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Welcome to Coping, Episode Eighteen.
Modern life provides us with constant opportunities to be scrutinized by others, and while few among us wouldn’t be nervous about giving a work presentation or a speech at a wedding, an ongoing fear of saying the wrong thing in casual conversation can really cramp one's style. "Conversation anxiety," though not itself a disorder, is an aspect of social anxiety that can make dates, parties, and work happy hours anywhere from mildly stressful to intolerable.
Social anxiety, per some experts, is rooted in a fear that you might accidentally reveal a fatal flaw about yourself, and end up getting socially rejected. On some level, socially anxious people believe that if they actually engage, then they risk showing their so-called flaw. Which is probably not actually a flaw. Read more about conversation anxiety and how to manage it here.
Ask the therapist: I'm paranoid that everyone's judging me—how do I control those feelings?
A: Your current paranoia is the work of anxiety at its finest. The good news? We don't have to give in to it.
My suggestion will probably not sound appealing to you, but you'll find that a lot of working through your anxiety is facing the fears that have been ingrained and reinforced for quite some time. Facing fears is not fun, just as a warning.
Anxiety is best challenged through exposures. Exposure is a fancy word for this process:
- face fear
- feel anxious
- overcome situation
- anxiety decreases
Simple enough, right? Of course, it's way easier said than done.
If your fear is that others are judging you, I would challenge you to purposely put yourself in situations where yes, indeed, people may judge you. Now that doesn't mean at important times—say, holiday dinner with the in-laws—but rather in small ways with strangers. Some things you could try:
- Ask for the nearest coffee shop while standing in front of one
- Pull for the bus stop one stop too early and then shout "nevermind!" when it comes to a halt (from personal experience, this one works!)
The purpose of this is to acclimate to these terrible feelings of anxiety so that they are not so terrible anymore. Your brain is always rewiring to new experiences, and your anxiety takes a back seat the more you put yourself in anxious situations. Sounds counter-intuitive but I promise it's true!
Finally, get closer to accepting this fear of yours. When a frightening thought enters your mind, like: Oh no! They're judging me right now, try talking back to it with a level of realistic expectations and acceptance: They might be judging me right now, which I can handle for the next few uncomfortable minutes. Or: They have a million other things they're thinking of right now, I'm not the center of the world. A bit of tough love gets us out of our heads and back to the present.
Michelle Lozano is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and member of the ADAA.
- Why does small talk makes some people so anxious?
- For those poor souls who experience this anxiety as nausea, or (horrors!) actual puking, there's a good physical reason.
- 30 percent of American women will develop an anxiety disorder, compared to 19 percent of men. What gives?
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