I’ve written extensively about my past experience with social anxiety and all the symptoms associated with it, in order to help other fellow introverts in this position. But it’s recently dawned on me that not every introvert who suffers from social anxiety is even aware that they do. Because once upon a time, I didn’t know that I, too, was stuck in social anxiety hell.
I used to think it was a fact of life. A collective motion we all went through, with some of us better suited to handle it than others. But the more time went by, the more I realized this was not the case. Although it’s a common experience for many of us introverts, social anxiety is not a universal plight.
Suddenly, my perspective changed, and it became uncomfortably clear that my reactions were indeed based on my own self-imposed internal limitations. As it turned out, I was the root cause of my symptoms. It was like putting on glasses after living an entire life in a haze. Something shifted within me. As I made my way to the other side, I realized that the grass was indeed greener. And that all this time, I was standing on decaying ground.
My brain had tricked me into believing that I was less than. After many years of falling below everyone’s expectations, including my own, I concocted an alternative version of myself. One that wasn’t deserving of anyone’s attention. One that was better off sitting quietly in a corner, avoiding any and all conflict, interaction, or dare I say, judgmental eyes. I allowed this version to fully take over the reins and inflict extensive damage to my true self.
I Was Living in a Self-Contained Social Anxiety Hell
Recently, I realized that the perfect analogy for this illusion is told by none other than the popular TV show Lucifer. Without going into too many details about the show’s premise, the biggest takeaway is that we’re all creating our own hell. A hell that places us in a constant loop. One that we find ourselves in, day in and day out. Like a broken record player, playing the same old annoying verse over and over.
See, in the show, those who end up in hell have their own room. Their own cell where they have to relive over and over the one thing they’re the most guilty of. A thing of their own choosing.
But here’s the interesting part. They can leave at any moment in time. The door isn’t locked. Should they chose to, they can walk away from their hell. Yet, none do, because they’re too focused on their guilt, completely unaware of anything else around them. They don’t even know they’re in hell.
And that’s exactly what my life was like when I was living with social anxiety.
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I Broke Free From the Social Anxiety Loop
It’s only when I started to pay close attention to what held me back, to what put me in that constant social anxiety loop, that I was able to tear myself away from it. Every time I swallowed my words for fear of retribution, hid in my office for fear of socializing, or clammed up at the idea of presenting, I pushed back against those feelings and made myself walk out of hell’s door.
I’m writing this post because if you, too, are experiencing social anxiety, I want to help. Like me, maybe you don’t even realize the extent of your anxiety, and you’re just living with these unnerving symptoms. Or maybe you do know you have it, but you’re not sure how to rid yourself of it. One thing’s for sure — healing is possible. You just have to believe it’s in your power.
4 Steps to Get Out of Social Anxiety Hell
Here are four steps that helped me break free of social anxiety that might help you, too:
1. Notice when — and under what circumstances — your anxiety flares up.
Keep a journal handy and jot down the instant you feel that knot in your throat. The one that keeps you from sharing your opinion, giving advice, or speaking up. Notice your body’s reaction and your mental state. Are you feeling nauseous? Are your palms sweaty? Do you want to give up? Are you questioning your worth? These are all symptoms of social anxiety. You want to make sure you’re an expert at pinpointing them. In this step, you don’t have to do anything about them, except acknowledge that they’re there.
2. Bring your loop to light.
Once you journal for a few weeks or a few months, go through the pages and count how many instances of social anxiety you experienced every day. Bring the loop to light. You want to know how frequently you fall into this trap. You might have heard of time tracking — which is all about knowing where your time goes so that you can reappropriate it accordingly. This is in the same vein as that, because if you don’t know that you have a problem, you won’t know how to correct it. Highlight every moment in time that made you feel socially anxious.
3. Pinpoint the root of your reaction.
Now that you’re aware of your social anxiety and when it kicks in, it’s time to analyze it when it happens. The moment you feel social anxiety creeping in, ask yourself the tough questions. Why am I feeling this way? What do I think will happen? Can I overwrite this feeling? Why not? Has this happened before? Really dig deep and self-assess your feelings. Try to pinpoint the root cause of your reaction. The more you do this, the more self-aware you’ll become of why your brain reacts in such a way. Once you have that knowledge, you can easily move on to the next step.
4. Intentionally act the opposite of how you normally would.
Once you have all the data and you’ve studied it, you’re going to be prepared to act upon an arising symptom. The moment you recognize that it’s starting, instead of going through the usual loop, break free of it immediately by resisting it. This means that you need to intentionally act the opposite of how you normally would. If you’re freaking out in class or in a meeting that your name is going to be called out, tell yourself that your name will definitely be called out. Be proactive in order to lessen your reaction. Don’t wait for the situation to happen to you. Instead, be ready with an answer to it. If the opportunity presents itself to speak up, don’t let the loop begin. Speak up without reservations, as if there’s no other option.
Getting out of the loop is not an easy process — I know, because I’ve been there. I simplified the steps, but I purposefully did so in order to help you see the big picture. The most important thing you can do for your mental wellbeing is to understand that you are (or aren’t) in this loop. Once that’s revealed, you’ll know what actions to take. If it just so happens that you are, go through these steps as much as you can (but it’s okay if your process looks a little different).
Because life is so much better when you’re not stuck in social anxiety hell.