You might not know it, but I have pretty bad social anxiety.
JUST KIDDING — I've written about it a million times. You guys know all about my erratic inferiority complex and how it likes to ruin my days and nights (days and nights I could be spending out on the town, meeting new people, and doing IRL living). Social anxiety is pervasive. If it were a high school queen bee, it would be Regina George — from the first half of Mean Girls, anyway.
In fact, my psychiatrist and I talk about my social anxiety more than anything else — more than bipolar disorder, more than ADD, more than my intense fear of waking up with schizophrenia, etc., — because, more than anything else, social anxiety has been getting in the way of my personal success for the past ten years (shoutout to Dr. F for putting up with me for so very long!!!) and because it's the one disorder I don't treat with medication.
Instead of popping a Xanax — or an Ativan, ohhhhh, those are delightful — I use the five coping mechanisms listed below, accompanied by photos of me having an AMAZING time out and about (and also inexplicably wearing the same outfit a few times). Am I perfectly poised and willing to in dive into any social situation? No. In fact, I'm often times summarily terrified. I prefer to come up with elaborate excuses and curl up with my dog and a book nursing peppermint tea and a sense of self-loathing.
The long and short of it is that these five coping mechanisms are hard. They involve zero side-stepping and 100% confronting difficult situations. However, I can count on one hand the times I've implemented one of these skills/tools/approaches and had a shitty time. That's because — regardless of how initially trying they might be — they've all worked for me.
Set a Timer
I can usually get myself out the door and into a crowded room of people I don't know if I give myself a time limit. I like to keep it at about 30 minutes, but any increment works. This method, of course, depends on the "you'll enjoy it once you get there," theory of social anxiety. My doctor says — and I am in total agreement — that the hardest part of getting out there is literally getting out there.
Another timer approach is the 3-second rule. By only allowing yourself three seconds to go up to someone and say "hello!" you force yourself to skip the "what if everyone thinks I'm weird" negative talk spiral.
Look at the Bright Side of Social Anxiety
Yes, there is a bright side to social anxiety, Virginia! Studies show that people who struggle with social anxiety have — generally speaking — higher IQ's, higher verbal intelligence, and a greater ability to sense dangerous situations than those without social anxiety. Instead of pretending that everyone in the room is naked, because ick, remind yourself that you are quite possibly smarter and more eloquent than everyone around you. And, failing that, take comfort in the fact that should danger arise, your spidey senses will tingle before everyone else's, boosting your survival rate by one billion percent (studies don't show that percentage. I made it up).
Bring a Wingman or Wing-woman or Wing-person
This is by far the easier way to tackle social anxiety (and by tackle I mean smother with a pillow and leave in your bed), albeit one that doesn't force you to stand solely on your own two feet.
Having someone with you that you trust to nudge you along, distract you from all the negative thoughts buzzing around your head, and affirm the positive parts of a social experience goes a hell of a long way.
This is one of my favorite coping mechanisms because it can be done before, after, and during any social event and it combats the biggest part of my personal social anxiety — all that goddamn negative self talk. Addressing — in your head, not out loud — your fears and reservations helps you identify the ones that are just plan foolish. For example:
Everyone will think my hair is stupid! I simply cannot go out tonight!
Why would they think that?
Because I don't think my hair looks cool today.
But you ate half an ice cream cake for breakfast so your judgement isn't always spot on.
What an excellent point! Let me grab an Uber.
The main key in disputing your negative thinking is to look for evidence. Is there evidence that no one will like your/my hair or notice your/my lisp or that your/my lips are chapped and ridiculous? If the answer is meh... (and the answer is usually meh...) than this method could work for you. Disputation can also offer validation. Some fears are valid and self-checking can help you weed out the ones that deserve your attention from the ones that should be chucked to the side.
Examining the Pro's and Con's
For those of us who like to come up with reasons not to do something, a concrete list of reasons why we ought to do something is a great technique, if only because when there is LITERALLY no good reason for you not to do something, you tend to go forth and do it. I like to mentally carry my pros and cons list around in my head with me while I'm doing something socially so that I can actively disprove my negative assumptions while also keeping track of the fun stuff so that I can encourage myself to get out again at a later date.
Do you wish a hole would open in the earth and swallow you down during social interactions? Would you rather unzip your skin and crawl inside it like a sleeping bag than talk to someone you don't know at a party? Or are you an effervescent butterfly who floats blissfully through social events, kicking ass and taking names and having a great time? Wherever you fall on the "I'd rather die!" to "EVERY SONG IS MY SONG, I WANNA DANCE" scale, tell me about it in the comments.