Overcoming Severe Social Anxiety

Chris emailed me with the following question. I originally planned to include it in a reader mailbag, but I felt such strong sympathy for his situation and others in that type of situation that my answer to him kept growing and growing until I realized that it was a full post all its own.

I am 34/ male. I feel very awkward in public. I don’t read books, I think what others might think why I am reading this book. I don’t browse stuff on my iTouch as I think others might look at what I’m browsing/ reading. The only thing I can do is: quickly browse my iTouch playlist, put my headphones on and listen. I even turn the brightness down in my iTouch so others can’t see anything (just in case!). I have always been like this as far as I can remember. This causes me to waste a lot of time and I want to change this. What do you recommend? Any courses I should take or books I should read or sites I should visit?

Chris, you’re clearly suffering from a severe case of social anxiety. I’ve suffered from it in the past as well and I have multiple friends who have the same thing in various degrees of severity.

Social anxiety is incredibly painful – and it’s also incredibly costly. By being so reclusive in social situations, you miss out on countless chances to interact with people, build friendships and relationships, and grow as a person.

I overcame my own social anxiety mostly through a ton of practice and a lot of failure. Among the first things I did was work on creating a false appearance of confidence in public places. I didn’t feel confident at all – I felt like I wanted to do much like you do, hide somewhere and reveal as little as possible about myself.

The first thing you need to think about is what is the worst case scenario and is that worst case really so bad. I found that most of the time, I was being reclusive and afraid for no good reason. The worst thing that can happen if someone sees what you’re listening to on your iTouch is that they just think “I don’t like that music” and they move on with their life. In the end, that’s almost indistinguishable from what’s going on now – and arguably better than looking like the guy who’s being ultra-secretive with his iTouch. On the other hand, the best result is someone peeks, likes what they see, and says so, giving you the opportunity to meet and relate to someone else.

For most little things like that – what book you’re reading or what music you’re listening to – there’s almost no social drawback from letting others see what you’re reading or listening to as compared to intentionally trying to hide it. Just simply imagine watching someone else who is just sitting there reading a book or listening to music or someone trying to hide what they’re reading or listening to.

In fact, that points towards the first tactic of getting over social anxiety (at least for me): change your attitude. Look around you. Watch what they’re doing. Are people being condemned for what they read on the bus or what music they’re listening to or what clothes they’re wearing or what they’re saying (within reason – I mean, there’s probably condemnation for the lunatic yelling on the bus)? No, there’s not. It’s seen as normal – likely more normal than the person trying to hide everything about them.

You’re not perfect, but no one else is, either. Every single person in the world makes social gaffes. Guess what? Your life won’t end if you do, too. In fact, most of the time, social gaffes end up being a positive – they’re endearing to others who recognize that the other person is human and makes mistakes just like they do.

Start small. For you, not hiding your iPod Touch might be a first success, or openly reading a book that interests you. Next, make it your mission to say hello to at least one person you don’t know each day. Or two. Or three.

Move on from there to watercooler-type discussions. Focus on actually going to such informal social gatherings and listening. Encourage yourself to make one comment a day – focus on that. You don’t have to be the talkative one, but just focus on that one small step.

For me, the thing that helped a lot was participating in a social group. In your case, the best option for that would probably be volunteer work, like working on a Habitat for Humanity house. These types of situations foster the types of simple and easy social interactions that you’re striving to practice. A day building a Habitat house not only helps the world, but it helps you break through your social anxiety.

Have something to say. Read the news each day and be aware of what’s going on politically and culturally around you. You don’t have to have mountains of arcane knowledge, just know what the top headline or two of the day is and something about it, or the top sporting event of the day. Do you want to know a big reason why sports are popular? It gives people something to talk about in uncharted social situations.

Ask questions. If you don’t know what to say to someone – and I certainly don’t sometimes – a question usually works very well. Something simple always works, like “do you know what the weather is going to be like today?” or “did the Cubs manage to win yesterday?” or “That’s a beautiful coat. I’d love to buy one like it for my sister. Where did you get it?” You give the other person something easy to talk about, they’re likely to eventually respond with a question, and you’ve started a conversation.

Seek out someone else who is shy. For the longest time, this really, really helped me in social situations and I’ve built a few lifelong friendships out of it. When you’re at an event with a lot of people, look for the other person or two who look like they don’t want to be there. Go up to them and flatly say, “Man, I don’t do well in these kinds of social situations.” Then, follow that with a question and you’ve probably found someone to talk to, someone relieved to not have to come up with something to talk about.

I do not recommend turning to psychological assistance for this. Your question comes off as someone who has some social awkwardness, not as someone who has deep underlying issues. You already have the desire to overcome that awkwardness, and there are a lot of personal steps you can take to start overcoming it on your own without psychopharmacology and expensive bills. Only seek professional help if you’ve tried in earnest many times to overcome this and failed to make any progress at all.

Little steps make all the difference here. It takes a long time to overcome social anxiety, but the rewards of overcoming it are great in almost every aspect of your life: socially, professionally, personally, financially, and otherwise.