Yes, you can enjoy socializing again. But it might take a little effort. By Jenny Taitz
In some ways, you might think that Covid-19 would be a boon for people who relish alone time or who worry in social situations, but as a clinical psychologist, I’m noticing that despite socializing less, many of my clients are stressing more about connecting. Even those who generally describe themselves as extroverted are noticing social anxiety, an umbrella term for a common problem that exists on a continuum of intensity and can have a variety of triggers, from public speaking to participating in casual conversations to making reasonable requests.
It makes sense that you might feel uneasy with others if you’re feeling more frazzled, worrying about catching Covid-19 or have gotten used to taking an extended break from the usual ways you bond. Recently, after having a good conversation outdoors with a friend, I found myself feeling tense, wondering, Was that weird? After slowing down to notice the situation, my thoughts and my feelings, I pinpointed that my discomfort stemmed from our stiff parting, which, with the awkward air hugging and masks, felt a bit like amateur miming (though, of course, those were necessary precautions). When the pandemic hit, Oscar Montoya, 35, an improv teacher and performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, noticed he wasn’t his usual outgoing self. “I had nothing to talk about,” he told me. “And social media led me to think most people were thriving and I was doing worse.”
Whether you’ve long struggled with social worries or find yourself feeling unusually awkward around people during the pandemic, worrying excessively about potentially embarrassing yourself won’t help you save face; at its worst, it can shrink your life. And when social worries morph into social anxiety disorder, defined as persistent and intense social fears that lead to avoiding situations that spark those fears, it can reduce positive emotions, hinder achievements, fuel loneliness and lead to additional problems like substance abuse and depression.
The hopeful news is that it’s possible to feel comfort with others right now. In the steps below, you’ll learn proven strategies to find more inner peace around people.
Step 1: Set yourself up for present focus If you worry about social situations, you may find yourself stressing before, during and after an interaction. To exit this painful trajectory, start by doing some low-key preparation for meetings rather than overanalyzing. As I remind myself when thinking about doing my taxes, worrying isn’t problem-solving. Instead, focus on approaching what you can do to feel more at ease.
For example, if you’re heading on a second date and you’re nervous about appearing standoffish, saying something like, “I know everyone is taking a different approach to distancing, but I’m looking forward to seeing you and am being careful. Please don’t misread my body language as not wanting to get to know you.” The point is to set the stage for yourself to engage and relax more easily, while giving the person you’re with a dose of affirmation that will help them participate.
A client recently told me he felt more anxious than he imagined he would while presenting during a Zoom meeting. Once we dove into the details, he noticed that he was aiming to be the best speaker on the panel and that his preperformance jitters led to procrastinating around reviewing his talking points. Many people who worry in social situations habitually hold themselves to perfectionistic standards, then cope by avoiding. But it’s tough to muster the motivation to pursue something overly ambitious. Instead of aspiring to be exceptional, aim for a less paralyzing middle path of “good enough for now.” Step 2: Notice and swap your negative filter Take a moment to consider how you see social interactions. Many of my socially anxious clients frame connecting as performing before an audience, which of course gets in the way of feeling relaxed. So does taking a negative view of yourself, either because of a painful past, like a history of being bullied, or perceiving others as critical. “Social anxiety is largely driven by the perception that others hold exceptionally high expectations for us,” according to Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, a psychologist at the Boston University Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders whose own struggles with social anxiety led to her book “How to be Yourself.”
If you fear embarrassment, it’s easy to start to get distracted because you’re analyzing your performance while engaging with someone else. But no one enjoys talking to someone who is only partly listening; charisma actually hinges on you being present. Plus, by deliberately practicing seeing yourself in a more helpful way, you can feel less distraught. The next time your thoughts tend toward negative assumptions (“I’m not interesting!”) try consciously turning your mind back to objective reality, rather than attempting to read the other person’s thoughts. Learning to see your assumptions for what they are, just thoughts, also allows you to feel less lonely. In researching ways to treat loneliness, Dr. Christopher Masi and his colleagues at the University of Chicago found that reducing your own negative social judgments is the most powerful way to reduce feelings of uncomfortable aloneness. Socializing is no fun if you’re feeling critical of yourself or who you’re with.
Step 3: Shift the spotlight “Your attention is a spotlight and you get to choose where to point it,” according to Dr. Hendriksen. So rather than focusing on your own performance and aspiring to be the perfect mix of hilarious, beautiful and brilliant, or needing to report how you’ve made the best use of quarantine, consider truly paying attention to who you’re with. When you shift away from how you perceive others perceiving you and focus on a higher purpose, such as offering kindness, you’ll free yourself up to bond. While my intention is to empower my clients to speak spontaneously, for those who beg me for a concrete plan for a better conversation, I teach the acronym G.I.V.E.: Be Gentle, Interested, Validating and have an Easy manner. Created by Dr. Marsha Linehan, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, the technique stems from the concept that relationships thrive when we articulate empathy.
And if you happen to be alone and feeling self-critical, attending to others in your extended community is nicer than sitting with self-scrutiny. Many of my clients have noticed that rallying around causes has helped them reconnect with what actually matters, rather than losing themselves on self-critical detours.
Step 4: Create opportunities to grow as a person Another strategy I suggest when my clients are feeling socially anxious is to take a moment to list their social worries, like sharing an unpopular view in a group meeting, then set up situations to strategically practice acting more courageously. If you’re feeling like Covid-19 is taking you away from these opportunities, brainstorm ways to expand your repertoire of behaviors.
If you’ve always meant to work on public speaking, Toastmasters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving confidence around communicating, hosts virtual meetings. If you have a longstanding frustration with someone who matters to you and fear speaking honestly, perhaps with physical distance and increased appreciation for how tenuous our lives are you can reach out to strengthen the relationship. For my clients who feel so much of their worth connects to their appearance, I’ve been encouraging skipping complicated makeup routines yet still turning on their webcams for meetings. And if you generally drink to take the edge off social situations, plan a virtual happy hour and skip the booze to notice that it is possible to share without needing any chemical assistance.
Step 5: Learn to love your faux pas Rather than replaying your social mistakes, adopt the mind-set that being human (and flawed) is endearing. “When I perform, I can’t wait to fail,” Mr. Montoya said. “People crave humanity.” He teaches his students to celebrate moments of what he calls “oopsie,” as opportunities for self-awareness. Ms. Hendriksen added: “Real conversations are full of filler words and awkward pauses and derailments.”
Many of my clients who fear messing up find it helpful to have a specific menu of compassionate activities, like making a list of podcasts to play, for times they feel tempted to endlessly beat themselves up. If you struggle with perfectionism, it’s also helpful to practice safe slips, like sending a message in under two minutes, making a reasonable request or asking a neighbor whose name you can’t recall to remind you of her name. Remember that the people who we want in our lives will accept us if we accept ourselves. And if ever there was a time for nourishing connections, it’s now.
Jenny Taitz is an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “How to be Single and Happy: Science-Based Strategies for Keeping Your Sanity While Looking for a Soul Mate” and “End Emotional Eating.”