I’ll be honest.

Social interaction can be scary.

What if you don’t know what to say?

What if you do something awkward and people laugh at you?

What if you get rejected?

Social interaction is supposed to be fun. But when you are struggling with anxiety, it’s hard to enjoy spending time with others.

Fortunately, there is a way to overcome your fear. You can’t turn off fear entirely, but you can keep it from controlling you.

To do this, you need to understand the difference between true fear and physical fear.

True Fear Vs. Physical Fear

  • True Fear is a good thing. It’s your body’s way of warning you about danger. If a bear ambles into your campsite, you will feel a jolt of adrenaline, your heart will start pounding, and your brain will start screaming THAT IS A BEAR. Because of this fear, you will drop everything else that you’re doing and work to protect yourself. Your body uses true fear to keep you safe from real danger. 
  • Physical Fear is when your body activates the fear response even though there is no real danger. When a monster jumps out during a scary movie, you might experience the exact same physical response that the bear in your campsite triggered. The difference is that while a bear can hurt you, special effects cannot.

Your body doesn’t understand the difference. But you do. You can enjoy a scary movie because you know the difference between a harmless movie monster and the real danger of a bear. And you can enjoy social interactions by learning to distinguish between physical fear and true fear.

Think about it for a minute.

Your fear in social interactions is almost purely physical fear, not true fear. You might be afraid that you will do or say something awkward, or that others won’t like you, or that others might judge you. But you know what? Probably none of those things will happen. And even if that does happens, it’s ok.

Say it with me. It’s ok.

Social Anxiety = Physical Fear

If you’re talking with someone and say something incredibly awkward, what will happen? Well, you’ll feel embarrassed. The other person might become upset, or they might laugh at you. But then you’ll recover.

The conversation will move onto a different topic. The other person will forgive your awkwardness, and will soon forget it entirely. Worst case, you will try again in a new conversation with someone else.

No real harm is done. Nobody was mauled by a bear.

Social interaction is supposed to be fun, and failure is not a big deal. Read that again. Failure is not a big deal. If you mess up in one social interaction, no permanent harm will be done. Take a deep breath, remind yourself that nobody was mauled by a bear, and go strike up a conversation with someone new.

Now, there is an exception to this rule. If you do something to upset or offend someone with whom you have a long-term relationship (like a longtime friend or a coworker), then there may in fact be real consequences since you might damage the relationship. But you have to seriously upset or offend someone in order to cause lasting damage, and if you are making an effort to be sensitive to their feelings, that is unlikely to happen.

Plus, normally your greatest anxiety is not caused by the people that are close to you; it’s caused by people you don’t know very well. When you don’t know someone well, there is no relationship to damage and therefore no real danger.

Freedom From Fear

So next time you feel your anxiety peaking at the thought of a social interaction, remind yourself that it’s only physical fear. Social interaction can’t really hurt you (even if you make a mistake.)

I know this reminder won’t make the physical fear go away. Your heart might still race and your palms might still sweat. But you will have the courage to face down that fear.

Of course, overcoming fear is a process. Your fear might be extremely powerful, especially if you have social anxiety disorder, or if you have experienced painful bullying and rejection. And if that’s the case, it’s ok. I don’t expect anyone to read this lesson and instantly banish fear.

Instead, I hope this lesson encourages you to take small but steady steps away from fear. Find a goal that seems scary but doable, and use your knowledge of true fear and physical fear to help you accomplish that goal.

Don’t worry if the first time you attempt the goal you fail—remember, failure is not a big deal. And don’t feel that you have to accomplish this on your own. If possible, ask family and friends to support you, or find a support group.

(I also recommend that you consider seeing a professional counselor. As I mention elsewhere, counselors can be incredibly helpful, and there is no shame in talking to one. If you’re really hurting and you need to talk to someone right now, just call 1-800-442-HOPE and you will be connected to a volunteer counselor.)

The important thing to remember is that anxiety is something you can overcome. It will take time, and it may take the support of friends, counselors, and loved ones, but you can overcome anxiety. Just take small steady steps towards your goal, and remember that no matter what physical fear might want you to believe, you don’t need to fear failure.

Be courageous.

DanOvercoming Fear and Social Anxiety