It’s no surprise that when you are anxious or scared, you do things to try and protect yourself and stay out of harms way. You either avoid the situation completely or do what you can to get out of that situation as soon as possible. It’s human nature.
It may seem like avoiding a feared situation is the smart thing to do because it is extremely effective in the short term. It makes you feel safe and relieved when you avoid something you’re scared of. Unfortunately, a lot of those instinctual behaviors do not help in reducing your social anxiety over the long term. They actually help to maintain it and increase your fear of social situations. The long term consequences of avoiding the things you fear are far greater than the short term benefits.
Why? If you always avoid the situations you fear, the fear will never diminish. It will always be there. What’s ironic is that the risk of actual threat or danger is much less than those of us with social anxiety assume. We like to assume the worst!
Let’s say you fear asking a girl out because you don’t want to be rejected or humiliated, so you just avoid it to be safe. The truth is, there is no real threat or danger there. The worst that can happen is a ‘no’ response and maybe you will feel a little embarrassed for asking. So what! That is not real danger, that is simply you amplifying the perceived danger.
When you push out past your comfort zone and expose yourself to some of the things you fear, you will learn that your perceived threats are significantly less than you originally imagined. You will learn that many of the anxiety provoking beliefs are exaggerated or simply not true. As you engage in exposure practices, you will also improve your social and communication skills.
You may want to revisit Getting to Know Your Social Anxiety, so you can get a refresher on the types of behaviors that you engage in.
Types of Behaviors
Avoidance of social situations – This is the most common behavior socially anxious people partake in, but it is also one of the worst because it teaches you to stay in a state of fear and anxiety. Even though it sounds counter intuitive, exposure to feared scenarios is actually the right approach to take.
Again, as mentioned above, by avoiding these situations, you are preventing yourself from learning that these situations are nothing to fear at all.
Do you avoid social situations in an effort to avoid feelings of anxiety and fear? For example – do you avoid answering the phone, going to parties, or making presentations because you fear how you will feel in these social situations?
It may be hard to stay in an anxiety provoking situation, but you must fight your instinct to flee. You must stay in it and eventually you will learn that you can stay in this situation and still feel ok. Your fear will decrease over time.
Your background knowledge in how anxiety works and understanding your own anxiety will give you the tools you need to stay focused and in control in those high anxiety provoking situations. You won’t feel overwhelmed as you did in the past, so you will be able to get through it.
Avoidance of feared sensations – avoiding physical sensations like shaking, sweating, and blushing reinforces your belief that these physical sensations are dangerous. These sensations may be uncomfortable, but they are not dangerous. By exposing yourself to feared sensations, you can learn that experiencing these sensations isn’t as frightening as you’re making it out to seem. I talk about this in more depth here.
Some people who fear physical sensations (blushing, sweating, rapid heart rate, dizziness) may benefit from exposing themselves to these sensations (practicing exercises that trigger the physical sensation) on purpose. Again, when you experience the sensation, you will see that it is not life threatening. This type of exposure is called interocetive exposure.
The problem isn’t your physical sensations, the problem is how you feel about those physical sensations. Your beliefs about the consequences of having these physical sensations is the real issue.
Subtle avoidance strategies and safety behaviors – Some of us may not even realize we are engaging in subtle forms of avoidance. Here are some examples:
Constant reassurance – Socially anxious people are constantly seeking reassurance by asking their friends if they are smart or by looking in the mirror to make sure they look perfect (hair, clothes, etc.).
Seeking reassurance occasionally is fine, but when it becomes a habit, it can backfire. If you seek constant reassurance, you’re maintaining your fear and never learning to believe in yourself. Your own reassurance is enough. Additionally, when you constantly seek reassurance, you will teach other people to be more critical of your behavior.
Do you ask your friends and family for reassurance more than you should?
Are you constantly checking yourself in the mirror to make sure you look perfect?
Overcompensating – We all have a few perceived flaws, especially the socially anxious types. Side note: keyword here is perceived because socially anxious people believe they have more flaws than they actually do. Socially anxious people try to cover up their perceived flaws by overcompensating.
This is something I used to do a lot! I would try to cover up my flaws by overpreparing. I would rehearse speeches or what I would say in a meeting hundreds or times to make sure I didn’t mess anything up. This actually had the opposite effect because the pressure to perform perfectly became immense. If I messed up, I would lose my train of thought and quickly spiral out of control – cue anxious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors!
Do you engage in overcompensation for perceived flaws?
Others – There are other behaviors besides avoidance, comparing, and overcompensating, but they are a little more challenging to identify at times. Here are some examples of subtle avoidance behaviors that may be contributing to your social anxiety:
- Keep yourself busy with distractions
- Standing behind a podium in order to “hide yourself” during a presentation
- Avoiding eye contact with the audience during presentations
- Using a lot of visual aids during a presentation to keep the focus off of you
- Wearing certain clothes to hide features of your anxiety
- Staying close to someone you know so you don’t have to interact with strangers (at party)
- Offer to help clean up in order to avoid talking to people (at party)
- Get buzzed before a party to get rid of your social anxiety
- Take lots of bathroom breaks to get away from people
I must stress this – these behaviors are not helping you, they are holding you back. Yes, they may work in the short term, but over the long term, they will only help to maintain your fear and anxiety of social situations. When you behave in this way, you are telling yourself that there is something to be afraid of. By pushing yourself to do the opposite, you can learn that these perceived threats are not scary at all, they are perfectly safe or have very little risk.