One of the best pieces of advice I ever received, when fretting over how I would ever cope in social situations, was so simple and so effective.
Ask people questions about themselves.
This seemingly common-sense and rather obvious method of communication hadn’t really occurred to me.
Because it was all about me. My fear. My awkwardness. My embarrassment. My anxiety.
I’ve said before, that when you’re struggling with your mental health, there’s a tendency towards self-obsession. Like the whole world has nothing better to do than watch your every move, rubbing its hands together in glee at the thought that you might slip up or embarrass yourself in some way.
So it’s only natural that people who think in these terms would struggle with social situations, largely in part because they go into them obsessing about themselves. Will they notice I’m out of breath? What if they catch me trembling? What if they think I’m weird? Will they tell everyone else I’m weird?
Rather than trying to control and stop these kind of thoughts, I’ve found it really helpful to take my focus on other people; to make it a challenge to find out more about them, while ignoring my anxiety.
If this doesn’t come naturally to you, and especially if it’s a situation where you’ll meet new people or it’s of some significance – partner’s parents or a job interview etc. – then why not prepare some beforehand? Write down 5 questions that you could ask.
For myself, I like to start with closed questions and follow them up. If I’m on a teaching course, for example, I might ask: What do you teach? What do you enjoy about it? Which school are you at? What’s the school like? What do you think about….? Fortunately, teachers really like to talk about themselves, myself included, so it’s easy enough to gain interesting responses and get to know someone.
The body cannot maintain the intense physical symptoms of anxiety for a sustained period of time, so if you can weather the storm for a few minutes, you should find that your symptoms calm and you find yourself nattering away at ease.
While you might have to prepare questions at first, it’s won’t be long before you’re naturally going into every social situation, genuinely interested in finding out more about those around you. Building up a memory bank of these positive experiences will also reinforce the message for your brain, that this isn’t a ‘threat situation’ so there is no need for the body’s protection (which presents as anxiety symptoms and panic.)
You may just find that the world, rather than waiting to laugh at your mistakes, is just waiting to talk about itself.