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The Best Piece of Advice I've Ever Gotten About Managing Social Anxiety

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The other day I had a friend text me and ask if I dealt with social anxiety. I found her question a bit odd as I deal with mental illness and always assume my issues are blatantly obvious to my friends. Nevertheless, she was too polite for assumptions and asked how I handled social anxiety if I had it. Immediately another friend popped into mind because of some advice he had given me probably a year or two prior.

For the past six or seven years, I’ve dealt with pretty severe mental health issues. Anxiety was one of them, but more often than not, my anxiety manifests into depression, depression that can at times be self-destructive. After years of therapy for this depression, one question from a therapist has stuck in my mind.

Why are you so afraid of people judging you?

This was asked to me about five years ago, right before I left for university. It wasn’t until last winter that I had an answer: I am afraid of people judging me because I don’t want them to see me the way I see myself. This low self-esteem needed to be picked apart, but this answer was the root of my social anxiety.

When I deal with my fear of judgment – my fear of being seen in a bad light – I turn to friends. The advice I was given, that I ended up passing on to my friend just a couple days ago, was this:

Imagine people complexly.

What this means to me is simple. Say you’re in a room full of people and your anxiety is through the roof. You’re panicking, thinking they’re judging you, picking apart everything about you. In this situation, I’m imagining the people in the room as two-dimensional figures. I’m simply imagining them placed into my story as supporting characters made to build up my experiences in the way a director would plan a movie.

But the truth is the other people in the room are in the middle of their own stories. They’re thinking about countless other things that have absolutely nothing to do with me at all. This is true even of the people more close to us in our lives. Maybe your significant other hasn’t replied to your texts in a few hours and automatically your thoughts spring to “what have I done wrong?” and “are they mad at me?

Sometimes your significant other might actually be mad at you, but if you can’t think of a solid reason for them to be angry, try thinking about what else they might be doing or what is going on in their life that might make them slower to reply.

Every human on this earth is living their own unique story and that story is just as important as yours. Think about the things that may be going on in their story before you worry about the part you’re going to play in it.

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Originally published: November 15, 2016
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