One of the biggest misconceptions about social anxiety is that sufferers hate people, and don’t even want to have friends.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Being unable to rock up at a party, enjoy a gig or even go out for a meal with mates can be very difficult – FOMO, but triple the scale.
The NHS website describes social anxiety, also known as social phobia, as ‘a long-term and overwhelming fear of social situations.’ It can bring panic around social interactions and leaving the house – your home may be your safe space, but it can also be a prison.
Indicators of social anxiety include cancelling events or declining invitations, a ringing phone or even a text can bring you out in a panic, and you may overthink everything you say and do around others.
If you do make it to a social situation, it’s hard to find any enjoyment as you fear you’re centre of attention, making a fool of yourself, or are being judged.
With all of this going on, it may feel like it’s impossible to have friends or meaningful relationships. But that’s not true.
So how can you go about forming friendships; what should you be mindful of and, just as importantly, how can others help you?
Understand that you have social anxiety
This may seem obvious, but acknowledging that what you have is a legitimate condition, and you are valid in feeling anxiety, is an important first step.
You aren’t weird and you aren’t rude. Accepting that this is the part of you, shame free, is pretty much necessary when it comes to understanding what you need to do to make forming friendships more manageable.
Don’t put pressure on yourself – or allow others to
Setting yourself unrealistic targets won’t be helpful. There is a perceived stigma around not having many friends; try not to project this onto yourself.
Wading in to make friends just because you feel ‘weird’ for having a smaller social circle is only putting a pressure on you that will make things tougher.
At the same time, others in your life might accidentally put pressure on you by questioning why you aren’t making it to a social event. You don’t have to do anything that people pleases. This is about you and every person is different when it comes to pacing.
Small steps are important
When you have social anxiety, going to the shops can be overwhelming, particularly if it’s busy.
So, making it there and back without a panic attack can count as a win. The same applies for any human interaction, even if it’s a smile to someone you pass in an aisle.
When it comes to forming friendships, any element of progress is something that you should congratulate yourself for.
And it’s perfectly okay if this is the only step you take for the next few days.
Practise talking with people you may never see again
Practice makes perfect, they say. You’re never going to reach perfect, but avoiding the siren-like lure of the self-checkout might be something you ditch once or twice. Speaking to a cashier, even if it’s just an, ‘I’m fine thanks’, is a valid interaction.
When the chat is small talk and insignificant, particularly if it’s with someone you are likely to never see again, it can start getting you used to having friendly exchanges.
On good days, this is most likely something you manage without thinking too much, but it can absolutely be applied to closer and more intimate relationships.
You’re never going to be the kind of person who will just arrive at the pub and strike up a conversation – a lot of your friendships are probably conducted online, at least at first.
It’s easier to message any existing friends and family on messenger or WhatsApp, than it is picking up a phone, something which might well fill you with abject terror.
It then stands to reason that initial chat with someone you know less well can be mostly online. It’s the best way to get to know someone when you have the confidence and safety that a screen in your safe space can give you.
How do you meet these people? Well, exploring your own interests is a great place to start.
Joining Facebook groups or forums could be an in-way. Whatever your hobby might be, you will likely find this is the easiest way to build an initial bond if it’s a brand new friendship you want.
There are even friendship groups and activities directly aimed at those with social anxiety. It may not be for you, but if it’s something you’d consider, remember that this could be the best level of understanding you could get among peers.
Explain social anxiety
Many friendships are organic, you instinctively ‘match’ with someone and then you become a bit overwhelmed by what this opens up to you in terms of responsibilities.
Your anxiety will likely kick in. If you find yourself cancelling a lot or shying away from any contact, the best approach is to be an open book and tell them about your anxiety.
You want to have them as a friend, and you don’t want them to stop inviting you to things – but if you have the safety to say ‘no’, or back out of something without there being a drama or judgement, this is the best thing they can do to put you at ease.
When someone gets it and gives you that kind of allowance, chances are they are someone you are more likely to feel safe hanging about with anyway.
Start with comfortable and safe spaces
Ensure that the environment you are in, is safe to you.
This might be going for a walk somewhere quiet, having a coffee in a café that is likely to be less busy or has a cosy, non-intrusive corner, or having your friend over to yours.
When you do find yourself in situations where you feel able to chance a night out or enter a group situation, ensure you clock an escape route should you need it.
Having explained social anxiety to your friend, they will understand if you have to beat a hasty retreat or slip out for ten minutes of fresh air.
Allow your personality to shine through
When you’re friends with someone, remember that they are friends with you too. And that’s because they like you.
It’s a psychological impulse to worry that you are being judged or that you feel you’re not welcome, so this isn’t easy – but try getting into the mindset that this person wants to be with you.
Be yourself; as much as many assume that you are social anxiety, the truth is that you are a personality like everyone is. Embrace it.
The very epitome of social anxiety is feeling overwhelmed with anything that involves interaction and some days are worse than others.
This social hangover hits hard, so taking time to yourself for self-care doesn’t make you a bad friend.
Every single person, no matter who they are or what they struggle with, needs to look after their mental state of mind.
Recognise your achievements and don’t punish yourself for the inevitable days when you have to step back and simply look after yourself.
This is the most important thing.
With a friend, you can confide, laugh and have fun just like anyone, it’s just a little trickier to get there.
Just because you might need to cancel sometimes, or the thought of meeting up brings you out in a cold sweat, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t just as many good times to enjoy.
Finding just one or two good, trustworthy and understanding friends is far more important than a wider circle of people who you don’t ever feel comfortable with.
When you’ve found them, it’s the same with any relationship – the good times are worth the world, and the effort you put in.
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