On social anxiety

Sometimes people invite me to an event where I won’t know many people. When this happens, I’m typically excited to go—initially. As the event date draws near, I often find myself not wanting to go. What if people won’t want to chat with me? What if the conversations will be boring? Worst of all: will I be an outsider because everyone already knows each other?

You might think such worries mean that I don’t like talking with strangers or that I’m bad at it. In fact, friends tell me the opposite: they say I approach strangers easily and that I can strike up a conversation with almost anyone. I know this to be true, but it doesn’t feel true when I’m dreading going to an event. Yet when I do go and meet those people I didn’t know before, my anxiety vanishes the instant I start a conversation.

You see, the mind isn’t always rational. I should know that the odds are, overwhelmingly, that I will enjoy a social gathering. But when an event with unfamiliar people approaches, I seem to forget about my past experience. My body tenses up and my mind fabricates excuses for why I shouldn’t go.

The process is a sequence of initial excitement (about meeting people), then growing anxiety (about how it could go horribly wrong), and finally relief (when it goes very well). Observing this excitement–anxiety–relief sequence has taught me that my mind does not respond to the same set of circumstances in the same way every time.

Leo Babauta of the blog Zen Habits refers to what happens in your head in a situation like the one I described as telling stories. When I’m excited about an event, I tell myself the story that I might make a new friend. When I’m anxious, I tell myself the story that I will probably end up standing in a corner of the room by myself. And on the way home, I tell myself that it is silly to be anxious about meeting people and that I should stop it.

It’s all right to tell stories: we do it all the time and it helps us make sense of the world. But when you realize you’re telling yourself a story, or that you have been, you can start to look for the flaws in your story. The flaw in my anxiety story is that I assume the worst-case scenario. What are the flaws in your stories?

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Posted by Peter

Here, Peter writes about whatever has caught his interest recently. Maybe he'll narrow down this blog's scope someday.

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