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Friday, 05 August 2016 07:41

How do I Overcome Social Anxiety?

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How do I Overcome Social Anxiety?Calling it ‘social anxiety’ is great for mental health clinicians. We’ve always known it as shyness.

Shyness is a learned behaviour. We are conditioned to be shy by our circumstances in life. We aren’t born with it. Experiences that have been unpleasant to us have a way of repeating themselves when we least expect it. Odds are, that when we respond with shyness in a social situation, we wouldn’t recognize that our response is conditioned or a reflex related to the original incident. Our conscious mind won’t give us access to that memory. Yet we respond almost in the exact same way as we originally did.

The big pharmaceutical companies would have us believe that shyness is an illness i.e. social phobia (social anxiety) and they just happen to have a high priced pill to cure you of your illness. You don’t cure shyness. It isn’t an illness. You can however reduce the impact that it has upon your life and the limitations that it creates for you.

You also can’t generalize the symptoms of shyness. Situations that cause you distress may not bother me or someone else at all and vice versa.

I’ve been plagued with shyness throughout my life. Many people who know me would find that hard to believe and often consider me to be an outgoing person. I’m not. My default mode is to be shy. What makes the difference for me is that I have worked hard at overcoming my shyness, in those social situations that have caused me problems. I have learned strategies that have helped. Not all the time though. I still feel anxiety when I walk into a crowded room and don’t recognize anyone.

I liken my social awkwardness, i.e. shyness, to the way I am with parallel parking my pickup truck. I have been driving for over forty years and had to be proficient with parallel parking to pass my driving test to get my licence. In the following years, I probably haven’t used that skill more than a few times. Stopping in traffic, while everyone is watching me and getting angry at me while I make what seems like a hundred wheel turns, is quite anxiety-producing. I also have a short neck and continuously looking over my shoulder to see where I am backing up can be quite painful. I tend to back up by sound and feel. When I hear or feel a bump, I stop! Probably not a good way to be. I certainly wouldn’t appreciate it if someone else did that to my vehicle.

My solution to parking in a spot that requires the advanced skill of parallel parking … is to drive around the block to locate a parking spot that I can drive directly into, parallel with the curb. Problem solved!

Avoidance of a social situation, like avoiding parallel parking, can solve the immediate problem i.e. reduce the anxiety but it is not an effective coping skill.

Shyness can affect people differently. In my 40-year professional career as a registered nurse working in psychiatry/mental health, I am confident in the social interactions that I encounter, while at work. Daily, I work with people that are displaying a range of emotions and interpersonal conflict is commonplace.

On the other hand, my business life is quite a bit different. I don’t have a business degree. I am self-taught in skills and processes that are necessary to operate a business. I don’t have a proven track record of successful businesses to bounce off. As you might expect these self-imposed limitations can be problematic for me.

On the other, other hand … I have learned to take the skills that have served me well in one area of my life and applied them to other areas. I think this is the root of how to overcome social anxiety. As you increase your self-confidence, your social anxiety should reduce. I say should, because everyone is different.

Self-confidence can be another of those blanket-terms i.e. one-size-fits-all. Self-confidence doesn’t work that way. We can be very confident in skills that we have in one area and not at all with others. I believe that to reduce our shyness we have to use those skills that we are confident in and build upon them to increase our self-confidence, targeted at reducing our shyness. You don’t do this by osmosis. You have to actively take steps toward increasing your self-confidence. This isn’t always easy or comfortable. It is often said that your real growth begins once you are out of your comfort zone.

It seems a simple enough concept, right? We’ll see! Self-confidence isn’t a final destination, for lack of a better word. You don’t achieve self-confidence and then maintain it for the rest of your life without continuous practice.

There isn't a ruler, a yard stick or a measuring tape in the entire world long enough to compute the STRENGTH and capabilities inside you.” --- Paul Meyer

Self-confidence or more precisely gaining self-confidence, is an active process. It is necessary to continually challenge yourself with achieving a series of achievable goals. They may be extremely small goals and seemingly inconsequential, or they may be major goals. The trick is to celebrate our successes, big and small, then move forward to even more challenging ones.

As a shy networker myself, often crippled with fear in social gatherings, I decided to do something about it. The result was my book, Power Networking for Shy People: Tips & Techniques for Moving from Shy to Sly! (PNSP) In it I outline a system for introverts and shy introverts to level the playing field when it comes to networking for business. The often dreaded meeting and talking to another person, face-to-face, is only a small part of the process. Yet it is likely the part that gives us the most stress.

As writing PNSP unfolded, I realized that providing practical strategies for what I coined power networking specifically targeted at shy networkers, as well as providing strategies to reduce the actual social anxiety was beyond the scope of one manual. Those specific techniques will be covered in my upcoming book Shy to Sly! (working title).

I’m not going to elaborate here on all of the steps required to increase your self-confidence and become a better networker. I have outlined a systematic approach in the book. Other contributors to answering this question have provided some good suggestions. The problem is that the suggestions can be overcoming to a shy networker. The old adage comes to mind “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer being “one bite at a time.” If you are going to change your life-long behaviours you need to do it in a systematic approach to be successful in the long run.

I would be remiss in not suggesting that membership in a Toastmasters club would go a long way in reducing one’s shyness. It’s not an automatic process though. Toastmasters provides ample opportunity to practice the skills you require to build your self-confidence as well as practical interactions where you can practice your 1-1 communication skills. Working with a fellow club member as a mentor that demonstrates skills in socializing can go a long way in building your own expertise in socializing.

My research into the subject of shyness aka social anxiety, is that it is a condition that can be reduced and effect a subsequent increase in self-confidence, with a step-by-step strategic plan in place. It is well within the reach of most of us.

The downside to this is that I have also confirmed that if you are actually crippled by social anxiety, a self-directed strategic approach may be limited in its success. If you can afford it, a professional psychologist specializing in reducing fears such as social anxiety may be a better option. Support groups run by mental health professionals, assuming you can find one, would be another good option. Overcoming shyness isn’t a quick process but the debilitating anxiety and fears can be crippling to some people. I vote for change! Good luck!

As originally answered on Quora.com.

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