“Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us, when in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen and taking flight.” ~Brené Brown
About fifteen million adults suffer from social anxiety according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Fifteen million. And we’re not just talking about what you’d call shyness. We’re talking about big fears of judgment and scrutinization from others.
When we hear statistics it can be difficult to remember the humanness of those numbers. These are people who want to find love, who want to make new friends, or who need to talk to new people for work. Maybe you’re one of them. I used to be.
I remember feeling uncomfortable in my own skin, being highly aware of what I was saying, how I was saying it, and how other people were taking me in. I even remember being in college at a party standing with a group of friends when one of them loudly declared that I looked super uncomfortable.
Well, I was super uncomfortable, and that statement only brought more attention to my demeanor making me even more self-conscious. It sucked. I didn’t want to feel awkward let alone be known as the awkward girl.
I was always so concerned with how I was presenting myself. I wanted everyone to feel like I had it all together. I wanted to appear cool, but mostly I didn’t want to do a lot of things.
I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself. And I definitely didn’t want to be disliked.
What I wanted was to be able to speak easily to people. I wanted to feel laid back. I wanted to not be “shy” in groups. I wanted to feel comfortable. I wanted to get lost in the moment instead of watching and analyzing my every move. I wanted to just be me, and be okay with it.
Often times when we talk about anxiety this is where we stop. But I’ve discovered something deeper. I worked on myself a lot in my twenties. I made a very dear friend who was super outgoing. Being in her presence helped me see that I could present myself differently.
I could open up a bit more, I could smile a bit more, and I could show my happiness to strangers.
I also learned a lot about my ego. I saw some of the ways my mind was holding me back. I was able to acknowledge that fear was driving me in these situations and that I didn’t have to pay so much attention to my mind.
I became more comfortable in social situations through practice. I found my edge and worked from there. I became more cheerful, more outgoing, and it worked.
People responded, and I connected more deeply. It felt great, but it didn’t entirely feel easy. I still didn’t feel 100 percent in my own skin, and I found myself exhausted after being in social situations.
Years later I discovered that all along I had been afraid of being seen.
I’m not talking about being out in the world and observed by others. I’m not talking about being afraid of showing up at a party or an event and having people look at me. I’m not talking about superficial self-consciousness. I’m speaking about a deep, spiritual need to be seen for who it is we really are.
All this time I had actually been terrified that if someone saw who I really was they would reject me, and I didn’t know that I could recover from that. But if someone rejected the persona I’d created, well, that wouldn’t be as bad—it wasn’t really me.
I discovered this truth through something we all have at our disposal 24/7. It’s actually something we all need and use: the breath.
Breathwork is a powerful active meditation, and it’s changed so many aspects of my life including this one. It’s given me access to deeper truths about myself and about human beings in general.
We all want to be loved, and to be loved means you’re accepted as you are. So if you’re deeply afraid, unconsciously afraid, that you might not be loved, how do you think your body is going to respond? It’s going to feel fear.
It shows up as self-consciousness because our minds work to remedy the situation. If I monitor my every movement I’ll be safe. I won’t show too much of myself, and I won’t be rejected.
The problem here, aside from the fact that we don’t want to actually be living our lives in constant moderation of ourselves, is that we expend so much energy watching ourselves, trying to be the person we think we should be.
That’s why I was so exhausted after being in social situations. It took up so much of my energy to be around people and not feel like I could really be myself.
There is so much relief in being able to be yourself. There is so much freedom in having deep, unconditional love for yourself and knowing that the only thing that matters is that you have your own back.
It leaves you feeling comfortable being you. It allows you to have a more intimate relationship with yourself, discovering who it is you actually are instead of living under the guise you’ve created for yourself. That guise was a defense mechanism; it was your shield so you wouldn’t get hurt.
But you don’t have to worry about getting hurt anymore. Yes, you will still feel pain, but you will have such a deep trust in life that you know you’ll always get through it.
With this trust and this love and this new life, it’s not scary to show yourself anymore.
You know that the right people will forgive you if you mess up. You know that the people who you need to have around you are the ones who love the things that come out of your mouth, who don’t push you or manipulate you or judge you.
From simple, immediate action steps to deeper healing work, here are five ways you can start relieving your social anxiety today:
1. Use the power poses.
Power Poses are simple body movements scientifically proven to increase confidence hormones and decrease stress hormones. Before you’re going into a social situation put your hand behind your head or even simply raise your hands wide and high in the air.
2. Focus on others.
When we’re self-conscious in social situations we’re so focused on ourselves that it’s extremely difficult to connect with others or to even relax. Try finding someone to connect with by asking them about themselves. Become interested in them and place all your awareness on what they’re saying. This helps us engage and removes us from our own self-concern.
3. Find your edge.
Know where you’re comfortable and where you feel like you’re going to have a panic attack. Somewhere in the middle lies your edge.
Your edge is the place you can go to that feels uncomfortable but not like you’re going to die. Hang out there, take some risks.
This might look like you starting a conversation with someone on your own, asking someone a question, making eye contact, or telling someone something about yourself that feels personal. Continue to practice living on your edge, and it won’t be your edge anymore.
4. Look deeper.
You can remedy things by watching and emulating those who excel socially. Or you could spend time getting to know yourself more deeply, facing the truth that maybe you’re afraid to show who you really are. Once we’re willing to face the things we’re hiding from we can begin to liberate ourselves from these deep fears.
5. Use your breath.
You can use your breath in the simplest way to reduce your stress levels. Take deep belly breaths very slowly. The slower and deeper the breath the more you activate your parasympathetic nervous system creating a relaxing environment in your body.
If you want to go for full transformation you could try breathwork and see what you discover about yourself.
There is a life free of social anxiety. When you choose to dig a little deeper and take steps to heal yourself, you’ll find yourself on a new path. On that path you may discover that you don’t even know who it is you really are. But once you discover yourself, you’ll see there is a whole world of people out there waiting to meet you.
About Michelle D'Avella
Michelle D’Avella is an author, Breathwork teacher and mentor. Her memoir, The Bright Side of a Broken Heart is available here. Download her FREE guide to heal your heart and follow her on Instagram for daily doses of inspiration.