Social anxiety can be consuming and can really limit the life experiences one might be open to. Imagine having to overcome a wave of panic, accompanied with rapid heartbeat, muscle tension and even blurry vision when walking into certain social circumstances. This dizzying experience can feel disorienting and even dissociative. When this happens regularly, it is understandable that we might start to avoid situations that cause this response all together. When this becomes a pattern, we may experience a narrowing of life experiences, a decrease in self-esteem and a reduced willingness to try new things.
It is possible to learn skills that help us navigate social events with more ease. Feeling confident and calm in social situations allow us to be present with ourselves and with others in the room. We are more able to be genuine and operate within our natural personality, making higher quality connections.
There is one skill that has been the most helpful for our clients who are unlearning social anxiety. It is the DBT Mindfulness skill OBSERVATION. To understand this skill the most, let’s take a quick look at Mindfulness. When we are practicing mindfulness, we are 1) noticing our internal/external environment,2) without judgement and 3) without minimizing or enhancing what we find there. It is simply a practice of noticing. Noticing what we are feeling in any given moment. Noticing what is happening around us. Noticing what might feel like a threat. Simply noticing. Mindfulness practices like this slow us down and bring us into the present moment. And when we break this mindful practice into even smaller skills, one of the most impactful skills is that of OBSERVATION. We are simply taking in information, through our senses, thought processes and relationships. To observe skillfully, we need to create enough distance from what we are encountering to fully take it in. And this observable distance can make a big difference for social anxiety.
Let me explain a little more clearly. Imagine yourself preparing to go to a social event where you do not know anyone. You are expecting to walk into a room of people milling around and forming small conversation groups, and you are expected to go and have a good time. Practically speaking, this might be a business networking event, an awards ceremony, a college orientation day, etc. What I am encouraging you to try, is to enter the event as an OBSERVER first and foremost. Find a comfortable place in the room to sit or stand. Once you are there, take a few deep breaths that bring you into the present moment and allow the room to stop spinning. As you do this, you are creating an observable distance from which you can take in all that is happening in the room in that moment. Notice what is happening around you. Notice how many conversation groupings there are, how are the people in conversation feeling, are there other nervous people present, where are the food and beverages located, are there people who are also looking for someone to talk with? You are simply noticing what is happening in the room. And from this observation point, you might start to notice where you’d like to be in the room. You may prefer to stay right where you are at, you may notice a conversation you’d like to join, you may notice that you’d like to get a drink before doing anything else. Regardless of where you go from here, mindfully observing your surroundings has allowed you more choice to be genuine in your interactions. And with practice, you may just feel more open and confident in new social situations!