How to Free Yourself from the Cycle of Social Fear

“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore” ~André Gide

A few months ago, I received a gift from my brother while on a vacation in the United States. He was giving each one of us a small token of stone with words carved on them. Mine was etched “courage.”

The stone reminded me of my struggles on self-esteem—in the past and the present. I pull strength from my courage to face the challenges of each day.

Getting to where I am now was not an easy task.

The Cycle of Social Fear

The earliest memories of my childhood had to do with being in one corner of the classroom watching all the other kids playing while I stood watching. It was not because my teacher punished me, but because I was too shy to talk or play with anyone.

I would sit all day long if there was no instruction to do otherwise.

I do not remember exactly what was going on in my mind. I think there was this part of me that just wanted to be me—not do anything and accept myself being shy—and there was my other self that wanted to be like any other kid enjoying playing with others.

I wanted to interact but I did not manage to do so because I was caught in the vicious cycle of social fear:

I am shy —> I want to play with them —> If I play with them, I’m afraid of what they will say about me —> I don’t want to be rejected —>  I will not join them because…—> I am shy.

Thanks to the support of my family and friends who went out of their way to help, I have changed in spite of myself. But this did not happen without constant battle between the shy me and the real me.

Decide to Step out of the Cycle

The only way you can get out of the rut of fear is to make a conscious decision to step out of it. It is not easy to do this if you have grown into the habit of fear. In order to make this work, you have to find what your heart really wants and teach your heart and mind to accept this.

Reflect on this question: What is it that I fear and would like to overcome?

Your fears can be a general “shyness” or specifically not being able to talk, or point out something in a meeting, or not being assertive enough.

Now ask yourself: Why do I want to overcome this?

Be clear why you want to overcome this fear. By “why,” I mean, what is at stake if you do not conquer this fear? It will be irrelevant to do something about it if it is not important to you or your loved ones.

To be practical and effective, I recommend getting yourself a notebook where you can write your notes on this project called you.

Take time every day to reflect on your notes to remind you about your personal commitments to yourself. What could be most important record-keeping in the world but that of your own personal life—your most important business!

Throw Your Hat over the Fence

How do you go to a new place of interest we will call Dream Kingdom when there is a fence surrounding it? The rightful way to do so is to find the path or the door to enter.

But what if you hesitate to do so because you do not know what goes beyond that? Assuming you are legally and rightfully entitled to enter the place, what could be stopping you? Is it risk, rejection, or embarrassment?

Nowadays reality TV has allowed many dreams to come true. The likes of American Idol, Amazing Race, Biggest Loser and many others have given many people the hope of getting their dreams come true. The hundreds of people queuing for auditions is a sign that these people tried to do something.

In the same analogy, I would like to ask: How can so many people try to conquer their fear, regardless of the qualifications, and succeed? How can people who do not even have the talent get there on stage notwithstanding any outcome?

Going back to the Dream Kingdom we wanted to get into, surely there’s one thing waiting to be done. If you want to get into that place and you cannot because of fear, throw your hat over the fence! That means nailing down your involvement to make it difficult for you to turn back and quit.

Here are some examples:

Overcome Shyness

  • Do: Join a support group
  • Nail it down: Find a group and register

Being Visible in Meetings

  • Do: Be prepared with the agenda
  • Nail it down: Talk in the first five minutes of the meeting

Improve Assertiveness

  • Do: Talk to the person you wanted to convince about a point
  • Nail it down: Go out of your way and tell the person you want to talk to him and find a convenient time to talk

Play Like a Movie Star

Putting everything into action now becomes easy. There will be butterflies in your stomach but they will disappear. This is the time when the adage Just do it works.

Imagine yourself in a movie playing as the lead actor. You are the star and the movie all depends on you now! You have been given the privilege of starring in this movie and you have to give your best shot.

How do you prepare for this?

Prepare your scripts. In real world, not everyone is spontaneous. If you are not one of them, that’s fine. If it’s hard for you to speak up, be ready with something on how to say things.

Using the same scenario examples I have mentioned earlier, take a look at these sample scripts:

  • “I would like to register and join this support group.”
  • “What do you think of this concern on the ___  in the agenda?”
  • “Hi, I’d like to talk to you about this proposal I am making about ___ . Is this a good time to talk?”

Practice, practice, practice. Who said practicing is cheesy and an over-do? Ignore those people who tell you that. The great leaders of this world practiced what they had to say.

Did you know that Margaret Thatcher had to change her tone of speech before she ran for prime minister? She practiced and was coached.

Give your best shot. Treat your daily challenges like acting in front of a live audience. When you are there live, the show depends on you. Do your best and focus. If you make a mistake, carry on. The show must go on.

Learning from Your Lessons

Get all that you can learn from the “movie” experience. Celebrate not only the big successes but also the little ones.

Take them into account in your little notebook. Enjoy them. Feel them and use them again for your next act.

As for the negative ones, take them well—not that you will pretend they did not happen; accept them as is.

Feel what you feel and do not deny them.

Spend some time talking about them with a confidant and reflect on them. There’s no failure but only feedback. Do not be discouraged. Let go and start again.

Repeat the Cycle of Confidence

By the time you have finished executing your movie, you should have already realized that you have succeeded to step out of the cycle of fear. And yet you have entered another one: the cycle of confidence.

That looks a little something like this:

I am confident —> I want to play with them —> If I play with them, I will enjoy —> I am playing with them, and I’m enjoying! —> I had a good experience (or I had a bad experience) but either way —> I will play again and learn from my experience because…—> I am confident.

Photo by Alex Bellink

About Rob Leonardo

Rob Leonardo is a market researcher and motivational writer based in Singapore.  He put up the blog ConfidenceCues to share his own experience and create a safe haven to grow self-esteem.

See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
  • Shaun Kelley

    Thanks for this article. My social anxiety has got a little out of control and it’s time to turn and face it. Also, not be ashamed of it.

  • That’s the way, Shaun! Get out of it by deciding to. And most importantly making steps to nail it down as DONE!

  • Rose

    Same here. I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I work and do school from home, and what at first seemed the “comfy” choice is really just making everything worse. Thanks for the article.

  • medical2

    Hey Rob, l really really wanna get over my social anixety but l just don’t know where to start. l know l have to face my fear ie talk to people but l go bright red! l blush all the time & this is what is holding me back. Did you or anyone go through this? What can l do? btw thanks for the article.

  • Hi Rob, you did a great job of parsing this out. I remember being that kid standing in the corner, too. I think I ended up naturally moving through your steps, but even now I can find myself in situations where I feel that social anxiety come back. Next time, I’ll remember to throw my hat over the fence!

  • DannySCR

    Thanks for this. I’ve started to be less anxious and to just do it without thinking about the consequences. Like you said about throwing the hat. If I’m shy to talk to someone, once I say the first hello theres no going back.. and that helps to lower my anxiety!

  • Congratulations Dan! You are doing well! Yes, it is true that the moment you start saying hello, there’s no turning back. And don’t worry if it does not turn out well. Carry on and charge it to experience.

  • Hi Bobbi! Yes a lot of people were painfully shy- if I would exaggerate it. But even parents have no clue how to help. It’s always a struggle and we have to remember to keep going.

  • No worries Rose. Sometimes we are faced with circumstances where our ‘social fear’ gets even worse because we are in our comfort zone. You need to find ways to just shake a leg and get out there meet people. Reach out to friends- or better- make friends!

  • Great article hear. Social anxiety is a tough thing. Its something I went through and recovered from, so now I coach people on getting through it at Social Expression. Looks like you the same work with Confidence Cues, glad someone else is out there helping people with social anxiety recovery too!

  • Desires1989

    Sometimes I feel shame as I sometimes get into the situation where someone insults me, I usually avoid inviting such situations, but when it comes , in last I don’t do anything , I just keep quite and that’s the actions which help to increase my shame, but now I assert myself , I practice daily to assert myself , because abuse from friends have decreased my confidence a lot. I also want to involve with other people who haw gone through suh situations.

  • Hey Rob,

    I can definitely relate. My entire childhood school experience was led by shyness. The shyness kept me from interacting with anyone, especially girls ;), I have changed a lot since then, this journey of personal growth and living for a purpose I am on, has helped a lot. After high school, I came to the decision, I would no longer let the fear of rejection, or low self esteem control my life. I wanted to interact with more people, I wanted to get a girlfriend, I wanted to be different.

    12 years later, I am no longer the quiet, shy, confused young man I once was. I still have those moments of performance anxiety, where I have all the physical symptoms of being nervous, but I am doing my best to overcome them.


  • Mark

    Hi medical2. I know it was a while ago you posted this, but I too can relate to blushing which I feel holds me back too. Have you found any useful ways to deal with this? I’m hoping to get some professional help that may help me to move forward with this.

  • Gafrala

    Hi everybody! I would like to know, how may I improve my social skills, its just that I think that I´m outgoing only in my social circle, only with people I already know, but out of my comfort zone I´m a quiet person, and sometimes I feel really insecure and out of place… help! this happen a lot with my coworkers, and sometimes I feel really really bad… just like today, a “friend” in my work make a joke about me, and in my head I took it really really bad, what can I do?

  • Mel93

    Thank you!!!!!!!! This means so much to me. I was shy all my life and would try to resolve it by seeking therapy, but nothing seemed to work until I found a way to break out of the cycle on my own. I built confidence through discovering dance and spirituality. I was on a high, but eventually fell, to one of the lowest points in my life. However, that high I felt was the first in my life, the first time I felt free. I felt hopeless after reverting to my old ways, thinking I was doomed to be lonely, but now I am hoping I can break this cycle once again until it becomes the cycle of confidence (or self acceptance? – perhaps between the two, besides I don’t want to become the complete opposite of shy, perhaps just more sure of myself). Breaking the cycle is the first step, but changing it is the biggest challenge.