How to deal with social anxiety is a massive topic that can’t be covered in one post, even one as long as this. This will probably be the first of many posts on this topic. Here I’m going to give a brief background of my own experience with social anxiety, and then discuss a few things that I currently do to minimize it.
Background (Social Anxiety & Me)
As a kid I had bad social anxiety, poor social skills, and only a few close friends. I got nervous and awkward talking to people, and almost everyone (especially girls) was put off by me.
From around 11th grade onward, I started putting a huge conscious effort into developing better social skills. Progress came slowly but surely, and it took a lot of work for me just to become “normal”.
The summer after high school I went on a solo backpacking trip in Europe for about 5 weeks. I told people it was for the typical reasons and because I wanted to “see the world”. But really it was 80-90% to practice meeting people and develop better social skills.
To make a long story short, the trip served its purpose and is one of the most important things I’ve done in my life. Because of the improvements I made, in my first year at university I was able to make a large circle of friends and acquaintances.
I finally became “cool” (ish), and I even noticed that some people were starting to get nervous around me. (If you’ve been nervous around people for most of your life, this is a weird and almost surreal experience when it starts happening)
Nowdays I don’t have any problems meeting people or having conversations, and I generally get along with everyone. I am still very introverted and talk less than most, but because I otherwise seem “normal” this isn’t really a problem. Most people that meet me like me and want to know me better.
And yet despite all this improvement… sometimes I still get nervous waiting in line to order a coffee.
Sometimes I get nervous when I first go outside in the morning, especially if I haven’t had any social interaction yet that day.
I don’t know if the cause is genetic/biological, psychological, or something else entirely.
The anxiety makes no rational sense, and it comes and goes mostly at random. I haven’t been able to pinpoint anything specific that makes it better or worse (except for one big thing which I discuss below).
Over the years I’ve learned to deal with it in different ways, and I’m going to share some of these here. Hopefully they can be helpful to you as well.
1) Accept some social anxiety and “be with it”
One of the most effective ways to deal with social anxiety, in my experience, is to just accept that sometimes you’re going to be a bit nervous.
As I said sometimes I would get nervous just going outside in the morning. I would worry about it and think “Man you’re so fucked up, you’re just walking along the street and you’re nervous, what’s wrong with you..” I would try to force the anxiety to go away, but this just made it worse.
Worrying about social anxiety and resisting it always makes it worse
Worrying about how screwed up I was wasn’t going to fix the problem. So instead, those mornings where I felt nervous I started telling myself “Just accept that you’re going to get nervous sometimes if you haven’t talked to anyone yet.”
Accepting that the anxiety will just be there sometimes actually makes you more relaxed, and is a much better way of dealing with it. Some days you will be more nervous than others, so just accept it and go about your business.
“Just be with it” means don’t resist it. Just be with the feeling, no matter how much you don’t like it. Try not to place a judgement on it at all. Allow it to happen through you rather than fighting against it.
I would recommend meditation to develop a sense of separateness from your thoughts and feelings. This will help you to separate “you” from the feeling that arises in you, and will allow you to act the way you want despite the anxiety being there.
2) Stop Masturbating
The number one thing that helped my anxiety the most is when I quit masturbating. In the past I have masturbated once a week, I have masturbated every 4 days, I have masturbated once a month and once a day (and more than that).
I have masturbated/abstained in pretty much every combination there is, and I can say with 100% certainty that NEVER masturbating has done more to reduce my social anxiety than anything else.
One particular month I remember masturbating a ton, and my anxiety during this period was the worst it’s ever been. I would get nervous going into a classroom full of people, going to the grocery store, or walking down the street.
I didn’t make the connection at the time, but I see now that, for me at least, more masturbation always causes more social anxiety.
I have a theory about this, which is completely of my own invention. I think that social anxiety is often due to being ashamed of who you are. More specifically, being ashamed of the things you do in private that nobody knows about you.
You are ashamed of who you know you really are, even if no one else does.
So when you have social interaction, you are trying to hide and protect the parts of yourself that you are ashamed of. This is what causes the anxiety. In my case it was masturbating, maybe for you it’s something different.
There are two options here: you can either stop doing the things you’re ashamed of, or you can be open and honest with the world about them.
Whichever option you choose, either stopping what you are ashamed of or becoming honest and open about it, either of these will help to diminish your social anxiety.
3) Do the small things that scare you
By small things I mean really small. When I first started working on this, I couldn’t even look people in the eye when I was talking to them. I remember the first day I went to class in high school and actually looked my friend in the eyes for the first time ever when he was talking to me.
This seems like almost nothing, but that was the first tiny step of a long journey that I’m still on today.
Another example: there was a short path through the forest near my house that I walked through every day on the way to school. I started forcing myself to say “Hi” to every person that I walked past, no matter how much it scared me.
If you have social anxiety then there are probably many things that have no consequences but you are still scared to do. These are the things you should be doing. Are you scared to:
- wear sunglasses inside?
- nod your head to the music you’re listening to?
- wear a tank top in the gym? (I was)
By consistently doing things like this you slowly chip away at your anxiety. Start to consciously notice the things that you avoid, and then make a point of forcing yourself to do them.
The progress is slow, but this is guaranteed to diminish your anxiety over time. It’s an incredible feeling when one day you find yourself unconsciously doing something that a year before you would have avoided out of fear.
Final Thoughts/The bottom line
It’s important to realize that social anxiety will go away (slowly) if you work on it, but also realize that it might never completely disappear.
BUT this is OK. You can still do pretty much everything you want to in life, despite the anxiety being there. Use some of the techniques I’ve described above, and take a look at the resources below.
If you work on it, it will mostly go away, entirely go away, or at least become very manageable.
Resources on Social Anxiety
This is an incredible free resource for people looking to deal with social anxiety and improve their social skills. I have never read anything that so accurately describes the thought process of someone with poor social skills and the mindset that goes along with it.
When I first read this site, I honestly couldn’t believe it because the author was describing my exact thoughts about social interaction, almost word for word.
This is a site for people with below average social skills, it doesn’t really address anything higher than a “normal” level of social ability. But if you, like me, need to put in some work to just become “normal”, then I cannot recommend this site highly enough.
Also check out this more recent post (even if you’re not an INTJ): INTJs & Social Anxiety (Social Anxiety Solutions Revisited)