As readers of my articles at Verywell will know, I often encourage doing things that push the boundaries of your social anxiety. While this will be uncomfortable in the moment, the long-term effect will help you to feel reduced anxiety in those situations that you confront. What this means is that I am not a fan of “taking the easy way out.” If I were to meet with you today and give you one piece of advice to overcome your social anxiety, it would be to avoid doing that.
While that might sound harsh—as though somehow having a mental illness is taking the easy out (it’s certainly not)—it’s meant to be a bit compelling in a challenging kind of a way.
If I were to ask you right now what some of your goals are in life, would they include avoiding that which makes you afraid and aligning your aspirations with the path of least resistance? Probably not. Or maybe yes, but deep down you might know that leaves you feeling a bit uneasy.
Take a moment right now, and write down five things you would do if you felt less anxious in social or performance situations.
That list is obviously going to vary depending on where you are in your life, where you fall on the introversion/extroversion continuum, etc.
But let’s say for argument’s sake that your list looks something like this.
- I would apply for a job that pays better/has more responsibilities.
- I would have more friends/spend more time with people.
- I would speak up more in conversations.
- I would go to more events/parties/gatherings.
- I would go on dates.
Remember, these don’t necessarily have to match yours either in content or level of difficulty.
While it may feel less scary, anxiety-provoking, and fear-inducing to “take the easy way out” and ignore these goals, doing so keeps you at a certain level.
It keeps you among the people that are not serious about overcoming social anxiety. People who are serious about not letting social anxiety rule their lives can do these things. And then some.
Allow me to explain why I don’t agree with living within self-imposed limits such as staying at a low-paying job because it feels easier or staying silent because then you “know you won’t make a mistake.”
What do you learn, or what are you telling yourself, if you take the easy way out?
1. It teaches you to be afraid. If you set limits on what you can or should do based on your anxiety, you are subconsciously telling yourself that your fear is warranted. What’s the worst that would happen if you spoke up in a meeting at work? Could you approach situations from the perspective of trying to make a fool of yourself? What if you allowed yourself to look anxious, made your hands shake on purpose, or tripped over your words just to see how other people would react? Try it sometime, you might be surprised how little of a reaction you get.
2. It does not allow you to learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are the great teachers in life. Without mistakes along the way, you won’t learn. Why do we learn best from our mistakes? Once you’ve learned what not to do, the chance of repeating the same mistake twice is lessened. What social mistake have you made lately? Think back on that mistake and what you learned from it. Appreciate it as a teacher rather than a negative aspect of yourself.
3. You develop a reputation that is hard to shake. You won’t hear this said often about social anxiety, but it does tend to be true. Once you start avoiding people, you will develop a reputation as being standoffish or unapproachable, even though it’s ridiculously untrue. This creates a vicious cycle that you can’t escape. People will stop inviting you to events, stop trying to bring you into the conversation, and even stop thinking of you for promotions at work. It’s movement in a direction that is hard to reverse once it’s started. So start small, and begin to build yourself back into someone you want to be—not someone you’ve become because of who you were afraid to be.
4. You will find your options greatly narrowed. Similar to developing a poor reputation, your options will become narrowed the more you try to take the easy way out. While at first you may not notice what you’ve done, eventually you may wake up one day and wonder who you will talk to that day. Don’t let that happen to you. Don’t bank on friends and family being there when you finally make it out of your shell. While the good ones will stay, your relationship with them will be taxed.
While all of this might sound a little harsh, it’s meant to be that way. I don’t want you to keep going down that path.
Think of it this way—you don’t have to change overnight. You don’t have to change in a day. But you want your trajectory to be “up.” You want the slope of the line to be positive, as Susannah Cahalan writes in her book Brain on Fire.
But, if you are not taking the easy way out, what are you to do?
Learning to break free from social anxiety is a topic for another day. I’ll be writing about ways to break free from the easy path soon.
For now, just make a commitment that you will try.