Something strange happens when I have to talk to a new person or someone I don’t feel comfortable with. My heart rate increases, my hands shake a little and I can feel a tightening in my chest.
It happens to everyone to some extent when they socialize, especially in instances where you’re taking a risk (i.e., asking for a raise, asking someone for a date). But for me the anxiety happens every time, from speaking to gas station attendants to baristas to the pizza delivery man.
Every instance of social interaction creates small panic in me. I think it’s due to the paranoia I feel that people are out to get me. While it can easily be confused with an anxiety disorder, it’s roots are in feelings of persecution I inevitably feel when I’m forced to interact with people.
Truthfully, it would be a whole lot easier if I didn’t have to deal with people at all. That sounds defeatist, and I know I’d get lonely if I lived in a cabin in the middle of thick woods. But people give me the jitters. As you can imagine I’m not exactly friendly with a host of people. I have a few very close friends and family and, while that may seem pitiful, I like it that way.
If living with constant paranoia and delusions due to my schizophrenia has taught me anything, it’s taught me about social interaction. I’ve acted out and analyzed every possible scenario for how talking to someone may go, and I’ve practiced for years on unsuspecting people. I’ve learned to adapt. I’ve learned how to fake confidence to the point where I appear completely normal. If you met me, I act warm and comfortable with you no matter who you are, but inside I’m panicking.
I think a lot of people live with social anxiety, but there are several things you can do in the moment to help. First and foremost you have to learn to relax. If you’re tense, other people will see it and feel the same way. It’s amazing how easily social interaction can flow if you’re relaxed. Honestly, there’s no other way around it if you want to make a good impression.
Another important factor is to enter into social interactions without expectations. You can’t force a connection; good interactions unfold organically. Leave all your motives and your efforts at the door, and let the magic happen. People regard you much better if they know you aren’t trying to accomplish something or that you don’t have any expectations for how they or you should behave. This is especially true on dates and nights out when the motivation is often to find someone to take home for the night. I won’t get into specifics, but there’s a reason I stopped going to bars.
If nothing else, always smile and treat other people with respect even if they are someone you’ll likely never see again, like a busboy or a pizza delivery guy. The Golden rule really is the best method for dealing with other people.
Never forget that you’re not alone in feeling social anxiety; millions of people feel the same way. Suffice it to say I’ve been there and, aside from engineering the way I way I act, these three things are really the best and most effective ways of conducting social interaction.
Outdoor gathering photo available from Shutterstock