As a psychologist who specializes in anxiety, I get asked all the time about how to overcome social anxiety.
And while I know what a struggle social anxiety can be, I have good news…
With the right mindset shifts and some new habits, you can overcome social anxiety.
And that’s exactly what I’m going to show you how to do in this guide.
- 🤔 What social anxiety is exactly
- 🤹♀️ Some specific examples of what social anxiety looks like
- 🧩 Where social anxiety comes from and what causes it
- 🚀 A collection of practical tips to help you work through your social anxiety in a healthy way
Okay, let’s dive in!
Table of Contents and Quick Links
Feel free to use the following links to jump straight to any section that’s most interesting:
- What Is Social Anxiety? →
- 4 Common Examples of Social Anxiety →
- What Causes Social Anxiety? →
- 10 Tips to Overcome Your Social Anxiety →
- Summary & Extra Resources →
- Fear of being judged, criticized, or thought badly of by other people.
- Being afraid of doing something stupid, awkward, or embarrassing in front of others.
- A general sense of nervousness, self-consciousness, or anxiety around people, especially people you don’t know and trust.
- A tendency to avoid social situations and gatherings.
- Intense worry about social interactions and their consequences in the future as well as rumination on past interactions.
- Constant fear that other people will notice that you’re nervous or anxious.
- She thinks I’m not intelligent enough
- I’m getting way too anxious… How could she trust me with her business if I can’t even control myself?!
What Is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is excessive and persistent fear of what other people think of you.
It often involves:
Importantly, you can have social anxiety without a full-blown diagnosis of social anxiety disorder, which is when your social anxiety significantly gets in the way of your ability to function in everyday life. Social anxiety disorder has to be diagnosed by a professional.
On the other hand, social anxiety is more than the occasional bout of nervousness or discomfort in social situations. Everybody gets anxious about what other people think of them occasionally. But social anxiety is a consistent and intense pattern of fear that shows up in many areas of life.
With that in mind, let’s look at a few of the most common examples of how social anxiety shows up.
4 Common Examples of Social Anxiety
Social anxiety can take many forms. But over the years, I’ve found that for many people social anxiety tends to fall into four common patterns.
1. Not being present in conversations because you’re lost in worries
One of the most common ways I hear social anxiety described is that it makes it difficult to be truly present in conversations. For example, you’re in an important meeting with a potential client. And try as you might to stay focused on what they’re saying, you repeatedly find yourself distracted by a swarm of worries like:
Unfortunately, even if your worries aren’t true, they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: All the time and attention you’re giving your worries means you have less mental energy and resources to spend thinking about and contributing to the actual conversation. And the more you feel like you’re not contributing to the conversation, the more anxious you get, to the point where you actually do start making mistakes or having trouble articulating your thoughts because your mind is so consumed with anxiety and worry now.
2. Struggles with intimacy or commitment in friendships or romantic relationships
Heightened anxiety is essentially your body going into fight or flight mode because it thinks you are in danger. So if your body is working extra hard to protect you and keep you safe, it makes sense that you would find it extra hard to be vulnerable and open up with other people.
But all healthy relationships—especially romantic relationships—are built on intimacy (and emotional intimacy in particular). So if you can’t be vulnerable, it severely limits your ability to grow and deepen your relationships, which eventually can lead to conflict or struggle in the relationship itself.
And once again, this unfortunately becomes a vicious cycle: the less willing you are to be vulnerable, the more the relationship struggles; but the more the relationship struggles, the more anxious and afraid you are to be vulnerable.
3. Avoiding social gatherings, events, or specific people
If you’re trying to overcome social anxiety, it’s important to remember that it’s not all in your head. And I mean that literally: While worry places a central role in social anxiety, your behavior is equally important. Specifically, the tendency to avoid potentially scary social situations.
For example, many people with social anxiety get especially nervous and uncomfortable around new people. As a result, they frequently turn down (or no-show) to social gatherings they’ve been invited to that involve unknown guests.
There are two problems with this habit of avoidance:
- First of all, it deprives you of a lot of potentially great experiences. So many new opportunities, exciting adventures, and potentially wonderful relationships simply never happen if you avoid spending time in situations that involve new people.
- But even worse, when you feel afraid of interacting with new people, then avoid those situations, you teach your brain that interacting with new people is dangerous. This means that the next time you have an opportunity to do something with new people, you’re going to feel even more anxious, and your desire to avoid it is going to be even stronger. Once again, the vicious cycle!
Even though social anxiety can feel like a very heady experience—worries, anxiety, nervousness, etc—it’s crucial to learn to see that it has a strong behavioral component as well. How you choose to act is every bit as important in social anxiety as how you think and feel.
4. Feeling like an imposter or fraud at work
Many people with social anxiety hide it extremely well. In fact, I’ve found that social anxiety seems to be especially prevalent among people who might describe themselves as high-achievers or Type-A.
In other words, social anxiety is more prevalent than you would think in people who look like they’ve got it all together on the outside. But on the inside, they’re plagued with self-doubt and imposter syndrome…
- They constantly feel like they’re a fraud, not good enough, and that at any moment people are going to figure it out.
- They’re in the habit of chronically comparing themselves to others and never feeling like they match up.
- They struggle to appreciate their wins and successes because as soon as something goes well, they immediately worry that it’s not good enough or that someone will find fault with them.
Of course, this struggle of feeling like a fraud tends to show up most frequently at work. And interestingly, is especially common among people who are higher up in a company or organization—as a client explained to me once, the higher you climb the further you have to fall.
Another area of work where imposter syndrome and feeling like a fraud shows up is parenting. Especially for new moms, there can be a lot of worry and comparison about how they’re doing as a parent and how their kids are doing relative to others. And as a result, they can have an intense preoccupation with feeling not good enough and worry about being “found out.” So keep in mind that feeling like an imposter is by no means confined to the office.
Okay, now that we’ve covered what social anxiety is and what it looks like, let’s take a look at where social anxiety comes from and what causes it.
What Causes Social Anxiety?
Like a lot of important questions in life, What causes social anxiety? is a more complicated question than we’d like.
For one thing, different forms of social anxiety are likely to have different causes.
- If you struggle with social anxiety at work—particularly with imposter syndrome and feeling like other people are about to discover how big a fraud you really are—that may be caused primarily by perfectionism and a mental habit of self-criticism and comparing yourself to others.
- On the other hand, if your social anxiety tends to crop up in the context of romantic relationships and having a hard time being emotionally vulnerable, that might stem from your experiences as a child seeing how poorly one of your parents was treated when they expressed emotion in the context of a relationship.
I bring this up because it’s unwise to hang onto the idea that there’s one cause of social anxiety. And that if you just figure that out, you’ll be able to crack the code and end your struggle with it.
More than likely your social anxiety has very different causes than your mother’s social anxiety, which has different causes than your boss’s social anxiety.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t common factors in what causes social anxiety that many people share. There are! But the point is there’s no way to shortcut the hard work of identifying the unique causes of your social anxiety.
All that being said, I believe the most important idea to wrap your head around when it comes to the causes of social anxiety is the difference between initial and maintaining causes.
Initial vs maintaining causes of social anxiety
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make as they try to overcome social anxiety is getting fixated on the initial causes of their anxiety, and as a result, ignoring the maintaining causes.
But before we go on, let me clarify what I mean by initial vs maintaining causes…
- Initial cause. The initial cause(s) of social anxiety is one or more events in the past that initially set you on the path toward social anxiety. It’s your social anxiety’s origin story. For example: some kind of childhood trauma or bullying as a kid may have been the thing that initially set your social anxiety in motion.
- Maintaining cause. The maintaining cause(s) of social anxiety are your habits in the present that are (usually unintentionally) feeding your social anxiety and causing it to stick around or even grow. Avoiding social situations with new people gives you temporary relief from your anxiety, but ultimately makes the social anxiety worse because it reinforces your brain’s mistaken belief that being judged by new people is dangerous.
I bring this distinction up because while it can be interesting and validating to understand the initial cause or origin of your social anxiety, it typically has relatively little value when it comes to overcoming your anxiety now.
In other words…
Whatever caused your social anxiety in the past, it’s your habits and behaviors in the present that are keeping it alive.
This means that if you’re serious about overcoming your social anxiety, your focus should be primarily on identifying and eliminating the maintaining causes of your social anxiety.
Here are some of the most common maintaining causes of social anxiety:
- Chronic worry
- Using alcohol or drugs to cope with anxiety
- Negative self-talk, especially social comparison and self-criticism
- Perfectionism and unrealistic expectations
- Lack of assertiveness and poor boundaries
Before we move on to some practical strategies for actually overcoming your social anxiety, I want to make one more observation about what’s causing your social anxiety to stick around and even get worse.
If you look at that list of common maintaining causes of social anxiety, one thing they all have in common is that they typically provide a short-term relief from anxiety but at the expense of a long-term increase in it.
For example: avoiding that phone call you no you need to make temporarily feels like a relief. But in the long run, by running away from it, you’re teaching your brain that it’s dangerous. This means that the next time you have to confront making the call, you’re going to feel even more anxious. And as a result, you’re going to feel an even stronger pull to avoid it. See how the vicious cycle develops?
The implication here is that regardless of what type of social anxiety you experience or what the causes of it are, it’s a near guarantee that if you really want to overcome social anxiety for good, it’s going to involve reversing that process: You’re going to have to accept and live with short-term anxiety in order to lower it long-term.
To be clear, overcoming social anxiety is doable. And in many cases, far more straightforward than you think (or have been led to believe). But it will be work. And a big part of the work is learning to accept and tolerate your anxiety instead of running away from it or trying to numb it out.
Okay, all that being said, let’s move on to the main event…
In the final section, I’m going to show you a collection of practical strategies to begin overcoming your social anxiety for good.
How to Overcome Social Anxiety: 10 Practical Tips
What follows are 10 practical ideas for how to overcome social anxiety in your life. They’re based on a combination of the science of social anxiety and my own practical experiences as a psychologist working with people individually.
1. Map your social anxiety triggers
As much as you may struggle with social anxiety, it’s important to remind yourself that you’re not always socially anxious.
There are likely certain people in your life you do feel comfortable around. And there are probably plenty of non-social times throughout your day when you’re not in the grips of social anxiety.
I say this for two reasons:
- For one thing, exaggerating the extent to which you are socially anxious is only going to lead to more social anxiety. If you constantly describe yourself as “constantly anxious about people” or “I’m socially anxious,” what’s the message you’re sending your own brain?
- But the other reason is that when you start paying attention to times when you’re not socially anxious, you begin to get a better sense for the boundaries and triggers of your social anxiety.
One of the reasons social anxiety can be so overwhelming is that it becomes an automatic process.
Here’s an example:
- Let’s say every time you get an email notification, you worry about being invited (or required) to attend some social event and how awful it will be. This means email notifications have become a trigger for your social anxiety (although the worry is the cause).
- But if you’re not aware of email notifications being triggers for your worry and then anxiety, it’s going to be very likely that you simply find yourself socially anxious at many points throughout the day.
- On the other hand, if you’re aware of email notifications as triggers for your anxiety, you can begin to set boundaries on them. And as a result, lower your level of anxiety.
- For instance, you might take advantage of Do Not Disturb mode on your phone, setting things up such that you don’t check email or get any email notifications an hour before bed and an hour after waking up in the morning.
- Imagine how much nicer your days would be if you weren’t being triggered into social anxiety at the start and end of each day?
Now, simply managing the triggers of your social anxiety isn’t going to completely eliminate them.
But I’ve found that it’s a very useful first step because it can seriously take the edge off your anxiety—enough to be able to start implementing some of the strategies which target the core maintaining causes of your social anxiety directly.
- For a week or two, carry a little notepad around in your pocket or purse. You could also do this in a notes file on your phone if that’s more convenient.
- When you notice yourself feeling socially anxious, pull out the notepad and jot down what you think the trigger for your social anxiety was.
- As you do this, you will start to notice patterns in when you feel socially anxious. And these patterns will be a powerful source of heightened self-awareness about your social anxiety.
2. Control your worry habit
On a fundamental level, the amount of anxiety you feel is directly proportional to the amount of worry you do. And this is no less true for social anxiety than any other type of anxiety.
So if you want to feel less socially anxious, you simply have to stop worrying so much.
Now, obviously, this is easier said than done!
Chronic worry can become a powerful habit that’s challenging to even become more aware of much less break free from. But it is possible. And one of the best ways to start undoing the habit of worry is to write your worries down on paper.
The problem with worrying in your head is that you can think really fast, which means you can cycle through dozens of worries in a matter of a minute or two. And each one of those worries produces more anxiety.
On the other hand, you can’t write nearly as fast as you can think. This means that if you constrain your speed of worrying to the speed of writing, you’re going to experience a lot less anxiety.
What’s more, writing your worries down on paper has two very important long-term effects:
- It teaches you to become more aware of your worry, which means you will get better at catching yourself in worry cycles early. And the earlier in a worry cycle you catch yourself, the easier it is to break free.
- It gives you perspective on your worries—literally and metaphorically! Worries in our minds often feel bigger and more likely than they are. But when we see them written out on paper, it’s often easier to notice how they might be exaggerated, extreme, or unrealistic—and as a result, their emotional impact will be blunted.
If you want to feel less anxious around people, you must stop worrying so much about other people—and what they think of you. A simple way to begin is to try writing out your worries rather than spinning through them in your head.
Learn More: Why You Should Write Your Worries Down on Paper
And if you’re really serious about getting control of your worry, I teach an entire course on the topic here:
3. Practice self-compassion with your social anxiety
Here’s a little truth bomb I like to remind my clients of:
Social anxiety doesn’t come from caring about what other people think; it comes from criticizing yourself for caring about what other people think.
Now, obviously there are a lot of causes of social anxiety. But there are two key points I’m trying to make here:
- It’s normal to care about what other people think of you! Human beings are an incredibly social species. One of the biggest reasons we were able to thrive in our evolutionary past is that we are extremely good at inferring what others are thinking, including what they’re thinking about us, which allows for complex and effective collaboration. Similarly, the same capacity that allows you to care about what other people think of you is what allows you to be considerate, empathetic, and flexible in how you interact with people. Obviously, caring about what other people think of us can be taken to an unhealthy extreme (like anything), but it’s critical that you not fall into the trap of believing that you simply shouldn’t care at all about what others think of you.
- Social anxiety is intensified by self-judgment and criticism. Look, feeling bad is hard enough without feeling bad about feeling bad. And this applies to feeling bad about social anxiety: Social anxiety is hard enough without beating yourself up and feeling guilty about feeling anxious. So, no matter how much you dislike the fact that you experience social anxiety, criticizing yourself for it will only make it worse.
Given these two points, one of the best ways to overcome social anxiety is to practice self-compassion.
Self-compassion simply means that when you’re struggling, you treat yourself like you would treat a good friend who was struggling—with support, understanding, and patience.
For example, if you find yourself feeling anxious about an upcoming phone call, meeting, or event, you might try saying one of the following to yourself:
- You know, I really don’t like feeling this anxious around people, but caring about what other people think about me isn’t itself a bad thing.
- I’ve struggled with social anxiety for a while now, so it really isn’t surprising that I’d feel it now leading up to this phone call.
- Just because I feel anxious doesn’t mean something is bad or wrong or that I’m doomed to be awkward and inarticulate. Anxiety is just adrenaline and adrenaline is a great performance enhancer!
Now, will this immediately eliminate all your social anxiety? Of course not.
But it may very well take the edge off it in the moment. And more importantly, in the long run, when you replace self-criticism over your social anxiety with self-compassion, you can dramatically reduce its intensity and frequency overall.
- 5 Habits for Greater Self-Compassion
- The Skeptic’s Guide to Self-Compassion
- How to Validate Your Emotions in 3 Simple Steps
4. Talk about your social anxiety more
This one sounds intimidating but it’s also really powerful!
I’m sure you saw “Talk about your social anxiety more” and thought something along the lines of “Yeah, right! Being socially anxious is hard enough without sharing it with other people at the same time!”
I get it.
But, the psychology of social anxiety is pretty counterintuitive in this respect.
First of all, talking about your social anxiety will help you feel less alone. WAY more people than you would imagine suffer with social anxiety. Seriously, many of the people you interact with on a daily or weekly basis likely also have some social anxiety but are just good at hiding it.
See, when you start being a little more open about the fact that you struggle with social anxiety, you open the door for other people to share that they do as well. And when it happens, it’s often profoundly validating and relieving to know first-hand (not just theoretically) that other people struggle like you do.
Another benefit to talking more about your social anxiety is that it actually takes a lot of the pressure and performance stress off of you. When you feel socially anxious in a conversation or meeting, for example, a surprising amount of your mental energy and resources are going toward trying to hide the fact that you’re anxious. Not only does this give you fewer resources to articulate yourself well, think clearly, etc. but it also adds a whole extra layer of stress and anxiety. Because in addition to worrying about what they think of you, you’re also worried about whether they will notice that you’re anxious.
But when you acknowledge and express upfront that you tend to get a little anxious in social situations you A) immediately disarm other people by being vulnerable, and B) take off that entire second layer of pressure to not appear anxious.
Finally, the long-term benefit of talking more openly about your anxiety is that it reduces your own shame and anxiety about having social anxiety. See, your brain learns to fear and get stressed about things it sees you avoiding. This means that if you’re constantly running away from your trying to avoid your social anxiety, you’re teaching your brain to be anxious about being socially anxious!
On the other hand, by sharing your social anxiety willingly, you are approaching it, which teaches your brain the opposite lesson: even though social anxiety is uncomfortable, it’s not dangerous. And in the long run, when your brain stops fearing your social anxiety, it becomes a lot easier to work through and eventually overcome.
Thanks to Michelle Cadieux for inspiring this section!
5. Restructure overly-negative self-talk
Like we talked about tip #2 (control your worry habit) it’s the mental behavior of worrying that causes the emotion of anxiety.
This is a specific instance of what psychologists call the principle of cognitive mediation, which basically means:
Things don’t cause emotions; it’s our thoughts about things that lead to how we feel emotionally.
The implication is that if you’re thinking in overly negative ways you’re going to end up feeling overly negative—overly anxious in our case.
- In the middle of a meeting at work, a thought occurs to you that you think would be helpful to share.
- But then immediately, your self-talk pipes up with No, they’ll probably think it’s stupid.
- As a result, you start to feel anxious. And because you don’t want to keep feeling anxious, you decide to keep quiet and not share your idea.
Now, the thing to notice here is that your self-talk—No, they’ll probably think it’s stupid—could very well be pretty unrealistic and exaggerated. After all, do you have any evidence that they are in fact likely to think that your idea is stupid? Probably not.
But if what you tell yourself is that they are likely to think your idea is stupid, of course you’re going to feel a burst of anxiety!
On the other hand, what if you did this:
- After you notice the first thought—No, they’ll probably think it’s stupid—you modified it to be a little more realistic? Say, to something like this: It’s possible they won’t like the idea, but I think it’s pretty good. And even if they don’t like the idea itself, that doesn’t mean they’re going to think it’s stupid or that I’m stupid.
- By restructuring your initially overly-negative thought to be more nuanced and realistic, there’s a good chance that your anxiety will lessen as a result.
The bigger point is this:
Just because you have a thought doesn’t make it true.
So just because the first thought to cross your mind is extremely negative and worrisome doesn’t mean that’s the only story you can tell yourself, or the only possible interpretation.
If you give yourself the chance to edit or restructure those initially unrealistic worries into more balanced versions, you can significantly reduce how much anxiety you feel as a result.
- 10 Types of Negative Self-Talk (and How to Correct Them)
- Cognitive Restructuring: The Complete Guide to Changing Negative Thinking Patterns
6. Avoid coping strategies like alcohol or marijuana
Coping with your social anxiety is a bad idea generally.
Specifically, there are two major problems with the coping strategy approach:
- Treating the symptoms and ignoring the cause. When you focus all your time and energy on coping with the feelings of anxiety, that’s all time and energy you’re not spending addressing what’s causing the anxiety in the first place.
- Treating the symptoms makes them worse in the long run. When you try to fix or avoid your anxiety by coping with it, you’re training your brain to believe that feeling bad is bad. This means in the future, your brain will respond to worry and anxiety with even more worry and anxiety, creating a vicious cycle of ever-increasing anxiety. The solution, as we discussed earlier, is to treat your anxiety with compassion and acceptance, rather than treating it (literally or metaphorically) as a bad thing, a problem to be fixed.
So, whether it’s impulsive deep breathing exercises, going to your happy place, or taking shots of vodka, the whole attitude of coping with your social anxiety is self-defeating in the end.
But more specifically, two of the most common coping mechanisms people use to manage their social anxiety are alcohol and marijuana.
Now, the trouble is that even if they happen to make you feel better in the moment—good enough to actually to or particulate in that social interaction you’re afraid of—they only worsen your confidence in the long run because they make your brain believe that you can only do socially uncomfortable things because of the alcohol, weed, whatever.
If you really want to overcome social anxiety in the long-run, it’s not about never feeling anxious; it’s about building up your confidence to do important things despite feeling anxious.
And you’re never going to build confidence if you’re always relying on booze and drugs as crutches.
7. Set (and enforce) better boundaries
A lot of social anxiety stems from—or is made worse by—unhealthy boundaries.
A couple quick examples:
- If you’re too afraid to say no to assignments and projects at work, you’re going to feel constantly overwhelmed. This sense of overwhelm, then, is likely to lead to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority relative to your peers. And that’s a recipe for feeling anxious around other people at work.
- You’re good at setting boundaries with your mother-in-law, but she has a habit of guilt-tripping you about them. And because you confuse feeling guilty with being guilty—a phenomenon I call fake guilt—you end up giving up on your boundaries with her. Now, each time you interact with her (or even think about interacting with her) you start worrying about whether she’s going to respect your boundaries and/or whether you’re going to cave and give in again. Now, with all those worries and difficult emotions associated with your mother-in-law, is it really any surprise that you get a lot of social anxiety any time you’re around her or have to make a decision about whether to interact with her?
In any case, one of the most practical ways you can start to overcome your social anxiety is to look for areas in your life where you either A) Don’t set appropriate boundaries, or B) Set them but then don’t enforce them.
Once you’ve identified one of these areas, start the process of figuring out what healthier boundaries would look like, how you could go about setting them, and making a plan for enforcing them when you inevitably get pushback and resistance.
Ultimately, social anxiety is about a lack of confidence in yourself. And it’s hard to feel confident in yourself if you don’t set healthy boundaries with people or aren’t willing to enforce the ones you set.
Learn More: 5 Rules for Setting Healthy Boundaries
8. Spend more time around people who appreciate you
For some reason, people with social anxiety have this tendency to spend a lot of time with and around people they don’t actually enjoy being around.
- You really don’t enjoy the people you work with, but you’ve got it into your head that you should enjoy spending time with them.
- So you’re constantly stuck in this push-pull dynamic of telling yourself you should go to these social events you don’t actually want to go to, then feeling anxious about it, then berating yourself for not wanting to go, etc.
- And then, when you do hang out with these people, you don’t enjoy it, it quickly gets awkward and you start feeling anxious, and then you start criticizing yourself for being anxious and internalizing the whole thing as all the fault of your damn social anxiety.
Look, overcoming social anxiety doesn’t mean that you magically start loving to spend time with everyone on Earth. And it’s completely normal to simply not enjoy certain people’s company, and as a result, avoid spending more time with them than you have to!
Just because you want to overcome social anxiety doesn’t mean you have to constantly push yourself to spend all your time in socially draining situations.
In fact, the opposite is often true: It can be very helpful to give yourself permission not to spend time with certain people. And instead, use that time to hang out with people you actually enjoy and people who appreciate you exactly for who you are.
The big benefit of this is that you get to see that: You are more than your social anxiety. When you get direct feedback that people love you and enjoy spending time with you despite the fact that you’re socially anxious, it boosts your self-worth and eventually confidence. So that when you do want to push through some social anxiety and participate in a social engagement that’s actually important to you, you’re more likely to do it successfully.
Just because the habit of always avoiding anxiety-provoking situations tends to make your anxiety worse doesn’t mean that you have to constantly be spending time with people you don’t enjoy.
Give yourself a break. Spend more time with the right people and stop insisting that you become some sort of social butterfly who never gets anxious and is constantly socializing with any and everyone under the sun.
9. Clarify your values
One of the unfortunate effects of long-term struggles with social anxiety is that your decisions in life become increasingly motivated by avoiding what you don’t want—especially, social anxiety—rather than going after what you do want.
A couple simple examples:
- If you’re offered a new job, you tend to overemphasize aspects of the job related to your social anxiety (I’ll have to be in meetings a lot), and as a result, underemphasize other factors like whether it will lead to interesting growth opportunities. So you pass on a job that could have had some amazing upsides because you’re so focused on trying to not be as socially anxious.
- You’re considering asking someone out on a date. But because they seem a little “out of your league,” you imagine that the anxiety of being on a first date with them will just be too much. So you don’t ask them out. You give up on a potentially really exciting and rewarding relationship because you’re more motivated by avoiding feeling anxious.
The problem is that while it feels nice in the short-term to avoid anxiety and discomfort, the long-term effects of an avoidance-based approach to life are a tragic missing out on the stuff that really makes life worthwhile: adventure, growth, learning, connections and community, etc.
Luckily, we can use this avoidance-of-anxiety vs approach-of-what-we-want framework as a way to overcome social anxiety itself.
See, as I’ve mentioned a couple times, the real trick to overcoming any kind of anxiety, including social anxiety, is that it’s not about getting rid of the anxiety so much as building confidence.
Confidence doesn’t mean you never feel anxious or afraid. Confidence is the belief that you can do something important despite the fact that you feel afraid.
And the more you practice doing scary but important things despite your fears, the easier it becomes to do those in the future because you’re proving to your brain that you can.
Still, especially at the beginning, acting confidently despite our fears is tough!
Well, you can increase your motivation and willingness to act confidently by clarifying your values behind the action.
For example, are you more likely to ask that person out despite your fears if you A) spend all your time worrying about what could go wrong on the date, or B) spend your time imagining in detail all the ways this date could be interesting, exciting, fun, and enjoyable?
The underlying principle here is that our fears and our values are often in conflict. And if you want to increase the odds that team value wins out, it’s really helpful to clarify that value—to elaborate on it, give it color and specificity, and fill out the details.
If you value having a long-term romantic relationship with someone who is interesting and adventurous, for example, then by elaborating and clarifying that value, you make it stronger in its tug-o-war with your fears and insecurities.
So, when in doubt, spend less time trying to undo your anxieties and more time clarifying the values that will outcompete them.
10. Take an incremental approach to overcoming social anxiety
Keep in mind that working through a significant social anxiety habit is going to take time.
There are no quick fixes or silver bullets, tempting as that possibility is.
Unfortunately, many people start strong in their journey to overcome social anxiety only to have a setback or two, get discouraged, and then give up.
There are a couple reasons why this happens:
- Unrealistic expectations. If your expectation is that you should be able to completely free yourself from social anxiety in 7 days or something, you’re inevitably going to get frustrated, disappointed, and likely self-judgmental. If you want to genuinely overcome social anxiety, it’s going to be on a months or years timescale, not days.
- Relying on motivation. Feeling inspired and motivated to work through your social anxiety is great, but that initial burst of energy won’t last. Which means if your plan for overcoming your anxiety relies on high levels of inspiration or willpower, you’re screwed.
The solution to both of these issues, I think, is to foster an incremental attitude and approach to overcoming your social anxiety.
By incremental I mean baby steps.
For example, after reading this guide, homely there are at least a handful of good ideas and strategies you want to implement in order to overcome your social anxiety.
Don’t try to do them all at once!
Instead, pick one and focus on that until you start to see some progress and it feels more automatic for you. Only then move on to implementing another.
Another way to think about being incremental in your journey to overcome social anxiety is to focus on one domain of social anxiety in your life at a time.
- For instance, in the beginning, make the decision to work on your social anxiety at work. And even better, something like social anxiety in meetings at work.
- Then, once you start to see some progress and build a little confidence, move on to another work situation where you have anxiety.
When it comes to breaking bad habits, consistency is more important than intensity.
Better to work on your social anxiety in small bits every day that rush to do some big thing once, inevitably get disappointed, and then fall off the wagon entirely.
Summary & Extra Resources
Social anxiety is excessive and persistent fear of what other people think of you.
And when it comes to the question of how to overcome social anxiety, the most important distinction to keep in mind is this:
Whatever caused your social anxiety originally is not necessarily the thing maintaining it now.
This means that in order to effectively overcome your social anxiety, you need to identify the habits in the present that are keeping your anxiety strong—or even making it worse—and work to eliminate them.
To review, here are the 10 tips I recommended to get you started:
- Map your social anxiety triggers
- Control your worry habit
- Practice self-compassion with your social anxiety
- Talk about your social anxiety
- Restructure overly-negative self-talk
- Avoid coping strategies like alcohol or marijuana
- Set (and enforce) better boundaries
- Spend more time around people who appreciate you
- Clarify your values
- Take an incremental approach to overcoming social anxiety
Extra Resources for How to Overcome Social Anxiety
A handful of additional resources to help you understand and work through your social anxiety:
- Books. A couple books I’ve found especially useful for social anxiety: Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Social Anxiety and Shyness and The Assertiveness Workbook.
- Work with a professional therapist. If you feel like your social anxiety is significantly interfering with your quality of life, it’s worth talking to a professional. This is a book I wrote about how to find a therapist who may be helpful. An online version of the book is available for free or you can get the paperback from Amazon. And if you want a quick way to get started finding a therapist, try an online service like BetterHelp.
- Research. If you’re interested in some of the latest research on social anxiety, here’s a good one on what we know about the origins of social anxiety as well as one on current approaches to treatment.
- Articles and podcasts. A few of my previous articles and podcast episodes that might be helpful:
- 15 Ways to Handle Confrontations with Confidence
- Sensitive Strivers and Imposter Syndrome with Melody Wilding
- Assertiveness: A Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming More Assertive
- The Science of Personality Change with Christian Jarrett
- How to Get Over Fear of Disappointing Others (FODO)
- How to have Difficult Conversations with Adar Cohen
- 7 Psychological Reasons You Don’t Trust Yourself