When we’re looking to overcome our social anxiety, we often focus intensely on ourselves as we try to find a solution. This is understandable as anxiety is an individual state. When feeling anxious it seems reasonable to think we should focus our attention inwards in order to ‘work’ on ourselves and assess how effective the strategies and exercises are in helping us. However, while some self-evaluation is necessary — we do need to know what’s working after all — intense self-focus has also been shown to be harmful to wellbeing.
A wealth of evidence has demonstrated anxiety already turns people inwards. It makes us more introspective and therefore less socially engaged and lonelier, and this self-focus can also undermine happiness and cause depression. It’s like a vicious circle; we feel anxious, so we withdraw and become introspective, but this makes us more anxious.
Alongside this, to find out if we’re making progress, we often compare our past levels of anxiety to our current levels of anxiety. This creates a problem: the moment we make that comparison, we shift from experiencing life to evaluating life.
Consider the research on a concept called flow — a state of complete absorption in an activity. Researchers have found when people are in a flow state, they don’t report on any particular emotion — being happy, sad, anxious, fearful — as they’re too busy concentrating on the activity. But afterwards, looking back, they describe flow as a positive emotion. If consumed with evaluating the strategies we’re using to help overcome our social anxiety, we can never fully engage in activities, projects, relationships and life in general. Instead, we can become anxious and depressed, entering a vicious circle.
This is documented by psychologists Katariina Salmela-Aro and Jari-Erik Nurmi: anxiety and depression leads people to evaluate their daily projects and social engagements as less enjoyable and ruminating about why they’re not fun makes the anxiety and depression worse.
So what can we learn from this research?
Firstly, we should engage with exercises and projects without constantly evaluating how anxious we are, and focus instead on the exercises or projects themselves — the skills we learn later in in the book will help us with this. Some reflection on whether the exercises are effective, and which ones work best, can be valuable, but we should avoid constantly evaluating our anxiety and happiness.
Secondly, we should be wary of becoming too self-focused or self-absorbed with ourselves and our anxiety, and attempt to look outwards towards other people.
Some interesting research from the University of British Columbia discovered that encouraging people who suffer from social anxiety to engage with others — through acts of kindness — helped reduce their anxiety.
The researchers recruited participants who reported experiencing high levels of social anxiety and randomly assigned them to three groups for a four-week intervention. One group performed acts of kindness, the second group was simply exposed to social interactions, and the final group was given no instructions except to record what happened each day. The results found those individuals who were asked to perform acts of kindness had the greatest overall decrease in their anxiety about social interactions. That is, they were less scared of, and more drawn to, socialising with others. Why is this?
The theory behind the results is that by trying to protect themselves from being evaluated negatively by other people, anxious people don’t socially interact. This means any chance to demonstrate their perceptions may be wrong are cut off. The acts of kindness helped to counter this fear of negative evaluation as the anxious people found people responded more positively to them than they expected.
We often assume that other people are unfriendly or closed off to interaction with us, and those same people are assuming the same of us. Sometimes it’s just a case of making the first move. Some people will rebuff us, and we must expect that and dust ourselves off afterwards and try not to judge them. We don’t know their circumstances; they may be busy, having a bad day, don’t feel like talking, or have received bad news. Just silently wish them well. However, we will, more often than not, be surprised how people will embrace an interaction when someone else makes the first move. Mindfully engaging with others will increase the chances they’ll respond in kind.
When I was writing this article in the cafe of my local library, I put this theory to the test. Sitting on the table opposite me was a stern looking, older man, in his 70s, intently staring at his cup as he sipped his coffee. I wanted to buy another drink, so, making the social interaction as easy as possible for myself, I asked him if he would mind keeping an eye on my bag when I went to the counter to order another coffee. When I arrived back, I thanked him and he noticed my Welsh accent. This started a conversation about how we had both ended up in the northern English city of Newcastle (he was from Scotland). He explained that he was here researching his family history. We would often see each other in the library after this and sit down for coffee, becoming unlikely friends.
Not that all of our attempted social interactions will end up in longer friendships, and it’s not always what we want, but it illustrates that people are often, at the very least, happy to talk, despite our initial assumptions.
Finally, when out in public and feeling self-conscious about how we look, act, or sound, it is worth keeping in mind we tend to overestimate how much our actions and appearance are noticed by others. Social psychologists call this the ‘spotlight effect.’ Most people are so focused on themselves and how they are looking, acting, or speaking, that they don’t really notice the things we are worrying about.
We’re so terrified of that one-in-100 chance of embarrassment or rejection that we avoid the 99 interactions that are more likely to be fulfilling. If our focus is on saying exactly the right thing, we hardly pay any attention to the other person. We’re often more concerned about how we look to them than getting to know them. Most people aren’t excessively judgmental. They’re quick to forgive. And more often than not, they want to connect.
When I started my first job at a university, I remember arriving in London to meet with other academics at a social event to discuss research. I was feeling extremely anxious and even considered not showing up, blaming it on a late train. As I was pondering over what to do on my walk to the venue, I noticed some graffiti on a wall that said ‘Nobody really cares if you don’t go to the party.’ On seeing this I laughed and remembered the research about the spotlight effect; no one will really be focused on me as they will all be busy focusing on themselves. This is now a phrase I use often when I’m feeling nervous about a social event, “Calm down Matt, nobody really cares if you don’t go to the party.”
A small but useful piece of advice for people who feel awkward at social gatherings: If you can’t think of anything interesting to say about yourself, ask the other person a question instead. How do you know the host? Where are you from? Where did you get that cake from, and is there any left?
It sounds like obvious advice, and it is, but often, people don’t follow it. Research in social science has found many times over that people are generally pretty bad at guessing how to make a good first impression, and the most common mistakes can be grouped under a general ‘me, me, me’ category. Most people spend the majority of their conversations sharing their own views rather than focusing on the other person.
It’s rare that someone is as interested in you as you are, so if you’re worried about people liking you, something easy you can do is to flip your focus from yourself to the person in front of you.