For the 15 million people in the U.S. who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder, the fear of embarrassment in social situations can be paralyzing. Afraid of being judged or seen in a negative light by others, sufferers sometimes drop out of school and have difficulty working.
However, milder forms of social anxiety are also common — but still potentially debilitating, especially at work. People who are socially anxious do not speak up in meetings, are terrified of giving a presentation and are at risk for missing opportunities for advancement. If that sounds familiar, these tips might help you to keep your career on track.
1. Understand That Social Anxiety Is Not Introversion
Introverts simply prefer to work quietly on their own. To be introverted is not to be afraid of other people. Social anxiety, however, is a sense of fear or dread that causes sufferers to avoid calling attention to themselves. They are afraid that they will say the wrong thing and become the office laughingstock. The fear is real, but the thinking behind it has flaws.
2. Recognize Flaws in the Logic
People who are socially anxious assume that others are watching them, talking about them, and judging them. Think about standing in line at the grocery store. People with more severe forms of social anxiety will assume the people in the next line having a conversation are talking about them — and saying not very nice things about them. Worst-case scenario, they feel so self-conscious and bad about themselves that they leave without purchasing their groceries. The reality, of course, is that other people at the grocery store are thinking about their own lives and responsibilities. They are not paying attention to their neighbors; rather, they have their own sets of problems to worry about.
Those with less severe forms of social anxiety are able to run errands without incident, but may feel sick to their stomachs when asked a direct question in front of other people (in a meeting, for example). The sheer terror that other people will think what they said was stupid, or laugh and gossip about their answer later, causes those with milder forms of social anxiety to shut down and be unable to come up with an answer. The seconds that go by while people wait for an answer feel like hours.
If you’re in this situation, try to find the flaws in the logic. For example, if a coworker asks you a question in a meeting, realize that it’s probably because he values your opinion and believes that you have experience or insights that are worth considering. Trust his good opinion of you. If your mind goes blank, consider saying, “That’s a good question, give me a moment to think about it.” You can use that time to take a deep breath and craft your answer.
3. Keep a Journal
Keep a private journal. At the end of the day, write down when you felt afraid to speak up or go outside or interact with people. Think about the circumstances; for example, you were afraid to answer a question at a work meeting in front of everybody. What were you afraid of? Perhaps that you would say something wrong and become the laughingstock of the office. But, what else could be true? Maybe you were asked a question that relates directly to your professional background. What is the best answer you could have given? Doing this won’t change your previous experience, but it will help you start to change your internal monologue and perform better in the future.
4. Change Your Internal Monologue
When you have to meet with the boss, what are you saying to yourself? Socially anxious people are often worrying about all the mistakes they expect to make. This is another time when keeping a journal comes in handy. Listen to what you are telling yourself, and say something different. Instead of, “I’m going to make a fool of myself,” say, “The boss wants to talk to me about my project. This is what I have done so far. This is what I am planning to do next.” Instead of, “The boss will find fault with my work,” say, “I will tell the boss what I have done well, and how it helps the business.” Changing your internal monologue is easier said than done, but over time it gets easier. Over time, you may find you perform better because you develop positive self-talk.
5. Try Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
Don’t be afraid of meeting with a psychologist or therapist to discuss social anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of therapy that helps clients recognize there is more than one way to perceive a situation. It is proven to be a most useful intervention for the socially anxious. You don’t have to go it alone!
Again, fear of calling attention to yourself and being judged by others holds people back at work. It causes people to perform less well in interviews, or in some cases not go to interviews at all. Socially anxious people do not demonstrate their knowledge or skills at work, so they do not receive credit for what they can do. This results in lack of advancement and promotions. However, you can learn to overcome mild to moderate forms of social anxiety by rethinking your assumptions about what others are thinking and improving your own self-confidence.
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