People who overcome adversity inspire me. Recently I had coffee with one such person who has overcome social anxiety so strong, that he was once terrified to talk to the cashier at the grocery store.
Last week I wrote about the conceptual side of fear which really lives only in our minds. This time I want to take you with me into a great conversation with a great guy who has some tips for those of you who may face fears in social settings.
Do you get paralyzed by fear when talking to people you don’t know? Are you nervous to approach a someone you are interested in? Do you need help speaking up? Then this one is for you. Enjoy this conversation with my friend Justin, a former shy guy, who now can even communicate in front of large groups of people.
Me: How bad was your social anxiety?
Justin: It was debilitating. I was very shy and afraid to talk to people I didn’t know. Calling people I didn't know, ordering pizza, and even talking to cashiers were all terrifying.
When I was in high school, I needed to go out and get job. I would go into the store, palms sweating, heart racing, and ask if they were taking applications. This was after a couple weeks of physicking myself up about the that very moment. Then I would take the application home, fill it out, then psych myself up again for climbing Mt. Everest (taking the application back to the store).
I was told by people it would be a good idea to call and check on these applications. Somehow I guess I had convinced myself that I had something to lose. I don't know where the fear came from, but it was real, and it kept me from doing simple tasks.
Me: How did you come to see it, and realize you needed to change or do something about it?
Justin: My mom new I was shy from when I was preschool age. As I got older, she also noticed how the severity could be holding me back. But she is also shy, and knew how things really changed when I was forced out of my shell.
I married an outgoing person. Very. Outgoing. Honestly I don't know how I ever would have talked to a girl if she didn't beat it out of me (figuratively). At age 16 she asked me to go to dance. At age 17, she said "So do you want to be my boyfriend or what?"
I loved her. At age 21 I asked her to marry me. We got married at 22. She knew I was shy, but thought I should try new things.
One time we were at a store and she asked a stranger her opinion about something. I couldn't believe she would just talk to a random person...it made me anxious just watching her talk to complete strangers.
Me: How did you get past this social handicap, exactly?
Justin: My wife gave me extrovert exercises to practice and I got better at it over time.
Me: What are these extrovert exercises?
Justin: Meeting new people would be a great example of an extrovert exercise, and a higher level of difficulty. For me, it started to come more naturally after I did the lower level exercises - any kind of talking to strangers that you don't know.
Practice helps take the anxiety away. In the elevator, on the street, compliment people, tell them to have a great day...just do it!
With that said, I am still not "gifted" in carrying on conversations with strangers...and that is okay. The point is that I am not afraid of carrying on a conversation with strangers, and that is the real goal.
Me: How did you feel after doing those exercises at first, and then later as you did more?
Justin: When I started to force myself to do these exercises, I realized that it didn't matter how a particular conversation went. It would go well or it wouldn't, and that would be the end if it. I started talking to people I didn't know, asking for people's opinions, stopping to ask for directions. Eventually it became second nature.
There is a person. That person might be able to help me. Now talk.
And last week I actually had a visceral realization about how far I've actually come. My wife and I were at the doctor with my one year old son. We had no idea where we were going. It turned we had parked in the wrong parking garage. A split second decision in the parking garage elevator made the difference between us being 10 minutes late to the appointment or missing the appointment altogether. I just asked. Two other people were in the elevator. I asked if anyone knew how to get to the building we were searching for. One of them did...she was a nurse and took us through a back entrance, pointed us in the right direction, and we ended up only being marginally late for the appointment.
It seems like such a simple thing, especially now, or to anyone who doesn't struggle with shyness. But ten years ago, even five years ago, that would have felt like torture.
Me: What would you say to people who struggle with shyness and social anxiety?
Justin: If you want to try doing extrovert exercises, start small. The important thing is to just get out of your comfort zone. If ordering pizza isn't a problem for you, then go a little bigger. Maybe tell the person on the other line that they are doing a great job, and you hope they have a good day. I don't know what it is for each person, but I bet if you are shy, then you can pinpoint your own areas that you need to work on, because it’s precisely the things that bring up your anxiety.
It's not bad to be shy, but if it is holding you back, it can become a bigger problem. Have someone you trust hold you accountable to trying new experiences, and talking to new people. And know that nothing bad can really come from trying. You have nothing to lose, so go for it!
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Joel is a husband, father, musician, and lover of life; especially life that is shared with the wealth of amazing friends and family he is blessed to have near.