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 chip away at 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 using to treat phobias for decades.

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 settings

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 common ones being "I'm an awkward loser", "If I screw up a conversation it will be terrible", "People are mean-spirited and judgmental", and "Every social situation is high stakes". They also don't have the best attitudes toward 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 get tripped up before long. 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 interactions, and try to have a more balanced, realistic perspective. These articles are a good start:

Common Worries Shy Or Insecure People Have
Cognitive Distortions And Socializing
Challenging Maladaptive Thoughts
Accepting And Rolling With Maladaptive Thoughts

It's its own big project, but you could also do some work to process the upsetting memories of social rejection and embarrassment that fuel your fears, and the beliefs and thought patterns that go with them. Even if you don't clear up all your old baggage, even somewhat addressing it can lower the intensity of your fears, which makes them easier to face in the real world:

Why You Should Process The Upsetting Memories That Fuel Your Social Anxiety And Insecurities
How To Emotionally Process The Upsetting Memories That Fuel Your Social Anxiety And Insecurities

You've also got to try to develop a better relationship with your anxiety:

The Nature Of Anxiety
Overall Attitudes For Handling Anxiety

As I say elsewhere, changing your thinking often 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 thoughts 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 get 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 basic 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 pain tolerance. 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 a bit different for everyone, but one could be:

This article provides examples of ways someone might slowly approach other types of social fears:

Examples Of Ways To Gradually Face Various 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 your anxiety diminishes quite a bit). 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.

It isn't always necessary, but sometimes it's useful to have your hierarchy go beyond what you'd ever realistically need to do in real life, to really drive home the sense you're no longer afraid of that situation. For example, if you dislike public speaking you could work up to delivering a speech to a bigger audience, when day to day you only have to give the occassional project update in small meetings.

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:

It can also help to start dealing with any other, non-social fears you may have, to build up your sense of self-efficacy toward overcoming your anxieties (e.g., someone working on their social fears also faces their anxiety about 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:

Start facing your fears, beginning with the least scary items

Whatever you decide to start with, the task has to feel manageable. If the thought of doing it makes you really 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.

One option is to pick a starter task that feels so simple that you think, "This is too easy. Do I even need to do this? Maybe I should begin with something harder." Finishing that first step won't make a big dent in your anxiety, but will help you get going on a positive note. You could also start with something that does push you, but only a little.

Only move up the ladder once you're fairly comfortable with the previous step. You don't need to be 100% anxiety free, but you should feel like you can manage in that situation. For some steps you may reach this point in an afternoon. Others you may have to stick with 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.

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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 storyteller. If you want to learn to invite people out, as long as you ask it's irrelevant whether they say 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 free to later develop any other social skills you need through trial and error.

You should practice facing your fear regularly

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 attend some local meet ups.

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:

Coping With Nervousness Before Optional Social Behaviors

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:

Coping With Anxiety In The Moment

(This is assuming you're nervous about an external situation, and not your anxiety symptoms themselves. If that's the case you should let your anxiety come, accept it, and let the symptoms pass on their own without battling them. Doing that repeatedly will teach you that while your anxiety is unpleasant, you can tolerate it and it won't kill you.)

Partial progress is an accomplishment too

It's also important to give yourself credit even for partial progress toward 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 the 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 the next 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 gain some 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 better at facing your fears, try to drop them and go it alone.

More details in this article: Social Anxiety Safety Behaviors

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 you have to face a scary task in the evening you can confront some smaller, similar fears earlier in the day. That way, when the evening rolls around you're "warmed up".

If you try this approach and aren't getting the results you expect, you might be making a mistake that I didn't cover here. This in-depth article goes over more of them:

Exposure Therapy Mistakes