Overcoming Social Anxiety: A Simple Guide for Turning Strangers into Friends and Lovers

After years of video games, programming, and writing, I came to realize that there is nothing more important than meaningful relationships and a strong community. It was only when I lacked these things that loneliness struck, when my enjoyment for things felt frivolous because I had no one to share them with, and thus–even when overwhelmed by projects of passion–boredom would rear its ugly head, and on its tail would come the enveloping shadows of sadness.

So I set out to force myself to become more outgoing, to put aside the farm-raised Ohio shyness that kept me immersed in a cocoon of escapism, and instead bring about my rebirth into a social butterfly.

And it worked better than I could have ever dreamed. Not quickly, of course. I stumbled for years. But as always, to those willing to listen, every failure speaks loudly of self-empowering truths. And after years of attending to these subtle yet profound lessons, I discovered a handful of practices that have enriched my day to day interactions with others immensely, and thus enriched my life just the same. And I present them to you now:

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

If nothing else, please take away this one piece of mental awareness. If you want to engage with someone, but feel the social anxiety paralyzing your ability to open up, consider this:

The worst case is likely less than a minute of awkwardness and a potential rejection. But guess what? There are 7 billion people on this planet, and we’re simply not all going to hit it off, and that’s totally fine. That’s the beauty of existence: we’re all different and this gives us the pleasure of learning from each other.

But your best case—oh, how good it is! Your best case is a life-long friend or lover. Someone you travel with, cuddle late at night with, share endless pints and laughs with, hold hands with, hike with, cry with, raise children with, start a business with, create an art project with, etc, etc.

The point is, you’re risking a life-time of happiness and love, all because you fear one minute of awkwardness. That’s just silly. Your life will simply go on as normal in the worst case, and it becomes infinitely better in the best case. Why wouldn’t you risk nothing to gain everything?

To this day, I consider this ‘return on investment’ every time I feel myself reluctant to engage with a stranger I feel drawn toward. And as soon as I do, I have no excuse but to summon the courage, because the gain is so unbelievably worth it, and the cost is nothing but a very tiny, temporary dent to your ego. A dent that will heal and only make you stronger and more confident for your next interaction.

And in realizing this, in knowing what great potential each stranger holds, this soon led me to discover another mental practice:

Engage with everyone as though they were your best friend.

What makes your best friend your best friend? Well, I would assume it’s largely because there exist for the two of you some commonalities in passion, some large-swathe of venn-diagram intersection where the two of you can both come alive from the same circumstances. So…

…in order to turn a stranger into a friend, find out what makes you both come alive; find middle-ground.

Here’s the thing: passion is confidence, it’s sexy, it’s alluring, it’s contagious–hell, I’d place it as one of the most important aspects a person can have, one of the biggest sources of happiness. No matter how you initially perceive someone, it’s hard not to feel (at least mentally) attracted to them when their eyes light up with a sparkling love for life, their cheeks spread in a wistful grin, and their voice resonates with a tone of authentic bliss as they regale tales of those things that make them feel most like them: their music, their writing, their love of food, of travel, of comedy or flowers or hiking or politics or landscaping or anything.

I believe that somewhere deep down inside ourselves, we know when someone is truly passionate about something; and we absolutely love it. We love it because we’ve tasted it before and we know how glorious it is to love something so deeply. And so we want to be around these kinds of people, because they inspire us to get back to those things we love, those things we know we haven’t given enough attention to during our struggle to survive this rat race.

I’ve talked about mirror neurons before here (see #4)–the point being that when we see someone happy, it makes us happy, and simply put: we want to be around people who are happy.

So talk about things you love, and pay attention for the things that make them get excited too. See if these two things ever align. And if you’re having trouble, don’t worry, there’s always at least one thing you can start your conversations with: your environment. Why are you both at yoga? Do you both live in the neighborhood? What brought you to this cafe or pub? Why do you live in this city? Don’t be afraid to appreciate the fact that your mutual presence in this infinitesimally small spot out of the entire planet is a major bond in-and-of itself.

Now, so far, these tips just get your foot in the door. But what if we’re taking about really strengthening the connection? Well, you’re still looking for the middle ground, but once you’ve exhausted the more surface level stuff, you’ve got to dig a bit deeper.

This, I’m afraid, may be the hardest part for most people, especially in our contemporary culture where screens tend to keep our confidence in face-to-face interactions low until we can use alcohol to lubricate our anxieties. But I’m telling you right now, if you want the quickest road to the most pure of connections:

Be vulnerable.

And the biggest part of being vulnerable means being honest. Just like we all subconsciously resonate with passion, so too do we resonate with truth ( funny how passion and truth are related, eh?). There’s so much bullshit and fakery in this world, so many facades and illusions and cliches, that when we find someone who is willing to be honest with us, we feel an immediate connection. This is largely because we’re cultivating trust, which in this world of chaos is one of the best things we can offer to each other.

But more than simply giving the other person the knowledge that you’re committed to giving them the greatest gift of your pure perspective, you’re also digging deeper into those substantial passions that could become the glue of your bond.

See, if you’re afraid to admit you love D&D, you’ll never have the conversations where you get to geek out with that stranger who loves it as well, who then becomes an acquaintance you fight a dragon with one weekend, who then becomes a best friend or a lover who you share your life with. If you’re afraid to admit you write poetry, then maybe they won’t tell you they’re going to that poetry event tonight and that you should join them. If you’re afraid to admit your insecurities, then they won’t admit theirs, and you may never find that deep support you both want to give to another person, that kind of support that will bring you together in ways that let you know you found someone you can truly count on to be there for you.

And that’s the problem we all need to overcome. We need to stop being so afraid of our passions being taboo that we keep them hidden, because all that does is stop us from finding people who love the same things as us. We need to stop being afraid to admit our ignorances, to say I don’t know, because then we’re stopping an opportunity for someone to teach us and potentially create a new passion for us, one that we can potentially share with our new-found teacher. And thus we’re left with only superficial connections that lack any substance save for the mutual desire to not have to be silent, alone, and bored.

And now for my last point:

LISTEN!

In a world full of narcissistic egos that don’t stop talking about who they know, what they’ve done, why they’re amazing, how good they are at this and that, and blah blah blah blah blah, it’s unbelievably refreshing to find someone who seems to actually be listening to us. And it’s only when actually listening that vulnerability and middle-ground can truly be capitalized and built upon.

You see, most conversing is simply a comparing of definitions. All we’re doing is bringing up symbols of language, for things like home, happy, passion, future, beliefs, struggles, etc, and we’re comparing our definitions of these concepts. And when these definitions seem to align, we feel a connection, because we feel like the person who we’re talking to can actually relate, and therefore we feel solidarity and a kind of ephemeral kinship. And if you’re not actually listening, then you won’t be able to properly compare definitions, and therefore you won’t be able to connect in a meaningful way.

I think this scene from Waking Life by Richard Linklater explains my point quite nicely:

 

( If interested, I go further into this concept of symbolic-definition resonance in regards to Bigotry&War here, as well as in regards to the future of your mind as an uploaded consciousness interpreting symbols here. )

In closing, let me just add that it’s important to balance your inner relationship as well as your outer ones. I’ve personally found that my optimal state is when I cultivate both with an alternating frequency. I would lose my sanity if not for my long walks, my long bike rides, my meditation, and especially my quiet nights in alone. But a large part of my ability to enjoy these things is because I know that I’ve built a strong community around myself that I can immerse myself in as soon as I’ve had my loner recharge time. And better yet, this alone time allows me to bring more vulnerability and perspective and beautiful definitions to share with future strangers who will eventually become my kin, and thus makes my social interactions even better.

So go, my friends, be vulnerable, risk nothing for everything, listen and find passionate middle-ground, and watch as the world around you turns from a land of strangers into a land of those who fill your waking moments full of love and laughter.

4 COMMENTS

  1. My tips on the same.

    Turn contacts (authors,clients,employees,customers) into friends: talk about non-work topics, care about something big, keep in touch, relentlessly follow up …

    Then… Nurture contacts
    Show contacts you are thinking about them even when you are not directly interacting with them.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/erincarlyle/2012/11/09/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people-like-vc-shervin-pishevar/

    Great tips, by the way, Steven Parton.

    Thx
    L Mohan Arun

  2. Wow. I absolutely loved this. What a great way to look at things. I especially loved the question of what have we to lose – and we have, potentially, everything to gain from social interaction. You are very brave. 🙂

  3. What a wonderful, wonderful read. As someone who recently moved and is figuring out how to live in a new town, I definitely needed this reminder. Thank you.

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