We’ve all felt some degree of social anxiety. Some of us actually have a diagnosed clinical disorder, a subset of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) that manifests when we have to interact with other people in groups. I’ve got it. But that means that I’ve also been through a lot of therapy about how to deal with it, so I’m used to coping.
Most people, however, don’t have social anxiety severe enough to hit a clinical level, but they’ve got it nonetheless, and at times, it can be just as crippling, stomach-churning, and misery-inducing. You’re not alone in your terror, believe me: most of us are sisters in social worry, especially if we’ve once suffered at the hands of bullies or tormentors, maybe even at an early age.
But there are solutions out there.
You don’t have to suffer alone, like so many of us do for so long. We wait, we fret before a social event, we build to a slow and terrifying freakout, we spend the event miserable, we go home convinced everyone hates us. I know. I spent a much-anticipated girls’ weekend like this once. It sucked. I carried the pieces of that around for a long time before I learned a way to cope with it.
First, You Have to Do Your Homework
You can’t go into these situations blindly, careening from one to the other without connecting the dots. You need to spend time taking care of yourself in between. Most importantly, recognize what you perceive as your weaknesses (they likely aren’t). Do you feel like you’re unattractive and people think you’re ugly? Do you worry that they think you’re a bad conversationalist? That you’re awkward? That you overshare? That you stand weirdly or talk weirdly or whatever?
Identify those things, and then engage in positive self-talk about them. If you feel that you’re unattractive, this might mean that you dive head-first into body-positivity. If you feel like you’re a bad conversationalist, it might mean that you practice talking to people and compliment yourself effusively when you do well. This means you have a brief “how are you” with the Target clerk and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. You go out of your way to compliment people. Engage your brain. Turn it around. You’re not bad at these things; you’re good at them. You’re tip-top. You’re a star. You’re cool, you’re hot, you’re awesome and so are your clothes. You rock so hard.
Keep practicing. Make this a regular ritual that becomes your armor against the everyday world. So when you do pull something embarrassing or make a social faux pas, you’ve got plenty to fall back on. And when you go into a social situation, you’ve got your armor on and you’re ready to go. You’re psyched up. You know you’re good, and you can remind yourself with specific instances and situations.
Practice Teflon Mind
There’s a super-helpful method in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT, called “Teflon Mind.” Imagine your mind is made of Teflon. Everything slides off Teflon. Nothing sticks. When you’re in those scary social situations, when the bad thoughts come — “I’m dumb,” “I look stupid,” “She thinks I’m an idiot,” “I’m oversharing” — that thought sits for a second, then it slides right off. You could also call this “water off a duck’s back” or “forgiven and forgotten.” You sit with the thought for a second — practicing mindfulness, which some experts recommend for overcoming social anxiety. Then you let it go.
This takes some serious practice, and again, you can’t go into a social situation and just expect it to work. You have to work with it in your everyday life. You have to try, and keep trying, and keep practicing, and let those bad thoughts peel off you like everything sloughs off Teflon. Do this every time you have thoughts that seem like negative self-talk. Nothing sticks to you — only the good stuff we talked about above.
Worry About Someone Else
You are not a shrinking violet, the nerdy girl who sits on the sidelines. You are the quieter one who takes an active interest in other people and makes sure they are having a good time. Some experts also recommend that when you take an active interest in other people, your own anxiety decreases, and you find yourself happier. Basically, if you’re worried about someone else, you’re not worried about yourself. Someone about the party is always more worried than you, always feeling more on the sidelines, always more in a conversational pause. Find them. Ask them about themselves/their hobbies/their lives/their pets/their kids. Find a shared experience or feeling.
It can be as simple as “I love this punch. What do you think?” or “Doesn’t the bride look gorgeous? I love the lace. What do you think?” or “Oh my gosh, these crepes. What’s your favorite dessert here?” Keep the conversation focused not on you, but on them. Make sure they are having as good of a time as possible. Do you know other people in the room who share the same interests as they do? Introduce them. Make it your job to assure that everyone has the best time possible, and you’ll stop focusing on yourself — and stop worrying, too.
Reframe Your Narrative
There will be times you’ve been socially humiliated in the past. These things have probably left lasting scars that persist and affect the way you act in company to this day. To help you function better in the present, you need to take a look at your past. Are you sure everyone was laughing at you, or were they really laughing with you? You may remember an embarrassing incident in excruciating detail. Does anyone else likely even recall it? You may have felt like a conversation went badly, or that someone disliked you, or that you bombed socially. Are you sure? Because if you look at it through another lens, chances are you’re wrong. People are always more focused on themselves than anyone else. Reframe your past, and you rework the way you see the present.
These things won’t totally fix your anxiety. You’ll still get butterflies. You’ll still worry. You’ll still bite your nails and try on fifty outfits before an event. But it’ll be easier. It’ll be better. You’ll feel more confident and less afraid of what’s coming. And anticipation can be even worse than the event itself.