Earlier this week, I had a work date with a novelist friend of mine. It felt so pleasant and natural, sitting down and working next to each other. But in the past, this would’ve been a huge deal to me.
I would have worried about whether it would be boring, or awkward, or that I wouldn’t be able to leave if I wanted. I would have worried about what she was thinking about how I looked and what I did and what I ate.
In other words, I would have had massive social anxiety.
Sound familiar? I know I’m not alone because so many of you write me emails asking me for help with your thoughts, feelings and fears about social gatherings.
Let’s start with the basics: Social anxiety is anxiety you feel before, while or after socializing.
And it is caused by your thoughts.
And with good reason! Back in the day – I mean way back in the time of early humans, when we evolved in small hunter-gatherer tribes – it was actually life or death if other people in the tribe liked you. If they wouldn’t share food with you or if they left camp while you were sleeping, you would die. The humans who survived were mostly those whose brains were very focused on what other people thought of them.
This is exacerbated for women because we are taught from a very young age that the most important thing for a woman is to be pretty and likeable.
Of course, that doesn’t mean these thoughts are unavoidable. It just means we have to understand them in order to change them.
The mistake we make is that we are so critical of ourselves that we assume everyone else is thinking about us with the same level of attention, scrutiny and negativity. We are always on our own minds, and our brains are always cataloguing our faults, so we assume everyone else must always be thinking about our faults, too.
Have you ever noticed that what you fear other people are thinking about you completely mirrors your own self-critical thoughts? That’s because – you guessed it! – social anxiety is about your own values and worries and fears. It’s not about other people at all.
This is why avoiding social situations doesn’t fix social anxiety. Anxiety may be less intense if you avoid social situations, but if you have negative thoughts about yourself, you’re going to have those thoughts whether you go to a party or stay home. The real reason you want to stay home is that at home there aren’t as many other people for your brain to project your self-critical thoughts onto. You can just numb out from them more easily when you’re alone.
So what can you do about it? Here’s something to try next time you are anxious about a social occasion:
Write down all the reasons you’re nervous. What do you fear you will think or feel?
Then, notice if you are attributing any of those thoughts to the other people there, and take ownership of them. Those are all your own thoughts about you and have nothing to do with the other people.
(In fact other people are generally thinking about themselves, not you. Just like you are thinking about yourself and not them! You actually have that in common with them!)
Work on those thoughts and you’ll be able to navigate your next cocktail party (or friend date) with ease!