How to overcome social anxiety and build confidence
Do you remember what it felt like – the last time you sat through a meeting, not asking the question you wanted to or not sharing what you thought? Or when you met someone new and seemingly impressive – at a party or at work?
It is quite common at such times to worry about what others will think of us and this is really the source of our anxiety. We may feel nervous or self conscious and struggle to overcome our anxiety or shyness. We may experience trembling, a quicker heartbeat, a dry mouth and sweaty palms. “What’s wrong with me?” we may wonder helplessly. Later, we may look back and feel genuinely surprised at our reaction. We wish we could have been calmer or felt more confident.
What makes us react the way we do?
To understand this, let’s look at what is common across all these social situations that we feel anxious in.
In all these situations, there is a possibility of other people evaluating us or judging us. Thus, often, we may feel afraid that others will judge us to be stupid or not as smart as we would like them to believe. This fear may prevent us from actively participating in social situations as much as we’d like. We may avoid or not look forward to an office party or a presentation. We may choose to play a quieter role and not volunteer for a game or activity because we do not want to draw attention to ourselves and take on the risk of others scrutinizing us. Thus shyness or anxiety in social situations is essentially our concern about how other people perceive and evaluate us.
How other people see us matters to us because that affects how they treat us. So it is natural that we would like other people to form certain impressions of us, for our social influence or to fulfill our goals.
According to the Self Presentation Theory, social anxiety arises when we are motivated to make a desired impression on others but are not certain we will do so. The higher our motivation to convey certain impressions, the more likely we will experience the anxiety. For example, when introduced to new people, the more we may want to be seen by them as say, intelligent and interesting, the more anxiety we may experience.
This anxiety does not just stem from wanting to make a good impression as opposed to a bad one, but also from wanting to make as good an impression that we think is needed to meet our goals in that situation. For example, when talking to someone that we are attracted to, we may not be content with sounding ‘smart’ as opposed to ‘stupid’, we may actually wish to convey that we are charming and witty, with an excellent sense of humour! So we may feel anxious if we think the impression we are making is not good enough to convey all of that.
What is helpful for us to know, is that we are worried about making an impression that is as good as the standard that we set for ourselves. So the anxiety we feel in social situations is because we are judging ourselves as against a standard we have set! Imagine that!
How does wanting to convey a certain impression affect us?
Let’s look at a case study to see how this works. Priti is introduced to a very respected senior Manager in her new organization. She wishes to come across as confident and intelligent to him. “I must say something witty. I shouldn’t say anything that makes me look stupid.” Her thoughts which she is barely aware of, act as the standards or rules she sets for herself. They have the effect of making her feel anxious and she realizes with dismay that her heart is pounding. The Manager asks her how she is finding the new organization. She feels self conscious and replies that it’s good and makes a small joke. As soon as she hears herself speak, she judges herself, “I sound nervous. What a stupid thing to say. What must he think of me?” This only makes her feel even more anxious. Later she feels annoyed with herself and dreads the idea of meeting him again. She judges herself as awkward and stupid in her interactions with him.
Notice that all her anxious moments are a result of her own thoughts and not the Manager’s.
Priti’s struggle is real and painful and most importantly can be overcome. The good news for her is that she can change her thoughts and behaviours to make the situation more comfortable for herself.
How do we overcome social anxiety?
For coping with her anxiety, Priti could explore some of the rules that she sets for herself:
- Where do these beliefs for perfection come from? Are they realistic?
- If what she hopes for doesn’t happen, is it really the end of the world?
- Is the Manager going to think she’s “stupid” just because she didn’t say something incredibly “smart”?
- Is he really evaluating her every move or does he have his own things to worry about?
- Would he make an overall judgment of her competence based on this brief initial interaction? Or would she have more chances to interact with him in the future?
- Could it be that he’s also trying to make a good impression on her?
Such exploration and reasoning with herself would help her to build more confidence in her interactions with others over a period of time.
Thus, learning to identify and modify such thoughts before and during social situations is a key process that could help us in coping with anxiety. This is facilitated through the techniques of Cognitive Behavioral counselling which has been demonstrated as the most effective in helping people overcome social anxiety and to build confidence.
Leary, M. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (1995) Social Anxiety. The Guilford Press. New York, NY.