Throughout most of my high school and college years, I struggled with intense social anxiety. Not only was it exhausting, but it closed me off to many opportunities, and at times it felt like a trap that I would never escape.
I always tried to avoid being in the spotlight. Just getting called on in class would often cause me to blush and turn beet red. Giving a speech or presentation would be downright unbearable. I’d be nervous for days or even weeks beforehand. When it finally came time to go up in front of the class, my heart would be pounding, I would sweat profusely, my voice would tremble, and I’d sometimes stumble over routine words or lose my train of thought.
Even in congregate social settings, like being on a bus or train, waiting on line at a store, standing in a crowd, or sitting in a classroom would cause me to feel extremely paranoid, tense, and on edge. My head and neck would frequently twitch because of all the tension. A few times, it even escalated into a full-blown panic attack, where my vision would go hazy, I would nearly pass out, and my body would become drenched in sweat in a matter of minutes.
Besides the exhaustion, frustration, and damage I was doing to myself by constantly being in fight-or-flight mode in social environments, another difficult part of my experience with social anxiety was that other people would often assume I was anti-social or didn’t like them, while on the inside, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
I would usually get the most nervous around girls I was attracted to or people in general who I admired and wanted to be friends with. So while I wanted nothing more than to be outgoing and social and have a large group of fun, supportive, and like-minded friends, my social anxiety would always get in the way. It led to so many missed social opportunities during a crucial time in my life.
Maybe you can relate to something similar. As difficult as those times were, the good news is that I discovered a way out of it. Even if you’ve been struggling with social anxiety for years and years, realize that with the right guidance, support, and direction, you can overcome it.
This post will dive in to a number of cognitive and behavioral tips and strategies that I used to overcome social anxiety and build social intelligence. Depending on your specific personality type and past experiences, some strategies will work better than others, so I suggest trying them out to see which ones are most effective for you.
We are all the product of our genes and our environment, also known as nature and nurture. We have specific brain wiring which determines our personality type, and then our experiences act on our personality, either enhancing or mitigating certain traits. If you wish to learn more about how our personalities are shaped, I suggest checking out a couple of great books by Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence.
The overarching goal of self-improvement and overcoming social anxiety is to break free of your past and focus on taking action and moving forward.
There are two major stages in overcoming social anxiety:
- Changing your thoughts: This includes identifying negative thoughts and proactively shifting your beliefs to more positive and empowering ones.
- Changing your actions: This includes things like identifying and eliminating safety behaviors and poor body language, as well as repeated exposure to anxiety-provoking situations.
This is the basis of what is known as CBT or Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in psychology. I personally went through CBT for a year and a half with little progress, and then made more progress in a matter of weeks by researching psychology and self-development and applying what I learned on my own. The strategies presented here are a summary of what I learned, and in my experience will help you facilitate more rapid recovery.
Stage #1: Changing Your Thoughts
I found that this was actually the easier of the two stages. By delving into numerous self-development products and content, I was quickly able to adapt new mindsets and beliefs, and in a matter of weeks, I went from being massively depressed to the happiest I had ever been in my life.
People with social anxiety often suffer from exaggerated self-consciousness and insecurities, causing them to misinterpret the words and actions of people around them. One typical negative thought I used to have in social settings was, “people are laughing at me and making fun of me.” There are a number of ways to debunk this thought.
First, by looking for evidence that either proves or disproves it, you will most likely find more evidence disproving the thought. For example, if a group of people at another table is laughing and occasionally looking over at you, unless you explicitly hear them say something negative about you, then you are just projecting your mental state onto the situation, and the thought has no proof to stand on.
Taking this a step further, you can offer explanations to counter a negative thought. A great point to keep in mind is that although degrees of self-consciousness may vary, everyone is self-conscious to some extent, meaning that everyone is more worried about how they appear to others than how others appear to them. Understanding this principle will help you to realize that people are not judging you as much as you think they are.
Another empowering realization is that someone’s opinions and judgments are a reflection of their own perceptions and values. Most people have at least slightly different opinions of someone or something, proving that they are not universally true. What’s ugly to one person might be beautiful to another.
Additionally, people who feel the need to openly judge and criticize others are expressing their insecurity. Putting others down is basically an attempt to make people feel better about themselves. Once you acknowledge this, it will completely change your reaction to judgments and criticism.
Finally, a useful thought experiment that really puts things in perspective is to imagine the amount of scrutiny that world leaders have to deal with on a daily basis. If they can get up every day and do their jobs despite harsh criticism and even threats from millions of people, then it really makes your worries seem minuscule in comparison.
After repeating this process consistently, the new thoughts and beliefs will become ingrained, you will begin to instinctively see the world through a new lens, and many of your social anxieties and insecurities will fade away.
Stage #2: Changing Your Actions
The first part of changing your actions involves more subtle things such as safety behaviors and body language. Safety behaviors are basically behaviors that one engages in to reduce anxiety in a particular situation. Some examples of safety behaviors in social settings include crossing your arms, putting your hands in your pockets, avoiding eye contact, fidgeting, and speaking with filler words like “umm” or “you know.”
If you’ve been engaging in certain safety behaviors for a long time, they become automatic, and you likely won’t even be consciously aware of them. One thing you can do to uncover safety behaviors is to become more mindful and self-aware in social settings. An even better strategy might be to ask a socially intelligent friend to observe you and tell you what he or she notices. This might seem strange and overly analytical, but it is necessary to identify these behaviors, since you can’t change what you aren’t aware of.
Once you identify any safety behaviors, it will take careful and repetitive practice to reduce and eventually eliminate them. You might find that as you eliminate some, you will uncover others that you hadn’t noticed before. Keep in mind that your anxiety in social settings may increase slightly when you initially cut out safety behaviors. Remember that this is normal, and with repetition the anxiety will lessen.
From a wider perspective, it is important to become familiar with body language in general, and what constitutes good and bad body language. I recommend reading The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan & Barbara Pease to get a clear and concise overview. Through increased exposure to social experiences, body language will become second nature and you won’t have to consciously think about every little thing.
The whole point of learning about body language is to refine your own to better represent yourself in social situations. However, in adjusting your body language to convey more confidence, for example, it is easy to get lost by focusing on too many things at once: head up, shoulders back, chest out, chin in, etc. Rather than trying to fix each specific attribute of your body language, simply envision the larger concept of confident body language. I think we can all agree that a confident man has poised and relaxed posture, open arms, strong eye contact, and assertive vocal tonality.
The second and most important part of the action phase is deliberate exposure to anxiety-provoking situations. This can be a frightening proposition for those who have been avoiding social situations for many years, but it really all depends on how you look at it.
As with improving any skill, such as building physical strength or endurance, or learning to play an instrument, the only effective way to improve your social skills is through experience. Reading about psychology and communication is great, but there is a big difference between having knowledge of something and actually being able to put that knowledge into action.
I firmly believe that total immersion is the best way to overcome social anxiety. The more effort you put in, the faster your recovery time, and the faster you can start living your life to the fullest.
Unfortunately, when I went through CBT, my therapist would have me do an exposure only once every week or two, and some of the exposures were not very functional, so I made little progress over many months. For example, to address extreme self-consciousness and fear of eye contact when walking outside, I was instructed to walk up and down the same area of campus repeatedly, to purposely draw attention to myself.
I don’t like exposures like this for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not something that someone would normally do, so it just looks weird. Who wants to be known as the guy at school who paces up and down the same walkway for extended periods of time? Second, it’s not fun. Facing fears can be intimidating, so if at all possible, try exposures that are fun and amusing. Rather than pace halls, I’d rather walk around dressed up as my favorite superhero, or give out roses to cute girls.
The main point is that rather than only doing an exposure once every week or two, try to incorporate smaller actions into your everyday schedule. Doing smaller but more frequent exposures builds momentum and yields more rapid results, and by doing this, you begin to get the confidence to try more difficult exposures.
Depending on your level of social anxiety, it may be necessary to start with steps as small as walking down the more crowded street, or taking the bus or train instead of walking, in order to get more comfortable with being in close proximity to crowds of people.
Another great exercise is to attempt to make eye contact with people as you walk past them. I used to have a lot of discomfort with making eye contact, so I made myself make eye contact with every person I passed while walking from my dorm to class. After just two weeks of doing this, my anxiety associated with making eye contact was almost gone.
I do want to address a couple of things regarding eye contact for people with poor social calibration. Your goal should be to make eye contact with people in as natural and friendly a way as possible. You don’t want to stare, nor do you want your eyes to dart nervously away. Holding eye contact for a second or two is long enough for normal confident eye contact. The best way to break eye contact is to look back into the direction that you are walking. You want to avoid breaking eye contact by looking down because it conveys submission and lack of confidence.
As you begin feeling more comfortable making eye contact with strangers, you can start greeting people. Start with people that you see in your building, apartment, office, etc. A simple “Hi” or “How’s it going?” is good enough, and then you can transition into actually starting conversations as your comfort and confidence builds.
As I mentioned before, it’s important to make this process fun. For a while I engaged in “Formal Fridays,” which involved dressing up and attending school in dress clothes every Friday. It was different and made me stand out, and I had fun doing it.
Finally, you’ll want to tie together both the thought and action phases to get you out of your head and into the world. This step requires that you focus on being aware of your surroundings. This does two very important things: one, it will make you less self-conscious and will reduce social anxiety, and two, it will give opportunities to make small talk by commenting on something interesting in your environment.
Following this process consistently, your social intelligence will gradually increase to the point that you’ll be inclined to start conversations with strangers. This is the first step in meeting and connecting with new people.
Over time, it will allow you to expand the size and quality of your circle of friends. From personal experience, this transition is exhilarating to witness, as you’ll feel happier, more energetic, and less inhibited!