You are SO awkward. They don’t ACTUALLY like you. You’re just gonna make a fool of yourself. Besides, you know you’re going to be in your head the whole time. Just tell them you’re sick and save everyone the trouble…
A certain degree of social anxiety is completely normal–even helpful. The fear of rejection or negative judgment is evolutionary: In caveperson days, rejection could mean ostracization from the pack–which meant little chance for survival or procreation. But there’s a difference between wanting to be accepted, and fearing rejection so much we avoid any setting where there’s a possibility of judgment (which, masochistically, is usually our own judgment toward ourselves, not someone else’s).
Social anxiety is only a problem when it’s so intense it prevents you from attending or enjoying social settings. If that’s the case for you, let’s explore how to tai chi it so you can form lasting friendships and connection:
So as much as anxiety tells you to avoid, doing so is just giving anxiety all the power. Don’t let a momentary uncomfortable experience hold you back from success! Follow these tips and never be ‘feeling under the weather’ before an event again:
First, a very important fact: The more we avoid feeling anxiety, the more power it has over us. Why? Because anxiety and confidence are inversely related, so in order for us to decrease anxiety, we have to gain confidence. And how do we gain confidence? By diving into and ultimately mastering whatever scares us.
Step 1: Change Your Relationship to Anxiety
Mindfulness is your first step toward change. This means making space for anxiety and observing it non-judgmentally, rather than trying to shut it off. This is important for two reasons: First, if every time we felt anxiety we took a pill or avoided whatever caused anxiety, we’d never grow the emotional tolerance muscles we need to be able to live life alongside anxiety;
Second, when we judge or shame ourselves for feeling anxiety, we create what are called secondary feelings–feelings about having feelings! We feel additional anxiety, shame, or frustration.
With mindfulness and self-compassion (comforting and supporting ourselves through our difficult experiences), we permit uncomfortable feelings and create choice in how we react to them. Turning into our anxiety isn’t comfy or intuitive, but it’s a necessary step to overcoming it. Try to stay with that discomfort–breathe into it (try breathing into your belly for three counts, holding for one, and exhaling for four).
Step 2: Practice and Prepare
Like I mentioned earlier, anxiety is negatively correlated with confidence. And what’s the most significant independent variable? Exposure. Practice. Mastery. Think about it: the more talks you give, the more dates you go on, the more interviews you have–the more confident and less anxious you become. Anxiety feeds off uncertainty, and confidence feeds off familiarity.
So find certainty where you can. Scope out the venue. Bring a friend along. Come up with a few go-to questions that you ask if there’s an awkward silence (This weather! Those Mets! Any summer plans? How have you enjoyed the conference so far? Where are you from originally?).
Finally–and this is an important one–think about all the things that could go wrong. Yep, you read that right! Visualizing ‘everything is going to go perfectly no matter what!’ is also called blind optimism. Treat yourself like the human being that you are and hope for the best but consider the worst.
You might stutter or fumble over your words.Your face might go red. You might spill red wine on a bride’s dress (true story). You will survive all of these encounters, I promise. Imagine what might go wrong and ask, ‘what would I do next?’ When you feel equipped with a plan for all the worst case scenarios, you have certainty, and increased certainty = decreased anxiety!
Step 3: Give Your Head a Shake
Our minds LOVE to tell us stories. They say the reason we’re not getting a text back is because we’re boring (when our friend actually left their phone in a cab); they say the reason we didn’t get the job is because we’re not good enough (when there was actually an internal candidate); they say the reason someone wouldn’t go out with us is because they thought we were ugly (when they’re actually totally hung up on their ex).
Get in the habit of noticing your thoughts are thoughts, not objective truths. If you’re thinking, “I don’t belong here,” say to yourself I’m having the thought that I don’t belong here.
Here are a few other ‘mantras’ to keep you grounded:
- No one can see inside your head–while you might think everyone can see your fear, it’s unlikely they notice at all.
- Everyone around you is also an imperfect mortal who at times feels embarrassed, ashamed, sad, afraid, lonely, etc.
- No one is spending the whole event watching you. If they are, social anxiety shouldn’t be your primary concern.
- A person’s actions or reactions generally have little to do with you, and much to do with what’s going on in their mind/life.
- You are at this event/gathering for a reason: you have every right to be there.
- You can ALWAYS leave if it gets too uncomfortable.
- Feeling fear and doing it anyway is making you stronger!
Step 4: Set Yourself Up For Success
It’s unlikely you’ll make anxiety go away completely, but you can make it stronger or weaker depending on your actions. Here are a few more tips:
- Wear layers so when you feel flushed you can take them off (temperature changes are normal symptoms of anxiety, due to our body going into ‘fight-or-flight’ mode).
- Wear something that won’t show your excitement (read: pit) stains!
- Bring a friend or colleague if possible (but don’t spend the whole time talking to them and only them!)
- Smile. Nervousness tends to put an uninviting look on our face. This is one area where we’re best to ‘fake it ’til we make it.’
- If you’re struggling with communicating, ask for a card and follow up with a more coherent email later.
- Make sure you eat something that’s unlikely to keep you locked in the bathroom if you’re prone to anxiety-related stomach upset (try a banana or toast).
- Watch your coffee intake–it’s a stimulant and will increase your heart rate, potentially increasing your feelings of anxiety.
- Watch your alcohol intake. Many of us tend to drink to quell our anxiety and thus end up completely sloshed. If you plan to drink, commit to a number of beforehand and stick to that.
Step 5: Congratulate Yourself, Rinse, and Repeat
The last step is quick but very necessary! Acknowledge the courage it took you to step outside your comfort zone. Remind yourself you just seriously worked your anxiety tolerance muscles, and are a step closer to mastery. Archive this experience in your ‘Proof I can do it!’ cabinet, give yourself a high-five, and celebrate your growth. Now go do it again.
Finally, If facing anxiety still seems impossible, I encourage you to work with a coach or therapist. Don’t let those stories your mind tells you sabotage your career potential!
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com by Megan Bruneau. It is published here with the author’s consent.