When you don’t feel comfortable in social situations, it can be a lonely world.
Take my youngest son. Despite his intelligence, kindness, and great sense of humor, he’s shy about reaching out to others. In comparison to many of his peers, he seems to spend a lot of time alone and rarely joins group activities. Now that he’s about to go off to college, I worry that he may have trouble adjusting to a new community of strangers.
Having good social relationships is important to health and well-being, of course, but the best way to cultivate them isn’t by pretending to be someone you’re not. How do people like my son learn to overcome social anxiety while remaining true to themselves?
This is the question behind psychologist Ellen Hendriksen’s new book, How to Be Yourself. Hendriksen, who is socially anxious herself, argues that even the most worried among us can get relief and make connections with others, all without having to undergo a major personality change. Her book gives a thorough—and sometimes funny—guide to overcoming social anxiety, complete with illustrative stories and the research to back her up.
Contrary to popular belief, writes Hendriksen, what socially anxious people fear most is not judgment by others in and of itself, but that the judgment is right and correctly exposes their hidden flaws or frailties—a process she calls “The Reveal.”
“We think there is something wrong with us, and we avoid in order to conceal it,” she writes. “In our minds, if The Reveal comes to pass, we’ll be rejected, humiliated, or exposed.”
These “Reveals,” she writes, come in four flavors:
Worry about the physical symptoms of our anxiety, like sweaty shirts or shaking hands.
Worry that we’re unattractive, or that there’s something weird about our bodies or clothes.
Worry about our personalities—that we’re not cool, funny, smart, adequate, or competent.
Worry that whatever we say to someone will be seen as awkward, boring, or overly emotional; or that we’ll forget mid-sentence what we want to say.
This feels true for my son, who seemed to shut down socially during puberty—perhaps because of physical changes in his body and new challenges in his peer relationships. No doubt the threat of The Reveal drove him to avoid situations where he might have his worst fears confirmed. But, of course, that also had the effect of preventing him from connecting with the people he most wanted to befriend.
Instead of relying on avoidance strategies, Hendriksen suggests there are better ways to cope with social anxiety. Here are some outlined in her book.
Often, it’s our irrational thoughts that make us anxious. But sometimes those thoughts are so ingrained in us that they’re practically unconscious.
To uncover your hidden self-criticisms, Hendriksen suggests filling in the blanks to this sentence: When I [fill in the situation where I feel anxious], it will become obvious that I am [what my inner critic says is wrong with me]. Naming the thought makes it easier to counteract it.
The tools of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can then help you challenge and replace negative thoughts about yourself or your situation. Many CBT tools are provided in the book, but one particularly useful tip is to imagine the worst possible outcome in a social interaction and ask yourself these questions:
How bad would that really be if it happened?
What are the odds of that happening?
How would I cope if the worst came to pass?
This gives you a reality check; no matter what you fear, it’s probably exaggerated. Putting a little distance between you and your catastrophic thinking gives you a chance to reason that, even if the worst came to pass—which is unlikely—you could cope. To read more from Jill Suttie, click here.