Originally published in the Lakelands Leader in our advice column the Laudable Life
Q: As the weather gets warmer and friends start to invite me out more often, I am feeling a rise in my social anxiety. I would like to be able to spend time out with my friends, but the pressure of excruciating self-consciousness is really getting to me. How can I manage my feelings and allow myself to enjoy time with friends this summer?
A: Experiencing some level of social anxiety is normal and very common. A significant aspect of social anxiety is feeling like others are judging you and having negative thoughts about you. It’s important to remember that people are usually more worried about themselves and how they are being perceived. And while you don’t have to force yourself to participate in large-scale social situations if that is not where you’re comfortable; if you’re struggling with even smaller more intimate get-togethers it’s probably time to get some help.
The good news is that social anxiety is one of the more responsive-to-treatment anxiety conditions. Although all anxiety conditions have some biological component (and therefore can generally be treated with medications such as SSRIs), most people who suffer from social anxiety report the presence of a self-narrator who’s running critical commentary is at the core of their misery.
Perhaps you find this to be happening to you as well. You say something out loud and then in your head the narrator asks, “Why did you just say that?” Or chastises, “That was lame!” Or some other critical observation. Ever notice that before you speak in a group you hear yourself thinking, “I have nothing interesting to contribute to this conversation.” Or “I’m just not very funny. Why do these people even like me?” If so, and if those thoughts have resulted in you dreading or avoiding social situations, then you may very well have what we call Social Anxiety Disorder.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective short-term therapeutic treatments for this condition. A Cognitive Behavioral Therapist might make suggestions that you be curious and ask others questions rather than burdening yourself with an expectation that you “perform” by being fascinating or witty. She may also suggest that you come up with icebreaker conversation starters and learn strategies for conversation extenders. Keeping the situation from growing stagnant can help you feel more at ease. You might also learn tricks such as if things get dull you can say, “I think I’m going to go get a drink, would anyone like to come with me?” These are behavioral techniques that you can use to manage your social anxiety in large or small gatherings. CBT will also have you challenging and changing the content of your negative commentator’s thoughts.
Other therapeutic approaches might explore the root of your negativity. Perhaps events or relationships from childhood have left a lasting impact by constructing that narrator in the first place. For example, it is common for the negative voice of a parent to become incorporated into the style of our own internal voice. When the latter is the case we often construct emotional walls of protection. This makes total sense but in order to feel close to the people we care about, we must let our guard down and allow ourselves to be emotionally vulnerable by opening up and bonding with another person.
Keeping in touch and maintaining consistence with the people around you will ensures that your relationships last a long time. So don’t be afraid to take time in overcoming your anxiety then enjoy this warm weather with your friends!