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6 Social Anxiety Reframes for Difficult (Socially Awkward) Moments

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Last week, I was a vacation with family friends, and the social output necessary was way, way higher than normal. The main triggers for my social anxiety were there: a big group of people I didn’t know well in an unfamiliar environment. My little brother was around, who I’m often consciously or unconsciously trying to impress. And there were no easy escape routes. So, I had the opportunity to look at my social anxiety a bit more closely. It turns out I still struggle a lot.

A lot of the inner turmoil I noticed resulted from my desire to act differently. The personal development material I’ve learned so much from became fodder for self-hate, thinly disguised as self-improvement. But this was hard to detect, because my aspirations seemed so reasonable. I wanted to be talkative, funnier, more outgoing. I wished I wasn’t so quiet. I wanted the few jokes I made to land. I regretted not understanding more cultural references.

As I sat awkwardly at the end of the table, fake-smiling thinly at the person across from me and hating myself, it occurred to me that these “shoulds” were the true source of my suffering, not any actual aspect of my behavior. What if I decided to be OK with my awkward, quiet, stiff self, rather than hating him? What if I decided to send that scared, vulnerable person love, rather than throwing should after should at him?

What if I accepted myself exactly as I was, including everything I said and did? Was it possible to be content with awkwardness, stiffness and anxiety — to simply accept these states? Was it possible, even, to celebrate these states of mind as part of the dynamic experience of being a human being? Why was I shoving away these painful experiences, anyway, when that pain is a rich part of the life I’m grateful to have?

So, without further ado, here are a few social anxiety reframes I came up with. I’ve been saying these silently to myself during difficult moments, and they help.

1. It’s OK to be socially awkward.

This means it’s OK for me to fake smile or fake laugh sometimes, even if I instantly regret doing so. It’s OK if I make a comment no one responds to or seems to care about. It’s OK if I make a joke and no one laughs.

2. It’s OK to be quiet.

OK to sit there and nod along with, or not nod along, with whatever conversation is going on. OK to not have anything to contribute. It’s OK for me to not particularly like the subject at hand, and even to let that show. It’s OK to have something to say — maybe even something really interesting — and not say it, simply because I don’t want to expend the emotional energy to do so. It’s OK for me to just focus on my breath and the experience of being alive, instead of talking. And it’s OK to trust that my presence adds value, even when I’m not saying a word.

3. It’s OK to not get people’s references.

For some strange reason this is a really hard one for me to accept. The riptide of guilt and shame that sweeps through me when I don’t know what people are referencing is unbelievable. And in college it used to be even worse. Stomach churning, floor-dropping-out-from-under-me guilt and shame. It was as though I’d suddenly remembered I’d stuffed a dead body underneath my dorm room bed, when in fact my only crime was not knowing who Bon Iver was. So much shame so much of the time, for no real reason. So I have different interests and can’t relate to some particular point — who cares?

4. It’s OK to be thinking about other things and spacing out while other people are talking.

Yes, even if they’re going on about an important political issue that I really should be more invested in, or relating some past drama from their life that’s important to them. Maybe they’re expecting me to share in their outrage or opinion, or to shoot back with an opinion of my own, and I don’t have a strong belief on that particular subject. Or maybe I do, and just don’t want to share it. Maybe I’m happy sitting, thinking, existing and don’t want to participate at that moment.

5. It’s OK to have an active inner critic.

I love that there’s so much out there devoted to dealing with that angry, scared voice in my head that constantly informs me I suck and that disaster is just around the corner. I’ve learned a lot from those resources, and I’m grateful for them. But it’s also OK that I have an inner critic. It’s OK there’s a part of my brain that’s crazed and desperate and scared. It’s part of the rich experience of my life, and I’m grateful to have that experience.

6. It’s OK to lose, or to not participate in, social dominance games.

This is an especially clear example of the harm some personal development stuff can do. A wealth of videos come streaming into my YouTube newsfeed advising me to stand up for myself, immediately fire back when criticized and to not be a “nice guy” (meaning inauthentic, people pleasing, etc.). This seems appealing and is helpful to an extent, except for the enormous self-criticism I feel whenever I fail to hold myself to these standards. If I’m beating myself up for not “standing up for myself,” the pain isn’t actually coming from the other person’s belittling or insensitive comment. It’s coming from thinking I should have responded differently.

This is a renunciation. Rather than, “It’s OK,” for each of these items, we go around telling ourselves that it’s not OK. And whenever we do this, it hurts. So it’s the beliefs that cause the pain, not direct experience. What if we dropped the beliefs — the “shoulds” — and gave ourselves permission to be? And what if, by doing so, we’re more at peace, and therefore end up more socially confident in the long run?

Of course, my belief that I should be an effortlessly humorous, eye-contact-holding, confidently disagreeing, socially badass Daario Naharis is precious to me. Letting go of it is no easy matter. It’s a nice fantasy, and it’s something to cling to it. But like letting go of most things, doing so is actually a huge relief. The more I let go, the happier I become.

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Getty image via yipengge

Originally published: August 28, 2018
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