How I overcame my social anxiety.
For years I have suffered from social anxiety. I would always avoid interacting with other people and I generally had low self-esteem and felt like no one liked me. I have made dramatic progress and really feel that now I have overcame this problem and can socialize with people normally.
Over the last 5-6 years I have read probably 200 books on self-esteem and social anxiety. I have went to 3 different CBT therapists on separate occasions as well. Ultimately though it was through my own determination and hard work that I managed to overcome this problem. I feel like this is a problem that you really need to take responsibility for yourself, other people can guide and help you but you are the one that will determine how successful you are.
Okay, so here is what I have learned: Social Anxiety is the fear of social rejection (other people disliking you or looking down on you). Every human being is afraid of social rejection, but most don't think it is a likely thing to happen on a daily basis. Just the same as everyone is afraid of falling but not everyone is afraid of heights.
If you feel like you will be socially rejected then you will feel anxiety. Just like if you feel unsafe up a tall tower you will probably feel fear. The difference is that a person with an irrational fear of heights thinks that even climbing a ladder that is perfectly safe will result in them falling and so they feel anxious and/or avoid climbing it.
The first step to overcoming your social anxiety is to identify what rules you have for avoiding social rejection. Everyone believes different things that is why there is no one size fits all cure for social anxiety.
Here are some examples of what it might be (you may also have more than one rule),
- "I MUST be good at small talk or else everyone will think I'm a loser."
- "I MUST not be shy or else people will think I'm pathetic."
- "I MUST not be unattractive or everyone will hate me."
- "I MUST be funny or else people will get bored with me."
The best way to discover what your rules are is to reflect on social situations and ask yourself what you were trying to avoid. What did you think would lead to others rejecting you and thinking negatively about you?
The second step is to challenge these rules and come up with a viable alternative way of looking at the world. Sometimes it can be very difficult to see any alternative explanation for what you believe. You might just FEEL like your current rule is true and there is no doubt in your mind. E.g. "I just KNOW if I am bad at small talk everyone will think I'm a pathetic worm!". Generally there is always some element of truth to them, for example being funnier might make other people like you more, but that doesn't mean if you aren't funny they will completely dislike you.
It's important to note that it can be difficult for other people to challenge your thinking effectively because only you know the full reasoning behind it. Often you might come up with an alternative and then you'll feel your brain going, "Yeah, but...." and arguing with it. That's good. This process involves argument with your current beliefs to try and show yourself that another way of looking at them could be true. It's no good if you just say "Actually being bad at small talk is fine, people will still like me." if you don't believe it. You have to believe it and see it as a viable alternative explanation.
If you post your rule and I respond and then you feel yourself saying "yea, but..." then post that as a reply too! Often it can take some back and forth before you get to a point where you can believe the alternative might be true.
Once you have a viable alternative way of looking at the world. It can be useful to write down your current belief and then challenge it by writing out the alternative explanation. It can also be useful to focus on specific events in your life. So for example, if you go out and talk to a girl and you are nervous and you feel it goes badly. Write down your current belief about what you thought she thought of you, and then write out the alternative way of looking at that situation. Doing this type of written exercise often can really help to see things in a different way.
The third step is to go out into the world and test your new way of looking at things. This means risking doing what you are afraid of. So if you are afraid of being bad at small talk, you go out and PUSH yourself to get into conversations with people and have small talk. During this and after when you are reflecting on this situation you always want to be trying to view the world through your new belief. Your brain will probably start thinking in the old way, "OMG I so bad at small talk, she thinks I'm a complete idiot!", but you need to fight with it and constantly practice looking at things differently.
Often what can happen is that once you form a belief you view the world as if it is true. So if you really believe that being bad at small talk will get you rejected, you view the world as if that is true. You might talk to someone and be very nervous and because you are nervous you come across a bit awkward and it doesn't go so well, but then you use that as evidence to support your fear. It's like someone being afraid of climbing a ladder, so they do all these safety behaviours like going really slow and holding on very tight. But perhaps holding on tight and shaking from fear makes the ladder start to rock and then they jump off and claim "See, I knew I was going to fall off, my fear was valid!" when in reality it was the fear itself that was causing the problem and if they had just climbed up the ladder without all the safety behaviours then everything would have been fine.
The same is true for social anxiety. Often your safety behaviours can result in you becoming more alienated and suppressing your own natural ability to socialize, and then you use that as evidence that your fear of rejection was valid.
It's important to note that both the second step and the third step need to go together, they won't work separately. If you just challenge your thinking but never push yourself to take a risk in a social situation you will always be afraid. If you just push yourself in social situations without having an alternative way of looking at things then it is very likely that you will view things as if your fear is true and find evidence for it where none exists - reinforcing your fear.
Putting all three of these steps together will have a dramatic impact in your confidence and social ability. It takes time, but if you persist and work hard then you will overcome this fear. If you have any questions or comments then please post them.