. Challenge yourself in a manner in which you can stretch and succeed. If you tried to go from never having spoken, to a thirty minute speech, you'll probably struggle. But from nothing to one? You can do it. From one to two? You can do it. From two to five? You can do it.

And boundaries are important. Just as it's important to learn responsibility in life, it's also important to learn what you are not responsible for, and to have reasonable self-expectations. In the case of my mate, it was unreasonable for him to ever think he would be happy at dance clubs. He didn't like dancing. Therefore, what's the point? He had a poor boundary – he was afraid to say no to the crew and be left out. He wasn't respecting his own self. When he did, he stopped going to dance clubs and found new people to hang out with. Easy.

Everything everyone else has said is good. Self-talk. Meditation. Mindfulness. That's all focused on ensuring the mind is creating scenarios from the right data sets. CBT can also help, for it helps to look at the world objectively.

From my own point of view, it's quite funny to look back on what used to cause heaps of social anxiety. Many of the things that I really enjoy now – wearing suits and public speaking – were things that really caused me a lot of bother. I love standing in front of a room in a suit, all the attention on me, delivering information of value to the audience. Social anxiety generally is all in your mind.

And that's the last point. Think of what your life would be like without the anxiety. What would you do that you will not do today? What opportunities will you have that you are giving up today? What kind of person will sorting this out enable you to be? What does that person look like? How do they feel? That vision will give you the strength and drive to get a handle on this. Living with it is an option, but so is not living with it.

And finally finally, be patient. You didn't become socially anxious overnight, and you won't sort it out overnight either. Make it a lifelong challenge. You have all the time in the world to do this. It's your life – the biggest project you will ever have. Be gentle, and be patient with yourself. Love the small gains you make – the little successes. It may feel slow at first, but one day, you will find yourself looking back and laughing at your anxieties. It won't happen instantly, but it will happen if you are reasonable, gentle, and diligent.
posted by nickrussell at 7:14 AM on January 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

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