4 Things Socially Anxious People Do (That Others Don’t)
I spent years of my life feeling timid and shy. I would feel myself collapse when I was around other people, and this feeling haunted me wherever I went. When I was alone, I felt confident and knew who I was. But when I was in social situations everything changed and being myself was often impossible.
Through personal growth work, therapy and various groups I was able to completely transform my social anxiety. Now social situations are almost always easy to navigate and comfortable for me. My emotions and my nerves are about the same around people as they are when I’m by myself.
So how did I change this pattern for myself? It wasn’t by meditating or contemplating my emotions (although these things probably increased my awareness). It was changing my behaviors that made the biggest difference.
In my work as a therapist I have observed a few behaviors that seem to be common to most people who are socially anxious. This is not to say everyone does all of these things or does them the same way, but these behaviors seem to go hand in hand with social anxiety.
They are also not necessarily a conscious choice—they are typically unconscious habits. But even though you may not feel you have a choice, you can learn change them (and ultimately reduce your anxiety).
Four bad habits of socially anxious people
- You (internally) rehearse what they are going to say. This seems to be a common factor in nearly everyone I have worked with who suffers from social anxiety. You spend a lot of energy trying to strategize the “right” thing to say to fit in or be accepted. When you rehearse things before you say them, you are not able to interact with others in the moment. You are responding to what they are saying internally, but by the time you have rehearsed what to say, everyone else has moved on. People who are not socially anxious typically express themselves in the moment without rehearsing.
- You censor yourself when you are around people. Because you fear rejection, you play it safe by not saying anything that could “out” you and your lack of confidence. You might spend a lot of energy presenting yourself in a certain way. You have an internal conversation with yourself about what you “should” say to seem natural. You try to only say things that will make other like you. Unfortunately you also have to guess what will make others like you because you never actually know this.
- You avoid social situations. According to therapist Peter Levine, our nervous system registers whatever we avoid as a threat. When we avoid something, our body will label that experience as threatening. This is designed to help us avoid danger more efficiently in the future. That way if we come up against a similar threat in the future, we our body automatically prepares us to avoid that danger. Social situations can feel uncomfortable, but they are not typically dangerous. When you avoid them, your body learns to respond to social situations as if they were a threat. This makes it difficult to engage socially with others.
- You freeze when you are around others. Now, this last one is not exactly a behavior. It’s an unconscious response from your nervous system. It’s also not unique to social anxiety sufferers, but it does seem to happen with nearly everyone who experience social anxiety. If you get mad at yourself of feel guilty for freezing, just understand that it is unconscious and your body is hijacking you in these situations. If you can learn to accept the freeze when it happens, you will be on your way to releasing it. This is one of the most difficult things to change on your own, so getting some help from a therapist will speed up your progress here.
How to get out of the social anxiety trap
Overcoming social anxiety is not easy. It will require you to challenge yourself by doing the things that feel most uncomfortable. But if you work at it, social anxiety can change.
- Give yourself permission to mess it up. When you’re not afraid to make mistakes you will be more likely to challenge yourself and let yourself off the hook when it doesn’t go well.
- Practice being as awkward as possible. You can waste so much energy avoiding coming across as awkward. When you practice being really awkward it starts to lose its grip over you. Over time, awkwardness begins to be funny. This is really important for self-acceptance.
- Practice spontaneity. If you have an impulse to talk to someone, do it without thinking too much. If you have an idea to express, say it out loud.
- Tell other people how you are feeling. This can feel overwhelming because we spend so much energy trying to hide the fact that we are uncomfortable from others. In my experience this is one of the best ways to shift the social anxiety dynamic because it gives you permission to be yourself… and yourself (at least for now) is very anxious and uncomfortable around people.
- Say something. When you don’t know what to say, just start talking. If you freeze and can’t say something, don’t worry about it. Be gentle with yourself.
The goal is to get out of your head by making more of your internal experience external. Instead of wondering something to yourself, ask others what they think. Instead of rehearsing what to say, just say something. Remember that if you feel embarrassed or awkward, it’s only a feeling and you are still making progress. Expression is the key to overcoming social anxiety.