Dealing With Social Anxiety
The holidays are quickly approaching, and although 2020 may not be quite as “normal” as it’s been in the past, there are always going to be family gatherings, company or client parties, or other holiday and social events to varying degrees. Unfortunately, whether it’s getting together in person or virtually, so many women experience social anxiety no matter what time of year, or how many people are in attendance.
The interesting thing if you Google social anxiety for women, is that the first thing you’ll see is every CBD stress-relieving medication you can imagine, promising to “chill you out”. You’re probably aware of the multi-billion dollar hemp industry that’s offering products for you, your children, and even your pets, promising to help relieve your stress and anxiety.
While science has shown that women can experience anxiety more than men due to differences in brain chemistry and hormonal fluctuations, women and men also experience and react to events in their lives differently. Women tend to be more prone to stress than men and often cope by ruminating, unfortunately adding to their anxiety.
The issue though, when it comes to women and social anxiety, is that it’s affecting women at younger and younger ages. Where only 20 years ago young girls were interacting with the friends they went to school with or who lived close by in their neighborhood, now the number of people they interact with has increased exponentially, also increasing the chance for social anxiety as their social circle has widened by virtue of social media.
If it wasn’t already difficult enough being a teenage girl and dealing with all the hormonal and social challenges of that age, thanks to the internet and social media there’s even more pressure to fit in and to be accepted, often by people they don’t even know. The overabundance of social situations that only require a smartphone or a computer, can add an incredible amount of pressure and social anxiety.
Unfortunately, so many of us will spend time in social settings, both personally and professionally in our accounting careers, painfully aware of ourselves and worried about how we’re being perceived by others. As women we are even more susceptible to social anxiety because of the undue pressure put on us to look a certain way and act a certain way, in order to be approved of, accepted, and appreciated.
Before you know it, you’re dreading going to your in-laws for Thanksgiving or you start planning on having an extra cocktail or two at the next company dinner in order to be able to handle the people, the expectations, and the pressure. Sadly, in the aftermath of a social situation where you have experienced social anxiety, you probably tend to replay the event, beating yourself up for how you interacted and dreading the social anxiety you’ll feel the next time.
If this resonates with you, it’s important to understand what actually causes social anxiety so you can lessen its effects on you. You don’t have to plan on living alone in a cabin in the woods or saying no to every social request, when you learn how to deal with social anxiety in a way that empowers you, rather than robs you of your ability to handle any social situation.
This week I’m going to discuss the cause of social anxiety and a better way of dealing with it.
The cause of social anxiety
Any woman that experiences social anxiety will tell you that it’s no joke. The mental and physiological effects, like your heart racing, trouble speaking, and the strong need to escape, can be overwhelming and oftentimes embarrassing to deal with.
In order to help make it less dramatic and easier to handle, I first want you to understand that although social anxiety is the anxiety you feel before, during, or after socializing, it’s actually caused by your thoughts; specifically, your thoughts about what other people are going to think and feel about you. In other words, you are imagining and projecting thoughts that you believe other people at the event will think about you.
If you understand it in this way, it’s really not so mysterious or inexplicable. Basically, you have thoughts that you imagine others are thinking about you, and you project those thoughts onto them, just like a movie projector projecting a movie onto a screen in a theater.
What happens when you experience social anxiety is that you are often so critical of yourself, that you assume that everyone else is thinking about you with the same level of attention and scrutiny. Your female brain has many “movie reels” of negative beliefs about you that it plays in your mind and then projects onto the blank screen of other people, leading you to assume you all share the same thoughts about you.
It’s fascinating when you consider how often it happens that you assume other people are thinking what you’re thinking. But what’s even more intriguing is that we’re all doing the same thing in social situations; we’re all having our own thoughts about ourselves, positive or negative, and assuming that others are thinking the same thing about us, when they’re actually just concerned with their own social acceptance.
I used to think it was just because I am an introvert, that I just didn’t like the frequency of social situations or ones that had too many people attending. I know that that’s part of my reluctance, but I also realized that the thoughts I’m thinking, that I believe other people are thinking about me, are definitely creating a major part of any social anxiety I experience.
Another interesting and important fact to consider when understanding social anxiety is that it’s also how our female brains have been hardwired as we have evolved as humans. Our brain has evolved to be focused on what other people think of us, in order to make sure we were safe in our tribe and not excluded and left to die.
In other words, your female brain is naturally programmed to seek approval and avoid rejection, putting it on high watch in most social situations, especially with people you don’t know or don’t trust, or that you’re not familiar or intimate with. Unfortunately, as modern technology has expanded your reach, your brain has also been faced with more people and interactions that it has to be concerned about, making even simple social interactions an anxiety-inducing event.
When you add the pressure that most women experience to be accepted, to be liked, and to display certain social graces, it’s no wonder we’re not so thrilled when we’re invited to a bridal shower or have to attend a graduation party for our boss’s son. The pressure to perform and worry whether we’re going to be allowed to stay in the tribe is exhausting.
While 2020 has reduced the number of physical interactions most of us have had to deal with, it also doesn’t mean that we’ve hit a reset button on social anxiety. If you’ve faced it before, unfortunately it’s only a matter of time before the challenges of social anxiety come back when the floodgates of more social interactions are permitted.
But the good news is that social anxiety is completely manageable. Just because your female brain is hardwired the way it is, and just because you may have gotten messages over the years telling you that you are judged on your social appearance and acceptance, you can do something about social anxiety that doesn’t involve taking a “chill pill” or avoiding all invitations.
A better way to deal with social anxiety
If I had my choice, I’d love to only attend a very limited number of social gatherings with people I know very well, that I trust and like spending time with, and preferably in small intimate settings. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible or practical.
If you can relate and you deal with social anxiety on any level, it’s important to first become aware that it’s actually very normal, and to not add the pressure of self-judgement on top of it. The truth is that you have a female brain, that brain is always scanning the world for danger, and the idea that someone might be judging you or thinking negatively about you can become like a five-alarm fire to your brain.
Remember, social anxiety is caused by your thoughts, specifically your thoughts about what other people are going to think and feel about you. As I shared, what happens when you feel social anxiety is that you are imagining thoughts that you believe other people at the event will think about you, and you are projecting your thoughts onto them.
In order to help deal with social anxiety, the next thing you need to know is that the whole reason you even come up with a thought that you imagine someone else might be thinking about you, is that your brain already has that thought. It actually isn’t possible for you to worry what other people are thinking about you, unless you already had that thought about you.
Just think about it for a minute – it’s no coincidence that the thoughts you fear other people might have about you, completely match up with your own self-critical thoughts. On the flip side, also notice how you’re never worried that other people are thinking negative things about the qualities that you like about yourself; that’s because you don’t think those things are negative.
For example, if you absolutely love how your legs look in a particular dress, you’re not going to worry about what other people at a party are thinking about your legs because that’s not the “movie reel” you are projecting onto them. On the other hand, if you’ve been critical of how your legs look and you weren’t sure about wearing that dress, you’re much more likely to project those negative thoughts onto others and feel social anxiety at the party.
For my own example, I absolutely love my Irish heritage, so I never worry that someone would think that I was too Irish. Other people could be having negative thoughts about Irish people, but because I love being Irish and don’t have any negative thoughts about it myself, I never consider nor care whether other people think I’m being too Irish.
Basically you’re only going to worry about someone else thinking something about you, that you already think about you. Which is why you wouldn’t feel social anxiety or worry that other people are judging your blue hair if you didn’t have blue hair, but you might worry about what other people thought if you did and had your own issues, judgements or concerns about it.
Although avoidance might seem like the best solution when you experience social anxiety, it’s only a temporary solution because you are still the one with the female brain that has the negative thoughts you’re projecting onto others. To help you deal with social anxiety in a much more long-term, beneficial way, I suggest that you try this instead:
- Before the next social occasion, write down all the reasons that you’re nervous
- What are you afraid you will think and feel at this gathering?
- What do you think others will be thinking of you?
Once you’ve written everything down, you now need to take ownership of those thoughts. You might be attributing the reasons that you’re nervous to other people, but in order to deal with social anxiety, you need to own the fact that those are actually your thoughts about you.
It might seem disconcerting, but this is great news because, while you cannot control what anyone else thinks of you, you do have 100% control over what you think of you. When you can take a look at the thoughts your brain is projecting onto others, and take responsibility for them, you can actually do something about them.
Before you go into the next social situation, get clear on what you’re afraid of other people thinking, and acknowledge that those are your thoughts. With this awareness and acknowledgment, now you can take action on dealing with those thoughts.
The key is understanding that the more familiar you get with the thoughts about yourself, the easier it will be to shift them. As you manage your mind and choose more neutral or positive replacement thoughts to think about yourself, the better you will be at reducing social anxiety and navigating any social situation.
When you choose better thoughts to think about yourself, you’ll be amazed at how much less anxiety you feel when you’re in social situations. It takes a little time, but as you change the way you think about yourself, you also change the “movie reel” projected onto others as well.
One of my favorite authors, Byron Katie, shares, “When I walk into the room, I know that everyone loves me. I just don’t expect them to realize it yet”. What an amazing way to be in social situations! To be so at peace with herself, that the thoughts she assumes others are having about her are as peaceful, loving and kind as well.
So the next time you feel social anxiety, just remind yourself that your female brain is assuming you’re in danger when you’re not, and choose to be wrong about what you think that other people are thinking about you. I guarantee that most of the time, no one is even thinking about you because they’re brain is doing the same thing that yours is.
- While science has shown that women can experience anxiety more than men due to differences in brain chemistry and hormonal fluctuations, women and men also experience and react to events in their lives differently.
- As women we are even more susceptible to social anxiety because of the undue pressure put on us to look a certain way and act a certain way, in order to be approved of, accepted, and appreciated.
- What happens when you experience social anxiety is that you are often so critical of yourself, that you assume that everyone else is thinking about you with the same level of attention and scrutiny.
- Although avoidance might seem like the best solution when you experience social anxiety, it’s only a temporary solution because you are still the one with the female brain that has the negative thoughts you’re projecting onto others.
- The key is understanding that the more familiar you get with the thoughts about yourself, the easier it will be to shift them.