Imagine that you enter a party full of strangers. The other guests are dressed to the nines and you’re wearing tattered pajamas and slippers. While they chat easily and eloquently with one another, you stutter and stammer as if you’ve got a mouth full of marbles. You’re terrified of talking so you stuff your face with crudités and instantly find yourself covered in hives from an unknown, allergic reaction.
People are pointing and laughing, but, in your allergic daze and impending panic, you can’t seem to find the exit. This does NOT sound like a fun social interaction and luckily, it isn’t very likely to happen... to anyone... ever! But, when you’re facing a serious case of social anxiety, every occasion can feel like it is destined to turn out to be as horrible and humiliating as this one.
If this sounds like you, you’ll be happy to hear that there are steps you can take today to keep a sense of calm (aside from hiding under a rock or staying sequestered at home) and improve your confidence in social situations. Read on to learn strategies from behavior science that are sure to increase your success in navigating any challenging social situation.
Start from a Place of Personal Values
Before you set out to change your anxious behaviors, it is important to determine WHY you want to participate in social events in the first place. What is it that you’re looking to get out of talking and interacting with others? Whether you’re looking to make new career contacts, fit in at family gatherings, or simply gain more caring and support from your friends, it helps to know your particular reasons for wanting to decrease your public anxiety.
In the search for your drive to be social, view photos or videos of outings you’ve enjoyed in the past, create a list of all the great opportunities that have come from social interactions, write down times when you’ve connected with friends and felt comfort and encouragement. Understanding your underlying values is the first step in addressing your social anxiety.
Make Friends with Your Monkey Mind
In a perfect world, we’d all wake to face each day with a super-positive attitude and find some joy in each opportunity that passed our way. However, due to centuries of adaptation, humans have evolved to be able to plan, problem-solve, worry, and fret. And, even though this evolution in thought has led to lots of positive inventions and innovations over time, it has also increased the number of negative ideas that can plague us throughout each day. I recently had a client describe this excess of cynicism, anxiety, and self-defeating silent chatter as her "monkey mind', which is a term I find quite fitting.
The first step to mastering your monkey mind is to acknowledge your negative thought patterns. As harmful as these thoughts might be, they won’t get any better by sweeping them under the rug! Carry a small journal with you to take down your anxious thoughts and concerns or voice record them on your phone. Then, review the list in the evening before you go to bed. Notice when you’re most likely to have anxious thoughts about public participation. Is there a time of day, a specific setting, a certain person that acts as an instant trigger? Once you’ve made friends with your monkey mind, you can start to set goals to over come it.
Practice Turning a Frown Upside Down
After you’ve noted when, where, why, and with whom most of your anxiety is likely to occur, you can start to plan more positive ways to act in those stressful social situations. This is the time to switch from monkey mind to mastering your thoughts. Schedule some time to sit still and contemplate past social interactions. Instead of dwelling on times when you flubbed a speech or made a fool of yourself, imagine a moment when you really felt great about interacting with another person.
Perhaps you impressed your boss in a one-on-one meeting or volunteered to help at your child’s school fair or a local 5K race. Note exactly what you did and how you felt when you accomplished these social interactions. What did you say? How did others react? Using this information, prepare a script of what you can say when you meet others in public. These can be topics you enjoy, news you have to share, your interests and hobbies, etc.
Above, you identified what your successful social interactions look and feel like. Now we add in the practice so that you’ll meet with this success more often. Start imagining those anxiety triggers that start your monkey mind running. Really dig down and try to feel yourself in the awkward or stressful situation. But, this time, instead of letting that monkey chatter on with negative thoughts, recite the positive actions and words that you used during your most positive social interactions. Imagine yourself successfully navigating your most dreaded social event or activity. This practice, if you commit to it for 10-20 minutes each day, will get you primed to use these skills in real life.
Gain Confidence with Small Successes
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, in order to decrease your social anxiety, you’ve got to put yourself in social situations. Now that you’ve had practice overcoming your anxious thoughts on your own, it’s time to take your strategies to the streets. But, before you try your skills at the next neighborhood party, there are some small steps that you need to accomplish first:
- Plan a relaxing action that you can do in the real world when you first feel anxiety coming on. Will you retreat to the restroom, take deep breaths, repeat a calming mantra, walk around the block? Choose an action that helps keep you calm and also allows you return to the social engagement at hand. This will bring you confidence and reinforce the fact that you CAN get through these challenging circumstances instead of running for the hills.
- When you do decide to go out in public, start with super-small gatherings. Practice your positive thoughts and calming actions in the company of one or two close friends for a couple weeks. Then, as you improve at keeping your anxiety under control, increase the number of participants slowly.
- You should also use familiar settings to practice your skills (e.g., at your home or a friend’s house). Again, as you build confidence and success, you can move to slightly more novel locations (e.g., a coffee shop, the mall, your child’s school).
- If you’re preparing for a particular social gathering, for example a wedding reception or graduation party, it helps to work through your positive thoughts and calming behaviors in a space that mimics the scene and setting of the upcoming event as closely as possible. If you can, visit the event location beforehand with close friends or family and role-play different scenarios that might occur.
If you build on your accomplishments slowly, you’ll be less likely to encounter the overwhelming situations that have left you paralyzed with fear in the past. This means that you won’t face the defeat that you’ve met in the past in these more challenging social situations. Instead, when you do work up to attending a big event or party, you’ll be ready to ace the social situation and THAT will send your self-assurance soaring.
Reward Every Effort
Participating in social events, keeping tabs on your monkey mind and practicing calming techniques are all habits and most of them are probably rather new to you. Because you’re working to overcome some seriously ingrained negative patterns of anxiety and fear, you’ll need to commit to practicing these new skills on a daily basis.
Luckily, just like any other habit, your positive patterns of social confidence are destined to improve if you reward your practice. Think ahead and choose some valued incentives for yourself. These rewards are to be received after each step in your pro-social plan. When you stay calm during an hour of shopping with your spouse, pick up a pint of your favorite ice cream. When you attend a friend’s backyard barbecue or sit through your child’s dance recital, treat yourself to a new book or a pedicure. Planned incentives help to promote your progress and keep you on track toward lasting social success.