I’ve had social anxiety almost all my life. I was even known as the “shy girl” during elementary school and junior high. I hated it, so much, but I couldn’t really argue with it. Social interactions were often terrifying for me.
It wasn’t until I started learning more about myself and how I “work” that I discovered my shyness wasn’t so much shyness. It was social anxiety.
(Basically, shyness is a personality trait while social anxiety is a disorder.)
Now that I’m an adult and know what I’m dealing with, I’m a constant work-in-progress: figuring out why I feel so anxious and how I can work through it to help myself.
This self-development work is what led me to write this.
My One-Month Social Anxiety Challenge
I decided to give myself a mini challenge around my social anxiety. For a month, this was my goal:
To do things in person—or if in person isn’t possible, over the phone—as much as possible.
- Ordering a Starbucks drink in person instead of using the app
- Ordering food to-go over the phone instead of online
- Going inside to checkout library books instead of using the after-hours outside drop-off
- Making phone calls I’d been putting off, like calling the IRS about a tax question and calling vendors with questions regarding my wedding later this year
- Making an effort to wave or say hi to people I pass in my neighborhood (rather than avoid them like I tend to do)
- Smiling at strangers more, even when I feel like they’re judging me
These might seem small to some, but each cause me anywhere from minor to intense anxiety. They’re things I’d either do online, put off, or avoid completely because they’re so uncomfortable face-to-face—or even over the phone.
So, here’s how it went and some things I noticed during this “challenge” month.What I Learned After Challenging My Social Anxiety for a Month Click To Tweet
Slowing Down is Key
My anchor during this whole thing was this: I focused on slowing down during any social interactions.
My wonderful psychiatrist gave me this tip recently: When we’re anxious or feel put on the spot, it’s hard to be present, focus on what we’re saying, and think calmly rationally.
And that is exactly what happens when I’m anxious in social situations.
If I stumble over my words, blush, start sweating, or act awkward in all the ways I can, it’s mostly because I’m all up in my head, worried about what the other person is thinking about me, and feeling like I sound or look stupid: No one really wants to hear what I have to say, etc. etc. etc.
So, slowing down is what we need.
Slowing down to listen fully to what the other person says before I react or reply, giving myself time to vocalize what I want to say, and taking deep breaths. This is not always easy (especially for those of us who also have ADHD), but it’s a game-changer with practice.
Slowing down and staying in the present with each interaction, one moment at a time, helps shake that anxiety. Just like any form of mindfulness can do.
I also reminded myself constantly that no one really cares that much. Just like I’m worrying about myself the whole time, other people are thinking more about their own problems than how you responded to them at the checkout counter or grocery store.
No One Noticed My Awkwardness
I can be very awkward in conversations. It’s just the way my brain works sometimes. Normally, when I do or say something that feels awkward I’ll get mad at myself for how dumb or stupid I think it is and try to leave the situation immediately.
During my challenge, I stuck it out more. Took time to correct myself if I got tongue tied or made sure I finished my sentences.
And really, no one seemed to notice that much. Surprise: they weren’t laughing at me when I walked away or whispering to their coworker about how dumb I am (both legit fears I have on the daily).
And even if they were, I realized it’s way less common than I think. Avoiding people out of fear of something that happens very infrequently isn’t worth missing out on the majority of nice interactions I can have by giving people a chance.
I Got More Comfortable With Being Vulnerable
A lot of my anxiety—social and in general—stems from perfectionism. Basically, if this interaction doesn’t feel perfectly comfortable and go how I want it to, it’s a failure.
But that’s not how life works, and that’s an skewed view of life you constantly bump up against when you have social anxiety.
The more I opened myself up to people, the more I got comfortable with the imperfection of conversations and other humans.
Conversations are not like movies or TV shows, where everything is scripted to flow amazingly, punchlines landing in the right spot, no “ums” or “uhhs” or not-so-endearing awkward pauses.
And that’s really okay.
People are Nicer if You Try to Understand Them
One of the phone calls I made was to the IRS about a question I’d been putting off. Initially, the guy who picked up was pretty rude, and he sounded run down (which is understandable; I can’t imagine a job like that being a piece of cake—so much respect for those in customer service).
When someone is rude to me on the phone, my normal initial reaction is to feel panicked and apologetic. All I want to do is get the whole terribly uncomfortable thing over with.
But this time… I took deep breaths, slowed down, and really tried to understand what he was saying while communicating what I needed.
The more I engaged from a place of kindness and understanding, the more candidly we started talking. I even found out he was in the Air Force back in the 80’s and stationed here in San Antonio. He helped me with my problem, and all was good.
Obviously not every interaction goes that well, but it was a lesson in what can happen when I open up to the possibilities more.
(Ongoing) Practice Makes Easier
The more I expose myself to people face-to-face, the easier it gets. And the longer time goes on in between those interactions, the harder it becomes again.
This might always be a battle I fight, in some degree. But at least I know it can get easier with time—and I’m hoping that the more I learn and challenge myself, the better I’ll get at it.
I’m Not Alone in My Social Anxiety
The more I practiced being around people and slowing down to interact with them, the more I noticed others who might also feel anxious around people.
Like the guy at Starbucks who heard my order wrong a few times and got tongue tied. Or the client who stumbled over his words and apologized for rambling (even though I didn’t think he was at all).
When we’re struggling with mental health issues, it can feel like no one else in the world understands. But that’s not true. Many, many other people in the world understand how you feel.
And that’s why I wrote this post today. I want to be transparent about my inner world, because I no longer believe I’m alone—even if I sometimes forget—and if you can relate to what I share, I hope you realize you aren’t either.What I Learned After Challenging My Social Anxiety for a Month Click To Tweet