How A Terrified, Socially Anxious Guy Finally Gained His Confidence
Social anxiety overwhelmed, controlled, and dominated most of my life. Interacting with a new group of people, or even just the thought of it, led to my stomach and mind filling with dread. I felt like I was drowning. I knew there was no way the situation would go well. And my experiences seemed to confirm it. I didn’t make new friends. People seemed to think I was odd. Or they appeared uncomfortable around me. I definitely wasn’t the person they wanted to talk to. Finding romantic relationships was nearly impossible. Who would want an insecure, anxious, fretting type like myself? But today, I’m happily married, own a house, and have a rewarding career.
Along the way, I tried nearly everything:
- Faking it ‘till you make it
- Just doing it
- Focusing my thoughts on something else
- Forcing myself into social situations
Exercise is actually great. It does offer amazing anxiety reduction. Mayo Clinic notes exercise and any physical activity at all improves your anxious or depressed mood. However, it didn’t solve my social anxiety long-term. Even it couldn’t keep social anxiety at bay.
Research by Clinical Psychology Review that compared CBT to other therapies found it failed “to provide corroborative evidence for the conjecture that CBT is superior to bona fide non-CBT treatments.” CBT didn’t make a profound change on me.
Today, research indicates medication misleads social anxiety disorder sufferers into believing they’ll get better without doing any work. I never thought medication would cure me, and it didn’t. It was hard to tell if medication helped.
But the problem was, I didn’t seem to make any progress. Sure, I’d get bits and pieces of calmness, confidence, and relaxation here and there.
However, eventually I seemed to find myself right back in the same old place as before. It was a horrible, depressing feeling to look at all the work I had put in, only to find myself having the same old struggles. Again.
But that all finally changed in the past few years.
Now, I’ve got a ridiculous amount of stress on my plate (a business that’s struggling, $100,000+ in medical debt, and a wife with severe health problems). Working on those issues requires frequent interaction with others, and often disagreeing with or confronting them.
And yet, while this does get stressful from time-to-time, it doesn’t cause me nearly the stress like I experienced in the past. For example, while talking with someone one-on-one, I could plummet into a tailspin of intense anxiety for 2-3 days if they just gave me a confused look.
…Now, I have 100 times the interpersonal stress I did then. And yet, I sleep well at night and don’t worry much during the day.
So how’d that change happen?
It wasn’t easy. Or fast. But here’s what happened:
- Finally Learned What It Meant to Have a Healthy Relationship with Myself
All the common anxiety treatments mentioned above address symptoms of social anxiety. Today, I believe that’s why I never really changed for the long-term. I wasn’t looking at the root cause of my social anxiety.
The root cause was I didn’t like myself. At all. I abused myself through an addiction. And nearly every behavior in my life was way out-of-control: I’d play videogames for 12 hours per day. I’d work 50 or more hours per week. When I exercised, I went full-tilt, took all the fun out of it, burned out, and hated it.
I worked on changing my beliefs about me. Today, I work around 45 hours max per week. I don’t play videogames. I rarely watch TV. When I exercise, I do it for the fun of it and to be physically and psychologically healthy.
Today, instead of doing other things to extremes I:
- Spend time growing my spirituality
- Read just for fun
- Enjoy time with friends
- Take some time for breaks
- Eat healthy food
- Never blame myself
- Allow myself mistakes
- Learned How to Serve Others in Nearly Every Situation
When I was struggling with social anxiety, I focused on me way too much. What would other people think of me? How would I perform? Would I make a mistake everyone else noticed?
If you look at those thoughts, I’m in every one of them. Too much of me.
So today, I serve others in all situations – big and small. I don’t just do what I feel like doing all week long and then volunteer one hour every few months. That still places too much of the focus on me
In a one-on-one situation, I try to genuinely understand the other person, listen, and care about what they have to say. I offer potential solutions here and there or try to steer them in the direction of taking action that’s in their best interest. But it’s my main goal to let them know I’m on their side and trying to help them with their concern at the moment.
Say a bigger situation arises. For example, a friend’s life was in crisis. He and his wife were going through a difficult time. I let him stay in a room in our house for $100 a month…just enough to cover any utilities he would use. And far lesser than any rent he would pay anywhere else.
What was my reward?
A self-esteem boost. These things help me feel good about me.
Note this doesn’t mean making myself “worse” than others. I still have boundaries. I don’t let others take advantage. I do the most possible for them, without harming myself.
- Made Tough Decisions For My Own Personal Happiness
Life up to this point has been anything but a straight-and-narrow path. While I’m happy and relaxed in most situations, I still haven’t gotten to that point where I’m thriving in all areas yet.
But just to get this far, I’ve had to make difficult decisions. For example, at one point I realized I had to limit contact with my own parents because of their negative attitudes on life. In conversations, I had to be careful which topics I brought up. Because in many cases, I’d get criticism or advice that only took me down a bad path.
This was an intensely painful realization once it came.
I left a career in the IT industry, which I got my first college degree in. Then, I went to college for 7 years to get a bachelors and masters’ in social work.
Realizing I would hate direct practice, I decided not to renew my license when it came time to do so. Having always wanted to be a social entrepreneur, I determined to make that a reality somehow…with no good plan for doing it.
I had seven years of experience in my profession, and could have been a manager. But I quit that career track because the prospects were actually quite dim…and being a manager irked my anxiety intensely at the time. I couldn’t handle it.
Looking back, those were all right decisions. I’m happier and less anxious because I’m closer to the life I dream of living today.
If I didn’t make those decisions, my life would be different. But I’d be living someone else’s life. And I would be tired, stressed, anxious, and unhappy.
- Became Vulnerable with an Unconditionally Supportive Social Network
I could not have made any progress exclusively on my own. When I tried that, it didn’t work.
You can’t be too vulnerable with other people in typical social situations. You can say you’re a little anxious, or that you struggle with anxiety around big groups. That’s because most people have at least some degree of that. They get it. But you can’t go way into depth about your innermost fears (as you might have found).
Sure, I’d talk to people about my fears and challenges from time-to-time too. But it wasn’t a habit. Not something I did daily. I had access to a network of people willing to support me through all my difficulties, and who I knew would not judge me.
But I didn’t use that network!
So my social anxiety got better sometimes. And then it got worse. Then maybe a little better. Then way worse. Up and down and all around it went.
Today, I have access to more than a dozen people I can trust to offer me safe, non-judgmental feedback and support. They only encourage me. They pick me up when I’m a little down. They help me see better ways to handle challenging situations than before. And they’ll pick up nearly any hour of the day.
Without this network, I’d fall to pieces. I’d get right back into the social anxiety again.
I have to talk to these friends at least daily, and sometimes a couple times daily. I may not be socially anxious and needing help the moment I talk to them. But, this habit keeps me connected with myself and others – and out of my isolation and social anxiety.
- Stopped Blaming Others and Took Responsibility
This was a tough one. For most of my younger life, I blamed my social anxiety and shortcomings on people and situations. “If other people would treat me nice and talk to me calmly,” I thought,”I wouldn’t be so anxious.”
Or,”I’m just not in the right job. If I were in the right job, I wouldn’t be so anxious.” And sometimes,”People just don’t realize how great I am. They only want to look at my faults.”
As long as I blamed others and focused on what they did wrong, my social anxiety didn’t change. I remained intensely anxious.
However, once I looked inward, instead seeing where I was wrong and how I could improve, things started to change. For example, if I got in a situation where I disagreed and the other person was being rude, it was on me to speak my mind anyway (instead of getting angry at the other person for their behavior).
Or if someone pointed out something I did wrong, I had to acknowledge I did it (rather than rolling around in shame because someone noticed my mistake).
This applied even if someone else was 99% in the wrong and I was 1% in the wrong. For example, I had a hard time standing up for my wife when the workers’ compensation insurance company was going out of their way to screw her out of money.
They shouldn’t do that. But they did. Instead of focusing on my anger and fear of their authority, what they did wrong and how they had to change, I had to focus on speaking up and advocating for myself.
Today, I Live Happily Amidst Overwhelmingly Difficult Circumstances
I won’t tell you that any of this came fast or easy. I don’t know of anyone who learns lessons like these in just a few weeks.
You can say you do. But whether you actually have it as an operating part of your personality is a different story.
It took a good 2-3 years to develop these skills. Practice. Trial. Error. And sometimes, steps backward.
But now that I have this, I wouldn’t trade the difficulty and decisions made for anything. They’ve allowed for lasting change and a new happiness and freedom from social anxiety I was unable to find with any other method.
About Dan Stelter
Dan Stelter is the author of Anxiety Support Network, where he helps socially anxious people heal, express themselves without fear, live up to their full potential, be their true selves, and live life to the fullest. Get simple strategies for all five when you sign up for his free e-mail course.
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