I’ve struggled with social anxiety for the majority of my life. In most cases, social anxiety begins around age 13, but for me it all started way before then. Here’s my story:
I was a year and a half when my little sister was born. My mom was dealing with a lot in her struggle with anxiety and depression at the time, so she had to make some important decisions about parenting when my sister was born. She decided that since I was a toddler now, I could begin drinking from a sippy-cup, sleeping in a bed instead of in my crib, walking by myself instead of being carried, etc. That way, she’d still be able to parent all 3 of her kids and give the new baby the attention she needed.
Because I was so young, I couldn’t understand why my mom was making all of these changes so suddenly and why she was directing all of the attention that I felt I still needed towards this new baby. I felt incredibly sad and even replaced. I was extremely sensitive and cried all the time.
Fast forward a few years: I’m about 4 years old. My brother and sister are teasing me. My mom is laying in her bed, still dealing with her own mental health concerns. Finally, when I can no longer handle their ridicule, I shout, “What do you all want me to do? Kill myself?” I’m four years old, guys.
So my mom is panicking now. What mother wouldn’t be if their four-year-old baby says something like that? She is so shocked and has no idea what to do, so she just shouts at me, “Don’t ever let me hear you say that again!” Of course, I misinterpret her concern for anger and again, I feel rejected and hurt.
“Interesting story, but what does this have to do with social anxiety, Dr. J?”
I’m glad you asked. Because of these early experiences, I began to prioritize protecting my emotions from a very young age. I didn’t like being hurt or feeling rejected (who does, right?), so I went to great lengths to avoid it. I realized that people were nicer to me when they had a positive perception of me, such as if they thought I was smart, so I excelled at school. Another one of my compensatory mechanisms was that whenever I would meet new people, I’d be as quiet as possible and just observe until I knew I could trust them, then I’d open up and let them see who I really was.
What Social Anxiety Looked Like for Me
Long story short, these early experiences shaped my personality in a way that prevented people from getting to know me for who I really was. As a teen, it only got worse. I really wanted people to think positively of me, so I avoided speaking as much as possible when meeting new people. Sounds counterproductive, but my thoughts were, “I can’t say anything that they think is dumb if I don’t say anything at all, right?” I shied away from social situations in general. When I did attend social events, the thought that someone might speak to me made me feel extremely anxious. When I felt myself getting nervous, I’d get even more anxious at the thought of becoming anxious.
My heart started pounding any time the thought even entered my mind to speak up in a group setting. Don’t even mention reading out loud in class. I HATED THAT. In my tenth grade literature class, we would do something called popcorn reading where a classmate would start off, read a paragraph, and then say, “Popcorn, Sarah” and then Sarah would have to read the next paragraph and pick someone to read the next one. I never knew when my name would be called so this was a total nightmare.
If I did attend a social event, I’d feel awkward in social situations and take out my phone to avoid awkwardly standing or sitting there and to avoid talking to new people. If I happened to actually say something that might’ve been perceived as an unintelligent comment, I would think about it for hours (sometimes days) and relive the torturing moment all over again. I know, sounds extreme, right? Well, this is what it’s like to be socially anxious.
How I Effectively Manage My Social Anxiety
In my twenties, I developed a lot spiritually and was able to build a strong supportive community, both of which were essential to me learning to manage my social anxiety. Another thing that helped me, was something I didn’t really have a name for until years later.
I started to realize that my compensatory mechanisms were hindering my personal and professional development, so, being a deeply introspective individual, I started to think about the experiences that had led to me becoming who I was with a goal of developing a plan to overcome social anxiety. As a result of all of this thinking, I realized that the way I felt in social situations was completely logical; based on what I had experienced in the past, the way I was presently acting made perfect sense. What I didn’t know was that this realization would help me change the way I acted in the future.
I later learned that the ability to consider events (past or present), identify the feelings associated with them, acknowledge those feelings, and appropriately regulate them at crucial times (e.g. in social situations) was a part of what’s known as “Emotional Intelligence” or “EQ.”
Emotional Intelligence and Mental Health
When I first heard the term Emotional Intelligence, I decided to look further into the topic and what I found was mid-blowing. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one who had used EQ to help them better manage anxious thoughts and feelings. In fact, I found out that there was an unbelievable amount of research supporting the fact that people who are more aware of their emotions—what they’re feeling (specific emotions such as jealousy or hopefulness, not just being able to say you feel good or bad) under specific circumstances, why they feel that way, and how to modulate those emotions in order to successfully navigate conversations, thoughts, and social interactions—were better able to adjust in anxiety- or stress-provoking situations and had better mental health overall.
As we all know, the intelligence quotient or IQ is what we’ve used for years now to gauge a person’s intelligence. However, these studies were suggesting that the qualities that are associated with a high EQ (being emotionally aware, being able to manage emotions appropriately, being aware of your own emotions and the emotions of others in a social context, being able to manage relationships, being emotionally mature and comfortable in your own skin, and more) are really what determines true success in life.
Now What Do We Do With This Information?
Now that you’ve received a brief crash course in Emotional Intelligence, here are a few tips designed to help you use the EQ that you do have and increase your EQ level in order to help overcome your social anxiety.
1. Be aware of your own feelings.
If you’re a socially anxious person, you’re probably keenly aware of your feelings already, but I want you to take it a step further and consider WHY you feel the way you feel in a social context. What specific emotion(s) are you feeling (joy, peace, comfort, hope, fear, regret, rage, grief, sadness, hopelessness, despair, etc.), what is the emotion due to (what are you afraid of, sad about, etc.), under what circumstances do you typically feel that way, and why do you feel that way (did anything happen in your past that contributes to you feeling this way)?
Here’s the formula: “I feel X of/about/due to Y when I am Z because W.
For example, I feel fear of embarrassment when speaking publicly because I’ve been embarrassed before when speaking publicly and I am afraid of forgetting what I had planned to say and appearing to be unprepared or unintelligent. Be as descriptive as possible when you think about these things, then take it to the next level: How does this cause you to respond? What would be the ideal way to respond and what is preventing you from responding in that way?
If identifying your own emotions is particularly difficult for you, here is an activity for you: detach yourself emotionally as much as possible and think about the last time you were in a social situation. If your last social engagement was too stressful to safely recall, think about another social exchange and write down or record yourself talking about everything that happened. Re-read or listen to your description and then try to write down what you felt and why in the format I just showed you. It may sound silly and you may feel silly reading or listening to yourself telling the story, but sometimes if we aren’t in the habit of identifying our own emotions, it helps to remove ourselves from the situation and think about it as a third party, kind of like being on the outside looking in.
2. Be aware of other people’s feelings.
In social contexts, try to avoid anxious thought or allowing your mind to wander off when someone is speaking to the point that you aren’t able to carefully observe the situation. Pay attention to words, tone, and body language. If you are confused by something that someone says or if a person’s words are saying one thing while his or her body language is saying something different, ask for clarification.
If being aware of other people’s emotions is something you particularly struggle with, here’s an activity for you: consider looking at pictures of people and describing their body language (e.g. She looks hopeful; he looks uncomfortable; they look elated). This will help you to broaden your vocabulary when it comes to other people’s emotions and increase your capacity to read body language and facial expressions.
3. Try not to overthink things.
If someone does something that you perceive to be hurtful or that makes you otherwise uncomfortable and you aren’t able to immediately ask them about their reasoning, try to avoid coming up with your own reasoning for their behavior. Don’t assume that they hate you, they’re angry with you, or they don’t like you. Don’t assume anything negative. If it’s not enough for you to just tell yourself that you’ll ask them about it when you next see or speak with them, tell yourself that they may just be in a rush or having a bad day.
If overthinking is a problem for you like it tends to be for me and you have a hard time dismissing thoughts, take a few minutes, no more than ten, and write down everything about the situation or topic that you recall (if it’s a situation, what happened? If it’s a concerning thought, why is it so troubling?). Be as descriptive as possible stating specific emotions or how whatever happened made you feel. If it helps, you could write down how you wish the situation would have played out or, if the situation is ongoing, write down your version of a possible happy ending. Remember, you only have 10 minutes or less. At the end of your predetermined time, your time for thinking about this has ended. Throw the paper away and try to continue on with your life.
I hope these three tips will be helpful to you like they have been for me. When you try them, leave a comment and let me know how it goes!
As stated in the Terms and Conditions, the information in this article is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be used as personal medical advice.