How To Have A Social Life When You Have Social Anxiety
Because Not All Of Us Are “Social Butterflies”
It happens in the most everyday places, like when I go to the grocery store. I feel as if there is a lump in my throat, and on rare occasions, I freeze, shake, or sweat heavily.
They must think I don’t know what I’m doing because my cart is empty. Is this the best cashier line? I want to transfer but never mind; people might think I’m indecisive. Am I taking too long to choose a hair conditioner? People are staring. Crap! I must be taking too long.
My list of worries is endless.
I first noticed my social anxiety—a mental health condition in which a person feels anxious in social situations, often to the point of life disruption—10 years ago. Unlike introversion, where one simply finds happiness in their own company and solitude, I have the occasional desire to socialize but am often stopped by the fear of being judged or saying the “wrong thing.”
I can’t avoid the outside world, so I’ve had to learn how to navigate life with this unyielding fear and worry. While the anxiety may always be there, it doesn’t have to control me—or anyone else with social anxiety. With a few tips, people with social anxiety can even have a satisfying social life. Here’s how.
Turn Your Focus Inward
Inner work is a big part of dealing with my social anxiety, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Most of the time, I’m still worried about how others perceive me and feel anxious about things beyond my control. Shifting the focus inwards—to my thoughts, feelings, reactions—takes a lot of practice, and I find mantras to be a helpful tool for grounding myself and ultimately calming down.
I have two favorite phrases I like to repeat when feeling anxious: I don’t really care what they think. And, you do you, self.
I discovered mine when I realized, deep down I don’t really care about what people think, and I prefer to do the things that bring me joy. Repeating these phrases to myself brings me back to that truth.
You can create your own depending on what works for you. Sometimes, the anxious thoughts still surface like a recurring fever that won’t break, so it’s okay if they don’t make your social anxiety go away altogether. But I’ve found that the more I shift my focus inward, the more manageable the symptoms become.
Find Friends You Feel Safe With
For people with social anxiety, sometimes having too many friends can feel emotionally or mentally exhausting. Instead, I have a small circle of people I can trust and lean on.
These people respect my boundaries and need for space in social situations. And I’m able to let them know when I feel overwhelmed by social interactions or that I just need some space. And so, it’s helpful when they gently check-in (preferably with a text or phone call) if you’ve been quiet or distant.
I used to think I was rude whenever I distanced myself from people or called my friends to cancel plans. But I know now advocating for myself is a form of self-care essential to healthy relationships. And when my friends respect these boundaries, I feel both cared for and safe.
That said, it can be challenging to build friendships and establish a level of trust. When making new friends, let your interests and familiar spaces guide you. If the barista at your usual coffee shop initiates small talk, consider staying a few minutes longer to see where the conversation goes. If a coworker offers to introduce you to someone they think you’d hit it off with, be open to that. Embracing a little bit of discomfort can help build a small-yet-satisfying social life.
Create An Exit Strategy
Have an exit strategy. This is my number one tip for people with social anxiety. I also try to plan most of my social activities in public or familiar spaces where I can quickly leave if I need to—e.g., coffee shops and restaurants. Knowing I can go when I feel overwhelmed offers me a sense of comfort and control, especially when the social event involves people I don’t know. And, often, having an exit strategy means I feel safe enough to socialize and stay a while longer.
Just as how you shouldn’t be ashamed of having an exit plan, you also should never be ashamed of using that plan. If showing up means you only stay for 30 minutes, that’s okay! Simply showing up and facing your anxiety is worth celebrating.
Enlist Social Support
I have a couple of friends I rely on for social support at larger or extended social events—like networking conferences and out-of-town work trips. These friends are social butterflies, so it’s helpful to let them lead conversations and handle the introductions when we’re all together.
For example, I recently agreed to meet up with two fellow journalists I’d met online while visiting their city. We’d chatted a few times before, so they weren’t complete strangers, but I was still nervous (albeit excited) about meeting them officially. I had one of my social support friends accompany me, and when we all met up, he used his social skills to chat casually with the two journalists. Whenever I felt nervous or froze up, my friend recognized my need for help and kept the conversation going. Thanks to that social support, I now have two new “real life” friends.
If you already have friends who offer social support, cheers to you! If not, don’t fret. You may already have someone in your close circle of friends willing to provide this support; you just have to ask. You’ll be amazed at how many people are eager to take charge of conversations or introduce you to others when you feel uncomfortable in social environments.
Your version of “social” doesn’t have to fit in any cookie-cutter mold, nor does it have to be what society deems “normal.” Social anxiety can be unpredictable, and sometimes we may even need to rely on professional help and therapy to guide us through.
Just remember, you are doing the very best you can, and every social interaction is worth celebrating. The ultimate goal is to build a social life that works for you—where you feel comfortable, safe, and surrounded by people who understand and respect you. This is the epitome of self-care and self-awareness.
Tammy Danan is a freelance storyteller based in the Philippines. She reports on environmental and social issues. She also covers creative pursuits, freelance mindset, and sustainability and how they intersect with our everyday life. Her words have appeared in Wethos, Zapier, Shutterstock, ZEKE Magazine, Audubon.org, and others. Follow her on Instagram.