Myth 7: Social Anxiety Is Forever
Today’s the last day! How did that happen?
Yesterday we debunked a myth about confidence: we discovered if you go through the motions of confidence, real confidence follows. We started small by trying tweaking our behavior. We tried something we usually avoid before we felt 100% ready. Humans learn on the job. And building confidence is no exception. It’s really hard to “be confident” without some evidence or experience to back it up. Just like you discovered yesterday, you need some experience first, and then your attitude will follow.
This is the key.
For a long time, I thought social anxiety was an inevitable, if unwanted, part of my life.
I wanted to get closer to people, stop hiding, feel comfortable, but I thought this is just how life was. I thought I would always feel anxious. I thought this was my normal. I believed the final myth of social anxiety:
Social anxiety is forever.
Thankfully, social anxiety is changeable. Indeed, a few years ago, a group led by Dr. Philippe Goldin of Stanford University published a series of studies that found that cognitive-behavioral therapy for social anxiety fundamentally changes connections across areas in the brain, thus underscoring the idea that brain wiring doesn’t seal one’s fate.
Things can be different. Here’s why: A socially anxious brain, physiologically, is exactly the same as a non-socially anxious brain. The architecture is all there. You have the capacity; it just takes some practice to strengthen the ability that’s already innately there. Practice activates brain networks that are already present. And just like a commitment to working out strengthens the body, a commitment to practice thinking and acting differently strengthens the brain.
Therefore, here is today’s antidote:
Go forth and do!
This is harder that it seems. It's so tempting (and so rewarding!) to avoid. We find a million reasons not to do the things that scare us:
- I'm too tired,
- It's not convenient,
- Why torture myself?
- This is just a drop in the bucket. Why feel all this anxiety just to do something so small?
Here's the answer: because it's an investment. The first time you raise your hand in class, share your ideas at a meeting, pick up the phone rather than letting it go to voicemail, or return those size 7 All-Stars in person rather than online, you add another drop to the bucket.
Yes, it's easy to avoid. It feels better do the workaround. But when we avoid, what happens? Inadvertently, we feed all the lies social anxiety wants us to believe:
Something is wrong with me.
I must always monitor myself and my anxiety.
How I feel is how I look.
I have to hide my fatal flaw.
I have to perform perfectly.
I have lousy social skills.
Social anxiety is forever.
Each time we avoid, all these lies grow in our mind.
I know first hand that avoidance feels good. It's sweet relief. It's like nicotine or Nutella. The “whew!” of not having to do something is a powerful reward.
But the greatest reward is feeling comfortable and confident in your own skin.
Therefore, go forth and do. Today's exercise is the most important of them all. But don’t stop with today--do it again and again.
I haven’t asked you to write anything down so far, but this time it’s important.
Make a list of 10 things you would be doing if you had kicked social anxiety. Call it a social anxiety bucket list. If you weren’t anxious, what would you be doing?
Make some of your tasks easy and low-key. Maybe you'd ask the waiter for the check rather than just waiting for him to notice you're itching to go. Maybe you'd walk to the bus without earbuds and sunglasses. Maybe you'd ask your neighbor for help bringing those heavy IKEA boxes up the four flights of stairs to your apartment. Maybe you'd eat lunch in the break room rather than in your car.
Also make sure some of the actions on your list evoke a medium amount of social anxiety. If you weren't anxious, maybe you'd accept every social invitation you receive for the next month. Maybe you'd speak up at least once in every meeting you attend this week. Maybe you'd launch that blog you've been meaning to start.
And of course, save room for a couple of kickers. If you weren't socially anxious, maybe you'd join Teach for America. Or write your memoirs. Or study abroad. Or start a company. Or send in that demo tape.
Keep your list on your phone or in your journal--somewhere you have regular access.
Then, go forth and do. Work your way through your list, from the easiest to the hardest. It may take you a few months or a few years, but keep working though.
But most importantly, don't stop there. Add new challenges on the fly, as you encounter them. Use the urge to avoid as a signal that you should do it anyway, and use all the lessons you've learned in the process:
Your fatal flaw isn't really there.
Turn your attention inside out.
See yourself objectively.
Do nothing to save yourself.
Aim for average.
Get started and your confidence will catch up.
Go forth and do.
Resist the siren song of avoidance. Facing your fears, even if that simply means eating a sandwich in public, is something to feel proud of.
Start with the item that makes you roll your eyes because it’s so small. Then go forth and do.
Then do it again.
Then up the ante.
Call it what you wish: facing your fears, doing things you avoid, changing your behavior. It all boils down to being brave.
Thanks for a great week! I hope you learned a nugget or two. Within two weeks, I’ll email you the next free resource. I have lots planned: interviews with luminaries in the field, articles you won’t find anywhere else, concrete tips that actually work. One of these days, I’ll even face my own stubbornly remaining fear of cameras and do a webinar.
Until then, congrats! I hope you debunked some myths of your own personal social anxiety. These are the techniques I use at the anxiety specialty center where I work (and on myself, for that matter), and now they’re yours. I hope they help you discover how capable, confident, and comfortable you can be.
Want more? If the last week of emails has been helpful to you, there's lots more in the forthcoming HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Pre-order yours right here.
Be kind to others and yourself!