Here’s What to Do When You are Dreading a Social Situation, but Really Don’t Want to Bail on a Friend
I was in college in the 1990s. I drove a 1977 Chevy Nova that was passed down when my grandmother died. I’d never been to a spa, never even had a manicure. I shopped at Kmart and Caldor. Trips to Marshall’s were a special treat. I’d couldn’t have named a designer brand. Never owned a Tiffany’s anything or even KNEW anyone who did. I thought the purpose of clothes was to hide your fat. Oh, and I was fat, did I mention that? So, designer clothes wouldn’t really fit me anyway.
My dad had a car business, but we were an all-American family when it came to cars. So a nice car to me was a 1968 Mustang Convertible or even a new Cadillac. But, I’d never even been in a Mercedes or an Audi. All my friend’s parents drove Toyotas or Ford.
My parents were smart, but neither went to college and my grandparents didn’t get through high school. All this is to say, I did not come from fancy stock. This wasn’t anything I was ever sad about… I didn’t even notice it to be honest. I had no visibility into what I was missing. I felt like I had every opportunity in the world, because I did as far as I was concerned.
And then, in college, I met a girl whose family were doctors. They lived on the 4th hole of a famous golf course. She had a dangling Tiffany’s bracelet. They took vacations at high end resorts, I’d never heard of. They never shopped at Kmart or Caldors but were occasionally curious about what might happen at a Marshall’s, though they had never been.
One day, I parked my 1977 Chevy Nova at my friend’s house while we were away. Her parent’s drove home, saw my jalopy in the driveway, and just assumed there was a burglary going on inside their home and that was the getaway vehicle, so they called the cops before daring to go inside. I mean WHO else would have that car?!
My friend never saw my socio-economic standing as evidence for anything negative. She loved me for being me and always included me. But her other (private school) friends were much more refined. For one thing they were all thin! So thin!!! And rich! So rich!!!
I’d participate, but there was always so much self-judgement and confusion going on in my head, I wasn’t a whole lot of fun to be with. I’d walk away from interactions feeling – not just fat and poor – but uncultured, award, tacky, and out of place.
Eventually, I just wrote myself out of the script because I didn’t have the emotional tools to manage the feelings of being with a group of girls who were all so much thinner, richer, and worldlier than I. I’d feel left out if I wasn’t invited, but whenever I was invited there was a reason not to go.
I overcommitted myself to work and volunteer projects so I’d always have a credible reason to say no when she asked me to hang out. Being overcommitted was my healthy way to hide from my feelings. Eating was the unhealthy way. When I was avoiding those challenging social interactions, I’d eat because I felt left out. When I would muster up the courage to participate, I’d eat to keep the social anxiety at bay. As irrational as it might sound, some part of me thought those feelings of inadequacy would swallow me whole and I’d die on the spot.
I had so much shame and embarrassment about the fact that these social situations were difficult for me, I admitted it to no one. It was the kind of secret I tried to hide from myself. “I’m an extrovert. I’m not shy. I get energy from being in groups,” I’d hear myself telling people. (Nope. Nope. And Nope. Btw – self-awareness was not my strong suit).
I can see now, I just didn’t have the experience to manage my emotions any more than I had the experience of a high-end spa or shopping at Chanel. But my interpretation of that situation was not kind or loving toward myself. I just thought I was a low-class, uncultured, loser with a terrible personality who happened to have a fancy friend.
All this was a quarter century ago and in those 25 years, I’ve “fixed” all the problems that used to spin me out. I’m a size 10 now so I can fit into clothes just about anywhere. I’ve been to the nicest spas in the world. Shopped at Chanel and Fendi. No longer drive a 20-year-old jalopy (which, just for the record, that Nova was a great car). I’ve learned the ways of the world in the rarified air of the 1%ers. All of the external THINGS that made me insecure and anxious hanging out with my friend and her thin, rich mates, are gone.
So when she invited me to the most exclusive resort in the Bahamas for a fashion and wine-infused girl’s weekend, I SHOULD, by all accounts, have had nothing to worry about. I had blossomed into someone just like her other friends. Rich, thin, and dripping in couture.
Why then, as the trip got closer, did I find myself filling up my calendar with twice the regular number of emergency appointments, and wondering as recently as Tuesday if I was going to “have to” cancel?
Why then, did I over eat 3 out of 4 days before I left?
Why did I pack and repack my bag and compulsively fill my Neiman Marcus shopping cart trying to overnight brand name clothes I don’t need and can’t afford?
Why did I actively complain for 3 days straight, when I normally live in a complain free zone?
Why did I try to sabotage my own good time when I no longer have anything to be ashamed of. I’ve done it! I have conquered my demons. I FIT IN! (on paper anyway)?
Oh I had reasons (real dumb ones that I didn’t even believe):
– I don’t drink and they do.
– They are all athletic and I’m not.
– They are “fiction” readers.
– I don’t even like the beach!
– I’m an avid indoors woman.
My old reasons were gone, so I just found new ones. This was me STRETCHING to not fit in, but it was so comfortable psyching myself out with a legal case of evidence that it was going to be terrible, everyone would hate me, and I probably shouldn’t even go.
Many of my clients are life coaches, so when I realized I was doing this, I outed myself to them. I wanted them to know, emotional tantrums come up for me too. I wanted them to be comforted by me sharing this, but I should have known better.
A handful of them leapt right into coaching me. It took me by surprise, I thought I was the one coaching them by sharing my story. I jumped into the conversation a little, but that’s when I realized I needed to dive in and do my own work or pay someone to hold the space for me.
The problem with taking free advice (or advice from clients in this case, which has an even bigger power differential) is that it’s nearly impossible to put that advice cleanly into practice. Even the advice I’m giving you here, the truth is, you probably won’t take it. Oh, you’ll take it “under advisement,” but since you didn’t make an investment in solving the problem (which is 90% of the magic), you can’t get the results.
The great thing about my clients calling me out though was the splash of cold water it provided. I couldn’t just be vulnerable about having a tantrum. I couldn’t half-ass my self-coaching efforts. I owed it to my clients to step up my self-leadership. I knew the rules – solve the problem with tools I have or pay someone to help. This time, the tools I had in my self-care tool bag did the trick in about 24 magical hours and I wanted to share that process with you.
That said, before I share it, I have to warn you. As you read this your brain is going to tell you “Well, that worked for Angela because (insert some reasons here), but it won’t work for me.” Your brain is doing this because it wants you to stay right where you are, in Social Anxiety Land. Social Anxiety is safe, your brain says. Every time we have Social Anxiety, we don’t die, so let’s keep it! Huzzah!
Your brain is doing what brains do, prioritizing keeping you alive by doing what you have always done. If you really want to change this, the answer is to invest in a coach. The advice I am giving comes from 20 years of massive investments in my personal growth. The tools work, 100% of the time. But only if you work them. And working them requires learning them from an expert you pay (the paying is a big part of the magic of reprogramming your brain to know you won’t die) and deep, consistent, and ongoing practice.
So here it is… my Process to Manage My Social Anxiety
STEP 1 – Allow for Awareness
Take an honest inventory of what’s going on. Call your social anxiety by name. It hasn’t killed you yet. This probably isn’t going to be the time it does.
(You know how they start AA meetings with “Hi, I’m Angela, I’m an alcoholic?” I think this is why they do it. Without my clients pushing me to “get happy” about going on this trip, I would have avoided this step. Actually saying: “Hi, I’m Angela, I suffer with social anxiety.” was the single most important step in the journey to enjoying this trip.
I let go of this lie I kept trying to stuff down my own face: “I’m pretty and successful now, so I have no good reason to be anxious.” And you know what? Once I dropped this self-abusive story, I stopped my 3–day over-eating binge. Huh! What a coincidence.
(I know these aren’t weight loss steps – but just FYI, you cannot beat yourself up into losing weight. I have continually experimented with this approach. It does not work.)
Once you become aware that what you are dealing with is your old Social Anxiety rearing its head, move on to step 2 QUICKLY.
STEP 2 – Be Honestly Decisive
You have 2 decisions to make.
1. Do you want to do some personal growth work here or no? Doesn’t matter either way.
2. Do you want to go to the social occasion or not? Doesn’t matter either way.
CHOOSE if you want to decline the invitation or attend.
And CHOOSE if you want do the work to release the social anxiety.
Choose from a place of total self-love. There are no right or wrong answers. The ONLY wrong choice is not to consciously choose.
A Course in Miracles says “A child is frightened when a wooden head springs up as a closed box is opened suddenly, or when a soft and silent wooly bear begins to squeak as he takes hold of it.” Once you acknowledge this problem by name, you know it’s just a jack in the box and it only seems scary to you because in this way you are like a child with an unfamiliar toy.
I had a Jungian therapist once who always had me see a situation as my inner child. We named her “Dolly Dimples” because that’s what my grandmother used to call me.
In step 2, I picture Dolly Dimples holding this Social Anxiety Jack in the Box and here’s what I know. It’s just a silly Jack in the Box. If she doesn’t learn the mysteries of the Jack in the Box now, this will not determine her success in life. Someday, little Dolly Dimples will know all about Jack in the Boxes and so much more, but if today is not the day she learns, it’s seriously no big deal. In fact, Dolly Dimples most probably had 2 or 3 or 4 years of wrapping her head around the wild and wonderful mysteries of the Jack in the Box. Not only CAN I delay in facing this problem, it won’t even matter because the problem is unfolding before me like the mysteries of toys unfold over time to a child. This problem is showing up in all different forms for me.
What we call problems, are just toys we take seriously and create our own misery around them. But the source of the problem is fear. Only love is real. Fear and love cannot coexist. So, if I am feeling miserable. I am choosing fear. I can choose love whether I go or don’t go. And I can choose to skip that. No single problem really matters. A Course in Miracles says “There is no order of difficulty in miracles.” I can do this work on a girl’s weekend, I can do it on my cancer, I can do it on a leak in my basement. When we release our attachment to fear, only miracles are possible. We get to practice with our toy for as long as we want.
When I say be honestly decisive in this step, here’s what I mean. Emotional labor is hard. Sometimes there is just too much shit hitting the fan. Here’s what I want you to know. The difference between hiding from a problem you are aware of and consciously choosing from a place of love not to solve it, is night and day. There is so much freedom in acknowledging a problem fully and choosing not to solve it with love and respect for yourself.
And btw, you can do the work whether you go to your social event or not. Whether you go or don’t go, doesn’t change the opportunity to create a miracle.
Byron Katie says this thing that always gets me, “I look forward to (insert your issue).” In my case, I look forward facing social anxiety again.
What the what? How can you look forward to a thing you dread?
A Course in Miracles says something similar. “Let me realize today that the problem is always some form of grievance that I would cherish.”
Step 2 clicked for me when I realized I had the freedom to create a miracle or not and it didn’t make me any more or less lovable.
I chose first to go. That was the easy choice for me because my college bestie is very special to me and even if I was a crab ass, I wasn’t going to miss this.
Then I chose to do some personal work. Partly because I wanted to see if I could create a miracle (I love co-creating miracles) and partly because I was 100% clear I wanted to have a story and a process I could share with you.
Before I move on to step 3, I want to tell you this: Many, many times I have chosen not to go, not to do the work, or both. You CAN do this with love. That’s why this choice was so empowered because I have let myself off the hook plenty. (BTW you know you are letting yourself off the hook vs. burying your head in the sand when there is no drama about your choice.)
STEP 3 – SHIFT INTO GRATITUDE
To clear space for the answer to your social anxiety to come, we need to distract your brain for a minute. Step 3 is a neuroscience hack. When you are in a space of gratitude you actually move from your limbic brain to your pre-frontal cortex. This expands your ability to see solutions to problems.
This step starts off pedestrian but ends up feeling magical every time. Also, it cultivates laughter for me. I like having fun with myself when I’m on a spiritual odyssey. If I can crack myself up, I know it’s going to go fast.
Now listen, you are ALWAYS onto your own self-talk. ALWAYS. If you try to bullshit on ANY of this, it will not work.
This step requires you make a list of ANYTHING about the upcoming social engagement you are TRULY, ACTUALLY, HONESTLY, excited about.
When you first ask yourself this question, your brain will most unhelpfully immediately answer “THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!!!!!!!!”
There is… pat your cute little brain on the head, have a giggle, and ask again. I like to ask in my journal, but you can do this in your head or laptop too.
For me, right away I had this list:
– My friend will know I love her as soon as she sees me.
– Her sister will be there and I really respect her work on diversity and equity for indigenous people and people of color and it will be amazing to have time for deep discussion with her.
– We are going to a mansion on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. If nothing else it will be a great story.
As my brain started to come up with things I was GENUINELY excited about, my list started growing. Turned out there was cognitive dissonance between wanting to go and not wanting to go. My brain was very practiced at creating the list of evidence for not wanting to go (25 years of experience) but it was more of a newbie with this positive evidence. I needed to do it CONSCIOUSLY instead of unconsciously. But suddenly there were so many reasons I was excited for my trip.
That was enough to get me out the door on time.
One of the ways my social anxiety likes to manifest is through showing up on the wrong day, the wrong time, or just being so late I missed the whole thing. I did not miss my flight so I knew this was a good sign my social anxiety was in check.
STEP 4 – Welcome Grace
Grace. Step 4 is all about inviting source/The universe/God/your best self to co-create the solution to the problem with you. Partnering with source for transformation makes everything easier.
I’ve written about this before, but one of my favorite transformational hacks are the Catholic songs I used to sing at mass. Here’s another doozey. When I am getting ready to ask for a spiritual assist, I sing this song called “My Yoke is Easy”. Here are some of the lyrics:
“Come to me all who labor and are heavy burdened,
And I shall give you rest.
Take up my yoke and learn from me,
For I am meek and humble of heart.
And you’ll find rest for your souls,
Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
There is nothing magical about the song itself, but it’s a kind of surrender for me. Not only do I not have to do this alone, it won’t work ANYWAY. One of my favorite sayings is: “There’s an easier way and I’m open to seeing it.”
Co-creation with source/your best self is the easy way.
“Dear Sweet Whatever – This is too hard for me. Can you help?”
That’s how fancy my prayers are…. I know, it’s simple, but it works. I actually don’t think it’s calling in God, I think what I am doing is I calling out all that is not God.
You can’t skip this step though because your ideas are comparatively terrible. If you try to solve this problem on your own it is significantly less likely to work.
When I surrendered to Grace, the message I got was this (now admittedly I was staring into the sea when this came to me, but it felt legit)…. “All you need to do, is remember these are your sisters, you are one; only as separate as waves in the ocean.”
STEP 5 – Just Add Love
Once your brain is calmed down a bit, you have some heavy lifting to do. This is the hard work of the process, but it WILL be possible if you get your brained calmed down with gratitude and open to partnering with some wisdom beyond your current ability to access.
I made up this next step, based on the advice from my co-creator in step 4. This may not be your next step, but you will clearly know your next step because it will be a better idea than you could have come up with on your own.
In my case, the guidance I got was to pretend I loved them. This sounds silly to say out loud, but basically the idea was instead of seeing them as strangers, I decided I would see them as sisters who I loved. I’d met all but one of these women before, but I didn’t feel like I LOVED them. But what the heck is love anyway? It’s a choice. So I just DECIDED I would love them deeply. I would love them the way my friend had always loved me.
The first thing I did was start looking for their zone of genius. I was a heat seeking missle for whatever they were best at that I could spot. From the way they poured a glass of wine or flipped through a magazine. To the way they asked a question or made an observation. My assignments from the universe was to find out as quickly as humanly possible what they were amazing at.
My lower-self wanted to speculate on the cost of the Hermes bracelet or the Louis Vuitton purse or ponder on the size 26 on the jeans tag, or the bazillion dollar engagement rings. But when those observations and social comparisons would pop up, I’d remember: “Fuck! My higher-self gave me homework! Return to the question: “What is she excellent at that you can observe right now?”
I began to point out everyone’s strengths with details and evidence. Whatever they were genius’ at, was the reason I loved them.
“I love that X is so nurturing and really cares about everyone having a good time.”
“I love that Y is so quickly to go first. She is a pioneer. I am so inspired by that spirit.”
“I love how refined Z is. She has impeccable taste.”
I loved EVERYTHING. I loved EVERYONE. There was so much to love!
My brain was so busy finding things to love, it forgot to feel inadequate. I also loved sharing my observations of how awesome everyone was, which, frankly, probably made me a little more loveable, not gonna lie.
The more I loved them, the less social anxiety I was feeling. But it wasn’t gone completely. The thing is, because I was in the flow, when I needed a break, it was pretty easy to take one without looking like an asshole. I’d bought myself some social capital, a much lacking ingredient from my earlier struggles.
I did take 2 or 3 time-outs for myself during the weekend because I was having a hard time seeing their genius. So, I’d give myself some self-care breaks and I noticed other people did that too, so when I returned I would comment on how awesome it was that someone else took a work break or a nap and that it inspired me to do the same.
STEP 6 – There is no step 6.
The secret step. This step will reveal itself to you. It’s like a magician’s trick, I can’t tell you how it’s done but I can point you to it.
Okay, there is a step 6, but I can’t tell it to you, you have to find it. But here’s a hint, step 6 is about enjoying the miracle. For me, what this looked like is the more I loved people, the more they opened up, or maybe I opened up, I’m not sure what happened but I think I was just normal.
I got to know everyone. I saw them not as evil cheerleaders trying to make me feel less than, or like goddess creatures filled with genius. I saw them, get this, as multi-dimensional humans with flaws and talents and fears and strengths and just like, you know, people.
We shared real stories of problems and joy. Pictures from our lives back home. Advice when it was appropriate. Fears. Insecurities. And laughter. Actually, smiles and laughter that didn’t feel fake.
I’m going to see them all again in October and I’m so excited this goodbye was only for a few months.
By choosing to manage my way through my social anxiety I gave myself the gift of not just ONE awesome trip, but TWO! I always like a massive return on my investments.
Step 6 is where you get to experience total bliss if you choose it. A moment of God Consciousness or Oneness with all that is. When you get here, you’ll know exactly what to do.
And that’s the process I followed to manage my social anxiety and have an amazing time.
Look, this was HARD, seriously HARD. I wanted to quit. Wanted to stay home. Wanted to escape with food. Wanted to judge (oh dear Lord did I want to judge). But I kept coming back and back and back again to choosing love. This is what is so magical about having a meditation practice. Meditation isn’t about “Getting it right,” it’s about getting really good at returning to the present. And that’s what I’ve had to do all week.
And on the other side of the choice to do this work is the joy of creating miracles. Abundant, flowing, gorgeous, delicious miracles.
You can create them too…. But here’s the hint – you don’t get over your social anxiety by changing the circumstance. Losing weight, learning the ways of the wealthy, having a successful career… all the things that I THOUGHT would make my social anxiety go away did NOTHING to help. My social anxiety felt exactly the same this week as it did when I was fat and broke.
You know what worked? LOVE… fucking LOVE… AGAIN.
And the good news is love is free and doesn’t require a single circumstance change for you to embrace it.
Here’s to you my sister in social anxiety. May your discomfort be the doorway to miracles.