What exactly is social anxiety? Is being shy the same as social anxiety? Oh, it is definitely more than that. Social anxiety is defined as “the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-consciousness, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression”. The past ten years or so have seen much more exposure on mental health. The following is a personal anecdote of my journey with social anxiety as a 20-something Malaysian man.
Disclaimer: Always consult a trained therapist/psychologist if you need help and/or support.
What Would They Think?
Ten years ago, even five years ago, if you were to ask me to introduce myself to a group of ten people, I would start sweating, my insides would feel like they’re writhing and my hands would go cold.
I would then get the agonising part of introducing myself over with and would feel like crap after. The agony doesn’t stop there. Days after the ordeal was over I would still find myself cringing over how awkward my ten-second introduction was.
In school, I wondered how it was so easy for my peers to talk to people from other schools at tuition, how the other teenagers could easily decide to meet up with other kids they met online and go to gigs or just hang out.
When I started university and got into volunteering, I would look in awe at my friends who could easily have a chat with the other volunteers they’ve never met before. The Internet told me that university was where I was supposed to go all out with the networking.
What Should I Do?
What was I doing? I knew I wanted to overcome this hurdle in order to get to know more people. I knew I had to overcome this social anxiety if I wanted to make the most out of life. After all, people are our biggest assets and there’re lots to learn from each other.
I WANTED to be acquainted with people from all walks of life and deep down I also wanted to be a respected person. Fast-forward to today, I am proud to say that I have overcome social anxiety. The following are steps I took to overcome it:
1. Understand Social Anxiety
To solve any problem, the first thing you do is get to the root of it. When you’re trying to get rid of weed growing in your garden, you don’t just pull out the shoots, you pull out the whole thing. So ask yourself, what is causing this problem? What is the source of all this anxiety? I deduced that the root of all the social anxiety I had was a fear of what people might think of me. This brought me back to my childhood.
Growing up, parental figures around me constantly tried to control me whenever I misbehaved as a child. The typical question was always “What would people think?”. Shame plays a huge role in our Asian culture, and in my case, Malaysian Malay culture.
“Losing face” or “jatuh air muka” was a huge part in conditioning me to be acutely aware of eyes around me whenever I am in public. But I knew this couldn’t be it, other kids from similar cultural backgrounds seemed to be doing fine.
What was it about me that makes me take this concept of “losing face” to another level? That’s where my psychology minor came to the rescue. We learn in psychology that every brain is different. Just like how different people have different thresholds to spiciness, the same goes to how we react differently in social settings.
This knowledge from psychology enabled me to forgive myself. At the same time, I knew it wasn’t my fault that I was like this. Ingrained or not, I knew I could change (just like how people can get used to spicy food). This brings me to my next step.
2. Know That Social Anxiety Is Not Permanent
Going back to psychology, we learnt another theory called brain plasticity. It is the theory that our brain has the ability to reshape itself according to our usage of it. I knew that it was possible to learn social skills just like any other skills. I changed my perspective of social skills being something inherent to something that can be learnt and honed.
3. Read, Read, Read About Social Anxiety
I spent hours consuming content pertaining to social skills. But the book that really saved my (social) life was Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. The book was my Bible for the longest time and I am eternally grateful to have read it. There is a lot of literature on this topic. This made me feel less alone knowing that many out there share the same struggles.
Even to this day, I still watch self-help YouTube videos from time to time. One particular favourite of mine is The School of Life. This channel covers a lot of topics in regards to the human condition including human relationships. How To Stop Worrying Whether Or Not They Like You is one of my favourite videos on this channel. There are even historical and philosophical perspectives thrown in. Give it a watch!
4. Be More Social
Now that I have decided to go on this self-learning journey, and having had consumed quite an amount of content on social skills, it was time to put what I have learnt to the test. I started talking to the classmate I never talked to before.
I walked the route where there were more people where I was forced to say ‘hi’ to my acquaintances and classmates (in the past I would always pick a different route where I wouldn’t bump into people), ask questions in class, say ‘hi’ to strangers when I went clubbing on the weekends and just simply participate more in social settings.
5. Start Small
It WAS hard at first. I started small by doing the aforementioned things for months before venturing into bigger things.
Since starting this journey, I have gone from merely being comfortable with medium size groups of 5-10 people to much bigger crowds. In my former company, I used to even sing for the department annual dinner (20-year-old me would have never imagined!) and at present, I am generally at ease around strangers and in crowded places.
6. Don’t Be Afraid Of Failures
There is bound to be failures along the way when it comes to learning new skills. In the initial phase, I found myself still getting anxious midway through a conversation with a group of people. This often made me act in a certain way that was awkward for them. Sometimes I do relapse and get back into the toxic cycle of overanalysing something I said or the way I acted.
I constantly reminded myself to be forgiving and cut myself some slack in such cases. I reminded myself that I am still learning and that people usually don’t give two hoots about me. How they think of me is none of my business. This mental habit is definitely learnable.
Going back to me singing for my department annual dinner (which I did not just once), that was a huge leap of faith that I took. So much was at stake in terms of me “losing face”. But I breezed through the songs (despite feeling like puking on stage) and ended my performance with the crowd going wild. It was one of the best feelings! At that moment, I felt so much pride in myself for taking this ‘risk’.
Social Anxiety’s Got Nothing On You!
So there you have it. Those are the things I did to get over my social anxiety. I would like to remind my readers though that this is my personal journey and it might not work for you. Everyone is different.
To summarise what I have written: know what you have to fix, get all the information you need to work on this, start small, don’t be afraid of failures and if you ever do fail, always forgive yourself, because, at the end of the day, we are all still learning (also check out The School of Life on YouTube!).
If you feel like you can’t do this on your own, you should always consult the help of a professional therapist who can help you with this. I have personally been to The Mind Faculty. They offer a variety of services ranging from psychological assessments to addiction treatment.
If you want to familiarise yourself more on this topic, you can start by reading this very personal article about anxiety. Always remember that you are not alone in this.
This article is part of Espoletta’s CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives.