A therapist gave us advice for how to get over it.
It can be difficult to know the difference between having social anxiety and being awkward, introverted, or shy. The American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines social anxiety as “a persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations” that involve being “exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.”
Modern life provides us with constant opportunities to be scrutinized by others, and while few among us wouldn’t be nervous about giving a work presentation or a speech at a wedding, an ongoing fear of saying the wrong thing in casual conversations can become problematic. Conversation anxiety, though not itself a disorder, is an aspect of social anxiety that can make dates, parties, and mixers anywhere from mildly stressful to intolerable.
Hendriksen’s reveal concept is based on the work of researcher David Moscovitch, who argues that the perceived flaw can be in any one of four areas—social skills, inability to conceal anxiety, physical appearance, or character. “What makes it a disorder is that this thing we’re worried about is either not true or there’s a grain of truth to it but nobody really cares,” Hendriksen says.
We all have insecurities and shortcomings that we’d prefer others not to know about. But if your fears of being found out cause more distress than seems appropriate for the situation, you might be dealing with symptoms of social anxiety. “If you have to give a presentation at work and lose sleep over it for the whole week, or if you’re going to go on a date and you can’t eat because your G.I. system is acting up, that is not proportional to the task at hand,” Hendriksen adds.
“As more of our attention turns inward, the more self-conscious we feel. That takes up a lot of our bandwidth, and then we have very little left over for actually paying attention,” Hendriksen says. “We might miss the conversations that we’re supposed to be a part of, or come off as preoccupied or distracted which then makes for a poor conversation.”
Instead, if you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, sounding stupid, or otherwise being exposed as a no-social-skills-having ogre, Hendriksen suggests shifting your attention from yourself to those around you. “Pay attention to the people you’re taking to. Listen to what they have to say. When you’re truly listening, questions and comments naturally arise, so you don’t have to scan for them or plan them out,” she says. “Then you’ll have the bandwidth to be filled with natural curiosity, interest, and friendliness. And that tends to go over much better with other people.”
Even Hendriksen says she can relate to this situation. Her advice remains the same: Get out of your head and focus on someone else. “I’ll find another person who’s standing awkwardly alone or scrolling through their phone. That almost always goes well, because you’re kind of rescuing them. They’re not really looking at their phone, they’re trying to quell the awkwardness. So if you walk up and say hello, more often than not they’ll be relieved and are delighted to chat.”
A recent study of undergraduate students with social anxiety symptoms found, unsurprisingly, that young adults with higher levels of social anxiety were more likely to expect that they would feel bad in certain social interactions. “This could potentially cause them to avoid those types of situations altogether if they’re expecting to feel bad,” says Kimberly Arditte Hall, the lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral fellow at the VA National Center for PTSD.
Understanding the thought process behind social anxiety is important because it sheds light on how to help people overcome it. When it comes to having negative beliefs or expectations about conversations, Arditte Hall says we may want to actively target those types of thoughts using something like cognitive restructuring—a core feature of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that involves identifying your thoughts and looking at whether or not they’re both realistic and helpful to you. “And then trying to be flexible about changing them or thinking about alternative beliefs that are more helpful as you move forward,” Arditte Hall says.
Of course, sometimes social interactions really are painful or difficult, and people with social anxiety may need some extra help learning how to tolerate those experiences, as well as the aftermath of them. “Exposure, or confronting situations that bring about negative emotions is a core component of CBT for social anxiety, and involves allowing yourself to feel the emotions without doing anything to change or avoid them,” Arditte Hall says. “It often helps people to learn that they are more capable of managing negative emotions than they initially thought.”
“You’re not going to be perfect, especially if you’re trying to challenge something that’s difficult for you to begin with. And that’s okay,” Arditte Hall says. Making mistakes in social situations is a part of what it means to be human. Maybe you don’t perform perfectly, sound smart, or impress others in every social situation. But the truth is, neither does anyone else.
Published by Tonic Vice