“It’s only a party!” “Just talk to him!” “It’s not going to kill you!”
For the socially anxious, the exasperated pleas of well-meaning friends and family who want you to “put yourself out there” are hard to hear. On one level, you know they’re right—even if that attractive person turns on her heels and walks away, you will not, in fact, die.
And yet, as we all know, this kind of scolding never helps. In fact, the only thing more stressful than trying to approach someone attractive at a party is trying to approach someone attractive at a party while a peanut gallery of friends urges you to go, go, make your move.
So if holiday parties inspire more panic than pleasure, try this: Let yourself be anxious.
As a study led by Ryerson University’s Megan MacKenzie notes, social anxiety takes two different forms. First, there is the anxiety itself, the fluttery feeling you get when chatting up a cutie at the hors d’oeuvres table. Second, there is your response to the anxiety—the voice inside you that says “Pull yourself together! Stop being so weird!”
In the study, researchers had participants respond to statements accessing their level of both forms of anxiety. For example, a participant’s response to the statement “Being socially anxious makes it difficult for me to live the life I value” measures her level of social anxiety. The statement “I criticize myself for having irrational or inappropriate social anxiety” measures her response to the anxiety.
Writing on the Psychology Today blog, University of Massachusetts psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne explains that the study is based on the premise that the social anxious “can best be treated by learning how to accept these feelings and decide on their own how they wish to handle them, a process known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).”
There is increasing evidence, she says, that ACT can help people deal with their frustration with their symptoms—or their anxiety about their anxiety. “Paradoxically, accepting the feelings of anxiety you have may make it easier for you to change them, as is claimed by ACT advocates,” Whitebourne writes.
If the presence of an attractive person makes your hands start to sweat or your face start to flush, you have two choices. You can get upset with yourself for losing your cool, which will of course only make things worse. Or you can take a breath, acknowledge what’s going on in your body, and then choose to proceed.
In my experience, asking the other person a question—about an upcoming vacation, their commute to work, anything—is a nice way to buy time. When people get to talk about themselves, they are less attuned to the minor ways your body is betraying you. Instead, they’re far more likely to come away thinking you’re the most charming and graceful person in the room.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her questions here.