Fear Is Not the Problem — a Counterintuitive Approach to Dealing With Social Anxiety

Struggling with social anxiety is painful. For this reason, most people try to get rid of their anxiety at all costs. Here, you’ll learn why trying to get rid of social anxiety can do more harm than good — and what to do instead. [Image by Dryhead]

January, 2011

I entered the party with a sigh.

My friends dragged me here. And they quickly mingled with the crowd, leaving me alone by the wall, clinging to my beer and the one friend who hadn’t yet left my side.  

Although I knew a couple people inside, I’ve never felt comfortable with this crowd — never “one of them.” I didn’t know what to say…and didn’t think they’d like me anyway.

Eventually the guy next to me got up and wandered off. I excused myself to the bathroom, where I locked myself in, so I didn’t have to talk to anyone.

After about twenty minutes I got out, only to see my friends enjoying themselves. I resented them for not looking for me, and I resented myself for not having fun like a “normal” person.

I left the party, not even saying goodbye, because the pain was too much to bear.

Social anxiety is like walking a tightrope.

You constantly evaluate every move you make — feeling like if don’t tread carefully, you’ll end up hurting yourself.

Every social interaction becomes a struggle and triggers painful thoughts:

  • “I’m not good enough.”
  • “Something is wrong with me.”
  • “I’m not likable.”

And while your mind is running crazy, comparing yourself to others, your body starts to react. Your stomach tightens, your hands get sweaty, and your heart beats faster.

You feel the nervousness rushing through your body, and now you can’t think straight. Anything you could say either sounds stupid or boring. So you say nothing at all, and end up being “the quiet one” — again.

Social anxiety turns every conversation into a test that needs to be passed. And if you’ve been dealing with social anxiety yourself, you probably know how stressful it is.

For this reason, eliminating or avoiding the feeling of anxiety becomes the most important goal.

How to Kill Anxiety (and Why You Shouldn’t)

Social anxiety is inherently uncomfortable, which is why getting rid of it usually becomes the number one priority of people who struggle with it.

And believe it or not, there are actually many straightforward ways to get rid of the feeling of anxiety. Here a few that work especially well:

  • Staying at home so we don’t have to talk to strangers.
  • Not approaching that cute girl/guy on the street so we won’t get rejected.
  • Planning an entire conversation in our heads so we don’t have to worry about not knowing what to say.
  • At a party, keeping ourselves busy with our phones, so we’re not seen as a lone weirdo
  • Censoring ourselves and always being nice so we don’t have to fear stepping on someone’s toes.
  • Getting so drunk that we can let “loose” and don’t feel the nervousness anymore.
  • Clinging on to ‘safe people’ at a party instead of meeting and connecting with other people.

You see, there are a dozen ways to eliminate the feeling of anxiety. And in the short run, this can feel like a viable approach because it makes our lives more comfortable, less awkward, and less nerve-racking.

However, in the long run, trying to avoid anxiety leads to two nasty side effects:

Avoiding Anxiety Leads to More Anxiety

Whenever we seek safety from social anxiety by avoiding it, we reinforce the belief that the situation is actually dangerous. After all, if it weren’t dangerous, we wouldn’t need to escape from it in the first place.

Note that this doesn’t happen on a conscious level, but on a subconscious level, where your body takes notice of what is dangerous and what isn’t.

So when we distract ourselves from talking to strangers by checking your phone, our subconscious will note “talking to strangers” as something that is dangerous and needs to be avoided.

So the next time we’re about to talk to strangers, our anxiety response spikes up — even more than it did before — making us feel more scared and more nervous.

Avoiding anxiety reinforces the belief that social situations are inherently dangerous and need to be avoided.

Avoiding Anxiety Restricts Our Lives

While we’re busy trying to avoid the feeling of anxiety, we begin to restrict our life more and more.

You stop going to parties so you don’t have to talk people you don’t know (like in the story I shared earlier). You stop going on lunch breaks with everyone else to avoid making small talk. You stop answering your phone in public because it makes you uncomfortable talking in front of others. And you stop going to networking events because you don’t want to get rejected.

With every turned down invitation, you restrict your life a little bit more.

By trying to avoid the ‘danger’ of social interactions, we miss the real problem, which is the danger of a life unlived.

When you try to avoid anxiety at all costs, you miss out on all the things that make life meaningful and worth living.

Which leads us to the core idea of this article:

Social Anxiety is never the problem, but trying to avoid social anxiety is.

I stress this because it’s so important and yet so easy to miss.

When you try to cure social anxiety by avoiding it, you’ll a) become more socially anxious in the future, and b) restrict your life more and more until it becomes not worth living anymore.

Anxiety is not the problem. Avoidance of anxiety is.

This means if your number one priority is to get rid of social anxiety, it won’t be long until this attempt turns into a problem itself.

Instead, here’s what you can do about it.

The Three Steps to Dealing with Social Anxiety

At this point we established that trying to avoid or get rid of the feeling of social anxiety usually backfires. It leads to more social anxiety in the long run and you end up restricting your life and ridding it of all meaning and fun.

So here are three steps (backed up by decades of studies) that actually work:

Step 1: Accept Your Anxiety

Social anxiety is not the enemy. It’s a feeling. A primal “warning” signal from your body to keep you from danger. Problem is, it was designed to keep you safe from wild animals and falling rocks, not strangers and pretty girls.

So when you notice anxiety coming up, together with all the negative thoughts, feelings, and sensations, sit with it. Don’t push it away, or change it in any way. Instead, let it be there, and really experience what it’s like to feel the fear.

Observe it like a curious scientist, without putting any judgment on it. You don’t have to like the fear, but you can learn to accept and embrace it as it is.

Notice where in your body you can feel it the most. What happens when you take a deep breath? When you hold eye contact with a stranger, does the fear get stronger? Stand up straight and lift your head up. What happens then?

Don’t try to change what you feel. Simply notice what happens. Instead of pushing the anxiety away, observe what’s going on. This trains your mind that anxiety in social situations is not something that needs to be avoided.

Step 2: Do What You Deeply Care About

We usually feel the most vulnerable and the most anxious in the areas we value most in life.

I’ve never met a socially anxious person who didn’t care about having friends or connecting with people.

Instead of fighting anxiety, let anxiety be your guide towards what you care about most. There’s a good chance that situations where you get the most nervous, are the ones that matter most to you.

Being aware of this makes it easier to face your fears. One question we often ask our coaching clients is:

What are the things that are so important to you that you’re willing to feel anxious or nervous to experience them?

Think about it like this. When you are on your deathbed, do you want to look back on a life where you haven’t felt any anxiety, you never felt awkward, and you were always comfortable — but you also never really went all in, you missed out on parties, and never talked to the attractive stranger on your way home?

The other option is to look back on a life where you often felt nervous, anxious, and insecure — but it was a life filled with adventures, parties, random encounters with strangers, and deep connections.

So take a minute and really reflect on this:

What is so important to experience that you’re willing to feel a little anxious?

Step 3: Confront Your Fear

This is the hardest part, but it’s also the most important one.

It might mean walking up to a pretty girl. It might mean talking to people you don’t know at a party. Or it might mean smiling at the cashier, asking your boss for a raise, or speaking up at a meeting.

There’s no easy way around it, and there are definitively no shortcuts. Be willing to feel the fear and do what matters most to you.

However, know that you don’t have to start with the scariest scenario. You can create a fear hierarchy, jotting down what scares you, and then start tackling the least scary item (e.g., saying “Hi” to a stranger) and working your way up to scarier tasks (e.g., asking a girl for her number).

Learn How to Deal With Social Anxiety to Live a Rich and Full Life

Learning how to deal with social anxiety takes time. But always remember that persistence and progress go hand in hand.

The more often you face your fears, the better you’ll get at it.

And pretty often, your social anxiety will start to vanish and you will start to be more comfortable and confident around other people.

However, that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal shouldn’t be to feel less anxious, but instead to be able to do whatever you want to do in your life even if you are anxious, even if you are nervous, and even if you might feel awkward doing it.

The point is not to live a comfortable life, but instead to live a rich, full, and meaningful life.

And the fastest way to get there is to make your goals and values the organizing force in your life instead of your emotions!

Therefore, don’t wait until your social anxiety is gone before you start talking to people, approaching pretty girls, mingling at mixers, or asking for that raise.

Social anxiety is never the problem — trying to avoid the anxiety is.

David Lorscheid - author of 1 posts on The Art of Charm

David Lorscheid is a coach and writer for The Art of Charm. After studying psychology at one of the world’s top universities, he now helps people from all over the world to overcome social anxiety and become more confident, using evidence-based therapy approaches.

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