July 3, 2012

Coping with Social Anxiety

When we work with social anxiety, one of the most widespread forms, we learn that meeting new people is a highly distressing task.

Introducing oneself, starting up a conversation, keeping small talk going, indeed, merely showing up, any or all of these scenarios evoke considerable anxiety for socially anxious people.

Cognitive therapy explores negative thought patterns that increase anxiety and lead one to shy away from talking to someone new or starting a conversation with an acquaintance.

A very typical dysfunctional thought pattern or cognitive distortion that plagues people with social anxiety is mind reading:  assuming we know what the other person is thinking and, more important, assuming those thoughts are negative; that they are negatively judging us.

At least two broad options are encouraged as a counter to mind reading.  The first is to decide to stop mind reading --  to instead tell ourselves that mind reading is futile, probably inaccurate, that we are unlikely to ever get the real truth.  In other words, our assumptions about the other person's thoughts will never be truly verified.  Because of this, it is an act of folly to mind read and base our own behavior on those assumptions.

How do we stop?  Distract ourselves with another subject altogether.  The weather.  The food selection.  Reciting the alphabet backwards.  The baseball game you're looking forward to watching.  Whatever comes to mind that lets you think of something besides mind reading.

The second option we have is to replace negative mind reading with something more positive and probably more accurate. Assume that the other person is interested in getting to know us, is also feeling anxious about starting a new conversation, and would welcome our small talk.  We are, as a rule, social beings who want to get to know people.  Somebody needs to break the ice and it might as well be me.

So that backyard barbeque you've been dreading?  Go.  But first?  Take a few deep breaths followed by long exhales.  Loosen up those smile muscles.  Brush up on some small talk pointers.  Decide to introduce yourself to at least one new person.  Choose someone who is standing alone or otherwise not engaged in conversation. Hi, I'm Susan usually works great.  Followed by, I know Dave and Karen (the hosts) through work.  How about you?  

If they don't help the conversation along, decide to give it a try.  It doesn't hurt to practice in your head before you go or before you approach a particular person.  (Cognitive behaviorists call this covert rehearsal.)

Ask how long they've known the host.  Comment on the weather.  Or the food.  The rule of thumb with small talk is this:  Start with the general and move on to more personal topics but only if the person seems interested.

Second rule?  Ask them a general question about something you have in common.  What do you have in common with this stranger at a barbeque, you ask?  Well for one, you are both at the same barbeque.  You were both invited by the same host.  You are both standing in the heat, or under the shade tree, or inside the air conditioning, or in line at the bathroom.  You are both listening to the same music, can see the same television, are surrounded by the same paintings on the wall.  Move from the general (even boring) to the more personal once you see the person is willing to converse.

Examples of starters:

How long have you known _______ (the host)?
It looks like you're drinking the iced tea.  Is it sweetened?  
Do your kids go to school together?
Have you lived in this neighborhood long?
What kind of dressing was on that salad?  Did you taste it?

If you are not getting much of a response after one or two starters, allow silence.  Maybe that will prompt them to say something.  If not?  Wait a little longer and then excuse yourself with a smile, I'm going to get something to eat now.  Nice to meet you.  And away you go.

Even if the attempt didn't go very far you can pat yourself on the back for trying.  For getting in some practice.  For concluding it wasn't all that bad.  And maybe deciding to give it another try.  The next person is bound to be more social.

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