“Be yourself” is a refrain most of us have heard far too often. It’s what we’re told when our parents drop us off at preschool, when we go to our first party, and when, as adults, we’re thrust into any new situation where interacting with others is mandatory. Sometimes, as if “being yourself” isn’t hard enough, we’re told to “have fun” in the process. But how do you figure out what “yourself” even is as you’re struggling with the social anxiety that comes from just trying to make your way in the world?
That’s something that Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders and host of The Savvy Psychologist podcast wants to help us figure out. Her new book, How to Be Yourself: Quiet the Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, explores the topic from every angle. But Hendriksen’s not just talking from a research perspective; she’s also candid about the fact that she struggles with social anxiety herself. The book, she says, is made up of tools she wishes she had years ago. We talked to her about social anxiety, why it endures, and the surprising ways that it can be overcome.
Where does social anxiety come from?
The analogy I like to use is that when we're born, we all have a chunk of Play-Doh that’s the raw stuff of our anxiety. Some of us have a lot of it, and that's conferred by genetics and temperament. Some of us have a little. But all of us have some.
Over a lifetime of experiences, that Play-Doh gets formed and shaped into whatever our specific anxiety is going to be. Sometimes there's a lightning strike—there's a moment you can point to and say, "That's where it started.” Maybe somebody got bullied, maybe someone’s parents got divorced. More often, those exact moments are impossible to pinpoint. It's just additive.
We’re social animals, we're programmed to want to get along. We need each other. We pay attention to what the group thinks of our standing. We doubt ourselves in order to check ourselves. It's part of the human condition.
Our anxieties are trying to keep us safe. They’re trying to be helpful by making bad stronger than good. Because you don't need the good for survival. If we missed those negative things, if we weren’t biased towards negativity, that could cost us way more than not being attuned to those things.
It doesn’t sound like we're particularly good judges of when we’re staying safe and when anxiety is preventing us from living the lives we want, though.
Anxiety tells us two lies: The first lie is that whatever the inner critic—the negative voice in your head — is telling us or predicting is going to happen. We're predicting that people will laugh at us, we're predicting that we'll make fools of ourselves, we're predicting that there's no way something can go well.
When we avoid, we don't get the chance to learn that the worst case scenarios we build up in our heads are not a foregone conclusion. There’s a possibility that something bad could happen, sure, but it might not even be probable. But when we avoid, we don't get to learn that. We miss out on building evidence to the contrary.
The second lie anxiety tells us is that we can't handle it. It says, "Well, why don't you just sit this one out and stay safe? Don’t risk it!” And then again we miss out on this evidence that we’re capable and can handle what life throws at us.
By avoiding, we don’t create experiences that we can draw on in the future to tell ourselves that, "Hm, last time I tried something like this, it was actually okay. Maybe I can try this next thing and that will be okay too. Even if it's not, I can probably roll with the punches.”
So how do you fight the inner critic? One of the things I do after an anxious experience is ask myself, “Okay, you went through it, it was uncomfortable. But did you die?”
There are two buckets of tools. The first bucket is change and that's where you can fight the inner critic. I think when you ask "Did you die?" you’re doing exactly that. You're asking yourself to take a look at what actually happened and look at the situation more realistically.
In order to argue with the inner critic, you have to specify what you’re afraid will happen and then see if the feared outcome actually occurs.
What happens, often times, is that during a presentation or during a conversation or during a performance, we base how we think it went on how we feel. If we felt anxious, we decide that it must've gone terribly. What we actully need is more information.
One of my favorite things to do when I’m working on this with a client is to take a video of them doing whatever it is they're afraid of and then substitute what their anxiety says will happen with what actually happened. And those things are often very, very different.
What’s the other bucket?
That’s the acceptance bucket. And by acceptance, I don't mean we're resigned, like, "Oh, I guess this something that I'm gonna have to deal with for the rest of my life." No, I mean you need to see all of those critical thoughts that are coming into your head, to recognize the physical sensations of anxiety that our bodies are experiencing, and to be mindful of them instead of acting on them.
We need to get some space between us and our thoughts and sensations. Instead of being under a waterfall with it pounding on your head and flowing all around, you’re behind the waterfall. You can still feel the water coming down but you're not swirling around in it and letting it push you down.
Is there a simple technique one can employ to foster change and acceptance?
When we're anxious, especially when we’re experiencing social anxiety, we tend to focus inward. We focus on: How are things going? Am I screwing up? Is this going alright? Am I standing weird? Did what I just say sound stupid? Will people like me? She shifted in her seat, does that mean she's bored? Did I just offend her?
That leaves very little space to engage in what's actually happening in the moment. We’re so focused on our internal commentary that we don't have enough bandwidth left to not spill our wine or not to trip over our own feet. And that can create even more anxious moments. That’s the true, cruel irony of social anxiety.
In the moment, the really easy tip is to turn your anxiety inside out: If you're talking to someone, look at their face. Listen closely to what they’re saying to focus your attention outside yourself.
There's a neat little exercise—it’s from David Clark of Oxford University. He said, "Go out and have two conversations. In the first conversation, focus on you you you. With the second conversation, focus on them them them. Afterwards, ask yourself “Which conversation was more pleasant, which was more productive, in which were you less anxious?” The most pleasant and productive conversation is almost always the one in which you focused outward.
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In the book you mention that many people use something called “safety behaviors.” Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
These are the things we do that try to artificially reduce our anxiety in the moment.
We might scroll through our phones so that we don't have to talk to people on the subway. We might wear sunglasses so that we don't have to make eye contact. We might hover on the edge of a group rather than moving into the middle. We might wear a turtleneck because we're afraid we'll blush. The little things we do to try and conceal our anxiety are the very things that are getting in our way.
If an interaction goes well, we might attribute it to the safety behavior: "Oh, they didn't notice I was weird and blushing but that's because I had my turtleneck on” or “They didn't think I was totally boring because I rehearsed all my sentences beforehand” or “Nobody tried to talk to me on the bus because I had my earbuds in.” But that keeps us, again, from learning that horrible things don't happen, and it keeps us from learning that we're capable.
So what do you do if you’re walking into a party and you’re nervous and you think, like you mention in the book, "I have to be the smartest, coolest person in the room”?
That’s perfectionism, and that's a huge part of social anxiety. We think we have to come off as effortlessly witty. And because we put so much pressure on ourselves, we don't say anything, or stand silently, or wait a long time to jump into the conversation. What I would say is try to lower the bar.
There’s a wonderful chapter in a classic self-help book called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns. It’s called ”Dare to be Average,” and that's just a perfect phrase. I would say dare to go into a situation and don't try to be your best self. You can leave it behind. It doesn't have to be out on stage all the time. It's perfectly okay not to be your best or what you perceive other people think should be your best. Drop your safety behaviors. Turn your attention inside out and things will go so much better.
Fear of missing out and the fear that all our friends don't like us—and are hanging out without us—are some of the most common concerns when it comes to social anxiety. What do you say to people who are struggling with this even though research suggests that our fears are unfounded?
First, let me just validate that FOMO is tough—it leaves us feeling envious and insecure. Studies show that young men in particular struggle with FOMO.
The language of anxiety is sweeping and vague: "All my friends don't like me." A great way to challenge that thought is to ask, "What are the odds?" What are the true odds that every single one of your friends secretly hates you and is acting out an elaborate charade? Probably low. More likely, your friendships have their ups and downs, but friendships can weather some variation.
Something I've discovered often happens is that individuals with social anxiety wait to be invited. They may hint, "Hey, what are you up to?" but let others make the plans or initiate hanging out. This can come from a fear of having others think our ideas are lame, or a fear that if we initiate, no one will show up. But try initiating. Get into the habit of initiating specific activities—not just "Wanna hang out?" Then you're not at the mercy of your friends' social plans.
We’re told to “be ourselves” so often, but how do you know when you’re being your authentic self?
I think your authentic self, at least in terms of social anxiety, is the self you are without fear. The self you are when you’re in solitude or with your good friends or with your partner whom you trust. It’s when you’re unselfconscious—not monitoring, not checking, not trying to manage anybody's impression. You’re just in the moment. That, I would argue, is your true self. The things that remain the same in every context—our loyalty, patience, responsibility—are the things that make us our true selves. Those are the things to hold onto.
Of course, there is such a thing as professionalism. You're going to be slightly different in front of a classroom than you are hanging out with your friends. We need to change how we present ourselves slightly based on the situation, and that's appropriate. Actually, people with social anxiety are really good at that. We are attuned to situations, so we're actually really good ambassadors and diplomats.
That's something important: Social anxiety is a package deal and it’s bundled with some really good traits, like having high standards and being conscientious and caring about people. So there is a flip side to social anxiety; it does come with some really good things that we don't want to let go of.
What’s the first step you would suggest somebody who is socially anxious take on the path to becoming themselves?
Choose some specific little things that make you a bit anxious and do them—whether that’s saying “Hi” to a friend that doesn’t notice you or speaking to the cashier instead of using the self-checkout or not putting your earbuds in so people talk to you.
Take that tiny leap of faith. It doesn't have to be a huge thing. You don't have to do a cannonball into the deep end, you can inch into the pool. Test out some little things so you can start accumulating evidence that the worst-case scenario doesn't usually happen. Usually things are fine, people are friendly, and you’re capable. You can do this.
Social anxiety doesn't change in real-time. I think it's important not to expect that “Hey! I did it!” sense of immediate accomplishment because what I've seen time and time again, either in my own life or in my clients', is they only realize they've made progress when they look back. They say, "Hey, I never would have introduced myself to a group of strangers at a party before. I never would have gone to karaoke night. I never would have gone to a holiday party without a strong urge to stay home. Now suddenly I do that. I guess I made progress. I guess I'm not as anxious as I thought."
I call that "the moment" in the book. You have these moments. You look back and think, "Hey, I did that! Interesting.”
What do you say to someone who just doesn’t feel ready to take all that on?
Oftentimes we think we need to feel confident before we try something, but it’s actually the opposite order. A nice way to illustrate this is to think about mood. We often feel like we need to feel like doing something before we do it. We need to feel like going to the gym before we can go exercise or we have to feel like logging off and going to bed before we actually shut our laptop. But that's not actually the case.
If we put behavior before mood, our mood will catch up. If we just go to the gym, once we're there and start exercising, we usually get into it and then we're glad we went.
Building confidence works the same way. We can't retreat from the world, become confident, and then go on and live our lives. We have to build our confidence by living our lives. We have to do the things we want to do, build the evidence that horrible things don't happen, and learn that we’re capable by doing things before we’re entirely ready.
So just be kind to yourself and do it anyway?
We can accomplish things much better and much more easily from a supportive, caring environment than a punitive one. If we’re angry at ourselves or try to flagellate ourselves into doing things, that's not going to work very well. If we’re kind to ourselves but still make ourselves do the things that make us a little anxious, that's the best way to build confidence.
Say you’re doing all that and you’re anxious right now. What’s one fast thing you can do to reduce your anxiety in the moment?
There’s a quick mindfulness hack called "5-4-3-2-1" that helps pull us out of anxious worry or rumination and grounds us in the present. Essentially, you tick your way through your five senses and name 5 things you can see at this very moment, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel (like your feet in your shoes, your bum on a chair), 2 things you can smell, and one thing you can taste, even if it's just the inside of your mouth or a sip of cold water. This can be done quickly and inconspicuously. Bringing our attention to our senses grounds us in the present and counting the items interrupts the spinning of our thoughts. From there, you can gather your wits and use some of the other tools, like turning your attention inside out or dropping your safety behaviors.
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