Social anxiety and the sense of shyness that it causes can be one of the most frustrating aspects of a lack of self-confidence. Much of our joy and happiness in life comes from our relationships with other people, and shyness cuts off many of our opportunities to meet new and interesting people before we've even begun.
In this age of computers, iPods, the Internet, chat rooms, online forums, Facebook, Twitter and other social media web sites, we're getting more and more used to relating to other people electronically. That means we're getting less and less practise at social skills, so naturally we're gradually becoming more socially anxious.
But like any form of anxiety, social anxiety is treatable if you approach it in the right way. You don't have to be held hostage by your fear of other people in social situations. I've been working on this for a long time myself, and here's what I've found most helpful:
Understand That It's Normal
Firstly, understand that some degree of social anxiety is normal. We're all biologically programmed to be wary of people we don't know, and to suss them out to work out whether they're friend or foe before trusting and being able to fully relax around them. Plus many of us were raised with the stranger danger mentality, which taught us to be suspicious of other people by default. When you realise that pretty much everyone feels this way, and that other people are just as afraid of you as you are of them, you can begin to relax a little.
There's no overnight cure to social anxiety that I'm aware of. It takes some time to put the following ideas into practise on a daily basis. Be patient and kind to yourself. Beating yourself up about it will only make you feel more awkward and anxious. Doing this all by yourself is hard work, but having a confidence coach can help to keep you motivated and on track.
Practise Making Eye Contact
Eye contact is a major indicator of a person's level of social confidence. If you don't normally maintain eye contact with other people for very long, this is a very powerful exercise: Start focusing more attention on the eyes of other people. Notice what colour they are, and how often they dart around while you are talking with them. Force yourself to maintain eye contact, even when you would normally avert. Start noticing when they're showing signs of anxiety. This helps take your attention off yourself, while also building your confidence at holding another person's eye contact.
You can also make this into a fun game to play while you're out and about: practise making eye contact with other people you come across, and holding it until they break it off. Keep holding on for as long as you can. It will feel awkward at first, but the longer you practise holding eye contact, the more confident you'll become.
Progressively Expand Your Social Comfort Zone
The key to dealing with any overwhelming anxiety is to expose yourself to a mild form of the situation that makes you just a little anxious, but not overwhelming so. Anxiety subsides naturally as you master that situation, building your confidence. You then increase the intensity of the situation, always remaining below the level at which you feel overwhelmed.
Psychologists call this Systematic Desensitisation or Exposure Therapy, which psychologist Dr Russ Harris described in our interview as “The most powerful technique in all of psychology”. There is no doubt that it works when done correctly. My online confidence building course is based on applying this technique in the real world.
To conquer social anxiety, start small with people you trust and learn to share the aspects of yourself that you normally hold back on; particularly your most powerful experiences, thoughts and feelings. Imagine a hierarchy of social situations, from least threatening to most threatening:
- Seeing a trusted Therapist
- Talking with a trusted friend
- Sharing with a couple of friends
- Group therapy with a facilitator
- Sharing with friends in a larger group
- Meeting a stranger
- Meeting strangers at a party
- Speaking in groups of strangers
- Addressing small groups, where you're the focus
- Presenting a seminar or other public speaking
- Sharing a personal testimony while public speaking
The exact order and elements in the hierarchy will vary for you depending on which situations you find more or less threatening. But the basic principle is the same: You start with the least threatening, expose your experiences, thoughts and feelings in a supportive environment, and then gradually move up to the next most threatening as you feel comfortable.
At each level you're learning to trust other people more and you're also developing better social skills appropriate to that level. When you've reached the level of confidence in social situations that you desire, you're done.
Start Conversations With Strangers
Your self-confidence will really start cooking when you're starting conversations with strangers all over the place. Not only will your conversation skills improve, but you'll learn that other people aren't half as scary as you thought they were. I'll bet that there are already people in your life that you interact with on a daily basis, who you could be practising this with.
There is a secret to this which makes it much easier and less threatening than you're probably imagining: Have a look at this video on How to Start Conversations with Strangers, and start practising as you go about your daily business. If this sounds too threatening a starting point, start by working through the series of preliminary exercises in my online confidence building course before you attempt to bridge this gap.
Build Your General Level Of Confidence
Social anxiety cuts to the fear that if people get to know us, we'll be exposed and found out for what we really are, and people won't love us. But this fear is based on a lie. Once you realise that deep down you're a great person with a lot to offer, you'll find that people love to get to know the real you, and you won't be so anxious about being exposed any more.
There's a positive feedback effect that happens here: When you're not so worried about being exposed, other people will sense your self-confidence and will be more eager to get to know you. You start getting positive reinforcement for being who you are as your general level of confidence grows. After a while you'll be wanting to expose your inner self to other people, because then they get to see what a great guy you are, and you get to experience deeper and more satisfying relationships of all kinds. Then those old feelings of social awkwardness and anxiety will seem like just a distant memory.