Illustration: Ashley SIebels
A long time ago, in a law firm far, far away, when I was a mid-level associate, I was assigned to work on a project with a senior associate.
He seemed like a nice person, and we got along fine. I felt comfortable enough to make suggestions that seemed above my station, such as a particular idea for settling the case and getting our client out of a jam. Senior Associate nodded his head.
Then, at our team meeting, he said, “so, I was just thinking…” then proceeded to tell the partners my idea— without crediting me.
The partners LOVED it.
I was less impressed; I was dumbfounded and offended. But I didn’t speak up. Not at the meeting, nor privately with Senior Associate.
Why? Because I wanted to be liked. By everybody. Including by Senior Associate, even though he turned out not to be a particularly nice person after all. I conducted myself exactly as I did before this incident not because I was afraid for my job, but because I wanted everybody to be my friend. I ignored the conflicts because then I could continue to believe everyone liked me.
Social anxiety defined how I worked
But the moment didn’t pass so easily. It jarred me into noticing how I operated in the world, and my singular motivation in all interactions. When negotiating to buy a car, I wanted the car salesman to like me; when buying a house, I wanted to be seen as reasonable, accommodating – someone the sellers could befriend.
My attempts to seek friendships in all the wrong places were the result of overwhelming shyness and social anxiety. Growing up, I moved around constantly, attending 8 schools in 11 years (changing four cities, two countries and two languages in the process). Being the new kid all the time didn’t affect my academic performance – I graduated high school two years ahead of schedule – but it did a number on my social confidence.
Until the episode of the stolen idea, however, I hadn’t considered all the different ways in which my social anxiety was hindering my professional life. Even though I understood that one cannot build a career on smarts and academics alone, I hadn’t understood the full ramifications of my fears.
Wanting to be liked, but being convinced that you’re socially inept, means giving up all opportunities to shine (what if I forget a word and look stupid? What if they think I’m a showoff?).
It also means being compliant with the bad behaviors of others so as not to create conflict (and thus be unlikeable). It means avoiding opportunities to build stronger ties with your colleagues and bosses, because you’re afraid that the more you speak, the more likely you are to screw up and make them not like you. It means convincing yourself that you’re bad at business development because you always feel off-balance in your relationships.
It means avoiding people in a futile preemptive effort not to get hurt. It means being unreliable, bailing on activities at the last moment when you just can’t power through and force yourself to go to an event, even with people you know.
It means wasting hours replaying past interactions in your head and trying to figure out what you could have done better, even if nothing actually was wrong. Those hours. They were hours that could have been spent doing productive work, or enjoying a hike.
What helped me reduce my social anxiety
Insidiously, social anxiety is not easily amenable to fact-based evidence. It didn’t matter that I had solid relationships, negotiated successfully with opposing counsel, and had a track record of making small talk with people I just met. My vision of myself was that I didn’t know how to do any of these things.
I wish I could write a listicle of 10 things guaranteed to lessen the burden of social anxiety, which afflicts as many as one in eight adults during their lifetime. But it’s not that simple; what works varies from person to person. Generally, cognitive behavioral therapy has shown very good results. So has meditation-based stress reduction.
For me, personally, the simplest and most effective method turned out to be a set of steps learned at improv, all designed to get me out of my head and into the reality around me. When I go into a potentially fraught social situation, I do the following:
- When I feel nervous, I determine my objective. It can’t be an emotional or fuzzy objective like “I want people to like me.” It’s a concrete, verifiable thing like “learn more about organization X” or “book a speaking engagement.”
- Choose my next actions. “I’m going to show up on the early side to this networking event, introduce myself to the host, and ask to be introduced to members of the organization,” or “I’m going to call the bar association and find out who’s the decision-maker in booking speakers.”
- Focus on the other person. The human CPU is built to unitask, which means that we can either focus on our internal chatter (“what are people thinking about me? Am I making a fool of myself?”) or we can focus on the reality around us. By making the effort to really listen to my conversation partners, I do not have the bandwidth for the anxiety-producing internal chatter, and I have the added benefit of being able to participate fully in the conversation.
How I work now: free and calmer
A week ago, I sent an email to a prominent individual in the legal industry asking for a short interview for an article I’m writing about expert witnesses. I haven’t heard back. A few years ago, this simple chain of events would have sent me into a tailspin – why isn’t he responding? What was wrong with my email? How can I fix this? Why doesn’t he like me?
Now, I work with the facts: I’m writing an article; he didn’t respond to my email; I need to find another source with answers to my questions.
This, to me, is what victory over social anxiety looks like.