I want to take a moment to talk to all of you who know someone who is struggling with social anxiety. The last couple of years has probably been rough for them. They’ve been forced not to socialize and might have gotten very comfortable not doing that. When they spend this much time by themselves, they’ve likely begun to feel very insecure about themselves. After all, they only see themselves through their own eyes without the cues they get from being with other people. Those eyes have been overly critical for most of their lives.
So if they’ve been reluctant to get together, please understand the struggle. Understand that they struggle to think that people want to spend time with them. They may struggle to be reminded that people even like them. This struggle may seem ridiculous to you. After all, you do want to see them and enjoy their company. How could they not see it?
The struggle is real. I know this because I have lived this. Years ago, as a young adult still trying to deal with my traumatic childhood. It took me a long time to gain confidence and accept that the people in my life truly wanted to be in it. Then, the pandemic happened, and I’ve spent the better part of the last three years working from home and seeing other people very little. Guess what happened? All those old insecurities, all the old, negative feelings about myself came back. I doubted my ability to be social. I doubted that other people wanted to spend time with me. It has been a massive struggle to plan time to see people outside my wife. (She, of course, has to spend time with me and accept me. There’s a contract. This is how my mind works.)
So here’s what some of my friends and family have done that have helped me without even knowing how much they were helping. When your friend who has been struggling with social anxiety finally works up the courage to make plans with you, maybe you can consider some of these small actions.
- Sound at least a little happy to have plans with them. Send a text, or end the conversation with something like “Can’t wait to see you!” or let them know they have been missed. Don’t assume they know they’ve been missed.
- When you first see them, a smile goes a long way when you meet up with them. I was reminded yesterday when a friend I hadn’t seen in years saw me from down the street, smiled, and waved. I also noted that it’s something I should be mindful of. I am one of those people whose resting facial expression is not one of happiness or friendliness. Maybe it’s my NYC upbringing. Maybe’s it the trauma and untrusting nature. It is, however, not the expression I want to have when I see someone I claim to care about.
- Hugs, when appropriate.
Someone you know is likely struggling with anxiety. Likely, many of you are, too, just like I am. With general anxiety rampant across society right now, we can also assume that a large portion of social anxiety is going around too. If you have a friend who has struggled to keep plans or stay in touch, be kind. Recognize their anxiety and take a small action that sends the message that you are happy to see them. For me, it’s been a sincere hug or smile upon seeing me. It’s an immediate reminder that this person wants to be with me. There is an undeniable feeling that seeing me makes them happy.
They probably have no idea how much they have done by expressing that to me, but it makes all the difference in the world. I can immediately go from being all in my insecurities to all in the acceptance and warmth of long-time friends. It might not seem like much, but it is.