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Social Anxiety Can Sabotage Your Path to Success

5 tips to overcome this common source of anxiety.

Key points

  • Social anxiety is characterized by a fear of being scrutinized for what we say or do.
  • About 12% of U.S. adults experience a social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. 
  • Social anxiety increases when we put unrealistic expectations on ourselves. Focusing on elements we can control is essential to battling anxiety.
Anthony Tran/Unsplash
Source: Anthony Tran/Unsplash

As a psychiatrist, I have encountered many obstacles that derail people from reaching life goals. Today we discuss a foe that I am intimately familiar with – social anxiety.

My first encounter with social anxiety occurred at the age of 16 when I moved from Greece to the United States. I vividly remember being self-conscious for being the foreign kid with the thick Greek accent. Spikes in anxiety would overwhelm me every time I spoke to classmates because I was afraid of being ridiculed for being different.

Though I have overcome this foe, I encounter many people who are afflicted with social anxiety. Despite a yearning for human connection, they settle for loneliness because they are too anxious to meet new people. They long for a romantic relationship but are too afraid to ask someone on a date. Social anxiety even affects their professional lives. They may be qualified for a work promotion but are too afraid to apply for the new role because it entails presentations and public speaking requirements.

Social situations can provoke anxiety because of the potential for scrutiny. You may be afraid of saying or doing something that could result in rejection, embarrassment, or humiliation. As a result, you find such situations distressing and even avoid them.

Five Tips to Help Overcome Difficulties With Social Anxiety

1. Most cannot tell that you're anxious

Millions of people suffer from social anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 12.1% of U.S. adults experience a social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

Remember that you are not alone. At any social event, many people are fighting a similar battle with anxiety. When anxiety spikes, you may experience a host of uncomfortable physical symptoms such as heart racing, shortness of breath, feeling lightheaded, stomach discomfort, a lump in your throat, or muscle tension. However, most have no clue that you are in any physical or emotional distress. They are more likely to be preoccupied with their fear of being scrutinized rather than judge you.

In addition, you may discretely utilize coping skills to reduce anxiety in such settings. For example, you may quietly take a few deep breaths to regulate your level of anxiety or go to a restroom to splash some cold water onto your face.

2. Try not to avoid social situations

It is human nature to want to avoid situations that may provoke unpleasant emotions such as anxiety. You may decide to avoid social situations rather than deal with the anxiety that is associated with them.

Remember that avoidance behavior comes at a great cost. It holds you back and prevents you from reaching your fullest potential. Feeling lonely and isolated due to a lack of human connection is a great price to pay for social anxiety. The same holds for not pursuing a job promotion due to social anxiety.

In addition, avoidance behavior worsens anxiety in the long run. Even though this strategy reduces anxiety momentarily, it ultimately trains your brain to fear social situations.

Exposure is an important strategy to overcome social anxiety. You may consider facing your fear in a stepwise approach. Start with social settings that elicit the least amount of fear and gradually proceed to more challenging social situations.

For example, if public speaking provokes social anxiety, start with imagining yourself giving a successful presentation. This may be followed by presenting to your partner or a friend at the comfort of your home. You may then provide the talk to an audience of family and friends at home. After mastering this step, you may present in front of a few trustworthy coworkers at work before giving the actual presentation.

3. Tame your Inner Critic

Our Inner Critic is a master storyteller who influences our thoughts, actions, and feelings. It is the judgmental voice inside our heads that scrutinizes our every move.

You may have a harsh Inner Critic who criticizes you for every tiny flaw or mistake. For example, your lawn may appear immaculate, but your Inner Critic is blaming you for the small patch of brown grass in the corner of your backyard.

Your Inner Critic can worsen social anxiety by harshly criticizing you for various reasons, such as the words you choose, the sound of your voice, or your physical appearance. Others may not notice such details. They may actually find you interesting and enjoy the opportunity to talk with you. However, your Inner Critic is telling you a different story.

Remember to identify your Inner Critic and not take their every word at face value. Be kind to yourself by permitting yourself to make mistakes in social situations. We are all imperfect beings doing our best.

4. Have realistic expectations

Social anxiety increases when you place unrealistic expectations on yourself. For example, you may expect yourself to carry a conversation or feel the pressure of making a favorable impression on everyone you meet.

Remember to focus on what you can control. Despite your best efforts, you have no control over what others think of you. You may display appropriate social etiquette with an open and kind demeanor and still make a bad impression for reasons beyond your control. Perhaps the other person is having a bad day, or you unintentionally reminded them of someone from their past.

5. Don’t carry their baggage

The truth is that some people will judge. They will find something to scrutinize you about. At the end of the day, if someone wants to judge you for your appearance, your accent, or an honest mistake you made, then their judgment is a reflection on them, NOT you.

In the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts…The credit belongs to the [person] who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.

It is easy to pass judgment. It takes courage to put yourself out there and work towards your personal goals while battling hidden foes such as social anxiety.

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