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What You Need to Know About Overcoming Social Anxiety

What You Need to Know About Overcoming Social Anxiety

A few years back I had the pleasure of working with a brilliant Catholic priest who was the most theologically astute person I have ever met.

As a clinical psychologist and anxiety specialist, I had become interested in understanding Psalm 23:4: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

It is my belief that fear (at least to some degree, some of the time) is part of normal human existence. I was curious if the Bible was setting the goal of having zero fear in fear-inducing situations.

When I asked this priest that question, he smiled and took a long thoughtful pause. “No, Eric. That is not the intent of this Psalm,” he replied. “It just that when we Christians are afraid—and we will be afraid—we know that we can keep moving forward because in the end, it will all be OK.”

I had been writing my book on social anxiety at the time and it highlighted for me the importance of the concept of social courage—being afraid and continuing to move forward anyway—even when it is uncomfortable. It is not about living a comfortable life. It won’t always be comfortable. It is about living life based on your values (in this case social values) rather than living a life based on always feeling good, which would be hollow and impossible to sustain.

“Courage” is not a lack of fear. Courage, as that old cowboy John Wayne once said, is being afraid and saddling up anyway. “Social Courage” involves moving toward your social goals with your anxiety rather than waiting for the magical day when anxiety will vanish forever.

Here are some common roadblocks on the road to reaching your social goals, and how to go about overcoming them:

It is normal for people in my profession to experience a lot of rejection … and I don’t like it!

Social anxiety involves concerns about rejection. With phobic social anxiety, people fear rejection will be much more likely than what really occurs. For some people, however, significant rejection is part of their daily experience. For example, think of the rejection that comes with the following professions:

  • Used-car salesperson
  • Parking attendant
  • Lawyer
  • Telemarketer
  • Debt collector
  • Politician
  • Tax auditor
  • Self-help author

When working in a high-rejection arena, you may cope better if you prepare ahead of time so when rejection is hurled your way, you deliver. (“I’m sorry you feel that way, but I don’t write the tax code. Let’s try to make the best of this.”)

Sometimes, however, if you recognize that your job doesn’t suit your personality or social goals, planning a vocational pivot may be the most self-compassionate action you can take.

I do not have time to devote to increasing my social courage.

Life can get hectic and sometimes the complexities of our daily lives can interfere with our social goals. If you truly do not have time at present to make progress toward your social goals, then perhaps your first step is to brainstorm how you might free up time in the future. Remember to weigh out your priorities and spend your precious time wisely.

Sometimes multitasking is helpful to make the most of your time.

Perhaps you could practice challenging yourself socially in situations you are already going to be in such as at work or with family. Maybe instead of eating lunch alone at your desk, you could arrange to go to lunch with coworkers.

I have an addiction or other mental or physical health issue that interferes with my social goals.

You can challenge yourself socially even while struggling with other problems. It just makes it more difficult. Take depression. When people are depressed, their motivation to go out into the world and pursue social challenges and goals is like trying to run in a swimming pool. You can get from one side to the other but with significantly more resistance.

Maybe the first and most important social courage challenge is to speak up and ask for help. Meanwhile, beware of all-or-nothing thinking and move forward at whatever pace you can while addressing interfering concerns.

I cannot find opportunities to challenge myself socially.

Seeking social challenges can feel overwhelming if you are accustomed to isolating yourself. Think about all the places where you could interact with other people—even if it is something you wouldn’t normally do. Look for every opportunity.

Examples of opportunities might include: neighbors, public transport, place of worship, clubs, volunteering, family, work or sport. Take advantage of whatever reasonable opportunities are available to you. Try your best not to search for the perfect people in the perfect situations. This will likely lead to your movement being stalled.

I just hate small talk.

I hear this one all the time. When there are “important” things to converse about (global warming, world peace, or the meaning of life and death), why would you want to waste your precious time talking to your cousin Fred about his recent insurance convention in Des Moines? Well, small talk is an important way people play and connect with each other. It is not about the transfer of information like in a student-teacher interaction, but it is a way of communicating to a person that you value them (at least to some degree) and, consequently, small talk serves to initiate, build or maintain social relationships. In that sense, the small stuff is the big stuff.

Each interpersonal encounter provides you the opportunity to practice sharpening your social skills and social courage strategies.

People constantly disappoint me.

If you demand social perfection from yourself, you will consistently fail to meet your expectations. Likewise, if you impose unreasonably high expectations on your fellow humans, you will consistently feel let down by them. We are all flawed creatures. That will never change. Rather than living with the fantasy that you will someday discover and join the lost continent of perfect humans, try to feel compassion for others (and yourself) as we go about living out our imperfect lives the best way we can.

I just don’t believe anything can help me … It feels hopeless.

This sounds like perhaps depression is blocking your move forward. Or maybe you have a long history of social avoidance and the prospect of climbing out of the avoidance hole seems overwhelming.

I’d recommend that you accept the presence of these thoughts and feelings and keep moving forward toward your social goals, even at a very casual pace. Consistency is key. If you feel like giving up completely, then your first act of social courage may be to contact a licensed psychotherapist to help keep you moving forward.

My goal needs to be modified.

Albert Einstein once said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

It can be difficult to revise a goal that you may have devoted significant time and energy to pursuing. If you are in such a situation, try being self-compassionate. It is OK to make a decision and then change your mind and chart a new course when the reality of your decision turns out very differently than you expected. At other times, however, the goal you have may be modified rather than completely abandoned.

What is important is rather than getting hung up on a particular goal, you determine what the values behind the goals are (love, education and leadership) and focus on modifying your goals so they are achievable and in line with your current values system.                           

But I don’t know what my values are, so I don’t know which goals to set.

Occasionally, people with social anxiety may be aware that they are missing out or are lonely but not really sure which social goals they want to set for themselves. Spending time thinking about what is truly most important to you in life—your values—can help illuminate desired social goals.

This piece is an adapted excerpt from Social Courage by Dr. Eric Goodman, Exisle Publishing, available at bookstores or online here or here.

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