Many people tell me that they feel socially anxious from time to time. People of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, can experience it and it can come and go at different periods of life.
I feel that some social nerves are a natural consequence of the wide variety of roles and scenarios we're playing out with one another through life. There are many causes of social anxiety. Today I’m exploring how meditation relates to social anxiety, so I’ll just be focussing on that angle.
Often times, social nerves stem from our fear that the other person or other people, will diminish us in some way. Before, during, and after a social situation we might have thoughts like: what do they think of me? Will they like me? Am I good enough? Are they going to pick on me? What are they thinking of me? Can they tell I’m nervous? What will I talk about?
Sometimes this apprehension about the other causes us to behave in ways that are protective. Perhaps we become nervous and hide or maybe we don’t act ourselves or maybe we become a little rude and off-putting. This fear of the other can express in many other ways, after all, we are all so unique and every situation is different. It’s rather unpredictable too, isn’t it? You never can tell quite how you will respond in any given situation until you are in it.
But it can be uncomfortable! At times, hindering our enjoyment of new friends and opportunities and happiness. So what to do?
Certain meditative techniques can be quite useful when it comes to social anxiety. Some, like those featured in my book, are tonics to be used in the moment. IE: a particular breathing exercise or mantra you can sound (like the AUM) to help bring a sense of calm. These approaches are good for easing the physiological effects of anxiety such as rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, and general jitteriness, bringing you into a nice centered place.
Other techniques are more psychological and ask you to shift your perspective and thinking. They invite you to challenge negative thinking by asking questions like, 'can I be sure that so and so is judging me, or am I making assumptions?' Another psychological approach might be to make a conscious effort to bring to mind how many wonderful qualities you bring to the party. Maybe noting down your achievements, strengths and good qualities before going into an interview or meeting or date. This approach is a little like bigging yourself up, in a nice way.
Heres a note from the poet Walt Whitman, totally ace guy.
“I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.
One world is aware, and by the far the largest to me, and that is myself,
And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness, I can wait.”
― Walt Whitman
These psychological turnarounds are good because they involve your sense of logical reasoning, which can be a very healthy thing to do. This said many people who have experienced anxiety will probably agree that reason doesn't always help.
We have explored the idea that social anxiety often arises from our fear that the other can diminish us in some way. We can try to soothe this by changing our thinking process as to what we imagine they think of us, or by celebrating ourselves so that we feel less diminished. I wanted to introduce you to another idea. The idea that most of these fears can be assuaged with the recognition that there is no real separation between the other and yourself. When this is seen, we no longer feel so afraid, as we recognise the other as our very own self.
This isn’t to say that if someone else, (an other!) does something wrong, we wouldn’t be fearful or take appropriate action, but that in our day to day interactions we feel that we, in our humanity and our divinity, are all part of the same creature.
People have been saying this sort of thing for years. You know, ‘we are all one’ ‘love is all you need' ‘save the planet, everything is connected.’ It’s my intuition that many of us can relate to the idea at some level. However, just believing it (using it as another psychological coping mechanism) doesn't always help with those fearful feelings. What helps a lot is really, truly, feeling and knowing that sentiment to be true.
Meditation is one way to get into that stream of knowing. When you meditate, you gain an increasing familiarity with the aware presence that knows your day to day experience. Over time, comes the ability to recognise this presence in others, and to see the truth in them. It’s what they are talking about at the end of yoga when they say Namaste. The god in me sees the god in you. Or what not.
Cultivating your awareness, and exploring your relationship with your inner self is well worth it and is the thing that I have found, personally, and professionally, to have a great impact on social ease and happiness. Here's a closing note from Walt.
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
Whatever age you are, background or gender, socially anxious feelings are probably more common than you think. In many ways, developing our capacity to be open, happy and understanding with other people is something we are all navigating in one way or another, throughout life. And with each interaction, our understanding of ourselves and life at large grows a little.
If you would like help with this I would recommend my book Inhale. Exhale. Repeat, which shows you how meditation related insight can help you in the many corners of your day.