Anxiety is often vague and says things like “everybody will hate me” or “something bad will happen” or “what if something bad happens?” So if we can specify, what exactly we’re afraid of, who exactly would “hate you,” sometimes that’s enough and we realize that our anxiety is not particularly credible and that the worst-case scenario that it’s spinning and is setting off our alarm bells is not likely. Part of that is asking what the odds of these worst-case scenarios really are.
The vast majority of social anxiety is anticipatory. Oftentimes, once we take the leap and are in the moment, we do feel anxious at first, but if we can resist the urge to avoid pulling the plug, the anxiety will naturally plateau and start to decline. But by avoiding anxiety, we never get to find that out. So, by committing ourselves to being brave for one minute and also dropping our safety behaviors, that’s where the learning occurs.
People who are socially anxious engage in “safety behaviors,” which are simply behaviors that trying to help you tamp down anxiety in the moment. For example, if you’re at a party and feel anxious, you hover on the edge of the room or you scroll on your phone or you might rehearse what you plan to say beforehand to make sure it doesn’t sound stupid. People generally do know what their safety behaviors are. And they do make us feel better, but it comes across as off-putting or rigid. They send the wrong message, and folks who are socially anxious don’t always realize that.
With most people, it’s not so much that our social skills are lacking, it’s that our inhibitions get in the way and prevent us from using our social skills. We monitor ourselves and overread everything. “Oh, she just shifted in her seat, does that mean she’s bored?” Or, “I hope I don’t sound like an idiot.”