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I’ve had parts of this post written for months. Some portions I actually typed out and others, I just had sitting in my head. It’s something I have debated sharing and gone back and forth on time and time again. It’s a bit ironic that I’ve been nervous or anxious about sharing given the topic. However, after this past weekend at RStheCon, I felt it was the right time to share for two reasons that I’ll discuss more in a moment. Today, I’m talking about dealing with social anxiety.
First and foremost I must caution that while I do have multiple degrees in Psychology and work in the field of mental health now, this post is in no way considered mental health advice or anything of that nature. I am simply sharing something that I myself have struggled with in hopes that I inspire or connect with someone reading this or who knows someone who struggles with this themselves. Even if just a few of you are impacted by this post, then that is a success to me. Even if you yourself have never felt you deal with social anxiety, I think it could be beneficial to keep reading, as you may learn a little more about someone who does or be able to look at someone with a fresh perspective.
Why share this now?
First, I just got off a weekend full of situations that elicit feelings of social anxiety, worry, or nervousness both for myself and others. I spent the weekend here in Dallas at the RewardStyle Conference with almost 200 other bloggers and a ton of brands and RewardStyle representatives. I still consider myself newer in reference to so many when it comes to blogging (this was my first RS Conference) so I feel a little overwhelmed at new, big events like this. Everything, not just tons of people, are new and unfamiliar, which while that can be exciting and fun, it can also be overwhelming and nerve racking.
Second, I was inspired by the rawness and realness of a few women this past weekend to share. Specifically, Aimee Song. Aimee is an OG mega-blogger who jetsets all over the world, is a best selling author, and even has her own Barbie doll. She leads this picture perfect, dream, #GOALS life, but she has shared so openly with her followers about her struggles with depression, worry, and not feeling good enough this past year. She touched on her struggles again this past weekend when speaking to a room full of people at the conference and I was so inspired by her. I’m also always so inspired by Dani Austin. She is so raw and transparent online and I just so appreciate that. Plus, she’s a total sweetheart. They, among so many other people who don’t even realize the impact the have had have helped me realize I’m not alone when I feel anxious about certain things, so I want to pay it forward and put it all out there. Plus, I really think it helps when understanding not only me, but other people who may be feeling this way. I always welcome a new, fresh perspective, so I figured maybe you all do, too.
How does this relate to your life?
In my day job as a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology with children with special needs, I constantly try to tell a children’s stories so that teachers may better understand the students they work with. When you look at someone with compassion, instead of judgement, you unknowingly give them the comfort to relax, be themselves, and thrive. In my job, I try to explain to teachers how certain students who need positive attention are often unsure how to ask for it, so they may act out to get any sort of attention. This often ends up being negative attention, but they are getting something, so they may not care or may not realize the difference. Focusing on the positive behaviors and ignoring the negative teaches students that they can gain attention positively over time. For example, I may tell a teacher to praise the student for tons of little positive things like “I love that you got your assignment notebook out without being asked. Good job!” It sounds simple, and it is, but it makes a difference.
This relates to the topic of social anxiety, because often times it may appear that someone is standoffish or even weird. I’ve been on both sides of this scenario both as the one coming off that way and meeting or engaging with others who are coming off that way. The psych nerd inside me tries to find out why. I don’t think my situation of being on the standoffish side is ever helped by the fact that I have pretty bad RBF (resting b*tch face), so I usually look mad or something when that is in fact, just my face. I’ve definitely worked on this over the years and try to keep more of an even, pleasant face during social events, particularly during meetings. This is one little way I’ve tried to work on this over the years. When meeting others, I keep this in mind, because maybe they are the same way. I’ve laughed with other girls in the past about this, because people may constantly think you’re mad when really, you’re not! You’re putting off this negative vibe, when really you just want a positive interaction.
Social anxiety can occur in a variety of situations. From going into a new situation, to being the center of attention, to being put on the spot, to meeting new people, etc. Potential situations can occur almost daily and you can find yourself on either side of a social anxiety scenario. I think it’s important to recognize it, because the littlest action, just like complimenting a student who takes out their planner, can make a positive impact over time. I’ve had people take the simplest step to introduce themselves, introduce a mutual friend, or even extend a smile in a potentially uncomfortable situation and it goes a long way. Not only in that immediate situation, but in the long run, because you remember it the next time the feelings come on.
The truth about social anxiety
The fear of evaluation is at the heart of social anxiety. It isn’t just negative evaluation that is worrisome, it’s positive evaluation, also. There are some studies that suggest that people perceive negative consequences from social situations no matter if they do well or not. For example, someone who performs well at work may worry about social repercussions of outshining their coworkers or being a favorite of someone in an authoritative position. Basically, there is research that suggests that people with social anxiety may just want to be inconspicuous and not have too much attention called to them. Really, like many things related to health, social anxiety lies on a spectrum. Shyness is at one end, where social nervousness or anxiety is in the middle, and true anxiety disorders are on another. It’s all about severity and learning to copy with how it affects you.
Have you always had social anxiety?
This is what is so crazy about this to me, because no. I haven’t. In fact, it used to be the complete opposite. I’m sure people who knew me fifteen, ten, even seven years ago are saying ‘huh?’ Something about growing up and learning quality over quantity with people in my life has led me here to feeling social anxiety on the reg. I don’t always feel it, which I’m relieved about because I know some people do, but I do from time to time and I know it can be a challenge.
I used to have friends in tons of different groups and talk to so many people about plans on any given night. In college I loved being in a big group of people out and about or working a room and talking to tons of people in one night. I was actually really good at it. I’ve always been told that I came off confident and truly, I think I just didn’t know or care enough to worry about what people thought. As I’ve gotten older, and particularly as I’ve learned more about human behavior while studying and working in the field of Psychology, I think I’ve gotten more anxious. I see through a lot of people’s intentions (or ‘functions’ as we call them in the Psych world) and that makes it hard to deal with the BS that can often come with a big social scene or event.
I try to look at things from a positive standpoint with others like I do with the kids I work with, but sometimes, I will admit it’s a challenge. I know that most people are good at heart and have the best of intentions, but also, some don’t. Filtering those out and making conscious decisions about who to spend and invest time with definitely comes with getting older (for most, I’m not certain some will ever learn), so I think that being in a big group only elevates the needed ‘filtering.’
Generally, I am a confident person. I’m reasonable about my strengths and am not too afraid to work on my weaknesses. Saying them out loud to the world in the form of this blog post is a little daunting, but for the most part, I’m okay with them. I love to improve on the person I was in the past whether that was last week or last year and know that everyone has room for improvement in some areas. Having this shift in my comfort level in certain social situations as I’ve gotten older has been difficult for me because I felt like it was something I used to be much better at doing. Honestly, talking about it and being open about it only helps. Even just sharing with some friends has led me to know that others have felt this during a transition time in their life or even for longer. Finding a common ground to know you are not alone helps and that is what gave me the extra confidence boost needed to press ‘publish’ on this post.
Do you always feel this way?
No. These days, I prefer to get to know people for the first time in a smaller setting, rather than at a huge party. I prefer the real connections that can occur in a smaller setting and less of the small talk that can happen when buzzing from person to person or group to group at a big party. My ideal situation is meeting other people who we have mutual friends in common with and hanging in a small group to get comfortable. For example, this past weekend I went to dinner in a group where I knew all but two or three of the girls and we all had mutual friends, so I was able to get to know these girls with less pressure than if we had been blindly around each other in a big group. I ended up loving them and being so thankful we got to talk as much as we did, because in a big group setting that wouldn’t have been able to happen.
I try to take a first step and introduce myself if I look around a group and know all but a few people. However sometimes I feel awkward and am unsure about reaching out and saying “Hi, I’m Lauren.” For the most part, I try to keep in mind that it’s polite to introduce yourself, and others, when in a group of people. I try to introduce friends to one another if I am unsure that they’ve met, because I know 1) that’s the polite thing to do and 2) I prefer that. I feel like this is just good social etiquette, but sometimes people think that you’ve already met so they don’t think to introduce you.
What do you do to cope?
Like anything related to coping, my coping threshold changes. If you’re wondering what this means, it means that dependent upon other factors in life what you are able to cope with and how changes. Let me break this down a little. If you’re sleep deprived or super tired, if you’re really hungry, if it’s a ‘when it rains it pours’ kind of day, then your stress threshold changes. Maybe working out helps your anxiety and you haven’t been able to in a few days. Maybe catching up on sleep helps and you just haven’t had the time. All of this affects your threshold to cope.
For me, repeated socialization can either help or hurt. By the end of a long weekend I may be more likely to walk up to someone because I’ve been doing it more. Having my husband or a best friend I really trust around helps. A cocktail helps. A morning workout helps. Sleep helps. Being in a fun environment where I can dance and be carefree helps. I’ve learned what I can do over the years, but its different for everyone and every thing is dependent upon my stress threshold at that time. Sometimes, repeated socialization can make it worse. If someone is not polite when you introduce yourself or you don’t feel accepted, then you may be less likely to do it again in the future. All of this is relevant to what your stress threshold is, because everyone’s is different and changes as demands of life change. If the biggest thing you have to worry about in a day is minimal then your average stress threshold is different from someone who is used to balancing three kids as a single mom, debt, two jobs, and a sick family member who needs help.
I find that it’s important to irrationalize the fear. So, you introduce yourself to someone and don’t connect? Or someone is rude and doesn’t really talk to you. At least you tried. Kindness always wins! And maybe they just seem rude because they are nervous themselves! If you’ve seen someone around a few times and neither of you have taken the first step, just go for it. If someone is not so nice to you, no matter what the reason, in response when you finally get up the courage, you may be less likely to do it next time. But, you can also try again knowing you may get a different response. For all you know, you caught someone at a bad time or they were tired, intimidated, distracted, etc.
Other great ways to deal with social anxiety? Time with family. I swear, having a dog makes so many anxieties and times of sadness better. I also like to remind myself that I am comfortable spending time alone. When people feel good about themselves, then they are more able to let their fears and worries subside. You don’t care as much about potential negative outcomes because you feel good no matter what. You have so much power over your thoughts!! A change of mindset is so important. Surround yourself with people who lift you up and remind yourself of your greatness and worth. A gratitude or affirmation journal is a great way to build yourself up and focus on the positive.
So what’s the point?
My point is: be kind, give people grace, and try to make someone feel comfortable if you sense they are nervous. Try to see things from the positive. Maybe they aren’t standoffish, maybe they are nervous. Maybe they are unsure of what to say, if you’re interested in talking to them at all, or maybe they are just having an off day.
I am by no means saying I’m great at this. I’m working on it. I’m giving myself grace to improve at it. But, I do know that struggling with this at times myself, has made me more likely to invite someone to sit down or out to dinner who may not know as many people. I am more likely to say hi to someone off on their own. I’m more likely to want to sit down and have the beyond-surface-level conversation in an attempt to really get to know someone. I’m more likely to get up the courage after a few times of not saying hi or something to try to even if it isn’t totally welcomed or doesn’t really go anywhere. If nothing else, I am more likely to pass a smile on to someone.
Whether you feel this every day or just once in a while like I do, or even if you never have, I hope that you can approach social situations differently now. Look for someone off on their own and try to introduce yourself. Try to find a common connection. If you’re in a group and know everyone, consider if everyone else does and introduce them if you’re not sure. The worst they can say is “we’ve met!” When in doubt, just give people a little grace and try to approach situations with understanding.
The biggest take away: you never know the whole picture of what someone is really going through in their life and the smallest smile can make a huge difference in someone’s life.
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I’d love to know if you’ve ever felt this way and how you deal with it. I’ve heard from some that this can be a phase as you transition from big friend groups to the quality over quantity mindset. I’d also love to know if you all love these ‘real talk’ type posts and a little insight into my work or knowledge about mental health. It’s a blessing and a curse for me to know a lot on a variety of mental health and behavioral topics, but I believe they are such important subjects and are great discussion points. Again, this was in no way professional advice or anything, just an account of my own feelings at times and ways that I personally copeor how I feel about ways to help others who may feel this way, too.