“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” ~Viktor Frankl
Life is hell… or so I thought for most of my thirty-four years.
My intense social anxiety, an over-the-top and uncontrollable fear of people and social situations, ruined much of my young life. I operated completely alone, living only inside my own head, without even realizing it.
Now, it’s rare that I’m too afraid to talk to anyone. And I face multiple difficult decisions, discussions, and even confrontations in any given week.
Just a few years ago, a client could make what I would mistakenly take as an angry comment (even just by email), or someone could look at me funny, and I’d tailspin into a three-day episode of fear, shame, and self-hatred. I’d literally lose sleep over it. Every time an emotional breeze blew, I uprooted and fell over.
But I no longer struggle like I used to. Similar situations sometimes cause mild anxiety, but often, none at all.
This transformation surprises me as much as friends who’ve known me for my entire life. How did it happen? Why do I no longer turn every little social cue into a psychological catastrophe?
I learned three lessons after decades of trial, error, failure, reloading, and trying again. At times, I was filled with hopelessness and despair. Occasionally, suicide appeared a viable way out.
But somehow I mustered up just enough resolve to keep going. It made no sense that life should be filled with misery exclusively.
I finally found what worked. Or maybe it found me.
Here’s what I learned, and the actions I take to hold social anxiety at bay and keep my peace, confidence, and happiness today.
1. Fear and anxiety always lie, and never serve your best interest.
I can’t tell you how long I chose to trust and obey my fear of people. I never questioned it. I always assumed the anxiety and fear spoke the truth.
Both had been present my whole life, after all. Fear and anxiety owned me. And I learned to sink my shoulders, lower my head, shuffle my feet, and do exactly what they said:
- “Don’t talk to that person! They’ll reject you.”
- “See the way they’re looking at you? They hate you.”
- “Forget about asking anyone on a date. You’re a loser. They’ll say ‘no’ anyway.”
- “You’ll miss the shot (in basketball). You’ll just be a failure. Everyone will laugh.”
- “You’re stuck. You can’t get anywhere in life. You’ll never amount to anything.”
- “You’re doomed to a bleak, lonely existence.”
- “Don’t even try. You know how this ends anyway.”
These thoughts kept me lonely, isolated, unemployed, and full of self-hatred.
After years of trying different approaches, and sometimes even the same things, I finally asked myself, “What if everything fear told me was a big, fat lie? What if something different could happen?”
I realized that my own mind told me the worst possible stuff. It lied outright. So, I learned not to accept my thoughts or feelings as reality.
Eventually, I started doing exactly what fear told me not to do. At first, I rarely got the outcome I wanted. But slowly, I developed freedom from fear. More good things happened. And life got better.
I felt more confident. Got married. Bought a house. And enjoyed my work.
I didn’t think I’d ever have any of those things.
Acting first, and letting the feelings follow (but not necessarily expecting that change immediately in the moment), works like a charm on fear.
2. Happiness and confidence come from within, not from anything external.
I got sucked in by society’s portrayal of happiness.
Someone owns a massive house, and they seem to have it all. A quarterback tosses a touchdown pass to win the game, and they become an infallible superhero. James Bond always knows what to do and how to win the day.
Though I didn’t realize it then, for a long time, I thought confidence and happiness came from all this… stuff. After I had one of those externals, I thought, I would feel happy, confident, and good about myself.
So all my energy went toward pursuing these things. Sometimes ruthlessly, harming others along the way.
I got a small taste on occasion. But it offered only fleeting happiness. None of it lasted, so I needed another thing from the list to feel happy and confident. And of course, that didn’t work either. On and on it went…
Where do happiness and confidence come from? Things you can’t buy. Working on yourself.
This has resulted in much more than just happiness and confidence. I now feel:
Compare this to how I felt before:
- Filled with despair
- Like a fraud/imposter/outsider
- Full of self-loathing
The comparison’s not even close, really.
3. Regardless of the extreme power social anxiety has over you, you can become confident and happy.
During high school and early college, my social anxiety was at its worst.
I had plenty of excuses for not going to social events. I’d stay in on Friday and Saturday nights. Almost every interaction with a human being, and even just the anticipation of it, triggered shockwaves of social anxiety.
Making a friend and having a real relationship with them? Not a chance.
Instead, I’d drink too much at parties. Usually, I wouldn’t remember them. I didn’t want to because of the incredible stress they caused.
And of course, drinking was really avoidance of intimacy. Long term, it actually increased my anxiety and desire to avoid real interactions with others.
The more failure I met, the more anxious I became. And the more the social anxiety grew, the less I was able to meet people and make friends.
Down and down I went, feeling empty and alone the whole way. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I make friends and hold down a job with ease, just like everyone else?
How do you break that cycle?
You do the opposite. Create an upward cycle instead. One that works like this:
Forgiving myself for mistakes, and realizing when I do and don’t have responsibility
In the past, I would constantly criticize and put myself down whenever things didn’t go “right” (read: my way). I mistakenly believed I had more responsibility for outcomes than I did.
One time I bumped into a guy’s $100,000 car with a tire I needed fixed. He was screaming and cursing a blue streak at me. I plummeted into guilt and shame.
These days, I’d take responsibility for the accident, but not for the other person’s feelings. It would be tempting to feel guilty and ashamed. But I could recognize that and share how I felt with someone I trust instead of telling myself how stupid I was.
Today, I constantly forgive myself for mistakes of any kind, and I let outcomes be what they are.
Challenging myself to speak up
For example, let’s say someone disagreed with something I said. Before, I’d immediately get anxious and fearful, and likely wouldn’t stand up for myself.
Now, instead, I’d pause and think. If I felt strongly about my opinion, I’d continue standing up for myself rather than going along with what the other person said. Nice confidence boost there.
Or, if a customer service associate refused to offer a refund, socially anxious me would simply take it and go about my way. Now, I’d pause and think, and rather than give in to anxiety, ask to talk to a supervisor. Instead of feeling bad about myself, my confidence would go up.
Loosening my grip on the things I think I have to have
My social anxiety constantly wanted control. I had to have the girl, the job, the laugh, or whatever it was.
I usually didn’t get those things because I was too afraid to try. Or, I did try, but acted from a place of fear and ended up making too many mistakes and chasing those things out of my life.
I’d get too anxious at work, fearing that my boss would see my mistake. Then I’d second-guess myself, and make more silly mistakes because of that anxiety. Or I’d get too anxious to move a relationship forward, and the girl would pick up on that, then she was gone. If I wanted people to laugh, I’d get so anxious about needing that outcome that I’d forget the joke or say it awkwardly.
Letting go of control and attachment to my desires has helped me feel more at ease, and far less anxious.
Accepting what happens, without blaming myself or judging it as “good” or “bad”
If I have a conversation with a potential client, and they don’t want to work with me, I try not to get upset with myself. My instinct is to feel guilty and ashamed, like I didn’t say the right things necessary to win the business (judging the situation as “bad”).
Now, I say, ”Well, that didn’t work out. Let’s see. What happened?” Sometimes clients get busy doing other things. Some want to see what they can get from you for free. Other times, clients don’t get the budget they thought they would. And they might move on to another company.
I accept that I don’t know why the prospect didn’t become a client. I learn from the situation what’s possible based on the evidence available, and let go of the rest.
Correcting my wrongs with others
Sometimes in the past, I avoided others. Or, I talked negatively behind their back. And in some cases, I got angry to their face.
Now, when I fall into these old habits, I waste no time apologizing and doing everything I can to not repeat the wrong in the future. It helps with social anxiety because I have to go directly to the person, face-to-face.
In cases where I talk negatively behind someone’s back, I correct the wrong with those who heard it instead of avoiding people. This rebuilds the relationship, which melts away social anxiety.
Sharing the troublesome thoughts spinning around in my head
The longer anxious thoughts spin around in your head, the more power they get. So today, I share them with people who understand and care. Not a single one has social anxiety, but they all want to see me heal.
Not blaming others
When things went wrong because of my social anxiety, like the two jobs I got fired from and the other I quit, I wanted to only look at what the employers did wrong. That didn’t help at all. So today, I look at my part in the situation, even if it’s just 1%.
When I blame others, I do so because I’m too anxious and afraid to look at myself. I don’t want to experience the embarrassment of seeing what I did wrong. But how can I relieve my anxiety without looking at my own actions?
When I look at what I did, and take positive action to correct it, I gain confidence because I’ve improved as a person. My struggle with my wrong weakens. Over time, it goes away completely.
This allows me to take real action to improve my life. Blaming keeps me inactive, and a slave to the same old attitudes.
Serving others in big and small ways
I’ve adopted a lifestyle of service. Usually not big things, but I make myself available to help others out with personal problems, quick errands, or whatever it happens to be.
At first, I served others just to get out of my negative social anxiety. That’s okay at first. With continued practice, you serve others mostly for their gain.
Practicing self-awareness and working on my actions and reactions
I don’t have a single tactic that works for fixing or improving other people. Life doesn’t work that way. So, I simply focus on improving myself daily.
I have a list of thirty character defects. I’m capable of just about any wrong any human can commit, but generally I act on these thirty.
When tempted to act on one, I pause for a moment and choose a positive action instead. I’ve not had one perfect day yet, but my internal life improves daily. And I feel increasing happiness and connectedness to others as a result.
Discarding unhealthy mindsets: playing the victim, pitying myself, feeling entitled, or self-righteously judging others
I played the victim because everyone else got the girlfriend, job, or car first. Because I was anxious and afraid to go for those things, they came much later in life for me than most people.
Social anxiety caused me great fear, guilt, and shame. I didn’t get the external things when I thought I should, so I felt entitled to compensation for my suffering.
I’d judge others because truthfully, I didn’t like myself. My self-esteem was through the floor, so I wanted to bring everyone down too.
Unfortunately, this only increased social anxiety’s power over me because all of these choices kept me separate from others. So when these feelings come up now, I don’t act on them. I don’t even allow myself to think about them. I simply acknowledge their presence and move on.
My social anxiety wants to weigh me down like an anchor. And it can, if I don’t strictly adhere to the above list. But now, I live in a beautiful upward cycle that leads to happiness. Because these steps work.
But it takes time to learn and put all this into practice. Sometimes decades.
Hopefully learning from my experience shaves years of struggle off your growth and enables you to experience happiness, joy, and freedom—starting right now.