Welcome to Episode 18. This is Kristi, and today I’m talking about the inner workings of social anxiety. Listen and you’ll learn the role your mindset plays when it comes to social anxiety. At the end, I’ll share four different approaches you can experiment with to change how you navigate social scenarios.
Welcome to Habits On Purpose, a podcast for high-achieving women who want to create lifelong habits and feel as good on the inside as they look on paper. You'll get practical strategies for mindset shifts that will help you finally understand the root causes of why you think, feel, and act as you do so you can learn to create habits that give more than they take. And now, here's your host physician and Master Certified Life Coach Kristi Angevine.
Hello, hello, everyone. As some of you may know, I am currently in the middle of enrolling my small group coaching program for women physicians. So, if you are listening to this on the day the episode comes out, June 1, 2022, this may be for you.
Developing this program has been so much fun because I've taken all the coaching tools and techniques that I've found so helpful personally, and that my private clients use regularly, and I've synthesized them into one place.
If you've never been in a group coaching setting, there's something so incredibly powerful about it. When you're in a group, pretty quickly, people realize that the habits and worries that they think, or they are, uniquely plagued by, are actually quite universal.
And then, when observing others be coached, you can get insights about things that you didn't even realize you needed. Because, other people will bring things up for coaching that you wouldn't even think to bring up, and other people will articulate things in a way that would have never occurred to you.
The learning that happens in a group setting can be accelerated. And, in this program, one of the fundamental aspects that we really work on is helping you take things that you intellectually understand, and figuring out how to implement them in your real life.
It's for these reasons that the Habits On Purpose for Physicians Small Group Coaching Program is one of the most effective, most efficient, and most fun ways to work on your habits. So, if this is intriguing to you, and you want more information on the six-month experience, and all the CME that's available, you can go to HabitsOnPurpose.com/program.
Now, the spots are capped at thirty women to keep the group intimate, and we get started on June 7, 2022. Enrollment closes June 5, midnight Pacific Standard Time. It would totally be my pleasure to see you there.
And now, let's dive straight in to one of my favorite topics, which is social anxiety. I have several favorite topics, but this one is personally close to home. If you knew me in middle school, or high school, or even college, you may have a sense of why this is a favorite topic of mine.
Today's episode is all about feeling awkward, feeling insecure, or feeling really self-conscious and generally anxious in social situations. If I were to make a top-10 list of what I excelled at, in middle school and beyond, the trifecta of awkward, insecure, and self-conscious would definitely be in my top five. This episode is the one that I needed when I was twelve.
Today, I'm going to start off by defining the terms that we're talking about, and then outline what's beyond the scope of this discussion. I'll describe how social anxiety presents and then I'll elaborate on the connection between social anxiety and our mindset. And then, last of all, because I want to keep things really tangible, I'm going to share some approaches that you can use that might take the heavy weightiness away from managing this phenomenon.
Now first of all, a disclaimer about what this episode is not about. Anxiety, in general, is quite complex. So, this is not a diagnostic or therapeutic episode. I'll discuss the experience of anxiety in social situations, but I'm not going to get into the DSM-5 diagnosis of social anxiety disorder or panic disorder, specifically.
And, this episode is, in no way, a replacement for ongoing therapy or for medication. Where there's a history of trauma, using this episode for your sole source of help would be grossly incomplete.
So, if you have persistent intense social anxiety that impairs your everyday experience of life, or you have a history of trauma that impacts your experience in social situations, I always recommend you seek help from a trusted professional. Be it a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a trauma specialist, a counselor, a therapist, your general physician, whomever.
If you already have a way that works great for you, to manage your social anxiety, take this episode as an adjunct to what you're already doing.
Now, what this episode is, is this: This episode is a look at social anxiety from the framework of thought-work. From the premise that thoughts create feelings, feelings drive actions, and actions shape our lived experience. That said, in my view, there is not just one best way to explain or address social anxiety. But today's episode is an offering of one context that might help you better understand your own experience and begin to change it.
Because it's such an interesting multifaceted topic, in the future there may be other episodes that look at it from totally different points of view.
Now, some of you listening, may be living your best extroverted life and have no clue what I mean when I refer to social anxiety, and you know who you are. You are the person whose cup is filled up by big events, networking, being around people that you don't know well. If that is you, you can just listen and learn about your more socially anxious friends.
Others of you, may be fully at peace with your more introverted ways, and you may not experience social anxiety.
But for those of you who are in between, and you have felt anxious in social situations, and you're keenly interested in changing it, this episode is for you. Welcome to the episode that's going to remind you that you are not alone, and you don't have to keep feeling like this.
I first want to define exactly what I'm talking about. I'm going to do that by talking about anxiety in general. Descriptions of anxiety abound: Restlessness, feeling on edge, feeling wound up, worry, uneasiness, nervousness, apprehension. Anxiety can show up as feelings of tension, preoccupation, and difficulty concentrating on anything but what you're worried about.
It can show up as feeling like others can see you feeling anxious, and are looking at and judging your anxiety. It may also show up when you feel like it's hard to function because you're distracted by negative thoughts. In addition, it could present as irritability and agitation, meaning you primarily feel anxious, but what you actually first notice is a feeling of irritability.
Now, lest I risk sounding like I'm demonizing anxiety, let me just emphasize anxiety is a normal human emotion. Yet, in our Western society, there are a lot of negative connotations to anxiety. Connotations like: If you're anxious, you're just too sensitive. If you're anxious, there must be something wrong with you.
These connotations can make it harder to simply acknowledge that you're feeling the human emotion of anxiety. It may seem like something to hide or pretend that you don't have. So, my invitation to you is, if you find yourself experiencing social anxiety, or anxiety in general, that you don't make yourself wrong for having this emotion. Anxiety is a normal human emotion.
If it's something that you want help changing, then you can work on understanding the source of it, as well as experimenting with some approaches to mitigate the impact of it. But none of these things need to come from a place of, “Oh no, I have anxiety.” There's just nothing wrong with having the experience of anxiety.
Now, let's target social anxiety, specifically. Social anxiety is when this uneasiness and worry happens in a social situation. It's feeling really self-conscious, feeling really awkward, and having emotions like worry, doubt, insecurity, and inadequacy.
It may present as: Quickly concluding that you don't belong. Feeling like the odd person out. Automatically thinking lesser of yourself, compared to those around you, “I'm less smart. I'm less good at communication. I'm less likeable.”
It can present as imagining negative things others might be thinking about you. This can make it hard to speak your mind, it can make it hard to trust others, and it can make it feel very uncomfortable to be yourself around others.
It can also be accompanied by feeling really rigid and tense. And then, when you do go to speak, you might speak really softly and really quietly, such that it's hard for others to actually hear you. Other physical presentations can include things like: Blushing, sweating, being really aware of your own heartbeat, having kind of a stomach ache, struggling to make eye contact. For many people, it can feel like this version of anxiety is present before you have any thoughts that create it.
So, let's flesh out, a little bit more, what this could look like, specifically in a social situation. Maybe your version is to scan the room, and you don't know where to go. You find yourself making a beeline to the bar and drinking more alcohol than you'd planned, or gobbling up more orders than you had thought you wanted, even though you're not hungry, in an effort to numb or temper how awkward or stressed that you feel.
Maybe, your standard social experience is one where you just don't know what to say to other people. And, when you do say something, if it were to fall flat or no one responds, you feel really mortified. You might feel like there's a spotlight on you.
You may be consumed with thoughts like, “What if I'm boring? What if I say the wrong thing? What if there's no one to talk to? What if I’m sitting alone? What if they stare and they think I'm dumb? What if I run out of things to say?
Maybe, your version is to imagine all the things the other people must be thinking about you, in the most negative way. Like, “She's so odd. He seems so awkward. I hope I don't get stuck in a conversation with her.”
Maybe, you see other people who look really comfortable together and you feel just outside that circle enough, that you feel like you don't belong. Maybe, you have a stress response, a flight, and all you want to do is just bail. But because your kids are having fun, or because you told your partner you'd stay a little bit longer, you force yourself to endure.
Maybe, your anxiety shows up as a freeze response. Your mind goes blank, you struggle to find words, small talk seems impossible, and so does anything more meaningful.
Perhaps you relieve your anxiety by focusing on your cell phone, checking email, social media, sending a text. Maybe, you fake a phone call so you can have your own space, unbothered by other people. Or maybe, you overdrink, or you overeat. Perhaps you've made the social presentation of anxiety means something about you as a person. Perhaps it's hindered meeting and connecting to new people.
Now, just listening to the ways that social anxiety shows up, I think you can appreciate how social anxiety is really unfun and really complex. It's a highly nuanced experience, and there are a variety of neurochemical, hormonal, physiologic aspects, in addition to the mental and emotional aspects. And, as such, we each have a very personal experience of it. We each have unique personal histories that shape our personal experience of it.
So, what follows is not a one-size, fits-all reductionist offering. Today is a focus on one facet of this multifaceted thing, that makes up social anxiety. Basically, what it boils down to is this: social anxiety is highly linked and influenced by whatever we're telling ourselves about social situations, or about ourselves in social situations.
Take a moment and think. When you have felt anxious or self-conscious in a social situation, what are the kinds of things that you're telling yourself? Maybe it's, “I'm not going to fit in. Her outfit looks great, I am so frumpy. I don't belong here. I wish I knew what to say, but I have no clue. They're going to think I'm so lame, so boring, so weird. I am weird. I'm so awkward. They're also much smarter than me.” Now, keep these things that you tell yourself in mind as we go on.
Let's touch briefly on the phenomenon of “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is the phenomenon where we seek favor or emphasize data that supports what we already believe. In other words, we like congruence. So, the way our mind works, is anything that could remotely support our initial premise or our initial thought, will ultimately reinforce that belief.
It looks like this: If someone doesn't hear what we say, we'll assume it's because they think what we said was stupid. If no one comes up to talk to us, we have more data that we must be strange and awkward.
If small talk peters off, it's not just a natural rhythm that happens when two humans, who are strangers, are figuring out how to have a conversation. It's because we're a problem, and we don't know how to be social.
When we think that we are the lone anxious person, we look around the room and our eyes will preferentially notice all the other people who appear to not be struggling.
And then, when something to the contrary of our belief occurs, like someone says hello, we get introduced to some other people, we end up having a really easy feeling chat, it goes in the category of being a fluke. “There's no way it would have happened if so-and-so hadn’t introduced us. It probably won't ever happen again.” Our mind will summarily discount and discard the experience.
So, when it comes to feeling socially anxious, if you start off thinking, “Ugh, I am so awkward,” and you feel insecure, or self-conscious, or worried, it's an easy headspace from which to imagine others are thinking what we, in fact, are thinking.
And, to interpret innocuous social and behavioral cues from others, as data that supports our one thesis that we are completely awkward and boring and weird. So, there's a large part of a self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon at play when it comes to social anxiety.
But here's the key. Socializing is not universally or inherently anxiety provoking. Rather, a large part of what fuels social anxiety is the way we are thinking and what we are telling ourselves. It's what we think about ourselves, that drives how we feel about ourselves.
So, let's dissect one common thought, just to explain and elaborate a little bit more, what I'm talking about. Let's dissect the thought, “They're going to think I'm boring.” First of all, if someone does think that you're boring, the existence of that sentence in their mind, does not actually jump out into the cosmos and make us feel anything.
It's only when we think a thought like, “Oh, no. They're going to think I'm boring, and that's bad,” that we feel an emotion. Someone could even come up and tell us, “Hey, I think you're really boring,” and that statement itself, wouldn't be what makes us feel our particular emotional response.
So, let's picture three different people in the same scenario. Each of these people has someone come up to them and say, “Hey, I think you're boring.” One person can hear that and think, “Oh, shit, they see me. It's true. I am boring. That's it. I'm rejected. I'm excluded. I'm going to die alone.”
Another person might think, “What the what? That is so weird of you to say that, because I'm a lot of things, but boring is not one of them. Maybe, you're confusing me for someone else.”
Another person might think, “Wow! That is so interesting that you would say that. Like, I totally wonder why that's your point of view?” Ultimately, it's only what we think about someone's voiced statement that creates how we feel. And, this is just one tiny sentiment, right?
If we take thirty years of ideas, that we have about ourselves, and about others, and about socializing, we can create a very vivid and detailed paradigm in our minds, or lens, through which we see everything that shapes all facets of our social experience, from the inside out.
Let me just repeat this in a different way. Even if someone else thinks she's boring, or even if someone tells me, “Kristi, you're so boring,” it's only my thought and my mind that creates my feeling; completely separate from what another human might think or overtly say.
It's really mind bending to think about this. But for many of us, socializing is one of the fastest ways to bring our thoughts about ourselves and our thoughts about others to the surface. Socializing might be challenging for you, especially if you've experienced social anxiety, but it's actually one of the best ways to expedite your awareness.
Now that you appreciate how confirmation bias can shape your reality with distortions and beliefs, and how your thinking, not other people's thinking, is the main player when it comes to how you feel in social situations, I want you to imagine being with one person or one group of people with whom you feel totally comfortable to be yourself.
Maybe it's your family, maybe it's your partner, your kids, your dog, your circle of friends from residency, maybe it's the people at work that you really jive with.
Bring to mind that relaxed comfort you get when you're around them. Just feeling great in your own skin, the feelings of ease, connection, whatever that feeling is for you. Now, as you think about that feeling, it would be those particular humans, that you brought to mind, that make you feel those emotions, that help you feel comfortable in your own skin.
But the fact is, it's what you tell yourself, what you think to yourself, what you believe about yourself and them, that is actually the source of that comfort. So, imagine if we were able to pull off some sort of crazy Candid Camera episode, and we had the magic of Hollywood and actors, and we brought in some people that were basically perfect clones of your inner crew of friends.
We might see that you feel comfortable and at ease, but watching this, we would know that it's not because of the actual people that you're around, but it would be because of what you're believing about yourself and what you're telling yourself in the meeting of these familiar visual cues.
It might be simple sentiments like, “These are my people, they get me. I can do anything, I can say anything. I trust that they're going to love me no matter what. This is a safe place. I love these people.”
When we recall confirmation bias, each of these sentiments when we think them, what we're actually doing is saying, “I'm about to go prove that this is a safe place. I'm about to go reinforce the belief that these are my people. I'm collecting more evidence for the idea that they get me, and they love me no matter what.”
Now, this is not to suggest that social connections are unidimensional. Social connections are fluid, complex, and they involve other humans, and their behaviors, and their body language and their responses. But what this is to suggest, is that our mindset, about ourselves and about others, heavily shapes the way we feel and act around other people.
So ultimately, the most effective work, when it comes to social anxiety, will laser in on what you think of yourself, and what you think of others, and how these thoughts came to be. This is the kind of thing you can uncover with coaching, personal reflection, self-coaching as well as therapy.
There are some concrete techniques that you can actually experiment with, alongside doing this deeper work on your beliefs. Now, I do want to emphasize, before I share the exercises that you can try, that there is nothing wrong with having anxiety. And, frankly, you may not care about changing your social anxiety.
It is totally fine to just say, “That's just what happens. I don't enjoy gatherings like that. I simply prefer to hang with the people I know well, and I'm going to limit networking events and large social events, because there's just not that compelling to me. I'm not interested in spending mental and emotional energy, figuring out how to be less anxious when I'm being social.”
But if your job calls on you to socialize, or if you want socializing at school, or work events, where you want making new friends to feel less challenging, the ways that I mention here can be tools in your tool chest that may help you out.
What I'm going to cover are four ideas that you can try. So, here is approach number one. Approach number one, is to notice and label “automatic negative thoughts.” Sometimes, these are referred to as ants, like the insect. A-N-T’S, or however you want to say that, but automatic negative thoughts.
The way you do this, is you remind yourself that social awkwardness, social anxiety is not caused by other people thinking thoughts about you. And, it's also not caused by something being inherently wrong with you. Social anxiety, social awkwardness, and self-consciousness are feelings that can be caused, in some cases by automatic negative thoughts.
Yes, these feelings and thoughts can be triggered by certain circumstances, but it is the automatic negative thoughts themselves that are the source of automatic social anxiety. And this is the best news ever, why?
It's evidence for how powerful your mind really is. You can think and believe things that may have no truth in reality, and that can create an intense emotional experience for you. Because the thoughts are yours, they are yours to possibly modify. So, the next time you're heading into social situation, you can practice noticing, and labeling automatic negative thoughts.
It sounds like this, “I noticed I'm feeling anxious. I noticed I just thought, ‘I hate this, I cannot relate to anyone. I don't belong.’ These are my automatic negative thoughts right now.” This is a very simple technique, but the reason it's so useful is because when you think a new thought, you actually create an interruption, you insert a pause, from the anxiety producing thoughts.
So, if automatic negative thoughts were wood in a fire, instead of them accelerating and turning into a bonfire, noticing, and labeling is the equivalent of removing a piece of wood from the fire and setting it off to the side.
Okay, here's approach number two. Another useful thing to try, is sometime when you are not feeling anxious, sit down with pen and paper and write this down. What do you really need when you feel anxious? Do you need reassurance that you are just as worthy as others? Do you need validation that anxiety is common? Do you need a reminder that anxiety is not always a messenger reporting to you the truth? Do you need encouragement that everything is okay?
One way to do this is to imagine; if you could stop time, and bring in your best, most respected, loved friends, mentors, guides, and they could give you exactly what you needed when you're feeling socially anxious, what would they give you?
Then, the next step is to imagine, how could you provide this for yourself? The answer lies in what you would need to think, and what you might be able to do in the moment, to facilitate thoughts that actually help you feel better.
So, what could this look like? It could be, that you have a dear friend that is literally on speed dial for you, and when you go to an event you send them a message about feeling socially awkward, and you have an arrangement where they just always have a joke on hand that helps you relax.
It could be, that you have a little list of things, that's in your phone or in your pocket, that you take a moment, and you pull out and you read. On this list are things that you know to be true. It could be, that you have a calming statement that when you think it, it creates a sense of psychological safety and ease. Something like, “Everyone feels anxious sometimes. Some of the most interesting people I know, have social anxiety.”
Or, for you, it might be bringing to mind an image of anxiety as, maybe, a skittish little animal, like a skittish little puppy that you scoop up and you place in a cozy little carrier, with their favorite blanket and favorite toy. You just bring them along, occasionally petting them, occasionally making sure that they're okay, but you just bring them with you.
It doesn't really matter so much what you choose to do in those moments, so much as what those actions permit you to think and to feel, as a counterweight to your anxiety. You can imagine, what would I need to be thinking in order to feel reassured? What would I need to think to feel validated, or to feel encouraged, or to feel less alone, or to feel the feeling of belonging?
Once you have these written down, you don't necessarily have to do anything with these things that you've written down. But the next time that you are social, and you do notice an anxiety creeping in, you will have in the back of your mind, a more explicit idea about what you need, and how you might create it for yourself in that moment.
Alright, approach number three. Now, this is a fun exercise, and I offer it to you as something that is bold, and might be a little bit of a stretch. So, if you find it's a little bit too much, maybe just save it for later. But if you find it is a stretch that feels kind of like an interesting exercise, give it a shot.
This exercise is where you imagine that every person that you run into, absolutely adores you. Now, the beauty of this isn't in the magical thinking part of just making shit up that you actually don't know. The beauty is, how do you feel when you assume positivity and liking from others? Because think about it, this is what we're doing when we're with our inner circle.
We are thinking thoughts that make us feel at ease. When you think, “They really enjoy me. They're glad I'm here; I'm glad I'm here.” What you're really doing is you're giving yourself permission to feel at ease, to feel connected, to feel calm. So, this exercise of, on purpose, imagining that every person you run into absolutely loves and adores you, will require you to set your cynical, skeptical, empirical bean-counter to the side, just for a moment.
One thing that might make that a little bit easier is just to realize, when you imagine the best possible thoughts that others might have about you… it might seem a little crazy, but think about it. When you are assuming the worst, that other people are thinking these worst-case thoughts about you, it's just as much of a leap.
So why not, for fun, make an assumption that's actually helpful to you, because, think about this carefully, how do you feel when you believe people like being around you? Comfortable at ease, loved, peaceful, connected? What do you do when you feel comfortable and at ease? Well, you're likely to act like yourself.
You probably don't overeat, you don't freeze, you don't dissociate, you don't self-consciously scrutinize every move and assume others are doing the same. You don't put pressure on yourself to say the perfect thing. You don't imagine other people are not liking you and talking about you behind your back. And from this one belief, you have to create an experience for yourself, that’s quite likely very pleasant, regardless of what other people actually think, feel, or do.
This exercise is a little bit bold because it calls on you to really use the creative act of imagination, in a way that might be very different than what you usually do. So, thinking the thought, “They really like me,” it could be accurate, or it could be totally inaccurate. But the point is, it actually doesn't matter. What matters is how the thought makes you feel, and what that feeling permits you to do.
Now, this is not another variation of toxic positivity and a prescription for thinking happy thoughts, and deluding yourself, or ignoring your intuition in order to tolerate a dangerous situation. Rather, it's a specific exercise to do a few things.
Number one, it reveals what you would feel if you assumed something neutral or positive about other people. Number two, it reveals how you would act differently than you might, if you're feeling socially anxious. And number three, the most interesting thing of all, is that the exercise reveals what's in the way of a less anxious default in social situations for you.
The final approach is really fun and effective for social anxiety. But I think it can help with so many other experiences, as well, and I call it the “force field technique.” Now the force field technique is where you imagine a force field around you. It could be a fantastical space-age force field. It could be a simple astronaut’s face shield, like a big glass globe around you. Or, it could even be a group of bodyguards, like bouncers or handlers, who are surrounding you on all sides.
The force field represents your thoughts. Everything outside of you has to pass through this cognitive force field before you feel anything. Before you feel any emotion. You can spend time imagining this force field as a physical barrier, or a fence, or just a membrane, whatever works for you, as something between you and other people.
So, what other people say, the expressions on their faces, their body language, all that data must pass through the force field in order to be assigned meaning. And, as the meaning maker you, you get to decide what meaning you want to assign to these things. Now, knowing this force field is there, you can know and have confidence that nothing can make you feel anything, until it passes through that force field, otherwise known as, “until you think a thought about it.”
Part of the beauty of this technique is that no one knows that you're imagining this kind of fantastical force field around yourself. And, you can decide, in advance, that no matter what comes up to the force field, comes up to this membrane, you get to titrate what you let in, and what you want to spend time thinking about, and what you want to just ignore.
Like bouncers at a club who curate the people who are let inside, you get to decide what you're going to attend to, and what you're not going to attend to.
In summary, social anxiety is heavily influenced by what we think and what we tell ourselves before, during and after socializing. It's a complex, multifactorial phenomenon, but it's much more malleable and much more modifiable, than most of us realize.
With all this in mind, I hope you have so much fun applying these approaches and these exercises. I encourage you to find one that works well for you, and then, once you do, if you have any questions, you can find me in the Habits On Purpose Facebook group. Or, if you're not already on the email list, you can go to HabitsOnPurpose.com. Sign up for the email list.
I will see you in the next episode.
If you want to learn more about how to better understand your patterns, stop feeling reactionary, and get back into the proverbial driver’s seat with your habits, you’ll want to join my email list which you can find linked in the show notes. Or, if you go to www.HabitsOnPurpose.com you’ll find it right there.
If you’re serious about taking this work deeper and going from an intellectual understanding to off the page implementation, I offer coaching in two flavors: individual deep-dive coaching with the somatic and cognitive approach, and a small group coaching program. The small group is currently for women physicians only, and comes with CME credits. You can be the first to learn more about the individual or group coaching options by getting on the email list.
Thanks for listening to Habits On Purpose. If you want more information on Kristi Angevine or the resources from the podcast, visit www.HabitsOnPurpose.com. Tune in next week for another episode.