I’ve said before that I don’t care about approach anxiety. But when does anxiety become a real problem?
When social anxiety becomes a problem, it’s because it turns into more than just a feeling of anxiety in social situations (like approach anxiety). If that’s all it was, then you could just tough out the uncomfortable feeling and force yourself be social, like what most people do when they have to speak in public.
The reason that social anxiety is a bigger problem is because it changes your actions and behaviors: you stop chasing your goals in order to avoid feeling anxious.
What is is specifically about social anxiety that causes problems? The primary factor is that it makes you avoid the possibility of being judged, and you feel anxious and avoidant in situations where you might be judged or rejected. So in social situations, instead of being assertive and showing your personality, you play it safe and don’t do anything that might risk someone disliking you.
People who don’t have social anxiety don’t see social situations as a chance to be rejected; they see these situations as a chance to express their personalities. They aren’t thinking about managing the impressions they’re making on others; they’re thinking about how to have fun and show their personalities.
Anxiety becomes a problem when it leads to avoidance. Despite what many guys think, feeling nervous when approaching a girl isn’t a problem. Guys who think they have to get over their approach anxiety before improving their dating lives are wrong. Approach anxiety isn’t a problem if you are actually approaching regularly. Approach avoidance is a problem. Let’s look at another example: imagine someone with a fear of snakes: that alone isn’t really a problem. But if they stay inside for the rest of their life because of the ridiculously low chance that they might see a snake outside, that’s where it becomes a problem. It’s not the fear that’s bad, it’s the avoidance.
Anxiety goes away when you face a situation enough: if you are afraid of spiders, being around them enough will get rid of that fear. If you are afraid of heights, going skydiving will reduce the fear. This is the one of the most firmly established principles in psychology and therapy. It’s also the only way to build lasting confidence.
Social anxiety is the same in some ways, and different in others. It’s not enough to just put yourself in social situations more; you have to risk rejection (and actually be rejected) more. But just like with spiders and heights, the more you put yourself in situations where you can be rejected, the less anxious you feel.
Albert Ellis, the founder of modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (the most effective modern therapy), developed some of the best exercises for reducing social anxiety. He called them “shame attacking exercises”, and there are countless examples you can find by a quick Google search. The idea is to purposefully put yourself in situations where you will be judged. Some examples are to attempt to pay for an item at a store when you don’t have your wallet, to go to a drug store and loudly ask for extra small condoms, or sing loudly to yourself in public.
These are entertaining ways to get used to the feeling of being evaluated, judged, or rejected, and they change the way you feel about challenging social situations. By dealing with being judged over and over, you realize that it isn’t actually that bad, and it’s something you can handle. The fear and avoidance lessen the more you do it, and over time this translates to other areas of your life.
What general ideas can you also apply to reducing your anxiety? Say more high risk/high reward things. Take bigger chances to express your personality. Don’t agree with people if you don’t actually mean it. Approach more girls and get rejected more. Discuss edgier topics. Doing all these things are more uncomfortable in the short term, but in the long term, counteract the thinking and avoidance behavior that makes social anxiety so powerful.
As with any important life change, thinking about it isn’t important. Taking action is the only scientifically proven method to reduce social anxiety. Be willing to get rejected and judged more, and social anxiety will stop holding you back.