How to unlearn social anxiety

I remember going to high school with a girl named Alison.

She was born and raised in Australia but her parents were American. Alison had an Aussie/Americano sort of thing going on when she spoke. There were certain words she said that had a twang to them. Kinda cool at the time.

It makes sense doesn’t it? The language spoken at home is the language you’ll hear … and then learn. In other words, you’ll copy it.

We don’t just copy the language our primary caregivers speak. We copy lots of things including their beliefs and thinking styles.

And social anxiety.

Children tend to learn their social anxiety from the parents who bring them up on a day to day basis, whether or not these are their natural parents.

There are two main reasons why parents with social anxiety tend to pass it onto their children. The first and perhaps the most important reason is that socially anxious parents, because they fear being judged themselves and believe they need to stick firm to social “rules” to be accepted, tend to be more judgmental towards their own children.

Secondly, children may also notice how anxious their parents behave in social situations. This may reinforce to them that social situations are pretty scary and that other people are really judgey.

But the important point to make here is this. People learn social anxiety. Knowing social anxiety is something learnt, then the fantastic and obvious point to make is that it can be unlearnt. Standard learning principles apply as much to this as they do to any other skill. Brilliant.

How can I unlearn it?

1. Realise that it’s not real

The fear you’re feeling isn’t coming from the situation or event. The fear you’re feeling is coming from your thoughts. The situation is benign, your thoughts aren’t. Social anxiety isn’t real. It’s in your head, not theirs.

2. Challenge it (gently)

To learn to play tennis, you can’t only read the “how to” manual. You need to pick up the racquet and hit the ball.

To learn to overcome social anxiety, you also need to slowly start practising the skills. Starting gently for some may mean walking around the block near their home. For others, it might be asking a question in a work meeting or study class.

Regardless of your starting point, the first step needs to feel a little uncomfortable. However, you know that with a little determination and effort you’ll be able to achieve that first step.

3. Process the experience positively

This is critical.

After challenging yourself, you want to focus on what you did well. Hell, even if the best thing you did was show up and not call in sick, that’s positive. Don’t focus on your voice quivering or your sweaty palms, you showed up. You did it.

If you focus on what didn’t go so well, then next time you are confronted with the same challenge, what memory will your brain use to predict what’s going to happen next? You got it. “Jeez, last time I did this it didn’t go so well. I guess I should be feeling worried”.

Focus on what went well!

4. Repeat

Then keep repeating 1, 2, 3. Each time you’re gently challenging yourself a little further outside that comfort zone.

Keep challenging your social anxiety. It’s a skill you can learn.