Would You Like To Be More Social?
As humans, it’s important that we have social interaction. However, for some people, engaging in social interactions is easier than for others. Fear of social interactions can cause a person to live an extremely limited life. The world is full of people and if we want to excel in life, we need to become comfortable with being around others. I’m not saying this is easy, however I will tell you that it is entirely possible.
Check out this helpful article about overcoming social fear from Succeed Socially.
You can probably read through this article just as quickly as all the other ones on this site. But it’s one of the most important and useful ones here, because it provides a framework for how you can work through your more difficult social fears in the most manageable way possible. The principles here can be used to work on other types of fears too.
Some of our fears are more minor and once we put our minds to pushing our comfort zone we can get used to them fairly quickly. If our fears are more intense it’s not that simple, and we need to more slowly wade into things. The ideas here are basically my summary of well supported exposure therapy concepts that counselors have been recommending for decades. They’re considered the gold standard for treating phobias.
While this article will focus on social fears, the ideas below can also be used to help you ease into doing behaviors that you want to do, but which you’re feeling a little lazy about getting started on. Of course, when someone is feeling unmotivated about doing something, at times that’s because some anxiety is at the heart of it.
Be at a point where you’re really ready to make changes
The approach I’ll outline below is the easiest way to face your fears, but even then it won’t be totally comfortable. Facing a fear gradually with the aid of coping skills will make the task as pleasant as it can be, but it still won’t feel great at times. The process also takes a few months of consistent work.
What this means is that you need to be at a place where you’re really motivated to change. It’s not unusual for someone to have a fear for years, but do nothing more than avoid the situations that scare them. Even if they hate how much their fear constricts their life, they still prefer that to the work and discomfort of getting over it.
This article is the practical ‘how to’ companion to this piece which explains the principles behind exposure therapy. It also talks about how applying the concepts to social fears is a little trickier.
Before facing any fears, start to get a handle on the distorted beliefs and thinking that contribute to your anxiety in social situations
Social fears are sustained by beliefs which amplify the perceived danger of certain situations. Most people with social anxiety have a wide variety of these beliefs, some of the big ones being “I’m a loser”, “If I screw up in a social situation it will be terrible”, “People are mean-spirited and constantly judging others”, and “Every social situation is high-stakes”. They also don’t have the best attitudes towards nervousness itself, and usually think of anxiety as something that’s horrible and must be avoided, as well as hidden from people, at all costs.
If you try to face your fears, but leave all your counterproductive beliefs intact, you’re going to have a bad time. You’ll go into every encounter feeling it’s life or death. If it all doesn’t go well according to your unrealistic standards, you’ll come away with the wrong message and feel even more dejected and discouraged. You need to educate yourself about the faulty thinking behind the way you approach social situations, and try to have a more balanced, realistic perspective.
You’ve also got to try to develop a better relationship with your anxiety:
As I say elsewhere, changing your thinking won’t eradicate your fears on its own. You need to face them to do that. Addressing your thinking and facing your fears tend to work in tandem: If you have some understanding of how distorted thinking impacts your social fears that will get you to the starting gate, where you can start facing them with a healthy mindset.
Then, once you start facing your fears, make some progress, and have some more positive social experiences, that real-world feedback will help clean up your thinking further. You’ll see firsthand that your old view of the world wasn’t totally accurate. From there a positive feedback loop starts, where as you have more success you start thinking about social situations in a more productive way, which allows you to push your limits even further and attain even better results.
Have at least some idea of how to interact in the situations you’re afraid of
Similarly, it will likely be unproductive and demoralizing if you throw yourself into scary interactions without a plan for how to behave in them. Do some reading ahead of time and form a rough idea of how to navigate the scenarios that make you nervous.
For example, if inviting someone to hang out makes you anxious, memorize and rehearse some scripts for how to do it. If you’re uncomfortable mingling at parties, read up on strategies for that. You don’t need a bulletproof plan for every contingency you’ll face – that’s impossible and many smaller details you’ll figure out on your own just fine – but at go in with some preparation.
Okay, on to the actual practical advice:
The key is to face your bigger fears gradually…
In an ideal world we’d all be super courageous warriors with a bottomless supply of grit, willpower, and tolerance for pain. In real life it’s not so easy. If someone’s fear brings up enough anxiety in them it may be more than they can push through to ‘just do it already’. Or even if they can manage to suck it up and force past their nerves once or twice, it’s not something they’ll be able to do consistently. The right way to go is with an approach that’s more systematic and is designed to help smoothly guide you along as much as possible.
The proper Exposure Therapy way to face your fears is to treat it like you’re building up your courage ‘muscles’. If you’re out of shape you can’t just go to the gym, throw some plates on a bar and bench press your body weight. You have to work up to it. Similarly, as you tackle your lesser fears you’ll build up the momentum and confidence to deal with the harder ones. Here’s a general structure for facing your fears slowly:
Break your fears down into a hierarchy from Least Scary to Most Scary
I’ll use the example of someone who is very nervous about talking to people they don’t know at parties. To gradually tackle this fear they’ll need a hierarchy of easier tasks they can work their way up. There are a variety of progressions that may work, and they’ll be different for every person, but one could be:
•Go to a party and briefly nod and smile at several people
•Go to a party and ask several people a quick question, and then excuse yourself
•Go to a party and ask a friend to introduce you to several people
•Go to a party and introduce yourself to one person who seems friendly and approachable, and who you’re not particularly concerned with whether you impress them or not
•Go to a party and try to join a group of approachable people. Don’t put pressure on yourself to wow them or say too much. The idea is just to join them
•Go to a party and join a group and try to talk to them a bit more
•Go to a party and talk to someone who intimidates you somewhat, but who you’d still like to get to know
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