As a child and young adult, I suffered with severe social anxiety. Although I have found ways to manage it, it still rears its head, especially in “performance” situations. While I might look forward to going to parties or to meet a new client, I still get anxious when I need to talk in front of a group of colleagues that I really admire.
Now that Mila has started school, I see that she too suffers from social anxiety. I am also hearing many people feeling out of practice socialising after the last few years of social distancing. So, if you feel more anxious than usual when leaving the house to socialise, you’re not alone. It is totally normal. I’ve been doing my best to support Mila and thought I’d bring those Key Steps here to support you too so we can…
‘be the difference that makes the difference.’
- Know your triggers. While noting what triggers your anxiety, you will also be able to see that you are not always socially anxious. There will be times that you enjoy being social – it is important to notice this and make sure you do not paint every social engagement with the same brush. Avoid thinking that you can’t handle social interactions and just look out for your key triggers. As you do this, you will start to notice patterns. And these patterns will be a powerful source of heightened self-awareness about your social anxiety. Once you can identify the triggers, it is easier to manage them by doing the following…
- Talk about your feelings. When you name it, you tame it. This has been key for Mila to overcome her anxiety when going to school. We talk about her feelings and validate them, and I let her know that it is very normal to feel anxious in new situations – most people do. There is a significant amount of research showing that when you label your feelings, you light up your prefrontal ventrolateral cortex. In doing so, it becomes easier to regulate your emotions. Another benefit is that when we talk about our feelings, we normalise them and decrease the shame that can be associated with social anxiety. I have also found that when I talk about my anxiety, there are so many others who feel it too and in that moment of “I’m not alone,” my anxiety is soothed, and the pressure is off. It frees up the mental energy that is often being used to hide your anxiety. It is such a relief.
- Be kind to yourself. A great way to be kind to yourself is to think constructive thoughts. Remind yourself that social anxiety doesn’t come from caring about what other people think; it comes from criticising yourself for caring about what other people think. Stop criticising yourself. The anxiety is intensified by the judgement and criticism, which just makes your anxiety worse. Social anxiety is hard enough without beating yourself up about it. You can go back to some of my articles about empathy and remind yourself that empathy starts at home.
- Challenge your internal dialogue. Things don’t cause emotions; it’s our thoughts about things that lead to how we feel emotionally. For example, if you are in the middle of a meeting and start thinking, “I am sure they think this is boring / stupid and so on.” The result is that if you’re thinking in overly negative ways you’re going to end up feeling overly negative – or overly anxious in our case. And, the thought you had probably wasn’t even true in the first place. So, try to catch yourself when you start to worry so you can interrupt the cycle as fast as you can and change your thinking.
- Set healthy boundaries. A lot of social anxiety stems from – or is made worse by – unhealthy boundaries. Be careful of the disease to please. If you take on unrealistic assignments or agree to present on something when you have very little experience, your will fuel your social anxiety because you’ve set yourself up to feel inadequate. Be realistic and be honest with yourself and others. Just don’t use this as an excuse to stay stuck because it is important to…
- Get out of your comfort zone. By exposing yourself to situations that make you anxious you become increasingly more able to manage the anxiety because you get practise doing it. If you over protect yourself or your children, you get stuck and the anxiety worseness as we build up our fear about certain experiences. For example, when Mila would go to bed crying and wake up crying because she had to go to school, it was tempting to just keep her at home, but I knew it wasn’t good for her and the longer I protected her, the worse it would be.
- Take it one step at a time. It took me a long time to overcome my paralysing fear of speaking in public. I was probably facilitating for more than 2 years before I felt the anxiety start to ease. By the time Covid hit, I was really able to manage any anxiety I felt when presenting – because I still do! When I needed to totally reinvent by programmes and move online, I felt a surge of performance anxiety again. It was really intense for the first 3-months. By just taking it one step at a time and being patient with myself, it was soon manageable and now presenting online is not a trigger but rather a joy. In fact, the thought of going back to a live room feels more anxiety provoking. The fact that I was a slow learner has really made it easier for me to be understanding with Mila. It has taken her 4 months to adjust to school but this past Friday she said, “Mommy, you were right, school is really nice. I’m not scared anymore.” As expected, this morning, she was still a little hesitant and would have chosen to stay home if it was an option, but she didn’t cry and even managed a wave and smile goodbye… definitely a win!
What Key Steps are you going to take to ‘be the difference that makes the difference.’
NOTE: The information in my blog may be freely shared and re-used in any online or offline publication, provided it is accompanied by the following credit line: This was written by Dr Sharon King Gabrielides, and originally appeared in her free weekly ‘Key Steps Food for Thought Blog’ available on the Key Steps website.
About Dr Sharon King Gabrielides
Sharon is a dynamic facilitator, speaker and executive coach with over 25 years’ experience in leadership development and organisational transformation. Her PhD thesis contributed a framework for holistic and sustainable leadership development that was published by Rutgers University in the USA. She is faculty of numerous business schools and highly sought-after by leading corporates because she works hand-in-hand with them to create sustainable results and long-term success. In 2020, Sharon was inducted into the Educators Hall of Fame, which is a lifetime achievement award, recognising excellence and her contribution to the field.
Sharon is one of only three women in South Africa to have achieved the title of
Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) – the Oscar of the speaking industry. She is also a COMENSA Master Practitioner (CMP), a qualified Modern Classroom Certified Trainer (MCCT™) and an accredited Global Virtual Speaker. Sharon is also a registered Education, Training and Development Practitioner (ETDP), holds an Honours degree in Psychology and practices as an NLP master practitioner.
Most important to Sharon is that she has become known for her genuinely caring manner, practical and transformational approach, and for providing valuable tools and that allow people to take Key Steps to really… ‘be the difference that makes the difference.’