How I overcame Social Anxiety
My own story of overcoming social anxiety
The symptoms of social anxiety disorder are covered on the ‘Anxiety Explained‘ page. Here I want to share my own story of how I managed to overcome social anxiety.
Before I suffered from anxiety, I was a happy and confident person. Social situations never bothered me in the slightest. I would not say I could talk in front of a thousand people, but generally, I was pretty confident and had no trouble around others.
When anxiety first hit me, I worried continuously about what was causing the sensations I was feeling. I thought deeply, day in, day out, trying to figure a way out of my own personal hell.
With this extra worry and stress on my already tired mind and body, I began to feel more anxious than ever. Not only that but by being so concerned about myself daily I was starting to feel detached from my surroundings, as my inner world and anxiety just consumed me.
I also started to feel very self-aware of myself and my actions, and with the added feeling of detachment, it became challenging for me to follow or hold a conversation. This led to me either wanting to run away from the situation or babbling on as I tried to hide how I felt.
It was at this point that I started avoiding talking to people, and I was perceived as ignorant more than once. I don’t blame people for this perception of me and as far as I was concerned that was far better than having to go and talk to others. I just found it so difficult to hold a conversation, and I never enjoyed it or felt part of it.
The reason I developed social anxiety was not that I feared people, it was because I found conversations so difficult. It was then through my continued avoidance behaviour that my mind started to associate people with something to fear and so then started to trigger the fight or flight response. Previously interactions were just hard work, but now I had begun to feel anxious around others too, I now officially had what people label social anxiety.
My mind was innocent in all of this. It was just doing what it was designed to do and was protecting me from what I had been avoiding for so long, thinking that because of my actions, that there was danger in being around others.
The main reason I felt detached from the conversation was that I always thought I had to hide how I felt. I thought I had to keep a lid on things and just get through it without them noticing how I was feeling.
Of course, because of this, I was then never part of the conversation as all my focus was on me and my inner world and how I was performing. I was not in anyway engaged in the conversation, and so it was pretty much always a disaster.
It was like trying to hold a conversation with someone while reading a book. It was just not possible, and it now started to make sense as to why I never felt part of it or enjoyed it.
Feeling comfortable with who I was reduced my social anxiety
Another reason for my social anxiety persisting was that I never felt comfortable in my own skin. With what I had been through I had lost a lot of confidence and felt that if I didn’t particularly like myself then neither would others and so I tried to be someone else to gain their acceptance. I started playing a role and felt I had to stay in character and always be someone I was not.
This role became increasingly difficult and exhausting to keep up and was another reason I avoided social interaction. Not only that but because of this my confidence dropped further, and I felt very ungenuine. I realised very quickly that this wasn’t the answer to my problems. I just needed to regain my confidence and be myself once again.
A lot of social anxiety comes from people not feeling comfortable in who they are, which can then lead to them thinking they are not as good as the person they are talking to and so it then becomes a test.
It can feel like a trial to impress, and a lot of thoughts can come up like ‘How am I doing? , ‘Do they like me?’ ‘Do they notice how I am feeling?’ this inner dialogue can really affect the conversation, as it no longer feels like a conversation but a way of proving ourselves and so a lot of people pleasing behaviours to gain acceptance can be present.
When my social anxiety began to improve
When I finally built up my understanding and found some answers to the way I was feeling, then a lot of my symptoms began to leave me, and I was able to mix a bit better, although conversations on some level continued to be hard work.
Depending on who I was around, I could still feel odd and not part of them, not as much as I once did, but there was still some sense of anxiety. Although this progress was welcome and I started to mix a little more I still wasn’t where I wanted to be; I wanted full freedom from this condition and not just minor improvements.
The first big breakthrough was to realise that people were not the problem here. My social anxiety had nothing to do with them. It was not people I was afraid of; it was the feeling of fear that I didn’t want to feel and so to avoid experiencing it, I thought the answer was to avoid others.
Finally seeing that I was blaming the wrong thing for my anxiety was huge for me. I realised that avoiding people was not the answer and I was blaming the wrong thing for my fear. This insight helped me shift the blame away from them and helped weaken my mind’s fear reaction around people.
To fully overcome my social anxiety I now realised it wasn’t about trying to rearrange my life to find freedom and that freedom would only come through changing my mind’s reaction.
This shift could only be achieved by teaching it that I was fine and in no danger around others. One way to show it was through my actions of non-avoidance. It was avoidance that created this reaction, and so the opposite was the key to reversing it. The other thing I needed to do was bring a deep awareness to the old subconscious thought patterns running within it.
I had to begin to see through these faulty thoughts that were causing so much avoidance and bring real awareness to them. I had to truly realise that my minds views on myself and others were utterly false. I wasn’t any less important than anyone else, and that other people were not something to be avoided.
Previously I had taught my subconscious mind to see people as something to be avoided. As soon as I saw a person I may have to speak with then my mind’s reaction was instant: “Oh no, here we go again, quick get it over with”. These subconscious thought patterns were what I had to bring awareness to and no longer identify with.
My thinking was at fault here, nothing else. So it was a case of firstly seeing through these faulty thought patterns and then no longer support them and the best way to do that was to no longer see them as factual.
So the misleading thoughts were OK to come through habit, but I would no longer put belief into them and so would no longer be fooled or run by them. I had to take charge here and see through and override my faulty thinking patterns.
My decision to no longer avoid was the key to recovering from social anxiety
I remember the first time I decided to stop avoiding and hit the bogeyman head on. It came when I was meeting a friend in a pub who had brought someone with him. After a quick hello, my friend went to the toilet and left me with his friend. This situation was my ultimate nightmare; being left with someone I did not know and no one to help keep the conversation going. I was on my own!
Straight away my old thought patterns kicked in, ‘This will be a disaster”, ‘Retreat you will have nothing interesting to say,” “He will see straight through you” and so off I went making my usual false excuses to go elsewhere when the light came on. I was doing it again, listening to my faulty inner dialogue and attempting to avoid! Nothing would change if I kept giving into my emotions and thought patterns.
Only one person could reverse this, and that was me. So, I turned around and thought “Sod it; I am doing this? And so I started to chat. It didn’t go perfectly by any means, and there was some anxiety present, but once I just relaxed into it then it, was not as bad as I imagined it would be.
For once I had not run away or made excuses to rush off, and for the first time I felt a lot of elation that I had gone against my old pattern of thinking, allowed the emotions to be present and made my own decision. I had finally looked at the bigger picture and not the short-term one.
At that moment I realised that this old reaction would only ever turn into a new response through a change in behaviour and that this may take some time. I did not get into this position overnight, and I certainly wouldn’t get out of it overnight. This new approach wasn’t always going to be easy, but the rewards at the end were more than worth it.
Previously, all I had done before to overcome this was wait for some miracle day where I would be fine, a day that was never going to come. I also realised that overcoming this would never come through knowledge alone, to overcome this I had to put myself in the very situations I had spent years avoiding.
Knowledge just took a lot of fear away, and it made it easier to deal with, but I still had to go out there and put myself in the situations I had previously avoided, there was still work to be done.
I decided from now on that if I felt anxious or distant in the presence of others, then so be it, I would no longer care. I would not run away from another social situation and accept that it went how it went. I was going to reverse this process come what may.
If avoidance got me in this hole, then the opposite would get me out of it. I just had to get used to being around others again and see it as normal; I had to teach my brain that I no longer needed its protection and make it understand that I was fine. I also had to crack into my sub-conscious and break down old pathways and build up new ones.
Realisations that helped free me from social anxiety
The main reason I found freedom from my social anxiety, was that I no longer followed my mind’s initial response to escape and began to regain control and make my own decisions. I always had this power; I just never used it.
I could carry on following my mind’s reaction like a puppet for the rest of my life and only enhance it by continuing to avoid. Or I could see it was nonsensical, that there was no real danger in being around others and override my mind’s reaction by staying. I may feel uncomfortable initially as my old fear reaction would come through habit, my brain needed a little more convincing that I was fine.
But by no longer following old instincts or listening to my faulty inner dialogue telling me to avoid then it would be the start of the process of reversing this habit, this reaction.
Finally, I was moving forward and training my mind that being in the company of others was normal and no threat. There was nothing to fear or run away from, and it was finally accepting that message. While I ran away or avoided the situation, I was sending the message that there was a problem and so the same fear reaction would continue.
I realised the only language my mind understood was my actions, it would always respond to the feedback I was sending it, that it was a survival machine and was just trying to protect me. When it finally got the message that I was no longer in danger, then this reaction would no longer be triggered.
By continuing to follow this path I began to feel far less anxious and far less self-conscious. I was now sending all the right signals to my mind through my actions – “Look, there is nothing to protect me from. I’m fine now; there is no danger being in the company of others”.
If it could speak back, it would have said ‘Yes I getting that now and I’m turning the fear response down for you, but before you were telling me the opposite by avoiding people, and so I was just doing my job and keeping you safe.’
My reply being, ‘I know, sorry it was my fault, I realise you were just doing what you were designed to do and following the message I was sending to you.’
You don’t need to fear, fear
With this new fearless approach things just got so much easier and the old me – the person that could chat away freely – was slowly coming back. I had no urge whatsoever to find a quick exit or avoid eye contact, and the self-defeating thoughts of escape were no longer present. The new habit had become me, and without the fear response, then there was no longer an instinct to retreat, and I was back in charge.
I am not saying the above is easy initially; it isn’t, as every instinct tells you to do the opposite and retreat, that is why the fear reaction is there in the first place, it has that pull to follow it and escape, but you always have the power to override this pull. By overriding it, you are teaching your mind that it is not needed and so it begins to turn it off.
You do have the power to allow yourself to feel this fear reaction within, without running from it. These emotions can’t harm you; it is just a reaction in the mind and an energy shift in the body. If you want to progress in anything then you have to feel uncomfortable to feel comfortable again, are you willing to do that to regain your freedom?
Growth is never a simple path, and you may have setbacks along the way, there will be times when you feel uncomfortable. But trust me when you get to the end of it, you become a different person, you are even stronger because of it. Nothing is better than regaining your freedom the right way. You just have to take the first steps, be brave, patient and the rewards at the end will be huge.
Learning to drop all my fake personas and masks
One other thing that really helped me overcome my anxiety was dropping all the masks and finding out who I was again. Overcoming social anxiety was also about finding the real me and being comfortable with who I was.
I got to the point where I played so many different characters that I lost that person and I could never hope to feel comfortable around others when I didn’t even feel comfortable in myself.
Finding myself again was a process and is another subject entirely, but a big starting point is no longer trying to gain other people’s acceptance through people pleasing or trying to be someone you think others want to you to be.
You don’t have to spend years trying to find yourself. The real you is always there, you only lose it when you start to become someone you are not for the acceptance of others, you end up taking on the role of the character you have created, you end up being a bunch of masks instead of how you truly are. Once you drop these behaviours then the real you will start to shine through again.