A psychologist explains how to overcome social anxiety

No one likes to be told to “be yourself,” but it’s actually good advice. If you’re someone who often avoids speaking in public or is generally terrified of socially awkward situations, it’s especially good advice.

Fifteen million Americans suffer from a diagnosable form of social anxiety, and millions more suffer from less severe but related phobias. Anxiety can be debilitating for people when it starts to undermine their daily lives.

Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist, a researcher at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, and a regular contributor to Scientific American magazine. She’s also the author of How to be Yourself, a new book about the rise of social anxiety in America. As someone who has struggled with social anxiety herself, Hendriksen’s message is simple and powerful: The way past social anxiety is directly through it. Leaning into uncomfortable situations by focusing on anything except yourself, she argues, is the best way to get over the discomfort.

I spoke to Hendriksen about why so many people suffer from social anxiety and what you can do to overcome it in your own life. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

There are a few books about social anxiety out there — why did you feel this one needed to exist?

Ellen Hendriksen

I wrote this book because I wished it had existed when I was in my late teens and early 20s. I had a hard time raising my hand in class and would avoid eye contact at parties. My wardrobe was designed to make me blend in, and I never wore shoes that click-clacked on the floor.

I wrote the book because I wish I had known then that how I felt wasn’t how I appeared to others — that I didn’t wear my anxiety on my sleeve. I wish I had known that I could tone down on the perfectionism and that no one expected me to be 100 percent scintillating all the time. I wish I had known that all the “impression management” I was doing was actually keeping me out of the moment and, ironically, disconnected. All that, plus I wanted to share stories of real people who have risen above their own social anxiety. It sounds cliché, but the goal truly was to help the millions of people whose lives are limited by social anxiety.

Sean Illing

What, exactly, is social anxiety?

Ellen Hendriksen

Social anxiety is a perception that there is something wrong or deficient about us, and unless we work hard to hide that perceived deficiency, we’ll be revealed or judged or rejected. These perceived deficiencies tend to fall into four categories. The first is physical appearance. So we might be worried that people will notice that we’re having a bad hair day, that we’re fat, that our skin is blemished, something like that. And that we’ll be rejected if it becomes obvious.

The second category is the signs of anxiety itself. We’re worried that it’ll become obvious to everyone that we’re blushing or our hands are trembling or that our voice is shaking or that we’re sweating through our shirt. And again, the big fear is that we’re being judged or mocked.

The third and fourth categories are probably the most common. We worry about our social skills, that people will realize that we’re boring or unfunny or not as smart as they thought. This is when people tend to ramble from topic to topic in a nervous or rambling way. And maybe the most significant form of social anxiety is when we fear that our entire personality or character is somehow deficient and that no one really wants us around.

Sean Illing

When does social anxiety really become a problem in someone’s life?

Ellen Hendriksen

When we start to avoid our own lives as a result of it. Avoidance can happen overtly — we don’t show up, we call in sick, we text the host of a party we thought about attending and say that we mysteriously don’t feel well. Or we might avoid covertly, in which case we show up to the meeting at the moment it starts so we don’t have to do small talk before, or we show up to the party and scroll on our phone the whole time or only talk to the one or two people we know. This is when social anxiety begins to undermine our day-to-day lives.

“Be the person that you are around your closest friends and family, the person you’re most comfortable being. That’s the person you need to take out into the world.”
Sean Illing

Are humans hardwired to be insecure or anxious?

Ellen Hendriksen

Yeah, insecurity is part of the human condition. I actually think it’s necessary. Serious social anxiety is a diagnosable condition and makes us miserable. But a little bit of insecurity, a little bit of self-doubt, is helpful because it allows us to monitor ourselves. It causes introspection and self-examination and motivates us to grow and change.

But we’re social animals and wired to live as part of the group. And even though we don’t really need the group for shelter or food-gathering anymore, we still need the group for love and connection and community. So if you have no self-doubt whatsoever, that’s a sign that’s something has probably gone wrong. The 1 percent of the population that does not experience any social anxiety at all are psychopaths.

Sean Illing

I’ve always assumed that being socially anxious and shy amounted to the same thing, but you argue that that’s not true — why?

Ellen Hendriksen

I like to say that introversion is your way, but social anxiety is what gets in your way. In other words, introversion is a personality trait; it’s about having a lower tolerance for stimulation and a lower threshold for over-stimulation, whereas social anxiety is more about this internal fear of judgment and this fear that your deficiencies — real or imagined — will become obvious to everyone around you.

Sean Illing

How common is social anxiety?

Ellen Hendriksen

If we’re talking about the percent of the population that suffers from clinical social anxiety — the type of anxiety that causes them to forgo a promotion at work or forgo 20 percent of their class participation grade because they’re too terrified to raise their hand — that’s something like 13 percent of the US population. But 40 percent of the population suffers from lower levels of social anxiety, the sort that makes them uncomfortable but doesn’t ruin their lives.

Sean Illing

The internet and social media have added this performative aspect to our lives that didn’t exist before. We’re always on display. Is that why social anxiety is on the rise?

Ellen Hendriksen

There are a number of factors, but technology is a big part of it. On social media, people post the highlight reel of their lives, and that doesn’t capture the truth of their day-to-day experiences. I think this causes a lot of people to feel deficient, and that feeds social anxiety.

There’s also the fact that we’re more open now, that stigmas around mental health are falling away, and so more people are coming out and being honest about their struggles.

Sean Illing

I’ve had periods of my life where social anxiety wasn’t debilitating but was bad enough to undermine my day-to-day experiences. But the more I tried to overcome it, the more self-conscious I became. How can people avoid this self-fulfilling cycle?

Ellen Hendriksen

I’ve been there. When we’re in a socially anxious moment, our attention naturally turns inward because we want to monitor how things are going. We want to do impression management and present ourselves in a certain way. The problem with this is that it takes up all our bandwidth, and we’re unable to listen or pay attention to what’s in front of us. And the more we turn inward, the more our anxiety tells us that everything is going horribly.

You get out of this by deliberately turning your attention inside out. You focus on the person you’re talking to, or the group that’s in the room, and you listen closely. The trick is to focus on anything except yourself, and that magically frees up a lot of bandwidth. When we’re able to do this, we come across as much more authentic and open and the anxiety disappears.

Sean Illing

What are other common mistakes people make in dealing with their own anxiety?

Ellen Hendriksen

Anticipation is almost always worse than the actual event. We get anxious, imagine all sorts of worst-case scenarios, but the reality is usually far less scary. Another tendency is to retreat from the world, to press pause on everything so that we can work on ourselves and gain confidence.

But rather than living our lives and doing things that make us grow, we become more anxious and more self-conscious. The best thing to do is always to take on the challenges and do the things we’re scared to do — that’s how you realize it’s not so bad and that’s how you build confidence.

“The 1 percent of the population that does not experience any social anxiety at all are psychopaths”
Sean Illing

In the end, is overcoming social anxiety more about being your authentic self or is it about not giving a shit what other people think?

Ellen Hendriksen

That’s a good question. I define your “authentic self” as the person you are without fear. So that doesn’t mean we all have to be outgoing or extroverted, but we should all be able to do the things we want to do, or the things we would do if we weren’t scared of judgment. Be the person that you are around your closest friends and family, the person you’re most comfortable being. That’s the person you need to take out into the world.

Sean Illing

It’s astonishing how many neuroses melt away the second you realize that no one thinks about you as much as you.

Ellen Hendriksen

That’s so true! We have this perception that others are looking at what we look at, or paying attention to what we’re paying attention to. We’re the experts on ourselves because we’re walking around in this body, and so we think that others are watching us too.

But the truth is that everybody else is walking around in their own spotlight, their own bubble. It’s not that nobody notices when we do something embarrassing or dumb, but they don’t notice nearly as much as we think. And remembering that goes a long way in reducing our anxiety.

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