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How a Terrified, Socially Anxious Guy Became Relaxed and Confident

“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:

  • Satisfied
  • Fulfilled
  • Purposeful
  • Content
  • Grateful

Compare this to how I felt before:

  • Hopeless
  • Filled with despair
  • Like a fraud/imposter/outsider
  • Guilty
  • Full of self-loathing
  • Regretful

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.

About Dan Stelter

Dan Stelter is the author of AnxietySupportNetwork.com, where he helps socially anxious people overcome their fear, heal, relax, win confidence, and enjoy life again. Get strategies for all five when you sign up for his free e-mail course.

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  • Hey, Dan!
    This is the perfect example for, “Mind Over Matter.”
    I used to have really bad anxiety,but it disappeared gradually when I taught myself not to feed it and focus on improving myself and the truth about myself/ a situation.
    Most of the time, it’s just our heads telling us that we can’t do this and that, but in truth we are much more capable than we think we are.
    Battling my anxiety has led me to a life that I now enjoy each and every day. 🙂

  • Lynn

    Thank you for writing about this, Dan!

    Not many people are aware of social anxiety and I’ve found that people have misjudged me as being arrogant and unapproachable, when I actually did crave social interaction but was too afraid of being judged. It goes both ways. We need to be brave enough to shed the victim mentality and also try to educate people about social anxiety. In an ideal world, misfits would be embraced but that’s not the case at the moment so we need to at least try to spread awareness and hopefully one day enough people will catch on. Glad you’re doing your bit in this world!

  • DB Hoster

    Thanks so much for describing these feelings, Dan. I am struggling with social anxiety as well in a big way. This really helped a lot. So have some of the comments. It’s wonderful when someone opens up this discussion, b/c social anxiety really hurts, and can easily limit one. I can change if you did.

  • Excellent and very detailed article that will help many overcome social anxiety. I would also add that one of the best ways of dealing with fear and anxiety and their associated thoughts is to develop a mindful relationship with them. Understand that they are in pain, not you. They are like children that we carry within our minds. The most important thing we can do is give them our compassionate love. When you can be present with your emotions without reacting to them then they can and will heal.
    Boulder Center for Online Mindfulness Therapy

  • Sure Lynn. Yes, we can be seen as cold and unapproachable. I get why people think that. And you’re right – it’s a two-way street between us and others. We each have some work to do to make life a success for social anxiety sufferers.

  • Wow. Don’t hear too many stories like yours Nicah. Most people are stuck and getting run over by their social anxiety. Good to hear you’ve figured out how to deal with it successfully!

  • 100% true. Unfortunately, I don’t think many people in society understand the importance of this.

  • Glad to hear this story inspired you. It’s a daily thing. You get a little better each day. So, good that you have the awareness and are doing something about it. So many people think they’re isolated and defeated and throw in the towel. Then they just live psychologically isolated, and perhaps even physically alone too.

    Keep up your hard work. And never, ever, give up. Hope you have big success soon.

  • Bullyinglte

    Yep, all those were the things I had to do to overcome anxiety and even some depression. It is all inside you and no one can truly make you feel better except you. Great article.

  • Kira

    This was a wonderful article, and I relate to it so much – social anxiety fucking sucks (can I swear on this? Too late). It’s the bane of my existence, and you make it sound so easy to overcome it – “just let go of this” and “think this way instead” for example. How the hell am I supposed to change my brain with a brain and nervous system that is ingrained with anxiety? I’m always at the verge of the end of my rope, because I struggle daily. I have on-and-off for nearly 10 years now (I’m 19).

    Saying that, somehow I do have mental resilience, because no matter how low I get, I’m never suicidal, and I KNOW that the hopelessness will pass. And there are many things I have now that I never would have imagined having in high school, so I can definitely do with practicing gratefulness, and self-compassion – I struggle with that so much (I tried a compassion mindfulness exercise, and I cried. A lot.)

    Anyway, your article was great, and I’m so happy for you that things got easier – I just got really mad because I’m not at that stage yet, I’m still at the “daily struggle” part. And I wish it was easy to overcome.

    I am receiving therapy, I always have been – I’m considering going on medication at this point, to just relieve it a little. It would be interesting to know your experiences with therapy and/or medication 🙂

  • Nicole Standfast

    Not quite sure what to comment, or how I could convey my feelings. I am so useless and faulty I know this is all life will ever be, pointless. I’m a college graduate (unlike writer I did not attend parties at all and had NO FRIENDS); however, I am on disability trying to get out of my mind, my rut. I live with no purpose. I failed my parents, shamed them. No friends still at age 35. I’m stuck and I was so happy to see this article, but I got nothing out of it. What’s wrong with me? I’m sorry for not being grateful for your pointers. I’m just trying to get out of my self-loading mind.

  • Hi Kira –

    Yeah, it’s frustrating when your social anxiety seems to hold you back and you can’t let go of it even though you’re trying everything you possibly can.

    Therapy? I never did it consistently. Truthfully, I’m also an addict, and repairing that had to come first. And most of what you do to heal your addiction also helps heal social anxiety.

    There’s lots of talking in groups. So that helps you let go of fear of public speaking. You have to be 100% honest, keeping no secrets from your sponsor. That helps A TON.

    And you have to build healthy relationships with other people by learning how to give. That works for social anxiety too.

    …And you can never let up. Or, your addiction comes back and ruins your life, possibly costing you your own life, house, or marriage.

    In your situation, you’re doing the right things. Therapy helps. Medication will help a little too.

    I’m also a big fan of exercise (do your favorite kind). Those are all the big things.

    It sounds like right now you could benefit from accepting your anxious self.

    I know…not easy when you think social anxiety has ruined your life. But, try to see the positives about yourself.

    Make a list of what rocks about you. Ask your friends and family for what they think is awesome about you.

    Focus on how the way you are makes you awesome, and always try to think about something else when you think of your social anxiety as a limitation.

    At 19 and in therapy, you’re doing awesome. Keep up the good work. Life keeps getting better with persistence.

  • No offense taken, Nicole. I was there once. Why’d everyone else get with ease what only came to me after extreme suffering? Nearly every social anxiety sufferer gets to that point.

    My #1 question for you is: what actions are you taking to improve your life?

    Most people stuck aren’t taking action. They don’t have a plan or system for healing their social anxiety.

    They try some things for a few days or weeks, or even months. Then they experience little-to-no progress. Social anxiety overwhelms them. And they give up because they feel like they haven’t gotten anywhere in life. It’s hopeless. All doom and gloom.

    “Happiness is on the other side of difficult.” Things are tough now. But that’s where it’s time to buckle down, get serious, and get back at it.

    It helps A TON to have a supportive network of people you can turn to when you’re feeling down. Ones you can talk to openly about your struggles with social anxiety and get supportive feedback from.

    For now, try to “see the light.” What I mean is, envision a path to where you get to a happy and joyful point in life again. That, instead of being 100% certain life will only stay awful. Because, if you think the latter, there’s no reason to try. Might as well pack it in, give up, and live in misery, wondering what could have been.

    …Or you can make your mind up to not accept that. Don’t let your social anxiety run the show. Try some new actions. And try, just a shred, to accept that life could work at well if you keep working at your social anxiety.

    It’s possible. Everyone can do it. I have a path. Everyone else does. And so do you.

    I don’t know you too well yet, but here’s a rough suggestion of what works for everyone, though the details may vary for you somewhat:

    1) Get with a therapist/counselor you feel 100% comfortable with.
    2) Get involved with a support group. Make friends there that you can talk to on the phone regularly with 100% honesty about yourself.
    3) Create an action plan of how you’re going to get better. Show it to your therapist and others. Tell on yourself when you don’t follow it (which dissipates your desire to go off it completely).
    4) Exercise 2-3 days per week, minimum.
    5) Focus on service to others. This could be helping them clean their house, walking their dog, mowing their lawn, organizing their taxes…any way you can help. It gets you out of thinking about yourself all the time and builds relationships with others.
    6) Get a hobby. One that you like. It doesn’t have to be with others. But something that challenges you to learn and grow as a person. Anything but TV or video games, which provide little-to-no value in your life. Gardening. Reading. Whatever you think you’ll like.
    7) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Every day. Stretch your comfort zone. Do things that scare you. Return to your support network for comfort when you feel overwhelmed or like you’re going off track.
    8) Do nice things for yourself. I love a hot shower. Playing basketball. Watching a little TV (a few hours a week). Eat a delicious dessert. Whatever feels most rewarding to you.

    The new actions you take become your lifestyle. You can’t slip out of them completely, or your social anxiety takes over again.

    Even just a small step is a victory. For you, maybe that’s leaving your home. It’s not how you feel when you leave your home. It’s the fact you even try to do it.

    Hope that helps.

  • Kira

    Thank you so much for your response! It’s so wonderful when someone else understands and appreciates your situation, and recognises that you’re progressing (rather than holding an attitude of, why can’t you just do things?)

    I signed up to your website, and I really love the first tip – serve others. I volunteer at a dog refuge currently (which half the time I feel incompetent at, but I still show up every week). I would love to do more, too.

    I’m very glad I read your article and found your website, thank you for sharing your experiences and using them to help others 🙂

  • Yeah that’s perfect Kira. Volunteer service at a dog refuge is great. Having pets can be great too. We have 2 Great Danes – love ’em to pieces!

  • Ginny Frederick

    Nicole, please don’t give up. Maybe you are an introvert and that’s why you did not attend college parties, which tend to be loud and raucous. I myself never fit into that kind of situation.

  • Hi Nicole –

    Going to college parties wasn’t that big of a deal. I had friends then. But I didn’t actually like the party scene too much. I did like to party with close friends. But larger parties with others I didn’t know as well weren’t as fun. By the way, I didn’t have as much fun as you likely envision. I was a terribly messed up person in many ways at that time, and much of the partying was to escape the pain and suffering I was in.

    If you want to make friends as an adult, find a hobby where you can meet in a group with others in person.

    Could be a book club. Could be a running club. Maybe you get a pet (which can also help with your healing).

    I don’t know.

    The main points would be:

    1) Doing something you enjoy
    2) Doing it with other people you feel you relate to

    Don’t like the hobby or the people? Try another one.

    You may consider a support group for people with anxiety too. Easier to make friends there.

    You could also use websites like Meetup.

    The only way to succeed is through action, trial, error, and keeping at it until you find where you fit.

    Everyone fits somewhere.

    You’re good at something. You like something.

    Develop the heck out of that skill and talk with others who like it too.

    While you’re on disability, figure out how you can serve others.

    Doesn’t have to be big stuff. Could be cleaning your parent’s house, mowing their yard, walking their dogs, or however you can help in any small way…even if it seems teeny-tiny and useless to you.

    Call a grandparent and just talk. Or meet with them for the afternoon.

    Don’t like your grandparents? Go to the local senior center and just spend time with the people there.

    Simply being physically present is a huge gift senior citizens appreciate.

    I can’t tell you exactly what to do.

    But can you see the point?

    Get outside yourself as much as you can, in any way you can.

    You may not believe it, but you do have skills and abilities that others will find extremely useful.

    And serving others is the best way to identify what you’re skilled at.

    Support groups, counselors, or therapists are extremely valuable during this process. Because of course, you will still have anxiety throughout it.

    I’ve found it extremely beneficial to have somewhere healthy to return to.

    Best wishes on your journey!

  • Ittoiffas Leafar

    WONDERFUL article and resonates completely in me!

  • Taylor Jones

    Dan this GREAT. A wonderful and hopeful message for all those suffering from anxiety. I had several bouts of anxiousness and worry this past winter and I quickly discovered number two on your list, everything happening in our lives is a REFLECTION of internal circumstances. Trying to rearrange our external environment for an internal problem never works. Thank you Dan!

  • Raashid

    “Fear and anxiety always lie, and never serve your best interest.” . True

    Treat your thoughts are mere thoughts . Reality is always below your your mental images and thoughts . We hold on to our thoughts so tight that we starting painting our reality with them . Mindfulness is the way .
    I went from a “sweating just being near a female ” boy to “Speaking in front of 500 people on stage ” man .

  • Nicole Standfast

    Yes. I appreciate both of you and your kind words and information. Good days, bad days-that response was a craptastic day. I’ve begun journaling. Love it. It gives me a vent and is obviously nonjudgmental. Thank you.

  • Pam

    Dan, you are treasure to the world for writing this. Thank you for sharing your excellent story of self-healing and renewal.

  • Jenni Sheldon

    Such an inspirational story. I suffer from social anxiety and I am currently trying mindfulness to see if that helps.

  • That’s cool. Crap days happen to everyone.

  • Stephen Spodek

    Amen brother! Right there with you. Thanks for the post. Currently doing the work now.