I’ve met enough people in my life to know that everyone stems from some form of social anxiety. Social situations can be difficult–they can bring up insecurities, cause us to remember our wounds, put us in potentially awkward situations. You might be surprised to hear that, I, myself, certainly suffer from social anxiety in some situations. Just the other day, I had a social obligation to attend a party, and leading up to it, I found myself making excuses, prolonging my arrival, calling my dad for a pep talk. Here’s how I conquer my social anxiety:
1.Come prepared: When I know I’m walking into a potentially awkward and uncomfortable situation, I always make sure I come prepared with topics of conversation–depending on the situation depends on what I come prepared with. If I’m going to a party where I know there will be a lot of old, rich, white guys, I brush up on my conservative party agenda. If I’m going to an obligatory bridal shower where I haven’t seen anyone in fifteen years, I do some social media stalking so I can say, “Oh, weren’t you just in Chicago? Tell me about that trip!”, “I saw that you just bought your own house! Have you been able to decorate?”, “Your sister recently got married, how was the wedding?” I mean, we are all kind of bashful when it comes to social media, because we don’t want to admit to people how much time we actually spend on it, but I always reference it and use it to my advantage. It’s like prepping for an interview–I want to move potential topics of conversation from my long term into my short term so that information is at the forefront and I don’t have to awkwardly stumble, looking for conversation.
Sometimes social anxiety also stems from when something happened in our lives that we don’t want to discuss with anyone (break up, divorce, dropped out of school, lost our job, etc). When my long term boyfriend and I first broke up, I remember wanting to avoid many social situations, because I was not quite ready to talk about it yet. However, the good news is, we can prepare ourselves for these conversations as well. If I’m anticipating someone asking me about my job, or my break up, or whatever, before I go to the gathering, I can come up with a witty line to respond and deflect conversation. Like, I know people are going to ask me if I’m dating anyone, and I’ll feel a sense of disappointment when I say, “No”, so my prepared response is always, “Why would I want one of those?…”. The people laugh, the awkward topic of conversation is deflected, and I can control what happens next.
2. Ask questions: People LOVE to talk about themselves, and you’ll find that people like you way better when you ask questions. Especially introverts suffer from social anxiety, I think, because they don’t want to give too much of themselves away. Luckily, there are ways to avoid that. The easiest way to start is by commenting on people’s appearances–how we present ourselves, the kinds of clothes we wear, etc. makes a statement about us. Like, you should probably avoid comments, such as, “Wow, you’ve really gained some weight. Have you thought about buying a gym membership?’, “Your hair is looking really frazzled. Have you been box dying it again?”, because those can be deemed socially untactful. But, I always think asking about people’s tattoos, where they got their necklace, what color they’d call their shirt can be great conversation starters. People are always itching to talk about themselves–that’s why they get tattoos and piercings and wear certain articles of clothing.
Ok, so let’s go back to the awkward, “Why are you still single Britany?” conversation. Part of anxiety stems from the fear of not being in control, but actually, I can control how a conversation moves. So, someone asks me why I’m still single. I respond, “Why would I want one of those?”, they laugh, then I ask them questions about their own relationship: when did you meet, when did you know you would get married, etc. And, inevitably you have done them a service, because they love reminiscing in their love (you can usually see hearts twirling in their eyes), and before you know it, you have deflected that potentially awkward situation.
3.Don’t be afraid to go alone: We always have a tendency when we are going to a wedding, or a company holiday party, or a birthday celebration to force someone to tag along so that we aren’t alone. But, what usually ends up happening is, we bring someone who has NO relation to the place we are at, so we both awkwardly stand in the corner by ourselves all night. And, if you bring someone who could potentially be marked as a “person of interest” (even though they are clearly just a friend), you are limiting yourself to meeting other people. I noticed a really interesting phenomenon this year. As a teacher, I get invited to many graduation parties, and all my potential “dates” (aka my brother) were not available to attend with me. So, I went alone. And actually, because I showed up alone, everyone was incredibly welcoming, and introduced me to so many more people than I would have if I would have forced someone else to tag along. The same thing is true with weddings. If we aren’t seriously dating someone, we always want to bring a date to a wedding so that we don’t feel lonely during that one slow song. But, I’ve noticed that when I tell my friends I’m going to the wedding stag, they are always really eager to make sure I know people and have someone to hang out with. Plus, if I do end up standing by myself during that slow song, weddings always have cake!
4.It’s acceptable to just be a fly on the wall: You learn a lot about people by just observing behavior. One of my favorite things to do when I go to the bar is to just watch people interacting with each other. When I’m at the bar and I see a guy approach a girl, I try to guess what their conversation is like, and read her body language to see if she’s into him or not, watch how long they stay together, if he gets rejected. When I’m at a backyard bar-be-que, I like to watch people running around and playing with the little kids, or the dogs. You can learn so much by just observing. Social anxiety also stems from insecurities–when I’m sitting on a chair by myself, I appear weak, and vulnerable, like I don’t have any friends, that someone could come kidnap me. Some of these scenarios could be true, but we have to keep in mind that people are selfish, self-serving, and that while I’m sitting here, insecure about the fact that no one is talking to me, all the other people are talking about themselves, and no one is actually probably noticing that I’m just being a fly on the wall right now.
5. Remember the best way to conquer your fears is to face them: There’s a lot of really bad things that can happen in a social situation, but there are also a lot of really great things that can happen as well, and we will never allow ourselves to experience those life changing moments if we sit inside our house all day, avoiding social situations. Going back to my long term boyfriend–I definitely wanted to avoid many situations because I didn’t want to talk about it, but I also knew that I would miss out on a lot of things if I continued to avoid. Like any kind of fear (speaking in public, heights, fish, etc.), the more we expose ourselves to it, the better we can train ourselves to look at it not as a fear, the easier the situation becomes. The first time is always the worst, but with practice and strategies, it gets better. Say, I have a fear of eating pineapples. Well, the first time I eat the pineapple is always the worst, because I have all these projected anxieties and emotions and anticipation rolled into the experience, but the more I do it, the more familiar I become with the experience, the more I realize I’m in control and probably not going to die from it, the easier my fear becomes. The same is true with social anxiety. Often times, we go into a situation and it is just so terrible that we never want to do it again, but we have to remember that things DO get better, and that everything takes practice. Or, going to my first wedding by myself was definitely not easy, but the second, third, fourth, etc. got easier and easier, and now, I’ve had so much fun, I’m not sure I will ever want to bring a date. The more I go into a social situation, the better I get at instigating conversation, derailing from things I don’t want to talk about, knowing which questions to ask.
And, if all else fails, I always remind myself that no one ever died from a potentially awkward conversation, so no matter what happens, I know I’ll come out at least kind of alive…