In my millennial circles, social anxiety has been a hot topic for several years. In comparison to most mental afflictions, social anxiety has become far more widely discussed and a lot of people I know claim to have it. If you look at websites that are frequented by people in my age bracket (like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post) you’ll see a lot of content concerning social anxiety and anxiety in general.
While I wouldn’t normally doubt someone if they say they have a mental disorder, I have learned to take the claim “I have social anxiety” with a grain of salt. For a lot of people, that statement is true, but for many others, they might just be shy or they occasionally experience awkward social situations.
People who truly experience social anxiety can have many different symptoms, but the overarching theme is deep emotional discomfort associated with regular daily social interactions. You may yearn to be part of a group or have a lot of friends, but the idea of walking up and saying hello to someone seems out of the question. Being introduced to someone might feel like a highly stressful audition and receiving criticism can confirm fears of worthlessness and inadequacy.
Social anxiety is particularly frustrating because the sufferer most likely knows their fears are irrational, but they have extreme difficulty controlling them, so they operate in a constant state of nervousness.
This type of situation can create a lot of problems if you have an office job or any other position that involves a lot of daily social interaction. Being a socially anxious person myself, I have to constantly push myself in new ways every day because I work in a huge office where I see new faces literally every day. As an intern, I was given 9 short weeks to make an impression and that task is made a lot harder if you aren’t a naturally sociable person. Forcing myself to speak up in meetings (even when I feel certain in my mind that everyone will be annoyed that an intern tried to voice an unwanted opinion), asking for help, and introducing myself to strangers around the office is something that is extremely unnatural to me. To make matters more challenging, the team I was placed on was made up of people who didn’t really like each other, didn’t communicate well, and wasn’t all that excited to be receiving a new intern. The members of my team would talk badly about each other and wanted me to take sides and agree with them. People threw each other under the bus when given the opportunity. All in all, the social environment was pretty uninviting, even for someone without social anxiety.
About halfway into my internship I realized that the problem wasn’t getting any better with time, and I was going to have to find a way to be social and make my mark among a very disjointed group of people.
So what do successful people with social anxiety do at work to get around their daily internal obstacles?
First of all, they take advantage of what their job has to offer. If you’re lucky enough to work somewhere that comes with perks like access to a gym or a skill building course, take a class! You may find that it’s easier to meet people and socialize in the less formal setting, especially if you can infer that you have a common interest with someone like coding or crossfit.
Second, people with social anxiety learn to appreciate their successful moments. As previously mentioned, you may take criticism extremely hard, so it’s important to savor your successes when they come along. If you only focus on the bad moments, you’ll want to hide yourself more and more.
Third, they make concrete goals. Sure, it’s easy to walk into a meeting thinking, I really need to speak up today, but then the entire meeting may pass without you saying a word. Instead, you might want to tell yourself, I’m going to say 3 things in this meeting today. Sure, you might not come up with 3 amazing, knock-em-dead insights every meeting, but giving yourself a number can make the goal seem more real and attainable. One of those comments might just be vocally agreeing with someone, but even those little comments can be important when you’re trying to make sure you’re heard.
Lastly, successful people with social anxiety recognize when they need help. If you start to think that your mind is interfering with your performance and you feel lost in how to fix it, you have to realize you might need to talk to a counselor or therapist to come up with a gameplan. It may sound extreme, but what’s more extreme is losing out on career opportunities because you aren’t leaning in.
Even if you don’t suffer from full blown social anxiety, I still think these tips can be useful if you need a little nudge every now and then. Especially if you’re new to the workforce and don’t exactly know what your place is.