BE BOLD

A nine-step plan for conquering social anxiety that won’t overwhelm you

A couple weeks ago, I found myself at an intimate dinner party. Normally I feel confident and outgoing at social events. But as the host brought out a third course that rivaled a Michelin Star restaurant, I found myself overwhelmed with anxiety and shame.

I don’t belong here, I thought. These people are way too cool for me. I’m too small-town for this. I have “Country Bumpkin” written all over me. Which fork do I use? They’re 100% judging me. She’s regretting inviting me. She probably thinks I’m a complete fraud. Why am I being so awkward? What’s wrong with me?

I couldn’t concentrate on the conversation because I was so busy judging myself ­– from how I ate to how I spoke to how much makeup I was wearing. With every awkward comment I made, I found myself feeling more and more ashamed. On the train home, I castigated myself for being a social failure, vowing never to attend a dinner party again.

Most people have experience feeling awkward at social events—putting your foot in your mouth at a networking event, spilling a glass of wine on a first date, or hovering tongue-tied by the snack table at a friend’s party. We lie awake the night before big events worrying over everything that might go wrong. What will I wear? What will I talk about? It’ll be so obvious I don’t belong. Whether we’re among the 13% of people who develop social anxiety disorder or simply self-conscious, plenty of us are strongly tempted to skip big events and just stay home.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying an evening in with Netflix. But allowing social anxiety to dictate our lives means missing out—on career opportunities, human connection, new experiences, and having fun. As a psychotherapist, I believe it’s important to find ways to cultivate resilience against social anxiety. Here are nine strategies that can help you overcome nerves before a big event. It’s okay if you feel anxious beforehand—the key is going anyway.

1. Bring an ally

Asking a trusted friend to join you will not only help quell anxiety, it’ll hold you accountable for actually going when anxiety tries to seduce you into staying home. Just make sure you get an okay from the host if it’s an intimate gathering.

2. Have an exit strategy

Despite what anxiety tells you, you can always leave. If you’re nervous about attending a work event, make a deal with yourself beforehand: If you’re not having fun, you can leave after 45 minutes. Developing a plan in advance can help make events seem less overwhelming. And remember, if things get really bad, you can always grab your coat and walk out the door.

That said, every time we give into social anxiety, we give it more power. Ultimately, the idea is to gain control over the anxiety—which is why it’s better to have a plan, rather than reinforcing avoidance and escape behavior.

3. Remember: No knows how you’re feeling inside

Another lie that social anxiety tells us is that everyone around us is privy to our frantic thoughts and feelings. We feel exposed, vulnerable, and ashamed. In reality, the people around us have zero access to our inner world. Even if you feel like a total disaster on the inside, chances are you look perfectly normal to everyone else.

4. Plan for uncomfortable feelings, silence, and awkward moments

Wait, you may be thinking. Aren’t I supposed to visualize everything going perfectly? Nope. That’s pretty unrealistic, considering you’re a human being and all. Social anxiety is perpetuated and exacerbated by our high expectations for our social performance. We believe we’re supposed to be charismatic, interesting, and fill every silence. The reality is that networking, dating, and meeting new people is often awkward and uncomfortable, and that’s okay! When things get awkward, don’t panic. It’s a sign that you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone and done something courageous.

5. Run through the worst-case scenario

Anxiety attaches to uncertainty—meaning that it tends to run wild in situations where we can’t predict what will happen. Equipping ourselves with an action plan for the “worst-case scenario” can be helpful in quelling anxiety. Ask yourself, “What am I most afraid of happening?” It might be getting rejected by a date, embarrassing yourself in front of your boss, or having a joke fall flat.

Then figure out what you’ll do if the worst-case scenario is realized. Sure, it will be uncomfortable. You might have a difficult couple minutes, hours, or even days. But bad feelings won’t kill you. These experiences are just part of the human experience, and are avenues to empathy, connection, and learning. If something bad happens, you’ll call a friend (or your therapist), adjust course, and keep moving—ultimately with an entertaining story in hand, once you’re emotionally detached.

6. Remember the uncomfortable feelings are impermanent

Even if you have a horrible time at a social event, the feelings and thoughts you associate with it won’t stay around forever.

7. Reframe your anxiety

We tend to make anxiety worse by creating additional anxiety and shame around feeling anxiety! Remind yourself that social anxiety isn’t something to feel bad about; it’s a sign that you care about other people’s opinions and that you want to feel like you belong. You’re not a sociopath! Yay!

8. Tell yourself that you’re not alone

Most people have felt shy or anxious at social events at some point in their lives. At any given gathering, there are tons of other people experiencing similar feelings to you.

Our outside expressions rarely match our inner state. Oftentimes, people who come off as cold or unfriendly are actually riddled with social anxiety. Consider the possibility that everyone in the room is just as nervous as you are, and you’re all muddling through together.

9. Come up with a list of go-to questions

Quell your fear of awkward silences by coming up with questions that will re-start the conversation. A few classics: “How do you know so and so?” “I love your (insert clothing item here)! Where did you get it?” “What brings you to [networking event]?” Among the many lies social anxiety tells us, one of the most common ones is that we have to be interesting ourselves. Focus on being interested in other people instead.

At the end of the day, what’s most important is not that you get rid of social anxiety, but that you refuse to let it hold you back. The more you expose yourself to scary situations (and survive them), the less power your anxiety will have. And when you stay in with Netflix, it’ll be because you want to be there—not because you’re scared to be somewhere else.

Megan Bruneau is a therapist, executive coach, writer, speaker, and host of The Failure Factor podcast. Follow her on Twitter. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search