Social anxiety is a tough thing for anyone to experience. It’s also one of those things that, when it does surface in our lives, its impact on us can compound.
The more socially anxious we are, the more likely we are to see social interactions with other people in black and white terms. As anxiety rises, our primitive “fight or flight” system kicks in. It tries to simplify our experience in a polarised “threat” or “non-threat” way.
Because of this, we can make sweeping generalisations “in our mind” about other people. We respond to one person by framing them as a “threat”. They have to be avoided. Another person, however, is framed as “safe”. It’s OK to hang out with them.
This black and white thinking is a natural part of our evolutionary structure. It served us well in our primitive days. Now, however, it is troublesome. It can lead us to chaos. It can cause dissatisfaction. In fact, it can bring us to increasing anxiety and feelings of alienation in the context of our more complex world.
Our primitive brain weren’t designed for this more nuanced and complex modern world of ours.
Today, when it comes to interacting with a challenging situation that triggers our social anxiety, the primitive part of our brain pulls rank. Our more modern frontal cortex, where all our reasoning occurs, gets pushed aside.
How can we move out of this “blunt” process?
How can we reclaim a more meaningful subtlety in our interactions, even if we’re gripped with chronic shyness or social anxiety?
Let’s consider one part of the solution.
To deal with social anxiety, we need a paradigm shift.
We need to move away from our primitive brain’s desire to suppress our frontal cortex when we’re socially anxious. We’ve got to put in place an interrupter when “primitive man” within wants to oversimplify for survival.
We want our reactions to reflect the reality of our complex, modern and multidimensional social system.
Let’s look at the people in our lives. Consider all of them, our intimate partners and family members. Consider, too, the people we see in the neighbourhood. Include those we know and those who we recognise but don’t know their names.
Now, our interactions with all of those people exist on a continuum. The analogy might go something like this.
Firstly, some people we know we might only see at the bus stop. We might chat pleasantly about something mundane, like the weather. The conversation won’t last long. Maybe there won’t even be a conversation. Perhaps it will be just a polite smile.
Other people we know better might include those neighbours we’ll have a chat with over the fence. They’re nice but we’re not about to invite them into our kitchen for a cup of coffee.
There are those who we like well enough to invite into the garden, but not inside our house.
Others we get on fine with. They get the BBQ invitations.
Then there are those we like. These people we feel comfortable with. We trust them. We open up and share more of our thoughts and feelings. They get the dinner invitations.
There are also those we really like. Some of them might even get invited into the bedroom.
Get the picture?
Now, when we are highly anxious and stressed we decide if someone is “on our team” or “off the team”. Often, it only takes a minor incident for us to throw someone off our team and out of our life.
With bus stop diplomacy, we don’t have to be so black and white.
If someone we let inside the house starts to make us feel emotionally unsafe we can move them out into the front garden. If it continues or increases, they get gently moved outside the gate. The final stop is the bus stop. There we can keep politenss and safety together.
Of course, this subtle shift in boundaries might create a change in behaviour in the other person. If safety in the relationship appears to be coming back, we can move them from outside the gate to inside the house.
With bus stop diplomacy we can keep emotionally safe without burning bridges.
Relationships are dynamic processes. We are best served by being aware more mindfully of what form the relationship currently is. Then we can take action to optimise it.
When we are socially anxious and have a fear of others judging us, we often tend to keep most people at the bus stop. Maybe it’s time to reconsider who you’ve relegated to the bus stop?
Who has shown over time, through their actions, that we can trial “upgrading them” to more intimate aspects of our lives, step by step?
Maybe it’s OK to stay emotionally safe and, simultaneously, drink from the beautiful well of human connection …
Feel you’d like to go further in dealing with social anxiety?