Socially anxious moments are universal: we’ve all felt that self-conscious urge to hide. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen shares her top 3 social anxiety hacks to help you feel comfortable and confident.
We’ve all been there: alone in the elevator with your boss, walking into a room and watching all the heads swivel toward you, getting introduced to your friend’s friends and then...what? We feel the heat start to rise, the self-consciousness start to fold in, the imagined judgment start to creep up. It’s social anxiety, it’s universal, but guess what? It’s also changeable.
This week we’ll get right into it with the three best social anxiety hacks I’ve ever come across.
But first, let’s define what we’re talking about.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is the belief we have a fatal flaw—there’s something wrong with us.
We might think we’re stupid, boring, an impostor, a babbling idiot, a total disaster. And we think that unless we work hard to hide our perceived flaw, it will become obvious to everyone, and we’ll be judged or rejected for it.
But the belief in the fatal flaw is mistaken. Nothing is wrong with you. I know, I know—believe me, I know from years of experience—that the perception is so strong that it makes us act as if it were true. If we think we’re stupid, we won’t raise our hand in class. If we think we’re an awkward loser, we’ll spend our time at the party scrolling through our phone. If we think we’re incompetent, we’ll pass on that promotion at work.
Essentially, social anxiety is a distorted view of who we are as a person—it’s like body dysmorphia, except instead of for the outside, it’s for the inside—our personality, our character, our social competence.
As a result, we avoid situations where we might be revealed. We might avoid overtly by staying home or calling in sick, or we might avoid covertly by showing up but remaining silent, hovering on the edge of groups, or staring at the floor.
So what can we do? Turns out, there’s a lot we can do. This week, here are the top three social anxiety hacks I’ve ever come across.
Anxiety Tip #1: Let Go of the Little Things You Do to Hide Your Anxiety
Because we’re worried our “flaw” will become obvious to everyone, we do small, unconscious actions to try to keep our flaw hidden. These little actions are called safety behaviors. We use them to try to tamp down our anxiety and keep ourselves safe.
For example, we might talk really fast to get conversations over with, giggle after saying anything, avoid eye contact, talk very softly, rehearse what we’re going to say before we speak, or walk with our head down, earbuds in, and those Wayfarers on, baby.
Some of the things we do might be really subtle, like staying really busy—too busy to reach out, network, or hang out. Or using an introverted temperament as a justification to avoid.
But these little protective behaviors don’t come across the way we intend. Unfortunately, they send the message that we’re aloof, stuck-up, cold, silly, or desperate, and ultimately cut us off from others.
But here’s the kicker: these are the very actions that are keeping us stuck. I call safety behaviors the life preserver that’s holding you underwater. We’re doing them to save ourselves. But really they’re holding us back.
The answer? Thankfully, we can drop them.
First, choose what safety behavior you’d like to drop. Researchers Dr. Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia and Dr. Charles Taylor of the University of California San Diego, in a series of studies, showed that 92 percent of people could immediately name the safety behaviors they use.
Once you’ve identified yours, have two separate conversations. In the first, do your safety behavior like usual. Talk with your hand in front of your mouth, check everything you say to make sure it doesn’t sound stupid, or whatever it is you do to try to tamp down your anxiety and hide your perceived flaw.
But in the next conversation, let the safety behavior go. If you usually scroll through your phone, go ahead and look your conversation partner in the eye. If you usually chatter quickly to get your words out, slow down.
Think of this as an experiment. You want to discover what happens when you let go of that fake life preserver.
Want a spoiler? Thanks to Alden and Taylor’s studies, we already have the answer. When you stop trying to conceal your perceived flaw, rather than your flaw hanging out everywhere, you actually look and feel more comfortable.
And there’s more: conversation partners rate those who drop their safety behaviors as more enjoyable to talk to, would prefer them as a friend, and would like to spend more time with them. Why? Because they’re more authentic. They’re real. Rather than filling all your bandwidth with the impression management of safety behaviors, the bandwidth is freed up and natural friendliness, curiosity, and authenticity fills it in.
Letting go of that life preserver seems counterintuitive, but try it and you’ll never go back.