Coping With Nervousness Before Optional Social Behaviors

People can be nervous before unavoidable events like job interviews. I outline some strategies for dealing with these situations in this article. They can also feel anxious before things that are totally optional, but which they want to do. These scary behaviors often involve approaching people under circumstances where they might reject you. Examples would be talking to a stranger at a party, going to someone in authority to ask them for something, or inviting a co-worker to hang out.

What usually happens is the idea of performing these actions only makes you somewhat nervous beforehand. They are optional after all, and you always know in the back of your mind that you can back out at any time. It's not like when someone knows they have to speak at a conference and they're worried about it for a month beforehand.

When you're at a safe distance from the feared activity you possibly even want to go ahead. The anxiety only really kicks in when you're just about to do it, and then the nerves often flares up enough to cause you to you bail at the last second.

To put it the way psychologists do: There are factors making you want to Approach and there are factors making you want to Avoid. When you're far away, the approach factors are strong and propel you forward, where the Avoid factors begin to increase in magnitude. You'll keep moving ahead until you cross a theoretical line where the Avoidance factors overpower the Approach ones. At this point you'll give in to your fear.

I'll give some specific suggestions for how to get past your nerves once you're already in the situation where you can perform the optional behavior, and you need to make yourself go for it. They obviously could help too, but I won't cover general approaches for combating anxiety, or ways to reduce your fears longer term. Here are some articles that already cover that:

Overall Attitudes For Handling Anxiety
Coping With Anxiety In The Moment
How To Face Your Bigger Social Fears Gradually

Don't be too tough on yourself

In these situations it's simple to beat yourself up for not being brave enough. You may feel like you're "failing" by hovering around a group at a party trying to work up the gumption to talk to them. Sure, you wish you were bolder, but it's not that big a deal. It's extremely common for people to feel shy about making certain kinds of social approaches.

Give yourself time to calm down

If you arrive somewhere and you have the option of doing a scary social action, it often helps to give yourself time to collect yourself and let the anxiety fade somewhat. For example, if you arrive at a party you may feel too nervous to try to join any conversations right away. However, if you're not too hard on yourself for being anxious, and give yourself time, you may eventually work up the nerve to do it. This may require several cycles of "beginning to approach and bailing out at the last moment" before you finally do it, but if you're patient with yourself you'll get there.

You may need to give yourself several days to work up the nerve to do something that really makes you uncomfortable. For example, if you want to ask your boss for a raise, you may almost walk into his or her office a couple of times over the week, before you finally go through with it.

It also helps to think of this "give yourself time" idea in a more long-term way. Maybe you'll go to a party and not be able to chat to any strangers the entire night. But maybe you're now that much closer to being able to initiate a conversation with someone the next time you attend one. In the short term of that one party you could berate yourself for being weak and cowardly. In the grander scheme of things you may still be making progress.

Within each "session" you'll have to build up some courage

What happens with this kind of thing is that you'll usually feel a bit rusty at the start of each "session" in which you're trying to perform the scary action. Even if you've managed to do it in the past, some of your courage will have worn off and you'll need to get the ball rolling again. This means at a party the first couple of people or groups you approach will be the hardest. Then you'll hit your stride and have an easier time of it for the rest of the night. Even if someone has a lot of experience with a tough social setting, they may still always have that delayed start up at the beginning of each go-around.

Dive right in before you have time to think

This tip has the opposite philosophy of the "give yourself time" suggestion, and can work if the optional behavior is only a little bit anxiety-inducing for you. Basically, once you arrive at the venue where you want to perform the behavior, get started before you have time for the Avoidance factors to really kick in. For example, at a party you'd jump into a conversation as soon as you put your coat away, if not before. Maybe that one interaction won't go perfectly, but at least you've gotten things going.

Force your hand somehow

If you're close to being able to execute a behavior, forcing your hand may be the last little nudge you need. An extreme example would be something like giving a sympathetic friend twenty dollars and telling him he can keep the money if you don't talk to at least one new person at the party that night. Telling yourself you'll reward yourself if you go through with it also tends to be effective. Promise yourself something like you'll buy yourself a nice meal the next day if you chat to someone that night.

You can also create a false sense of urgency in your mind. You could say to yourself, "Okay, I have to leave this party in half an hour, and I have to talk to at least one person before then." What is likely to happen is that you'll still be scared for the next 25 minutes or so, but once you realize time is running out you'll think, "Okay, it's now or never. I may as well just do it!", and then you will. The time pressure takes away your ability to overthink things and get stuck in your head.