The Best Social Anxiety Hacks for Any Occasion
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.
Anxiety Tip #2: Turn Your Attention Inside Out
Social anxiety makes us feel like we’re in danger, as if there is social threat everywhere. So in order to make sure we’re safe, we monitor how things are going, both internally and externally.
But we focus on the wrong things. We focus on our bodies to make sure we’re not shaking, sweating, or turning red. We might focus on standing in a way that looks confident or keep thinking about whether there’s something stuck in our teeth. We might work hard to act casual, sound smart, or keep from being boring.
But all this focus on trying to act a certain way, manage others’ impression of us, and covering our fatal flaw takes a tremendous amount of attention and energy. There’s no bandwidth left for basics—even things like walking and talking. This is precisely why we trip, spill our drink, and go blank when it’s our turn to talk.
Appropriately, the phenomenon of monitoring ourselves and our anxiety is called self-focused attention, and the result is that we come away from social encounters with very little information about how things actually went. To make matters worse, in order to fill in the gaps, we ask our anxiety, which is about as credible as asking a used-car salesman which car on the lot we should buy.
Humans learn on the job. And building confidence is no exception.
So how to break out? Actually, that’s the operative word: out. Turn your attention inside out.
Here’s what I mean: You choose where your attention goes. Shift to focusing outward on what’s happening around you. In the moment, this means consciously placing your attention on the people around you, the person you’re talking to, or simply your immediate surroundings. Look at their face. Listen closely to what they’re saying. Shift the focus from you, you, you to them, them, them and feel your anxiety lift.
Anxiety Tip #3: Get Started, and Your Confidence Will Catch Up
We wish (pretty please!) that we could retreat from the world and reemerge with our confidence transformed, like a cocoon transforms a caterpillar into a butterfly. Read a few self-help books, pump ourselves up, and emerge fully formed and ready for anything.
We want to feel less anxious so we can live our life.
But instead, we have to live our life in order to be less anxious.
Humans learn on the job. And building confidence is no exception. It’s really hard to “be confident” without some evidence or experience to back it up. You need some experience first, and then your attitude will follow.
So put action before confidence. Just like mood and motivation, we don’t have to wait until we feel like doing something before we do it—we don’t have to feel like going to the gym before we lace up our shoes. We don’t have to feel inspired before we sit down to write. Instead, we start doing it, and the feeling catches up.
Therefore, choose something small that you habitually avoid. The operative word here is small. We’re not aiming for huge parties, public speaking, or other big stuff yet. But maybe use the regular checkout, not self-checkout. Order over the phone rather than online. Compliment a stranger. Eat lunch in the restaurant or your workplace break room, not at your desk or in your car. Send the email without asking your partner or co-worker to look over it first. Finally introduce yourself to the colleague you see all the time but have never spoken to.
These things are so easy to skip over. We avoid them because we can. And they become habit. We can easily do the workaround.
But start by changing your actions, and then see how you feel. It’ll be subtle. You will get a strong urge to put off or avoid testing out your new action. In the moment, you’ll find a million reasons to avoid. But give it a shot. Fake it 'til you make it. This is why we’re starting small, after all. Do it before you’re 100% confident, and your confidence will catch up.
So give all three of these hacks a shot: And while you stretch and grow, turn your attention inside out and let go of those safety behaviors—the life preserver that holds you underwater. Do things that are a little uncomfortable—you’ll be glad you did, and each experience will add a drop to the bucket of your confidence. Keep at it, and before you know it, you’ll find the world is a lot friendlier than you ever thought, and your fatal flaw isn’t even a flaw at all.
Pre-order Ellen's forthcoming book HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Get even more savvy tips to be happier and healthier by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or get each episode delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.
For free, helpful downloads to fight social anxiety and be your authentic self, visit EllenHendriksen.com.
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