How To Face Your Bigger Social Fears Gradually
You can probably read through this article just as quickly as all the other ones on this site. But it's one of the most important and useful ones here, because it provides a framework for how you can work through your more difficult social fears in the most manageable way possible. The principles here can be used to work on other types of fears too.
Some of our fears are more minor and once we put our minds to pushing our comfort zone we can get used to them fairly quickly. If our fears are more intense it's not that simple, and we need to more slowly wade into things. The ideas here are basically my summary of well supported exposure therapy concepts that counselors have been recommending for decades. They're considered the gold standard for treating phobias.
While this article will focus on social fears, the ideas below can also be used to help you ease into doing behaviors that you want to do, but which you're feeling a little lazy about getting started on. Of course, when someone is feeling unmotivated about doing something, at times that's because some anxiety is at the heart of it.
Be at a point where you're really ready to make changes
The approach I'll outline below is the easiest way to face your fears, but even then it won't be totally comfortable. Facing a fear gradually with the aid of coping skills will make the task as pleasant as it can be, but it still won't feel great at times. The process also takes a few months of consistent work.
What this means is that you need to be at a place where you're really motivated to change. It's not unusual for someone to have a fear for years, but do nothing more than avoid the situations that scare them. Even if they hate how much their fear constricts their life, they still prefer that to the work and discomfort of getting over it.
If you haven't already, read up on the theories behind the suggestions below
This article is the practical 'how to' companion to this piece which explains the principles behind exposure therapy. It also talks about how applying the concepts to social fears is a little trickier.
Before facing any fears, start to get a handle on the distorted beliefs and thinking that contribute to your anxiety in social situations
Social fears are sustained by beliefs which amplify the perceived danger of certain situations. Most people with social anxiety have a wide variety of these beliefs, some of the big ones being "I'm a loser", "If I screw up in a social situation it will be terrible", "People are mean-spirited and constantly judging others", and "Every social situation is high-stakes". They also don't have the best attitudes towards nervousness itself, and usually think of anxiety as something that's horrible and must be avoided, as well as hidden from people, at all costs.
If you try to face your fears, but leave all your counterproductive beliefs intact, you're going to have a bad time. You'll go into every encounter feeling it's life or death. If it all doesn't go well according to your unrealistic standards, you'll come away with the wrong message and feel even more dejected and discouraged. You need to educate yourself about the faulty thinking behind the way you approach social situations, and try to have a more balanced, realistic perspective. These articles are a good start:
You've also got to try to develop a better relationship with your anxiety:
As I say elsewhere, changing your thinking won't eradicate your fears on its own. You need to face them to do that. Addressing your thinking and facing your fears tend to work in tandem: If you have some understanding of how distorted thinking impacts your social fears that will get you to the starting gate, where you can start facing them with a healthy mindset. Then, once you start facing your fears, make some progress, and have some more positive social experiences, that real-world feedback will help clean up your thinking further. You'll see firsthand that your old view of the world wasn't totally accurate. From there a positive feedback loop starts, where as you have more success you start thinking about social situations in a more productive way, which allows you to push your limits even further and attain even better results.
Have at least some idea of how to interact in the situations you're afraid of
Similarly, it will likely be unproductive and demoralizing if you throw yourself into scary interactions without a plan for how to behave in them. Do some reading ahead of time and form a rough idea of how to navigate the scenarios that make you nervous. For example, if inviting someone to hang out makes you anxious, memorize and rehearse some scripts for how to do it. If you're uncomfortable mingling at parties, read up on strategies for that. You don't need a bulletproof plan for every contingency you'll face - that's impossible and many smaller details you'll figure out on your own just fine - but at go in with some preparation.
Okay, on to the actual practical advice:
The key is to face your bigger fears gradually
In an ideal world we'd all be super courageous warriors with a bottomless supply of grit, willpower, and tolerance for pain. In real life it's not so easy. If someone's fear brings up enough anxiety in them it may be more than they can push through to 'just do it already'. Or even if they can manage to suck it up and force past their nerves once or twice, it's not something they'll be able to do consistently. The right way to go is with an approach that's more systematic and is designed to help smoothly guide you along as much as possible.
The proper Exposure Therapy way to face your fears is to treat it like you're building up your courage 'muscles'. If you're out of shape you can't just go to the gym, throw some plates on a bar and bench press your body weight. You have to work up to it. Similarly, as you tackle your lesser fears you'll build up the momentum and confidence to deal with the harder ones. Here's a general structure for facing your fears slowly:
Break your fears down into a hierarchy from Least Scary to Most Scary
I'll use the example of someone who is very nervous about talking to people they don't know at parties. To gradually tackle this fear they'll need a hierarchy of easier tasks they can work their way up. There are a variety of progressions that may work, and they'll be different for every person, but one could be:
- Go to a party and briefly nod and smile at several people
- Go to a party and ask several people a quick question, and then excuse yourself
- Go to a party and ask a friend to introduce you to several people
- Go to a party and introduce yourself to one person who seems friendly and approachable, and who you're not particularly concerned with whether you impress them or not
- Go to a party and try to join a group of approachable people. Don't put pressure on yourself to wow them or say too much. The idea is just to join them
- Go to a party and join a group and try to talk to them a bit more
- Go to a party and talk to someone who intimidates you somewhat, but who you'd still like to get to know
This article provides examples of ways someone might slowly approach other types of social fears:
I believe it's okay if not every step in the hierarchy constitutes a 'proper' way to expose yourself to your fears (i.e., you face it long enough that you no longer feel nervous). As long as a step is leading up to that, it's okay. For example, if someone is afraid of going to nightclubs, just setting foot in one for a minute may be all they can take at first. That's fine as long as they're using it as a jumping off point to stay longer next time.
There are several ways to practice less scary variations of your fear
When creating a hierarchy there are lots of ways you can come up with easier variations on the situation you're ultimately afraid of:
- Doing the same basic action as your fear, but an easier, less intense version (e.g., talking to someone approachable vs. someone you're more on edge around)
- Doing the same action as your fear, but cutting it off early (e.g., asking someone a quick question and making an excuse to leave vs. sticking around to talk, like you hope to eventually)
- Doing something different, and easier than, your fear, but which brings up the same feelings (e.g., instead of chatting to strangers at a party, chatting to shop clerks, or asking people on the street for directions)
- Practicing the exact thing you fear, but in a controlled, artificial setting. For example, role playing assertiveness techniques with a therapist, or in a social skills training group with the other members
- If someone is very afraid of something, initial steps may just be them imagining themselves facing their fear, or looking at pictures related to it
It can also help to start dealing with any other, non-social fears you may have, to build up your sense of self-efficacy towards overcoming your anxieties (e.g., someone working on their social fears is also faces their anxiety towards learning to drive. The boost they get from this may give them a push in tackling their interpersonal difficulties).
Different types of fears need to be tackled in their own way
Social fears can be categorized in terms of how they need to be faced:
- Some fears are of being in a certain environment, like a party or a dance club. Another example would be seeing a movie alone. In this case your goal for each fear-facing session is to put yourself in that situation. Eventually you want to be able to stay there long enough that you start to calm down and realize nothing bad is going to happen.
- Other fears are about certain types of interactions, like making conversation, approaching strangers, or inviting friends to hang out. The interactions themselves are usually short, so in each fear-facing session you should try to carry them out multiple times. The first conversation you have might be intimidating, but the seventh may feel quite tolerable. I realize this isn't always possible every time. Like you may not have enough invitations you want to make that you can ask lots of separate people to hang out each time you do it.
Start facing your fears, beginning with the least scary items
Whatever you decide to start with, the task has to feel easy and manageable. If the thought of doing it makes you shaky and nauseous, it's too much for you to handle right now, and you need to begin with something simpler. A big reason people quit on facing their fears and then declare that the process doesn't work is they jump straight to the more scary steps. Ideally your starter task should feel so simple that you think things like, "This is too easy. Do I even need to do this? Maybe I should start with something harder."
Only move up the ladder once you're fully used to the previous step. By 'used to' I mean that it hardly scares you at all, and is even starting to feel mundane and boring. For some steps you may reach this point in an afternoon. Others you may have to stick to for a few weeks. Don't be in a hurry to complete the hierarchy. That's another common mistake. There's no award for finishing quickly, especially if you rush so much you don't really lock in your improvement.
The relevant thing is facing the fear, not the outcome of the interaction
When you're exposing yourself a fear your goal is just to put yourself in a certain situation and get used to it. Don't worry about any other outcomes. If you want to get more comfortable chatting to people at parties, all that matters is that you're getting used to trying. For now it doesn't matter if you weren't an enrapturing story teller. If you want to learn to invite people out, as long as you asked it's irrelevant whether they said yes or not. Think long term. If you can get to a point where you're not as nervous around people, then you'll be freed to later develop any other social skills you need through trial and error.
Ideally you should practice facing your fear quite often
It helps to map out a schedule for how you'll work through each sub-fear. Not every fear lends itself to daily practice, but you can improvise. Like you may not be able to go to a party six days a week, but you could pledge to go to the mall and try to make friendly chit-chat with three strangers a day.
The more often you work on exposing yourself to your fears the better, as it keeps the momentum going. Going back to that exercise analogy, you'll tend to lose your courage 'gains' if you leave too much time between exposure sessions. Maybe not completely, but enough that you'll have to take some extra time to regain the few steps you lost.
Once you're on the scene, know some ways to get yourself to face your fear
When you've arrived at the situation where your fear is, you then have to take the final step of actually confronting it. It's very common to get there and then hesitate for a good while before taking the plunge. This article covers some ways to get started:
Once you're face to face with your fear, have ways to cope in the moment
Once you're facing your fear you're going to feel anxious. If nothing else, you'll start to calm down if you stick around long enough, but until then it helps to have some other ways to deal with your anxious symptoms. You can apply some of the ideas in this article:
Partial progress is an accomplishment too
It's also important to give yourself credit even for partial progress towards a facing a fear. For example, you may go out to several parties and not be able to talk to anyone for three outings in a row. However, on the first night you were only 40% of the way there. On the second night you were 70% close to doing it. And on the final evening you were at 90%. Maybe on the fourth night you can finally do it, and it wouldn't have been possible without those other three parties you attended, which may have appeared to be failures if you only looked at them in more simplistic "Either I talked to someone or I didn't" terms.
Reward and congratulate yourself every step of the way
While going through your hierarchy, every time you accomplish something you couldn't do before you should pat yourself on the back. More than that, you should also treat yourself. It doesn't have to be anything big, just something that adds a little oomph to your day and caps off the sense of accomplishment you probably already feel. This is just another effective Behavioral Psychology principle that makes the process easier to go through. It's sometimes surprising how less scary something can seem if you know that on the other side there's a treat and sense of satisfaction waiting for you. It frames the whole thing differently.
You can also use rewards in a different way to motivate yourself. You could specify something you like doing (e.g., checking your favorite websites), and then tell yourself you can't do that until you meet your fear-facing goals for the day. This approach can be extremely effective if you pick the right carrot for yourself. You'll find yourself sitting around at home thinking, "Man, I really want to check that news site. I guess I better get out there and try talking to people." Then, when you meet your daily objective, you're happy and proud of yourself and looking forward to the fun activity you've earned.
You will hit snags as you apply this approach
It's rare to plan out a fear hierarchy and effortlessly move your way up it. Usually you have to be flexible and make adjustments along the way. You may find you've got the order of things wrong. You could complete one rung and find their next step is too challenging, and needs to be broken down further or have some intermediate task put before it.
It's also pretty common to choose an early step that you find is too hard to do once you're face to face with it, even if it seemed simple on paper. You'll need to add something even more basic ahead of it. The main thing is not to get discouraged when these things happen and just keep making tweaks so the overall project is doable.
Another issue is that your progress may seem to slip at times. You may go out one day and face your fears easily, feel on top of the world, then try again tomorrow and find you're nervous once more. The key thing is to keep moving forward and focus on the overall progress you're making. When people start lifting weights it's not unusual for them to have the odd bad workout, even though they're getting stronger on the whole.
Experiment with dropping safety behaviors
A safety behavior is anything someone uses to partially shield themselves from the consequences of their fear. Someone who's terrified of giving presentations may always have some anti-anxiety medication on hand, just in case they need to take a pill or two before speaking. They may never actually use them, but just knowing they're available is reassuring. Another example would be a guy using alcohol at parties to provide courage, as well as a handy excuse for any social gaffes he makes.
Safety behaviors get in the way of overcoming fears because even if you successfully face a situation, in the back of your mind you can always reason, "Well that thing is still dangerous. It was just the safety behavior that got me through it." You're not fully experiencing that your fear is manageable, and that you can handle it without any precautions or backup plans. If you use any safety behaviors and they seem to help you at first, by all means stick with them. But as you get more advanced in facing your fears, try to drop them and go it alone.
These principles can be used in the shorter term to build courage as well
This article talked about how to gradually face your fears over a period of weeks or months. The same ideas of momentum and gradually working your way up from easy to hard tasks can help you bolster your courage in a shorter time frame. For example, if someone has to face a scary task in the evening they can confront some smaller, similar fears earlier in the day. That way, when the evening rolls around, they're 'warmed up'.