I face anxiety every day, but not in the way you’d think. To be sure, I have my own fears and trepidations (don’t ask me to perform on camera or argue with someone in authority), but I also face anxiety on a daily basis because I’m a clinical psychologist at one of the nation’s few anxiety specialty centers–specifically, the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, affectionately known as CARD, at Boston University. Every day, I am privileged to work with clients who are brave enough to face their fears and conquer their anxieties.
What’s the number one fear? These days, with the pervasiveness of social media and our increasingly interconnected lives, social anxiety takes the cake.
But with the rise of the introvert revolution, confusion reigns. My clients ask me: Am I socially anxious? Or just an introvert?
If you’re confused about the difference between rejuvenating solitude and fear-driven avoidance, here are questions to ask yourself and some tips to try:
1) How do you feel when the phone rings? Likewise, how do you feel when you are invited to an event? When someone wants your company or attention, pay attention to your reaction. If you experience dread, resistance, or physical symptoms like a racing heart, shallow breathing, or a clenched stomach, these may be signs of social anxiety or past trauma. However, letting that call go to voicemail because you are immersed in something else, or simply deciding not to answer the phone for a while is intentional, not avoidant.
2) When you get some time alone, how do you feel? If the answer is rejuvenated, energized, or otherwise positive, then rock on, my introverted friend. If the answer is “relieved,” look closer. “I don’t have to go to that party and feel awkward!” “I didn’t have to talk to him!” “Phew, no one noticed I wasn’t there.” Relief in moderation is typical, but consistently turning inward for relief may imply avoidance.
3) If you feel like you can only be yourself when you’re by yourself, here is a question: What would happen if others saw the real you? If the answer is something negative, then your job, your friends, your spouse, or whomever you’re performing for might be a poor match for the real you. A change may be in order. On the flip side, if you think “the real you” isn’t safe to display—perhaps you believe you’re broken, unloveable, or worthless—it may be time for some hard work with a qualified therapist you like and trust.
4) Overall, the biggest question to ask is this: Does time spent alone keep you from living your life? If you crave solitude only to escape from the world, this might be a red flag. But if time on your own helps you live your life, and you want to be alone because you are recharging your batteries, immersed in a solitary project, or genuinely enjoy your own company, close that door and do your thing!
If you have determined that social situations do make you more than a little uncomfortable or actually keep you from living your life, here are 6 tips to feel better….
1) Anticipating a worrisome social situation is almost always worse than the actual event. For example, after dreading the company holiday party for weeks, it may actually be a relief to walk through the door. Our brains are wired to jump to worst-case scenarios, so the alarm bells before a social situation are often louder than necessary.
Try this experiment: The next time you reluctantly attend a party, have to speak in class or a meeting, or work up the courage to do something you usually avoid, contrast your expectations with the actual experience. Rate your pre-event dread with a number from 1-10. Afterwards, rate how awkward or anxiety-provoking your actual experience was, also from 1-10. The anticipation rating (“I thought it would be an 8 on the awkward scale”) will likely be higher than the experience rating (“But it was really more like a 4.”) Our brains are great at coming up with potential catastrophes (“Nobody will talk to me!”), but they seldom play out in reality (“I stood around by myself for a few minutes, but then that guy from HR struck up a conversation I actually enjoyed.”). Simply realizing your alarm bells are set too loud may be a consolation the next time they go off.
2) Volunteer to be an event host. If suffering through a big family wedding, for example, makes you want to hide under the buffet table, ask whoever is in charge how you can help make things run smoothly. Oftentimes, social awkwardness is alleviated by having a defined role. Asking attendees to sign the guest book gives you a reason to circulate. Rounding up groups for photos provides you purpose. Playing a role allows you to practice approaching people, practice having eyes on you, and practice making requests. Invariably, this practice builds confidence. When you’re ready—whether in a few hours or a few decades—you can transition to the ultimate role: yourself.
3) Push yourself…a little. Both parts of this tip are important. Let’s take Marcus, a junior in college, as an example. He might try asking a question in class in order to push himself. However, he should start small. He can push himself a little by first asking the TA a question after class, then asking the professor a question after class, then asking a question in an informal exam review, then in a 10-person seminar, and finally in a 100-person lecture. Likewise, for your own practice, inch into the water slowly; you don’t have to do a cannonball.
4) Ask questions. Many people feel awkward in social situations because they feel they have nothing to say. One helpful technique is to ask open-ended questions (“So how did you two meet?” or “I’ve been thinking of taking that course—how do you like that professor?”) or ask advice (“I’ve got a few vacation days to burn—I need a good weekend getaway,” or “I just abandoned a terrible book—I need another one. Any suggestions?”) Then, based on the answer, ask another question that takes the conversation deeper. Many people are delighted to talk about their lives and experiences and will thank you for the chance.
5) The average American has two true friends, despite what you see on Facebook. Almost one in four find themselves without a social circle. If you’re starting from scratch, have hope and take heart knowing you’re not, well, alone. Wondering where to start? Think about what you like to do. If you’re stumped, think about what you liked to do as a kid. Then, based on your answers, plug yourself into a small, recurring group with the same people—not a one-shot event or huge city festival.
Did you love to draw? Take a semester-long art class. Run? Join a community running club and attend the Tuesday evening runs religiously. Read about dinosaurs? Volunteer at the local museum, preferably on a shift with the same co-volunteers. The most important part is to keep showing up. Commit for at least a season, even if you’re tempted to throw in the towel earlier.
6) If you’ve determined that avoidance is a challenge you’re facing, a good cognitive-behavioral therapist can help you construct a plan to face your fears slowly and safely. In a nutshell, he or she will ask you to construct a hierarchy of things you avoid, from easiest to hardest. Next, you’ll work through them gradually, only moving on to the next level when ready.
Time spent alone can be exhilarating or exhausting. Or, as better expressed by the great theologian Paul Tillich, “Language…has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.” With practice and some guts, you can experience the glory.