Social situations can be especially tough for introverts, but even more so when you’re naturally socially anxious. In episode 266, I answered a question from a listener who has been socially anxious since childhood and therefore doesn’t feel equipped to successfully manage many of the social siturations we face as an adult. In this post, I expand on this and take a look at tools and techniques you can use to develop your social skills.
I’m a socially anxious introvert, and in looking for ways to overcome and outgrow this problem I found that exposure is the best way to do it, but since I have been socially anxious from childhood I haven’t developed any social skills which makes it more difficult to be in a social situation. So I’m looking for ways to develop my social skills considering my situation. Finally, I thank you for all the good work you’ve been doing and I hope you will find my question interesting enough to qualify for an answer.
Thank you for the great question. This is one that should be helpful for a lot of people to hear.
Let’s give a quick refresher on what you mean by exposure. This is basically the concept of approaching things that make you anxious, which helps you to prove your anxiety wrong. The opposite of this is letting your anxiety keep you “safe” from things that aren’t actually dangerous in the first place. Anxiety’s favorite trick is to make you overestimate the risk of a situation and the likelihood that something bad will happen and to make you underestimate your ability to cope if something were to occur. So exposure is a great strategy for trying to lessen the impact of social anxiety.
Diffuse your thoughts
One concept that I think would be really helpful here is to focus on allowing things to be irrelevant or unimportant. I’ll explain what I mean. Let’s say that you have a fear of talking to the barista at the coffee shop because you imagine a lot of potential scenarios where you embarrass yourself. The instinct for a lot of people would be to talk themselves out of the fear by reassuring themselves that something embarrassing won’t happen. That’s giving the potential event too much credit. Really, what you want to be thinking is “so what?” even if something embarrassing did happen, that’s pretty much totally irrelevant to the rest of your life.
What we are trying to do here is defuse the scary thought. You can also do this by literally asking “so what?” over and over in order to play through the scary scenario. If you actually work your way through to the end rather than just saying “what if this happens?” and leaving it at that, you will often find that even the worst-case scenarios are not all the bad. So in this example, you might ask yourself, “What if I try to be funny and they can’t understand me because of the masks?” Well, you can work through that. In the end, even if you are embarrassed and they don’t get the joke… those are two very temporary experiences that have no bearing on the rest of your day aside from their emotional impact. So those are a couple of backbone things to keep in your mind as you are trying different things out on your journey.
Building Social Skills
Now, to the question of social skills, there are a few different things you could do here. I think there are definitely a lot of great resources online, especially on Youtube. I don’t like everything that they put out, but the channel Charisma on Command has some great stuff about social interactions that can help you learn tips and tricks to feel more comfortable. You can definitely take that sort of thing too far, though and start to try to memorize social skills in a rote sort of way. Ideally, we don’t want that because it will feel awkward for you and inauthentic. I should pause to say that this assuming that you are generally neurotypical. Someone on the spectrum or that has other inherent underlying differences in social interaction may need to “pass” at times by memorizing social skills or may need to embrace the fact that their style of interaction is different.
But for you, aside from learning skills through resource, another fantastic source of information is people watching. This is also an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Going to a place like a busy park, a coffee shop, a brewery, or a restaurant provides a great platform for some social exposure (you will probably feel a bit exposed in that setting) and it also allows for good people watching and listening. You can sit back and observe other people. See the ways that they interact with others. Look at the diversity of conversation styles, mannerism, etc. There is absolutely no single right way to socialize. You can observe what people’s eye contact looks like, what their physical distance looks like, and if you are close enough, you can get a feel for the back and forth pace of conversation. These are not things that you need to try to replicate exactly, but the more you are around it, the more comfortable you will be and the more intuitive it will become.
Swap your phone for eye contact
Another small tip for being out in public is to not bury yourself in your phone. That’s one way that a lot of socially anxious people tend to check out and hide. You may find a lot of other people doing it, which could be an interesting observation, but do your best to not fully escape into your phone. You can certainly check your stuff, text people, and all of that, but make sure you are aware of your surroundings and you are also allowing yourself to take in the environment. A very small tweak that you can make is to start making eye contact with more people. Not prolonged staring, but if you are on a walk or in a store, work on not staring at the ground or averting your gaze from people. Instead, make eye contact with the people around you and give a quick smile, nod, or wave. You could potentially have tons of little micro-interactions throughout the day that give you opportunities to practice.
So before going through a big complicated courage ladder/hierarchy, you could focus more on amplifying the normal outings and interactions that you have. Work on the eye contact thing for a while, make a point to get out of the house more (if possible for you), and then maybe focus on having quick interactions with people. Chatting up the barista, asking “how’s your day?” to the clerk at the grocery store, or asking about stranger’s dog. Things like this. No expectation for a drawn-out conversation, but you get a little bit of social practice. If you do want to get a little more hardcore with developing a hierarchy, I’d suggest my online course.
Take note of your thoughts
I think that monitoring your own automatic thoughts and assumptions are also important here. While there may be a lot of similar experiences or difficulties among people with social anxiety, the reason behind the anxiety can be quite different. For instance, you might feel like you are always in trouble for breaking some sort of social rule. Or maybe you feel that you are very ugly and that people are burdened by your appearance. You could feel that you have to know exactly what to say every time you talk… there are a lot of different possibilities.
Obviously, therapy could be a great tool here. In the absence of therapy, just making a point to journal and reflect on things is useful too. The reason I say this is not only to learn and build skills, but also because if you are going out and doing behavioral experiments, it would be helpful to have a place to then come back and break down what happened or what didn’t happen.
So, I would start with these things. Small tweaks and little experiments. After you start to feel just a little more comfortable existing in space with other people, then you can develop some more specific goals. Maybe you are joining a group of some kind, inviting people over for dinner, joining a local toastmasters group, etc. There are tons of ways that you could work your way through an anxiety hierarchy.
Hopefully this is a good starting point for you. Good luck and thank you for the question!
You can listen to this on Episode 266 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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