We have been talking about social anxiety this month. I began this series with a post about social anxiety and dating in case you have missed it. The thing about social anxiety is that it affects every aspect of our life. None of us live in a vacuum. We all have to deal with the big wide world in some social capacity. Another realm where social anxiety can hinder our emotional growth is in the work place. I have much firsthand experience in coping with social anxiety at work and I can honestly say that talking about this will be an emotionally painful story to tell. Social anxiety on the job can diminish your self esteem and also limit your ability to move up the career ladder. You may feel that your boss and co-workers do not understand and they may not. Social anxiety is not an easy thing to explain if you decide to explain it at all.
My first "real" job out of graduate school was to work with adults who had multiple disabilities for a psychiatric hospital. I had very little social anxiety helping my clients. My anxiety was primarily caused by having to interact with co-workers and bosses. I was fine with one to one social interactions but a group meeting would have me sweating buckets. Sometimes I would stammer or forget what I wanted to say. Some of my co-workers had a running joke that I always needed to "catch up" as my nerves made it difficult for me to concentrate on what was said. The more formal the meeting, the more anxious I would become. But even these meetings were not the biggest source of my anxiety.
The element of working which increased my stress and anxiety the most were all the social functions. If I could have just worked my job without these extra events I would have felt secure. But you know how it is, at every workplace they expect you do things like go to happy hour, go to lunches, or attend birthday parties. It seemed every month was a cause for some big social event that we were expected to attend as part of our job. I would feel fright as soon as I got notice that there was one of these social events to attend. Right away I would be thinking of how I could get out of it. I had a billion excuses and I think I used every one. I soon became known as the person who didn't go to things. It was such agony for me. I would think about all the pressure to go and this would make things worse. I felt doomed because if I went, then I would have to deal with all that anxiety of being social. If I didn't go, people would think of me as a loser. I felt trapped and bad about myself.
For those who don't know what it feels like to have social anxiety, it feels like at any moment you are surely going to say or do the wrong thing in public in front of people who know you. You feel as though all eyes are on you and that you may be judged or scrutinized. It feels like you are one mistake just ready to happen and public humiliation is right around the corner. What comes so easy to others, such as attending a party or social get together is a huge challenge for you. And avoidance can become a way to deal with the overwhelming anxiety.
I remember when one of my co-workers lost his mother. He asked us all to attend the funeral. I was scared and made up an excuse. The look of hurt on my friend's face when he returned to work was devastating. How could I have let him down in this way? I felt selfish and horrible about myself. I think it was then that I decided to try a little harder to overcome my anxiety with work place social events.
The other thing which pushed me into making more of an attempt to be more social at work was being called out by my co-workers. I was confronted by three of my fellow workers about why I never attended any of their social events or get-togethers. They did it in a gentle way but it still brought me to tears. It was then that I confided that I did suffer from a social phobia. My co-workers told me that they wished I had told them this because all this time they thought that I just was snobby or that I didn't like them. I felt tremendous relief that I could be honest about what I was going through. But they didn't let it go at that. They did insist that I go to the next social event and stay for at least 45 minutes. In setting a reasonable goal for me, I agreed to try.
I can't tell you that it was easy. Even forty-five minutes of social time can seem like an eternity. It also didn't help that some people at the next social event chided me for never going to things, and gee what a surprise to see me. But as I got over feeling shame about my condition, I began to focus upon what I could give. I began to understand that some people did enjoy my company despite my awkward nature. Spending time with people was like giving them a gift. It is an opportunity for connection and friendship.
One my tricks if you will, was to ask people about themselves. Most people like to talk about themselves and asking questions could divert attention away from me. I also would focus on performing some helpful activity like setting up the table for food, or helping to prepare coffee, anything to keep me busy. Having a time limit in my mind was also essential. I would tell myself that I could last for a half an hour and then I could reassess whether I could endure five more minutes. It was a gradual desensitization to pushing a little further each time. I will not lie and tell you that I became some party animal but I did learn to go beyond my comfort zone. It helped me with my interactions on the job, and it also allowed me to see myself as more of a success. My fear was no longer so debilitating.
In time I even found that I was enjoying myself at some social events. When I got pregnant and one of my co-workers threw me a baby shower, I was nervous about being the center of attention. But when I saw that each and every one of my fellow workers came for my shower, I had tears in my eyes. It was a really good feeling to know that people cared and that they wanted to be there. It made me wish to want to return the favor when I was able.
There is no easy solution to overcoming social anxiety. There are medications and therapy but in the end it has to be a conscious wish to make small steps towards progress.
Let us know about your experiences with social anxiety in the work place. Help us by letting us know how you have learned to managed your social anxiety. What strategies have helped you the most? Where are you in the process of overcoming your fear? Tell us all about it. We want to hear what you have to say!