The Action Plan

Our relationships are the color of our life. When they are going well, they add depth and meaning to our day to day experience. However, when they are not healthy and functioning properly, they color our world with grey, and our emotional well being suffers.

Loneliness & The Struggle to Connect

Sometimes this lack of connection feels like a mistake on our part.

  • We make efforts to socialize, but leave the interaction feeling alone. 
  • We try to express ourselves, but end up being misunderstood.
  • We try to reach out, but end up falling short and protect ourselves by putting up a wall. 

We ask ourselves: "Why do I get nervous around other people? How do I stop being socially awkward? Why is it that the harder I try, the more I struggle?" Many times we want to connect, but it goes wrong because we simply don't know how.

How To Deal with Social Anxiety & Form Stronger Relationships

Practicing the following social skills and activities can help you in overcoming anxiety, so you can get more out of your social experiences and form more meaningful connections.

Step 1: Take the Pressure Off

What makes social anxiety so frustrating? Is it that the more you want something to go well, the more it seems to go wrong? Or that you are unable to communicate important feelings when they really matter? What about the loneliness you feel, even when (or especially when) you are in a crowd of people? Social anxiety affects millions of Americans, but when it's affecting you, it can feel like you are the only one. That's because isolating you is exactly what social anxiety does: it plays on your insecurities to make you feel alone, misunderstood and unworthy. You're not unworthy. You're definitely not alone. And there are ways to help you to feel less misunderstood. 

Shifting Your Perspective

Let's focus on overcoming anxiety in a way that allows us to get more out of our social experiences, and how to leave those obstacles of negative thoughts behind. This strategy consists of:

  • Managing your expectations
  • Increasing your level of self acceptance
  • Practicing putting yourself out of your comfort zone in a strategic way

Here are five concepts that can help you to shift your perspective on your anxiety and therefore better manage your expectations when it comes to social interactions:

1. Everyone has social anxiety to some extent.

Getting a little bit nervous when you meet new people or put yourself out there is part of life. Trying to completely eliminate social anxiety is unrealistic and puts an unnecessary pressure on yourself. This is an important  thing to remember as you start trying to reduce your anxiety, so that you aren't too hard on yourself.

2. You will never make everyone like you.

This is not meant to be a harsh statement, but a statement that brings relief.A lot of anxiety in social situations comes from having too high of expectations and then being disappointed when social interactions don't go perfectly.Little awkward moments here and there are a part of the process of socializing. So is meeting people who are just too different from you for you to get along with.Internalizing the truth that you will never be able to please everyone is a great way to take the pressure off and quickly reduce anxiety.

3. Do not let your anxiety scare you.

One of the most important things you can do is to allow your anxiety to exist without internalizing it or responding to it. Let your waves of anxiety come and go without launching into panic. 

4. No one is watching you as closely as you watch yourself.

A lot of social anxiety comes from overanalyzing and internalizing judgements that you think people are making about you.The good news is, this is often just in your head. No one is as harsh of a critic than a socially anxious person is of him or herself.

5. There will always be someone smarter, funnier, better looking, or cooler than you.

Again, this is not supposed to be a harsh statement, but a truth that brings relief to those who stress constantly about their social status.There will always be someone in the world who is "better" than you in some way, because most of these things are somewhat subjective anyway. Trying to compete with those around you is fruitless and makes your focus more about your ego than about making genuine connections with those around you.

Once you accept that you are just one more flawed, imperfect human, you can focus more on making connections and less on trying to make some sort of perfect impression on people.

Step 2: Practice Personal Acceptance

 

Many things in my life began to change when I began to like myself. Shocking, I know. There came a point a couple of years ago when I decided I was going to stop the negative self-talk. I wanted to teach myself how to be happy by accepting myself unconditionally. I started wearing very little makeup. I began to schedule dates for myself. I cared a little less about the way people did (or didn’t) look at me. I was content and at ease with myself, especially knowing I had been working through hard battles of anxiety.

One of the best things about self-acceptance? It gives you a sense of peace you didn’t know you could exude.

When you begin to accept yourself as less than perfect, loving yourself with your own unique marks of beauty, you can live authentically and without anxiety on either shoulder. This is also the first step in overcoming social anxiety and being able to form meaningful relationships.

This isn’t about self-esteem, which can bounce up and down alongside life events. This is self-acceptance: accepting yourself flaws and all. Understandably, sometimes it’s not so easy, as it requires embracing yourself even when your self-esteem may have taken a hit.

Pay attention to yourself.

Self-acceptance requires awareness of what’s going on in your mind. Do you have a harsh inner critic who likes to be front and center? Are there certain things about yourself that you really dislike?

One of the key facets of mindfulness is acceptance without judgment. Love yourself like you would love another. Pay attention to the thoughts running around in your mind and answer back them with truth and gentleness.

Change your perspective.

One of the most trying years of my life was 2012, when I had a miscarriage. It was incredibly difficult, but through all the nights of tears, I remember saying to myself, “I cannot wait to meet the woman I’m going to be after I get through this.” At first, I was really good at feeling sorry for myself, but re-framing how I felt about tackling that year made a drastic difference. Growth is always uncomfortable. Emotions will always come and go, but keep an eye out for extreme self-blame. Be kind to yourself!

Remember what matters most.

At the end of the day, your own opinion of yourself is what matters most, and frankly—no one can love you more than you love yourself. Every single person on this planet struggles with self-esteem at times, whether or not doubt is shown: we’re human. When you step into acceptance and let yourself be vulnerable, you’ll invite others to step into their own.

If you're feeling down on yourself, take some time to reflect on all of the things you've accomplished so far. Even if you're not where you want to be, you have learned useful lessons that can help you get started now.

Step 3: Open Up

This quote from Jeff Brown pretty much sums up the beauty of embracing vulnerability:

"When we are young, it’s the illusion of perfection that we fall in love with. But, as we age, it’s the humanness that we fall in love with- the poignant story of overcoming, the depthful vulnerability of aging, the struggles that grew us in karmic stature, the way a soul shaped itself to accommodate its circumstances."

The failure to be vulnerable is one of the biggest roadblocks to effective connection and communication. Our anxiety causes us to put up walls in order to protect ourselves from getting hurt, but as a result, we end up never fully connecting with those around us, which hurts even more. Learning to be vulnerable with those we love is one of the most important steps to truly feeling loved and understood, and it is worth the effort to try and recognize and break down the walls we have built for ourselves.

Why do we fear being vulnerable?

More often than not, it's a question of ego. Our ego likes to believe that we are strong, indestructible, and better than others. Our ego allows us to view vulnerable people as weak. It keeps us shut off, cut off, and convincing others that we have it all together. Sometimes we even manage to convince ourselves.

This is what our ego does, because deep down we are terrified. Of dying, of hurting, and of failing. So we build up our egos, which are basically little voices that tell us that we are the exception, that "those scary things will never happen to me."

But there's no room for authentic human connection when you are letting your ego direct things. How can you connect on a human level if you are busy trying to convince yourself that you are some sort of super-human?

How do I break down my emotional walls?

This is where vulnerability is so important. Humans, all of us, are vulnerable. We are vulnerable to the elements, we are vulnerable to illness, we are vulnerable to aging, to failure, to losing our loved ones and possessions. That's the vulnerability of life. To deny this is to cut yourself off from the very experience of life itself. And connecting with other people is all about sharing this life experience. 

Allowing yourself to be vulnerable with others means first accepting vulnerability in yourself. And this is not always easy, because to accept vulnerability means to accept your fears, and to be willing to share them with others.

Take this step. Open your heart up to the realization that you are flawed, mortal, and scared. And allow other people to share their flaws, mortality, and fears with you. If you do, you will see a sincere difference in how you connect and you will feel less alone, which ultimately is the goal of this series. Below are some tips for getting started.

1. Admit your flaws.

The first step in accepting your vulnerability is admitting your flaws. Not sure what your flaws are? A good way to figure it out is to define what you are the most defensive about, and what you judge harshly in others. These two things usually reveal what we are insecure about in ourselves.

2. Open up to those around you.

Simple as that. Divulge your shameful secrets. Express your hidden fears. Embrace your humanity and the scars that make you who you are. 

3. Visit the sick and elderly, and volunteer for the less fortunate.

Visiting the sick and/or elderly  and volunteering isn't just good for the soul and a kind act, it reminds us of our vulnerability and mortality in a beautiful way. This may be why so many people avoid doing it. Once you humanize the people who are less fortunate than you or who are sick and aging, you find it harder to distance yourself from them in your mind.

Step 4: Listen Better

"We have two ears and one mouth for a reason."

Improper listening is one of the most overlooked reasons why people struggle to make meaningful connections and, consequently, suffer from social anxiety. How often have you had a conversation with someone where you felt like they were just waiting for you to stop talking so that they could respond? What about a time where you expressed yourself to someone, only to have them say something that proved they really weren't listening closely to what you said?

We can all remember times where we have felt hurt or offended by someone not listening to us. That's because when we don't hear each other, we don't understand each other. If you are desiring more meaningful connections, try these tips to improve your active listening:

1. Occasionally summarize what the other person is saying.

Show that you are listening and so that you make sure you are understanding.

2. Use it as an opportunity to discover more.

When the person finishes sharing something, instead of launching into a story you've been waiting to tell, ask them a question about what they just shared. Let the focus stay on them for longer than you normally would, instead of jumping at the opportunity to talk about yourself again.

3. Make a connection.

Bring up something you remember that person saying in a previous conversation: a food they like, a memory they shared with you, or an opinion they hold. Example: "I remember you saying you love Starbucks, do you want to go there for coffee today?"

 

Just Listen

Listen to what the person  is saying, and really listen. Don't zone out, don't think about yourself, listen to what they are sharing with you and be honored that they chose you to share it with. It's about showing the other person that you are talking to them because you want to talk to them specifically, not just because you want to hear yourself talk. If you do these four things during your next conversation, I would be very surprised if you don't see an immediate positive reaction from the person you are listening to. Making a habit out of practicing the tips above is a great way to improve your mindful listening over time, and I guarantee that you will find your friends, family, and coworkers notice and appreciate this extra effort.

People want to feel heard. If you make an effort to make them feel heard, you will undoubtedly deepen your connections.

Step 5: Show your Gratitude

We often hear that gratitude is the key to happiness. In a lot of ways, it is also the key to meaningful communication and connection. Oftentimes relationships with those closest to us, be it your partner, your children, your parents; get eroded away over the years by resentment. Resentment is the opposite of gratitude. It's feeling like you deserve more than you got; and it's what happens when you build up expectations that don't get fulfilled. 

Resentment is a relationship killer.

It doesn't matter how justified you feel in your resentment, if you approach a relationship with the mindset that you aren't getting what you inherently deserve, then improving that relationship is going to be extremely difficult. (There are a few exceptions to this: Situations of abuse, neglect, and severe mistreatment cannot be fixed simply with gratitude. And if you find yourself in a situation like this, talk to a professional about next steps.)

Gratitude puts you in a better place to connect with others.

People that act entitled commonly struggle with social anxiety and maintaining healthy relationships because they are difficult to find common ground with. Being ungrateful is simply not a good way to live and makes you unpleasant to be around and difficult to work with.

Seeking out gratitude reverses your position from feeling "deserving" of things you don't have, to feeling undeserving of all that you do have. This leaves you feeling joyful, blessed, and happy. Chances are, if you are reading this, you have a computer and internet access. That already characterizes you as one of the most fortunate people in the world. That being said, there is no excuse to not practice gratitude. So how do you do it?

Make a Gratitude List

If you've ever read about gratitude, you probably knew this suggestion was coming. Gratitude lists are common, and it's because they are effective. Tomorrow morning, wake up ten minutes earlier and make a written list of all the things you are grateful for. Focus your list towards things you are grateful for in your relationships. Here is an example:

  • I am grateful that I have a partner who values my opinion.
  • I am grateful I have a Wife who tells me she loves me all the time.
  • I am grateful that I have a brother who is always there for advice.
  • I am grateful that I have a boss who is considerate of the fact that I have kids.

 

PRACTICE THIS EXERCISE:

Write something about every person in your life with whom you would like to establish a deeper connection. Focus specifically on relationships you are currently struggling with. Here comes the hard part: Next, tell these people exactly what you wrote down. Call them, tell them in person, even include it at the end of an email. You don't need to tell them that you made a gratitude list, just find an informal way to mention what you appreciate in them. Doing this might make you feel a little vulnerable and that's OK. For some reason, letting people know what you appreciate from them can be disarming. But it will open up a dialogue and make them feel valued by you at the same time. And that is the first step forward in establishing a better connection.

Gratitude takes practice and repetition, so I recommend making this list once a month and continuing the habit of relaying your list to the people included on it. It might seem like a small gesture, but over time, it will have a large impact not just on how the other person feels, but on how you view your relationship with them in general.

 

Photo courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez
"I began to realize how my negative thoughts controlled my physical well-being. I made a plan to take charge of my life. My mother once told me, “Michael, you are a survivor.” The anxiety isn't completely gone, but whenever it returns, I hear her voice in my head. I know the feeling will pass, and I will be OK. Her positive affirmation, along with my coping strategies, make the most difficult of circumstances seem manageable."
Michael T., Community Member

Michael T. Community Member

"Fortunately, I learned to control my panic attacks through therapy, reading self-help blogs, and my amazing best friend, Stephanie, who has always been there for me and never passes judgment. After patiently listening to me, she could always ease my fears and anxiety. Although I still worry and get anxious, I haven’t let my anxiety disorders control my life: Now I control them. Please do not feel ashamed to get help because I can promise you this. Once you do, the quality of your life will improve tremendously. Mine has."

Stacy G.

Stacy G. Community Member

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