Do you ever feel like it’s impossible to connect with other people? Does making small talk feel like a meaningless ritual? An increasing amount of people express challenges with social anxiety and struggle with the feeling of being alone even in a room full of people.
The pandemic has offered an opportune excuse for introverts and the socially anxious alike to avoid people. We can now work, shop, exercise, and exist without ever leaving our home – it’s even being encouraged! Now that pandemic restrictions are lifting, the thought of having to socialize again may be both exciting and petrifying after two years of adapting to isolation. The longer we avoid social situations, the harder it can be to jump back into them again, sometimes feeling pulled by the heavy currents of depression.
The struggle for many of us introverts is the conflict between our desire to feel safe in our space and our desire to connect with others. This might look like endless scrolling through Instagram pages and profile-swiping on Tinder from the comfort of our home while never making plans to meet people in person. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could instantly manifest a companion to be next to us on the couch watching Netflix and just skip the part of dating or friend-seeking altogether?
For some, smartphones have become the trusted companion we can depend on. We get stuck in this loop of constant sedation where our devices give us just enough access to people that we can observe them at a safe distance but avoid the sometimes painful awkwardness of engaging in person.
What keeps us stuck is often our fear of vulnerability – at the core of it, we don’t want to be rejected. Any time we reach out to others, there is the risk they may decline our request. For some, this is a fear worse than death. Many of us are bravely out in the world, meeting people, and yet still feel there is a wall preventing us from getting close to others.
Humans are extremely social animals – it’s in our biology! If this is true, why is it so difficult for us to come together and enjoy the company of others? It’s because of that other uniquely human feature that we ironically refer to as “monkey brain”. Our minds can imprison us by making excuses, telling us we’re not good enough, or imagining all of the worst-case scenarios. Why does our mind torment us so? Can you believe it’s really trying to protect us?
Perhaps at one time you were snubbed by your crush, bullied on the playground, or grew up in a home where you were shamed for being yourself—low key attachment trauma. We learn that being vulnerable or being ourselves isn’t safe. Instead, we go inward and our mind takes over. It says to us “be more sweet”, “act more confident”, “don’t joke around – no one thinks you’re funny”, “don’t even try talking to that person, you’re not as interesting as them and you’ll bore them”. Rather than taking the risk of being rejected by others, we simply let our minds bully us into submission and silence.
When this happens we are no longer present in the moment but instead, we are alone, in the darkest recesses of our mind. Our mind begins criticizing us, then we feel anxious and nervous, our heart rate rises, palms sweat, and we shut down. Now we think we’re acting strange and this provides more evidence to our mind that we’re screwing up! “I’m so nervous, this person will think I’m a total weirdo! I’ve blown it again!” Although it’s trying to protect us, our mind prevents us from connecting because it absorbs all of our attention. Rather than experiencing the other and attuning to them, we become self-obsessed with ourselves.
Social anxiety is an undoubtedly painful experience, however, it’s also challenging for the person who is trying to connect with you. They may feel like they’re being ignored and their need for connection is not being met – even worse, they may be feeling rejected by you! We’ve all seen the story of the intimidatingly attractive person that everyone labels as stuck-up or snobby when really they’re just as insecure and afraid of being vulnerable as the rest of us.
So how do we get past our mind to connect with others? Three ways to start: (1) Grounding, (2) Self-love, and (3) Inviting others in.
Grounding exercises help the body shift from our “fight or flight” response that is activated when we perceive danger. Relaxation methods like deep belly breathing help to switch off the sympathetic nervous system and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system that is responsible for recovery, rest, and digestion.
Grounding is also beneficial for quieting the mind and bringing awareness back into what the body is sensing and feeling. It is difficult for the mind to chatter when we are tuned into our five senses – just try it and see! When we are consumed by our thoughts, we cannot be present and connect to others. Once we quiet the mind, we create space to invite others to connect with us.
Self-love involves getting to know yourself, your needs, and how to give yourself those needs so that you can eventually ask them for them. You can cultivate self-love by tapping into your creativity and exploring what makes you happy. You’ve likely heard the phrase popularized by Rupual “If you can’t love yourself, how are you going to love anybody else?”
This saying is true because those who are not comfortable with themselves often look for someone or something to “fix them” and make them feel whole. They tend to enter relationships at a deficit and become more focused on how the other person will take away their pain. These people tend to be more focused on the outcome of being in a relationship rather than enjoying the process of getting to know someone. In this scenario, those around them begin to feel depleted because their needs are being ignored. This explains why someone who loves and gives so intensely may be called “selfish” – it is because their need to be loved is preventing them from being present and available to others. Many people enter couples counselling without having really learned deeper self-love first.
Self-love is a process that takes time and requires an individual to develop a relationship with themselves. One might start by exploring their needs. If we don’t know what our needs are, how can we communicate them to others to have those needs met? A good place to start is learning how to be comfortable and find pleasure in being alone with yourself.
For example, if you’re home alone on a Friday night you might ask yourself “how can I make myself the most comfortable?” If the plan is to cook dinner and watch Netflix, ask yourself “what is the food that my body is truly craving?”, “what kind of movie am I most in the mood for?”, and “what position would be the most comfortable to watch it in?” or “how could I be even more comfortable at this moment?”. By doing this, you will be taking the first steps at listening to your body and developing a relationship with yourself.
Inviting Others In
When we know how to make ourselves comfortable, we can then learn how to be more comfortable around others. Have you ever been around someone who is noticeably tense? It can be hard to relax around them. How about someone who is laid back and chilled out? They are generally more enjoyable to be around.
Learning how to be at ease within ourselves tends to draw people closer because a relaxed person’s body language will signal that they are safe to be around. A tense person may be unintentionally sending cues that there is danger nearby. If you’ve ever had pets, you’ll notice how they intuitively pick up on the feelings of their owners. For example, if you’re nervous riding a horse, the horse will sense that fear and become more easily spooked. It is the same with people – being comfortable in our skin makes those around us feel more safe.
Once you get an idea of what brings you joy, you then have the opportunity to share that with someone else. The fear of meeting new people can be replaced with the excitement of getting to know someone. Isn’t it a pleasure sharing what your favourite movies, interests, and activities are? Even if the other person has different tastes than your own, it can be stimulating to explore what it is they love about a certain genre of film or music.
When you’re present in the moment, you also become more aware of how others are responding to you. You’ll be more perceptive to body language and verbal cues that invite you closer or indicate that the other person needs some space. Interacting with others can become a playful dance where one another shares what makes them happy. Eventually, we begin to co-create intimate moments together which lead to healthy, fulfilling bonding experiences.
There is no one-trick tip that will cure social anxiety, make you instantly popular, or that will instantly manifest a romantic partner. However, you can begin the process of nurturing the relationship you have with yourself. In doing so, you’ll develop a habit of cultivating more bliss that you can either enjoy independently or share with others.
Part of inviting others in, may mean working with a trusted professional. I would be glad to connect with you for a free chat, otherwise you are welcome to learn about Thrive’s individual counselling, career counselling, low cost counselling and even psychedelic integration. Have fun on the journey and be patient with yourself!
Colter Long is a Registered Clinical Counsellor with years of experience at Thrive Downtown. He specializes in mental health, career advising, LGBTQ2A+ issues, goal setting, crisis prevention, stress, burnout, substance use and psychedelic integration. He offers various therapies, including CBT, mindfulness-based, and person-centred therapy. Contact to schedule a session and start healing.