Wednesday, November 11, 2009


For those who have social anxiety, practice is invaluable. Social Anxiety is a phobia. You’ve undoubtedly heard about methods for eradicating animal phobias using gradual exposure. For example, someone who fears spiders might progress over time from looking at a drawing of a spider, to looking at a photo of one to looking at an actual tarantula in a cage, etc.--all the while using relaxation techniques like those I wrote about in previous weeks.

First, you need to define clearly the situations you fear. Maybe you’re comfortable talking one-on-one with strangers, but are uncomfortable if more than one person is listening. Or maybe you fear starting a conversation with strangers but are fine if they initiate. Be very clear about what social situations cause you discomfort.

Now create some attainable goals for yourself. Include in your goals at least one or two situations to overcome that you know you can have some success with right away. These may be very small things. If one of your feared situations is initiating conversation, your goal might be to say hi to the cashier at the grocery store. Having success early on will encourage you to keep trying with the harder situations.

When you write down the goals you have for more difficult social situations, make sure that your goals are reasonable. It is not reasonable to expect that by next month you will be able to approach a stranger, strike up a conversation and be completely witty and at ease. That’s ridiculous. It isn’t even attainable by most people who don’t have social anxiety. A reasonable goal would be to strike up a conversation with a woman you are *not* interested in and ask her about what she does for a living.

Do not think of goals as all-or-nothing propositions. You do not have to perform “perfectly” in order for it to be good enough. Your conversation with the uninteresting woman might be awkward or boring. That’s okay in the beginning. Getting out there and doing it is the goal.

Let’s say one of your goals is to talk (tell an anecdote, a joke or just contribute to the conversation) in a group of people at a party. What might be some baby steps toward that goal? A small step might be to respond with more than “fine” when a co-worker asks how your weekend was. This helps you practice talking to acquaintances. Another step might be to tell an anecdote to two friends with whom you feel totally safe. Another step might be to go to a party with a friend and stay for a short period of time (say, fifteen minutes), not expecting yourself to mingle, initiate conversation or even talk much at all.

It might be helpful to pull a friend into your confidence (if you haven’t already) and ask him or her to help with these changes by being supportive or helping you set up or practice simulations. Telling someone in your life about your social anxiety can alleviate some of the shame you may feel about having this difficulty.

The more often you do something, the easier it gets, and the more second nature it becomes. As you continue to practice, increase the amount of time that you expose yourself to the uncomfortable situation. For example, if you have a hard time with large group situations, like parties, gradually increase the amount of time you spend in large groups. The key word being gradually. Don’t expect yourself to hang out at a big party for three hours.

As you practice in social situations, you will do and say stupid things. You will inappropriately interrupt because you are so eager to add something to the conversation and be done with it, and you will get talked over and interrupted because you aren’t talking loudly enough. You will make a joke that falls flat. You will find yourself with nothing to say, or give an answer that’s too curt and makes your conversational partner think you don’t like her or that you are just plain weird. You can not let these things prevent you from striving toward your goals.

At the same time, you don’t want just to get through social situations because you’ve steeled your will to do so. How fun would that be? You don’t want merely to be able to do certain social activities. You also want to feel (more) comfortable doing them. So during your practice times, make use of the relaxation techniques described in previous weeks. And use the self-talk suggestions from one of blog entries on self-esteem. Use this self-talk during the social interaction and afterwards. Don’t beat up on yourself in your play-by-play reflection on how you did. Use positive self-talk.

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