I used to suffer from absolutely crippling social anxiety.
I have vivid memories of going into a complete freeze response when a co-worker asked me the baffling but well-intentioned question “what’s good?”
I fled from the trainer lounge at my gym more times than I can count, because another person would come in and I would panic. I worried about what I should say, what they might ask me, what the right answer was to their question, and worst of all if I was “being weird” as I silently got up and left in the hopes that they didn’t see me.
Spoiler alert: YES I was being weird, because obviously they could see me. Anxiety makes people act fucking weird.
My partner at the time told me I should try just saying “good morning” and being friendly, and then it wouldn’t be so awkward. I broke down in hysterical sobbing, and told him it wasn’t that easy! I just… couldn’t.
I crossed streets to avoid people I knew because I was terrified of awkward small talk, and unsure of how to leave the interaction once it began.
I never answered my phone unless I already knew what the person wanted.
I took the stairs because standing in the elevator with someone I knew made me want to die.
I shrunk into corners at my partner’s social events, desperately wishing I could become invisible.
Looking back, I felt like there was some kind of set of social rules everyone else was privy to, but that I didn’t get, and that feeling was constantly triggering me into fight or flight.
The wild thing is that despite being a completely awkward weirdo socially, I was always super confident in my role as a personal trainer.
I was never awkward with a new client, because I knew the “rules” and what they expected of me. I was the authority, so I knew what I was there to offer, and for the most part, I knew that the person already liked or respected me. It was easy.
But among my coworkers or friends or random people I met? Nope. My mind went into a blank and fearful place, trying desperately to figure out what they like, what they wanted, and what they expected of me. Fear would hijack my body and I’d find myself thinking how would a normal people stand? Like this?? Is this what a normal person does with their hands?!
All of this anxiety, built up over years, led to me feeling completely isolated, disconnected from people, awkward, and deeply lonely. I had one best friend, but no network, no circle, nobody that I met up with regularly for drinks or dancing or talking or networking or fun.
People just suck, I concluded. People don’t get me, and I don’t know how to do “small talk.”
I can’t help but laugh at that now, from a future that is chock of abundantly nourishing connections. People don’t suck, I know now. It was I who sucked.
I was bringing out the absolute worst in people, by acting weird and cold. I pushed people away by turning down invites and never reaching out. I forgot people’s names and was unable to actually listen to anything real about them because I was too busy thinking about whether or not I was being weird. I made people uncomfortable; I made them defensive; I forced them to do all the work of every interaction.
It wasn’t on purpose, of course! I was just overcome with fear and anxiety. I was trying so hard to follow the rules and be “normal,” that I ended up making it completely impossible to genuinely connect with me.
One of the most important moments in my journey to overcoming social anxiety came when I realized two things:
Nearly everyone I knew had social anxiety. Everyone was doing exactly the same thing I had been doing, trying to act “normal” while secretly just hoping people liked them.
I had been desperately trying to not have an impact on people, but doing so had an impact anyway– a negative impact that made them feel judged, unwelcome, and like I didn’t like them.
As soon as I realized this, I also realized something else: that I was in a unique position to both understand this about people, and also to do something about it. That my natural emotional sensitivity could be a gift, if I stopped using it to protect myself and instead started using it to make the world a better place.
Practically overnight, my social anxiety disappeared.
I became a woman on a mission, proactively creating experiences among my peers rather than reactively trying to do what my superiors wanted/expected.
I let myself be warm and vulnerable, and saw what an instantly positive and disarming effect that had on others. I focused on the other person, making eye contact, really listening, and asking them questions, which instantly made people both more interesting and more friendly.
I found myself having moments of connection and “oh me too!” with everyone I interacted with, and seemingly like magic, my life became populated with friends who I was completely myself with, networking opportunities who effortlessly helped my business thrive, and the general sense that there was something to love about every new person I met.
At a certain point I realized I hadn’t felt a single moment of anxiety in months, and tried to put into words exactly what had shifted. There were many things that contributed to be sure, but the biggest one was how I viewed my role in my own social interactions.
I went from being reactive and disempowered (trying to play a game where everyone but me knew the rules) to being an active creator in the game, in charge of clearly letting other people know the rules, so that they would feel free to relax and play with me.
The results were undeniable: everyone seemed to go from being awkward and cold to offering me the best versions of themselves. As it turns out, people are funny and nice and interesting and cool, when you make them feel safe. Who knew?
Now I sometimes feel like an anti-anxiety superhero, going around the world making people feel safe enough to show their true (wonderful) colors, and it feels amazing. I go out of my way to make sure people know I like them, and in return I am rewarded with access to a person I can genuinely like.
It rarely fails: I ask questions and listen, observe what I see in them, and share genuine stories about myself, sticking my neck out and getting vulnerable first so they know they’re safe to do the same.
It never fails to surprise me how grateful people seemed to be to get away from superficial smalltalk and talk about real shit. (It turns out nobody knows or likes the supposed “social rules” lol.)
What’s your relationship to social anxiety? What’s been the most helpful for you in overcoming it?