Note: The advice in this post is not intended as diagnosis, treatment, or a substitute for diagnosis or treatment of any clinically-diagnosed anxiety disorders.
Many introverted-types deal with some kind of social anxiety, encountering strangers and large groups of people with the potential to interact with them. Assuming these strangers are your garden-variety normal people and not the type you should really be wary of, this anxiety may not only be unnecessary but may be harming your ability to make friends and acquaintances.
One tip I swear by for reducing or eliminating that tense sort of anxiety is to drop the mentality that you have to constantly be “on guard.” It’s easier said than done, which is why I’ve broken it down into three actionable steps. But first we have to begin to understand how we got to where we are in the first place.
Why are you guarding yourself?
Ask yourself where these come from: the knot in your stomach, the rigidity of your spine, the shallow, heightened breathing, the racing heartbeat, the need to look over your shoulder.
Ask yourself why you feel comfortable (yet alone) at home but in the company of strangers you feel anxious and ready to defend yourself.
Anxiety of the social variety is a trigger of the fight-or-flight mechanism that’s been hardwired into us since time immemorial. In the case of your average benign social situation, for some reason you have a deep-rooted aversion that is set off in situations that you find socially uncomfortable. There’s nothing wrong with this, it just means your brain is being set off by triggers that, for one reason or another, may have conditioned you to become socially defensive earlier in your life. If we analyze these reasons, they more often than not tend to be irrational.
A lot of the initial social fear I had in the past stemmed from the unlikely situation of being judged negatively in front of many strangers. While this would be the case in my school years (hiding my nerd power level came naturally), and is likely where the phobia began, I’ve learned that in polite adult company and among good friends and understanding people, you won’t be judged as harshly unless you’re grossly violating the unspoken social rules, or the person giving you the unwelcome criticism is by all estimates a plain and simple asshole and just doesn’t like you.
After a time I began to understand that a lot of my fears were unsubstantiated and overly concerned with the opinions of the wrong people. I also began to understand that a lot of my socially negative experiences began with the mentality I approached them with. When I understood this, I began to change how I interacted, both with my body and my mind. Currently I can’t work a room like James Bond but I get what I want and need out of interacting with other people and making it more pleasant and rewarding for everyone involved.
How to drop your defenses safely
Tip #1 – Develop Your Theory of Mind
A theory of mind is the belief that you hold about how others’ minds work. A theory of mind is the sum of our assumptions by how others operate both independently of ourselves and in interaction with ourselves. In essence it’s a projection onto others based on how we ourselves think and operate.
Because we tend not to consider others’ theories of mind, most everyone’s theory of mind can be wildly inaccurate. In this case, I’m talking about people who are decidedly “neurotypical.” For the egoistic and narrow-minded, other people are simply interchangeable sitcom characters that come and go into their lives. For the egoistic and highly self-conscious, they seek to tear down others in order to distract from the fact that they have some great shortcomings they must overcompensate for.
If you aren’t accustomed to it, it can be easy to forget that people outside of ourselves have their own worries, doubts, hopes and dreams just like you and me. It’s easy to never realize that not everyone is as perceptive as everyone else or however perceptive we think we are.
Are you really being judged? Or are you judging yourself too much?
First, forget the idea that all people are immediately looking to judge or criticize you or that they are even focused on you at all. Try not to immediately assume the worst. Other people don’t exist to come in and criticize you unless you’ve made yourself the target. Very few people in my personal experience are shallow-spirited enough to do this. If they are consistent, you don’t need to be in their company because that’s their character.
Second, because people tend to be more focused and concerned with themselves, they tend not to notice little things about you that you may feel highly self-conscious about. If they are, they tend to be highly self-conscious too and may tend to be more forgiving about those little transgressions only you notice about yourself. The bigger the crowd, the easier it is to blend in. There’s very little to fear, and yet if you can’t help but fear you should practice overcoming that fear.
We humans tend to work from what we know in our personal experiences, a theory of mind based on ourselves and our motivations since it’s what we know best. However, we also need to begin to understand how others might think once we understand ourselves.
- Your theory of mind should be based on others, not just your own limited experience of the world
- People tend to be more concerned about their own little world, they don’t exist to criticize and poke fun at you
- As a caveat to point #2, some people are just plain assholes. Expect that there will be a few, but don’t let them cramp your style
Tip #2 – Body and Body Language
First things first: You will need to practice becoming self-aware.
I don’t mean the paranoid kind of self-awareness (self-consciousness) where you don’t know whether it’s appropriate to put your hands on your pockets or crossed or whatever. Just become aware of how your body responds to an uncomfortable situation.
It’s been scientifically surmised that your body language can affect your feelings as much as your feelings can affect your body language (as we’ll see in the YouTube video I’ve posted below.)
As a mental exercise, take a moment to recall a socially tense situation (or if you are already brave, put yourself into one) and look for any of the following in your body language:
- folded arms
- “shrinking” yourself to take up less space
- looking around shiftily
- any hand-to-nose or mouth gestures like nail biting
- shoulders slouched forward and pulled up
- tense abdomen and shallow breathing
- stiff and locked muscles and joints
- increased heart rate
All of these are defensive reactions.
When you reflexively or unconsciously react this way, you telegraph your defensiveness to the world and the world reacts unconsciously in kind. If you’re bold and dumb enough, try faking all of the above body language in a public setting and see how others react. Pay attention to how you feel when you do these.
I like to think of the chain of reactions that lead to a fight-or-flight reaction like this: The primitive area of your brain is working with different inputs — your higher “thinking and reasoning” brain and the outside sensory world.
If your lower brain goes “oh, we’re in a situation where we’re acting defensively; time to be defensive.” People see you behaving in a defensive, shrinked-up manner and they unconsciously react to your unconscious behavior — your brain interprets this as more reason to be defensive and it becomes a self-perpetuating feedback loop.
That’s the weird thing about body language: the way your body language is can essentially shape how you feel about a situation. Creating more of the same negative feeling only leads to more of the same negative results.
To break the cycle, you must learn to consciously adopt relaxed, non-defensive body language.
Like any habit, it takes time and practice to develop before it becomes unconscious reflex. However it is a huge asset to have in almost every social situation. Non-defensive body language doesn’t show the world that you want to aggressively dominate it or that you are defensively prepared to retaliate or run away, but it also shows that you aren’t afraid of it and that you are in fact a welcoming and pleasant person to interact with. This is very important.
If you need to grok body language, start with this TED talk by Amy Cuddy. It’s 20 minutes long (and she speaks a little nervously — can you tell?) but is still worth it:
Posture is another factor in body language. Our own Mike from Danger and Play has some quick tips on fixing bad posture habits (and is a great shortcut for getting out of that defensive shell):
The expression on your face is important too.
Since your face is probably a part of your body, and conveys more information about your emotional state than anything, paying attention to your expression at rest and correcting it is important.
Based on the facial expression alone, does the picture of the following person convey friendliness, even non-threateningness? This is an example of what you should look to overcome.
Here’s my method: Think of yourself as wearing a smile on the ‘inside’ of your face while remaining relaxed.
Not a creepy fake smile or a smug smirk, but just enough to where you can correct a pensive scowl if you have one like me from thinking a lot about stuff all the damn time. This is also known in some circles as bitchy resting face. When you relax your face correctly, the muscles around your eyes begin to relax and makes you look less “tense.”
If you need a good example of this, look at pretty much every depiction of the Indian Buddha. The eyes are relaxed and the mouth is not pulled into a scowl.
You should practice this in the mirror and get a feel for how it looks and how it feels. When your face looks less tense and pensive, you should encounter more positive and less negative interactions with people. I, like anyone else, tend to avoid people who are pensive since I don’t want to disturb them.
One more note: avoid keeping your chin up too high. It may take some practice finding that thin line between looking too submissive and looking flat-out arrogant, but you’ll figure it out.
- We humans run on animal hardware and therefore read and react to each other unconsciously through our bodies and our tone rather than our higher abstract language
- Strive to consciously adopt non-defensive and/or relaxed body language and facial expression to facilitate more favorable social interactions
Tip #3 – Change Your Expectations
When you’ve changed how you think about people and begin to understand how we react to each other unconsciously, we can change our expectations when we enter the average social interaction.
In fact, you should be expecting to be received warmly by people, especially when you intend to treat them in kind. When you expect it and act accordingly, you receive it. Begin looking for signs of positive interaction. The more you get, the better.
Thinking you are better than everyone else, or being afraid that everyone else is judging you harshly is not going to do you any favors. Try to remove these preconceptions from your mind before meeting with people.
Story Time — How My Expectations Shaped Reality
Once upon a time, my housemates threw a party that I wasn’t informed of and it was full of strangers. I don’t have anything against parties, but I assumed they were all hostile and rambunctious because I was nothing like them and they were ostensibly extroverts and people very different from me.
In assuming this, I probably reacted to them defensively and even offensively. I must have worn all of this expectation in my face and body language because they ended up reacting to me and fulfilled my expectations. They barely moved out of the way for me to walk through my own home, and treated me like some kind of chump. It was infuriating to say the least.
I removed myself from the party for a moment, reminded myself to adopt a non-defensive demeanor, I adopted more “open,” less defensive and less submissive body language. I also relaxed my face and the tension I was unknowingly carrying in my abdomen, and changed my attitude: “maybe they are acting like this because I’m being unconsciously defensive.”
I returned to the gathering, and like some kind of magical spell, the rest of the night ended up going well. People became polite and tolerable, and a few were actually nice and fun to talk with. A pretty girl even drunkenly and awkwardly asked to dance with me while nobody else was even dancing. Maybe it was all just a coincidence, or maybe it only required changing the “glasses” I was wearing, but whatever I did got me out of my head enough to turn a bad night into a decent one.
I however don’t think this is coincidence since I’ve reproduced these sort of positive results by reminding myself not to be defensive and to adopt a calmer demeanor.
Now there will always be those occasions with a few assholes, and you should expect the possibility of this too. But don’t let a couple of dicks completely ruin your time. When you expect a good interaction, you will generally get one in kind even if you acknowledge the possibility of a potentially negative one.
Whatever you do, don’t let any negative expectations ruin your social interactions. Your thoughts and actions may be the deciding factor as to what social outcome you experience.
- Practice deciding how you will react to a situation before you enter it.
- If you anticipate your interaction and reaction to be bad, it will probably be bad.
- If you anticipate your interaction and reaction to be good, it will probably be good.
- Your expectations will probably shape how you react, and consequently the reactions you get in turn.
With these tips, you probably won’t become a social mastermind or the life of the party overnight, but they will help you to get into a mindset that fosters and facilitates more prosocial interaction between yourself and others.
As an introvert who once allowed my fearful and confused feelings toward interacting with a bunch of strange people to hold me back, I stand behind these methods and mental tools and hope you can find some use out of practicing these for yourself if you don’t already.