Examples Of Ways To Gradually Face Various Social Fears
In another article in this section I explained why it's important to directly face any social fears you have. For some more minor fears, just knowing you have to get out there may be all you need, and you can go out and start pushing your comfort zone on your own fairly easily. For social situations that cause more intense anxiety simply taking a deep breath and going forward doesn't tend to work, and the solution is to face your fears gradually. In that article I gave one example of how someone could slowly and manageably get more used to talking to strangers at parties. This article will give examples of ways to gradually confront many other types of social fears.
The progressions I'll give are just rough suggestions about how someone could systematically work through a fear. They don't have to be followed exactly, and everyone should make their own custom hierarchy of Least Scary to Most Scary steps. You know your issues better than I do, so don't be afraid to come up with a plan to face your fears that's unique to you. You can skip certain suggestions, or invent new ones.
Some steps you'll see in many of the examples
In a lot of the examples I'll give the following as easy, safe first steps to ease into a feared activity:
- Practicing and acting out certain lines or situations alone
- Role playing with supportive friends or family members (if they're available and you're okay with sharing your social struggles with them)
- Role playing and practicing with a counselor, support group, or social skills training group
Of course, I'm not saying you have to seek professional support to work through your social fears. This won't be necessary for every situation. However, if you do have access to these supports already, and are comfortable seeking help in this way, they can be a useful option.
Here are the example fear-facing progressions, in no particular order. Again, refer to the article on gradually facing your fears for guidelines about applying this overall approach.
Feeling awkward about starting conversations with people you don't know
This is a very common one. The types of strangers you may feel hesitant to talk to, or the circumstances you do it under, can vary.
- At home alone, role play various ways you could start a conversation with someone.
- Role play starting a conversation with a friend, support group, or counselor (again, don't feel you have to do every step listed here if you think some of them wouldn't apply to you).
- Go to a mall and try to make some quick, friendly chit chat with store clerks, who have to talk to you. Start out by asking for their help with something, then try to ask them about an innocuous subject like how their shift is going.
- Go out in public and just smile and nod to a few non-intimidating strangers, such as old ladies.
- Go out in public and quickly ask a few non-intimidating strangers for the time (you can say your phone's battery died if you're worried people will wonder why you're asking, but most won't care either way and will just answer you).
- Go out in public and ask a few non-intimidating strangers a quick question, like asking for directions to a certain store, or asking someone at a supermarket about the right type of onions to buy.
- In public, try to have a brief, friendly conversation with some non-intimidating strangers (e.g., commenting to someone about the long line up at a pharmacy, and seeing if they start chatting to you.)
- Try to engage someone in a longer conversation. You won't be able to get everyone talking, but see if you can't do it for at least a person or two (e.g., at a book store, ask someone about a book they're looking through, then try to talk to them about authors you both like).
- Go to the type of environment where you're having trouble talking to people (e.g., at the neighborhood pub). Do the four steps above with people who don't intimidate you, or whose approval you don't feel you need (e.g., chatting to a middle-aged patron if you're younger).
- Do the steps above, but work your way up to more and more intimidating people.
Feeling nervous about inviting people to hang out with you
- At home alone pick a few ways to invite someone to hang out and practice them. If you're practicing asking someone in person, say the lines out loud. You could also practice composing invitation text messages or emails, or putting together an event on a social media app.
- If you have the opportunity to do so, role play inviting people out with a friend, family member, therapist, or support group.
- Perhaps take on a role at work or school where you'll be expected to invite people to things and organize plans, but your own ego isn't on the line. For example, by being the Events Coordinator for your faculty's student association.
- Try arranging plans with people you already know, who you're sure will accept, so you can get more used to the act of inviting people out.
- Invite people out in more low stakes ways. For example, invite someone to join a group outing that's already going on, or spontaneously ask someone if they want to join you for coffee after class (if they can't make it, it's probably just because they're busy at that moment), or try to hang out with someone who you like, but where you wouldn't be crushed if they said no.
- Ask people to hang out in a more high stakes way, such as inviting someone to do something one on one with you, or extending an invitation to a co-worker who intimidates you a bit, and who you really want to be friends with.
Feeling awkward about keeping in touch with people
- At first, try keeping in touch with friends who feel like they're lower stakes, because you're not overly worried about them thinking badly of you.
- Practice composing texts or emails to people you want to keep in touch with, without sending them.
- Contact people through text, email, or social media for real, but in a relatively light way, e.g., by sending them a jokey observation, or a link to a funny online video.
- Contact people through writing for real, and more directly, by asking them what they've been up to, and by updating them on what's new with you.
- Contact someone by phone to catch up. This is one more interaction you could role play with someone.
General discomfort with speaking up in groups
There are a number of progression hierarchies going on here that you can work your way through.
- Start with smaller groups, and work your way up to bigger ones.
- Begin with shorter, low stakes statements, then build up to longer, more involved ones (e.g., saying something as simple as, "Yeah, totally" vs. getting everyone's attention to tell a story).
- Start with the types of groups you find less intimidating and work your way up to the ones that make you more anxious (e.g., a bunch of subdued co-workers vs. a bunch of rowdy guys).
- Start with settings you're more comfortable in (e.g., sitting around a quiet cafe) then move on to ones where you're less comfortable speaking up (e.g., sitting around a table at a bustling pub).
- Begin with speaking opportunities where you know the group will let you chime in. Move on to situations where you'll have to be more forceful about getting yourself noticed and holding the spotlight.
As always, if the opportunity presents itself you could arrange to role play group conversations.
Feeling uncomfortable with self-disclosure
- Figure out what information about yourself you're most and least comfortable sharing. In general, you'll want to get used to revealing more minor things about yourself, then work up to disclosures that make you feel more exposed and vulnerable. Note that it's totally acceptable for there to be things you'd never want to tell anyone else, or only to your absolute closest friends. Becoming more comfortable with self-disclosure doesn't mean you're obligated to tell everyone all your darkest secrets. It's more about not unnecessarily holding back harmless facts and foibles about yourself, to the point where it gets in the way of connecting with anyone.
- Share things about yourself anonymously online, like through throwaway forum posts. You'll probably find that even when you share things in a zero stakes environment like this, it can still help. You may think, "Oh, that's really not that bad when I see it written out like that. Why did I feel like it was some giant secret I had to guard with my life?"
- Call an anonymous support/crisis hot line and share things about yourself to the volunteer on the phone. You may be wondering, "Why would I do that? Those lines are for serious problems." Actually, a lot of the calls they get are from people who are lonely or who need a sympathetic ear to work through their issues with. Calling them for this use is appropriate. Just keep the conversation to under ten minutes, and don't call them constantly and take up too much of the volunteers' time.
- If you're working with one, share things about yourself with a counselor or support group.
- Share things about yourself to strangers you'll never see again (e.g., people you meet while traveling far from home, taxi drivers, etc.)
- Share minor things about yourself with people you know, and who you're comfortable with.
- Share slightly more serious things about yourself with people you know, and who you're comfortable with.
- Share something minor with someone you've just met, and who doesn't intimidate you at all.
- Where it's appropriate to do so, share something you're a bit more uneasy disclosing with someone non-intimidating whom you've recently met.
- Share something minor about yourself with someone who is more intimidating to you.
- Share something more "medium" with someone who intimidates you slightly.
- If you want to, share bigger secrets with the people you're close to.
Feeling uncomfortable with sharing your opinions
Similar to having issues with self-disclosure, some people feel awkward about piping up and giving their thoughts and opinions in social situations.
- Get a rough sense of what types of opinions you're comfortable sharing, and which ones you aren't. For example, someone may be fine sharing their political views, but hesitate to talk about how they feel about certain TV shows, for fear of looking dorky and out of touch.
- Share your opinions anonymously online.
- If they're available, role play sharing your opinions with a therapist, support group, family member, or understanding friend.
- Around non-intimidating company share an opinion in a generic, low stakes way, such as saying "Yeah, I agree". You can tell yourself you only have to do it just once the first time you're in this situation.
- Around non-intimidating company, speak up and share a longer, but not particularly controversial opinion. Again, the first time you can tell yourself you only have to do it once each time you're with people, not continuously throughout the get together.
- Around non-intimidating people, share something that may not go over as well (e.g., politely disagreeing with someone's views on a societal problem). The idea is not about if your views are accepted or not, but whether you can handle the discomfort of sharing thoughts that people may not approve of.
- Around more intimidating people do the previous three steps again.
Discomfort with joking around and generally putting your sense of humor out there
There are two sets of fear progressions here. The first is about the types of jokes you tell.
- Tell pre-written jokes (e.g., "So I heard this joke about a moth that visits a doctor's office...")
- Try to make people laugh by quoting lines from TV shows, or mentioning something funny you saw from one. Like with the point above, you're not putting your own humor on the line.
- Once you're comfortable with the above, begin making your own jokes. Start with safer or more mild ones, and gradually start taking more risks.
The next progression is in the types of people who joke around with. In short, start with people you feel at ease kidding around with. Move up to the ones that put you more on edge. For example, you may be fine trying to be funny around your family, but feel awkward making jokes around a group of really outgoing, witty classmates. You may also find your fear of making jokes goes hand in hand with a fear of speaking up in groups.
Anxiety around speaking and being the center of attention in class
- Do everything below starting in classes where you find the teacher non-threatening, and then moving to ones where the instructor makes you more nervous.
- Similarly, start with the class size that's easiest for you to handle, then progress the one you have more trouble with. This varies. Some people find large classes easier to handle, as they can disappear in the crowd, and are more nervous in intimate groups. Others are the opposite.
- Ask simple questions that you already know the answer to.
- Ask more involved questions.
- Answer easy questions that you're sure you'll get right.
- Answer tougher questions.
- Give a fairly easy, non-controversial opinion on something during a class discussion.
- Give a more thoughtful, risky opinion during a discussion.
Feeling nervous in night clubs
- Figure out which types of venues you feel most unsure of yourself in and save them until later. At first, start with places where you feel more at ease (e.g., a laid back lounge for twenty-somethings vs. a packed, loud mega club full of snobby or aggressive looking people).
- At first just go somewhere to soak in the atmosphere and become adjusted to it. Don't put pressure on yourself to have an amazing time or be the most fun, high-status person there.
- Initially it's okay to stay at a scary club for a short period of time (though don't necessarily bolt as soon as you feel too nervous). Tell yourself you only have to stay for twenty minutes if you want to. Work up to sticking around for longer.
Being afraid to dance in front of people
- Practice dancing alone until you feel comfortable with the basics. I wrote an article on how to dance for beginners.
- Generally dance first with friends you're comfortable with, and progress to people whose opinion of your dancing you're more worried about. This next suggestion isn't for everyone, but if you're fine going to a club alone, it can provide a chance to dance with no one you know watching you.
- Start with dancing in simple way. If you want, later progress to being more adventurous with your moves.
- Start with crowded dance floors, where you'll blend in, and you'll pretty much be forced by the amount of people to dance in a toned down style. Later, work up to less crowded spaces. The ultimate accomplishment is being the first person to hit an empty dance floor.
- If you need a drink or two to get started at first that's fine, but don't let it be a crutch, and try to progress to dancing sober.
- Another crutch you'll want to get rid of as soon as possible is dancing in a purposefully bad, goofy way, so you're not putting your true skills out in the open. If nothing else will help you get started, this is fine, but don't over rely on it.
- For some people taking a dance class, and learning with other beginners, isn't scary to them, and an ideal way to start. For others, the idea of taking a class is more imposing, and something they have to work their way up to.
Feeling nervous about talking on the phone
There are a number of phone-related fears someone may have, like having to leave a message, being called and caught off guard, or having to make cold sales calls. The example here will cover generally getting more comfortable speaking on the phone.
- If you're really, really anxious about talking on the phone even doing call-type things with one may make you uncomfortable. Just get used to that. Pretend to dial people and wait for someone to pick up.
- Phone to your ear, role play simple telephone conversations by yourself (e.g., pretending to call a friend to tell them you'll be running late).
- If you can, role play phone conversations.
- Make a real phone call, but to a totally automated line.
- Make short, low stakes phone calls to total strangers (e.g., customer service lines, calling stores to ask questions). Call places where you can bail out of the phone call at any time without any consequences.
- Call an anonymous support/crisis line and just make some conversation about your day. Or even tell them your situation and that you'd like to practice with them. As a section above mentioned, this is not a totally odd use of this kind of service. Many of their callers use crisis lines as a social outlet. As long as you keep your call to ten minutes or less you're not abusing the line's resources.
- Make calls to people you know, but ask a quick question, and with a built-in excuse to keep things short.
- Gradually get in the habit of using the phone for more and more things, even when a quick text would do the job. Just get that exposure in.
- Make longer calls to people you know, and who you're fine talking to (e.g., your parents).
- Make calls to people you feel more nervous and on the spot talking to. Start with short conversations and work up to lengthier ones.
Discomfort with making eye contact
I talk about this more in the article on learning to make more eye contact. Here's a summary of what I wrote about easing into it gradually:
- If looking people in the eye really makes you anxious, start by practicing making eye contact with people on TV, movies, or online videos (e.g., on news programs where the presenter looks right at you).
- Start by primarily making eye contact while you're listening, then move on to making it more and more while you're speaking.
- Start by looking near the person's eyes, but not right into them (they won't be able to see the difference). Move up to actually looking them straight in the eye.
- At first, only make eye contact for a short while, then don't worry about it after that. Progress to holding it throughout the conversation.
- As always, start with people you're not anxious around.
Feeling hesitant about being assertive
This is something that's hard to deliberately practice since it's not every day that other people will infringe on your rights and provide a situation where you'll need to assert yourself. In general though you can read up on assertiveness techniques and practice them out loud to yourself, or with a counselor, social skills group, etc. When opportunities to assert yourself do come up, you don't have to tackle them all immediately. You can start with situations you feel you can handle (e.g., a rude customer, a stranger cutting in front of you in line). Perhaps what really scares you is dealing with your demanding, demeaning boss, but you can't see yourself doing that right away. In the meantime you can role play how to approach that particular scenario.
Fear of public speaking
Here are some ways to get used to public speaking in general. Long term, the best way to get over this fear is to just rack up experience doing it:
- If you can, take on smaller opportunities to speak in public, for example, contributing to class discussions or larger company meetings, or volunteering to summarize your classmates' or co-workers' thoughts during group work exercises.
- Consider joining an organization like Toastmasters, where you can practice public speaking in a supportive environment.
- Get a job that involves some public speaking, like being a trainer or tour guide.
- Gradually start accepting more and more opportunities to speak in public. If you're given a school assignment that allows you to either do a presentation or submit a paper, opt for the presentation. At work, accept offers to present at meetings or during conferences.
Some ways to slowly ramp up to a specific presentation you have to do, say for work or school:
- Practice your presentation at home, to the point where you know it extremely well, and the idea of going through it one more time bores you to tears.
- Rehearse your presentation at home, but in as realistic a way as possible. Set up empty chairs for an imaginary audience, dress up, treat any mess ups as if there was an audience there, etc.
- Practice at home as in the point above, but increase the stakes more by recording it.
- If you can, do a rehearsal in the actual space where you'll be doing the presentation. Try to make this run through as realistic as possible too, by turning on the projector and going through your slides, and so on.
A fear of a particular embarrassing outcome
When someone is afraid of a situation, what they may really fear is a certain embarrassing worst-case scenario. They may not like going to restaurants because they're worried they'll get nervous to the point where they'll throw up and humiliate themselves. Sometimes it can help to directly face this worst case, and come to realize you could handle it if your fear did come to pass.
For example, someone with a fear of throwing up in public could start by going out where no one knows them and make a game of pretending they're feeling nauseous. They could then progress to play acting that they're suddenly running to the bathroom, or pausing to vomit in a trash can. They could be chatting to a clerk in a mall, then pretend that they have to excuse themselves because they're feeling sick. The whole time they can watch for other people's reactions. Often by doing all this they'll realize no one really cares if they see another person who's feeling pukey, and their fear loses its grip on them.