I wasn’t always socially anxious, but I was always the quiet one as a child. My teachers were always describing me as a joy to have in class and incredibly sweet – mainly because I was not causing havoc like many of my classmates. Although my elementary-aged shyness was limiting, a good group of neighbourhood peers I hung out with outside of school balanced it out quite well.
Things progressively got worse as I entered high school. I’m not sure exactly what the main catalyst was, but what I had once considered just being shy developed into a sheer avoidance of all social interaction. I always feared being laughed at for saying something dumb around anyone outside my family. I felt anxious over reading in class, in the break room, class projects, and the dreaded gym class teams.
A friend group was pretty non-existent. Sure, I had a group that I sat with at lunch, but I barely said a peep and when I did, my response usually got laughed at. It left me feeling like the gullible buffoon instead of an actual friend.
So, most of the time, I just stayed quiet and to myself, which left me feeling completely alone and misunderstood. I never had a best friend or a close group of people I related to. It felt like me against the world and like I was far behind that of my peers.
I was extremely great at hiding these feelings of loneliness and nervousness. Social anxiety was also not something I knew a lot about at the time. This, coupled with the incredible stigma I felt towards therapy, led me to suffer alone and in silence instead of seeking support.
However, by the title of this article, I’m sure you can tell a lot has changed since my high school days. I have gone from simply going with the flow to developing my own path through creating my own business of MindThrive Digital. Through several changes, confidence in myself soon built to a point where social interactions became less of a fear and more of an opportunity.
So how did I get to this point? Running a business requires a lot of networking, selling to strangers, and putting yourself out there. Constant Zoom and discovery calls, social media content, and creating videos. How did I go from self-inflicted social isolation to talking to new people every day and actually seeking it out?
I’ll tell you one thing: it wasn’t easy nor a linear process. It had a lot of ups and downs with many lessons learned along the way. But I’m here to share a couple of tips that helped me overcome my social anxiety and begin forming connections without fear.
Challenge your negative beliefs
Social anxiety, at least for me, was routed in the belief that others would laugh at had I had to say. Although this did happen some of the time, I could not truthfully say it was always.
However, our minds can make us believe it’ll always happen despite how highly unlikely that is. One situation can easily lead to a bunch of ‘what ifs’ and embarrassing scenarios on repeat in our minds.
I found it helpful to start challenging these fears and negative beliefs. Every time fear arises of what’ll happen when you speak up in social gatherings, ask yourself where the proof is that the fear will 100% happen. This will help you see the difference between mental distortion and reality.
Refrain from valuing the opinion of those who don’t value you
Throughout high school, I was always trying to get others to like me. And most of the time, these were people who had no interest in being my friend or supporting me. But I soon realised how much anxiety that really caused me. Why did I treat the input of these people as my self-worth? It wasn’t doing anything but creating more worry in social situations.
Realising that I held so much of myself in how others saw me led to a much-needed change in perspective. Once I stopped letting these opinions rule my days and plague my mind, I was able to allow myself to connect to those that actually valued me. Always focus on yourself and what relationships will give you the most value. Hold yourself to a higher worth than fake or inauthentic connections, and you will allow yourself to get more out of them.
Take incremental steps
Throughout my senior year, I started to make smaller steps toward overcoming my fears. I made attempts to join in more conversations during school and even found a few peers to do things with on the weekends. I still had a long way to go, but things did start to look up.
My first big step was the decision to move away from college to a large university. Don’t get me wrong, this was an incredibly challenging decision, but well worth it. Feeling able to create a new identity for me away from the one that tormented me helped me feel less anxious and debilitated in social settings.
Now, your situation may be very different. A step like this may be too big for a first step and that’s OK. Everyone’s journey is different. Start out with something that seems relatively easy for you to achieve and continue adding to that. Maybe it’ll be something as small as giving a compliment a day or committing to going to the local coffee shop once a week. It’s just important to start becoming aware of small steps that make sense for you and working towards achieving them.
Create keystone habits
If I was to attribute the overcoming of my social anxiety to one thing, it would be the one habit I developed – working out. I started taking care of my body and health, but what I didn’t realise was the massive impact it would have on my mental well-being. What started as a journey to be more fit turned into a complete transformation of my mind, body, and soul.
Taking care of my body not only lead to becoming physically stronger but also helped me gain mental clarity and confidence – two things I so desperately desired. From this confidence, it became easier to talk to new people and seek out new interactions. I started to believe in myself more which was incredibly life-changing.
This was because working out can be considered a keystone habit, meaning it leads to changes in other aspects of your life. For me, having a habit of going to the gym leads to a healthier diet, a better morning routine, and an increasingly optimistic state of mind. Develop positive habits that can carry over into other aspects of your life.
Give yourself permission to make mistakes
None of us are perfect; we all make mistakes. We all say things we didn’t mean or do something we constitute as embarrassing. It happens. But let me ask you this: will those situations matter in a day? a month? a year?
99.9% of the time, the answer to that is no. But when it happens, it can easily feel like the end of the world and make it challenging to put ourselves out there next time. When you make a mistake in social situations, be kind to yourself. Just because something embarrassing happens doesn’t mean your life will negatively change because of it. It’s just a point in time and the feelings will pass. Be kind and laugh at yourself now and then.
Seek out experiences that frighten you
This is admittedly the hardest step to take but is often the most rewarding. Overcoming social anxiety requires increased exposure to situations that make you anxious. Avoidance simply allows the fear to be maintained and escalate.
It wasn’t until 2020 that I started my current adventure of being an entrepreneur. And while creating my business, one of the most challenging things has been getting on the phone with strangers and selling what I have to offer. It’s still something I struggle with despite all the progress I’ve made since my early teens. But you know what? It is great easier each and every time I do it!
I no longer feel the need to prepare for more than hours before a call or hype myself up. It comes more naturally, and conversations flow more smoothly. But it takes the initial decision to be exposed to those situations to allow the change to happen.
If you had told me while I was in high school that I would eventually be where I am now, I would have never believed you. But that’s the funny thing about life. You have no idea where it’s going to take you or what your journey has in store. But to overcome social anxiety, small, actions can lead to the positive change you desire. It starts with commitment and continues with consistency.
Kristen Nazzaro is the owner of MindThrive Digital.