Yesterday, some friends invited me to join them for the evening at a food truck festival. I gladly said yes!
Now. It’s 20 minutes before I need to leave and I am frantically seeking excuses to cancel.
Here’s what’s happening in my brain:
- It’ll be awkward.
- I’ll say the wrong thing and they’ll never invite me again.
- What if I’m overdressed?
- What if I’m underdressed?
- What if my bad knee starts hurting so bad that I have to sit down and then I ruin their fun and they never invite me again?
- What if I overspend?
- What if I overeat?
- What if I get food on my shirt?
- OMG, I should totally change my shirt, I look fat.
- Well, I look fat in everything. I am fat.
- I shouldn’t go because someone will take a pic of the fat chick eating food-truck-food and it will go viral on social media and I’ll become a global laughing-stock.
- I should cancel.
- I’m going to cancel…
- Wait…. what if I cancel and that hurts their feelings and they never invite me to anything again?
- What if….
Now, I could go on, but I think you get the point.
I have social anxiety
I pretty much expect every social event to be a disaster, starring me. I spend huge amounts of energy looking for reasons to cancel my social outings. Usually, I talk myself out of it. Sometimes, the anxiety wins and I stay home.
The other day, a friend asked me how I managed my social anxiety. I know why she asked me that. People generally tell me that they admire my confidence. That I’m outgoing and just seem like a strong person.
I’m not, though. I’m a wreck. I’m a mess. I’m a gibbering ball of nerves and insecurity. However, it’s important to me to seem strong and confident, and apparently, I’ve done a good job with the pretense.
The Leahey Plan for dealing with Social Anxiety – Fake it till you make it
(you can actually stop reading now. That is the entire secret)
Step one – Act the part
Learn about body language. Seriously. Learn what the signs are of someone who is confident, comfortable, casual (or whatever image you WANT to project). And make an effort to project that. When I’m in public, I lean on the doorframe or wall. I put hands on my hips, or in my pockets. I assume a casual pose: weight on one hip, ankles crossed. If I’m sitting, I lean back in the chair or lean forward on the table with my hands loosely clasped. If I realize that I’m showing signs of nervousness, like fidgeting hands, I change posture so that my hands are behind my back or in my pockets.
Why? To fool the people around me? No, to fool myself. Research has shown that your own body will believe what your body language tells it. In other words, you can literally fake it till you make it – fake being relaxed, calm, and confident until your body believes it and you feel it.
Step Two – Dress the part
The other day I was going to meet friends and I knew there might be tension among us. There’d been some disagreements, some harsh words, and I was tremendously anxious about what might be said when we got into a room together.
As I got dressed that day, I opened the closet. My eye fell on a pink flowy thing with a peasant neckline, soft drapy fabric, ruffles, and a pretty floral design. That top makes me feel pretty, feminine, and soft. I decided I wanted — no, needed — to look and feel strong and confident*. So, instead, I chose a bright colored shirt over a bright colored tank top. That particular outfit makes me feel strong and confident. And also pretty.
*Some women can and do feel strong and feminine at the same time. I don’t. I’m not trying to invalidate anyone else’s experience of being a woman. This is mine.
Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about power ties or any particular color or item. I’m talking about what makes you feel good. Ignore articles that tell you you can’t wear a miniskirt after 35 if wearing that miniskirt makes you feel good. Wear butterfly clips in your hair, torn up jeans, menswear, bright colors, pastel colors, stiletto heels or comfy flats. I’m talking about what makes you feel like the kind of person who doesn’t worry about being around people.
Step Three – Be stern with yourself.
What do people who aren’t social anxious do when people invite them places? They say yes! So do that. Fake being that person who is cool with accepting invites.
I made a rule for myself that I will accept any reasonable invitation.
What does “reasonable” mean?
First, is it something I feel safe doing?
“We’re going to strap on fresh killed pork and go swimming in shark-infested waters, wanna come?”
That would be a no.
“We’re gonna go see a movie about sharks. Wanna come?”
That would be a yes.
Is it something I can do? I have severe osteoarthritis in both knees. That means that walking hurts, standing hurts, and climbing stairs is nearly impossible. So…
“Wanna come on a seven-mile hike in the mountains?”
That’s a no.
“Wanna come to a food-truck festival?”
There’s a reasonable expectation of being able to sit. So yes.
Is it something I enjoy?
“Wanna come to a country music festival?”
No, I do not.
“Wanna come to a Beatles cover band concert? They’re super good.”
Yes. Yes I do.
Step three and a half
…and then don’t let yourself back out without good reason.
That’s the tricky one, guys. That’s the one that you really have to force yourself to follow through. I can’t tell you what will work for you, but here’s what works for me.
I remind myself that I’m doing this FOR ME.
I remind myself that if I keep canceling plans, eventually I’ll have no plans.
I remind myself that I will have fun once I’m there, because I have super cool friends.
I remind myself that sitting and playing on my computer is something I can do at any time. Going to a food-truck festival and hanging out with my friends is something I get few opportunities to do.
Usually, that works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Step Three and three quarters
If it doesn’t work… if you still end up cancelling your plans, apologize. If you’re good enough friends to be all self-disclosing, tell them the truth: the anxiety won this time. If you don’t feel that comfortable, then make up a polite fib, but don’t just flake. And tell them you look forward to next time .
- Fake it till you make it.
- Act confident
- Dress confident
- And accept those invites.
…and a final note – acting confident and dressing confident is not about manipulating other people. It’s about manipulating yourself. Convincing yourself that you are strong and confident.