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How to crush social anxiety

Living in a Christian bubble throughout high school and college, I had little exposure to the drinking scene. When I first started at IBM, my co-workers would invite me to a Los Gatos bar for drinks after work.  My impression of Los Gatos is that it's an affluent area full of tall, good-looking white people. I would approach the bar to order a drink, feeling like a midget, feeling both invisible and insignificant, feeling like I had to shout to be heard, and most of all, deathly afraid of embarrassing myself. I was so intimidated by the environment that I didn't even know how to talk to the waitresses (who were all tall, white, and good-looking). At that moment, starting a conversation with a stranger in a bar was the scariest thing in the world.

It was like high school lunchtime all over again. I was the little newcomer nerdy Asian freshmen who had wandered into the wrong area of the school quad.  One time I found myself in the place where the senior jocks and cheerleaders sit. On various occasions, popular white kids would prank me and ridicule my friends and I. And I would be so paralyzed with fear and anger that I wouldn't say anything. After a couple of experiences like this, my level of anxiety would skyrocket every time I felt insecure or threatened in a social setting.

Technically, it's easy to start a conversation. Ch. 6 of Conversationally Speaking points out the obvious. Approach someone who looks approachable. Make contact, smile, and speak. The most non-threatening opener is a comment or question about the immediate surroundings.

While outside with a white person: "Rain here means more snow in Tahoe. Fresh powder rocks."

While waiting in line at Starbucks: "How can she stand in line for 10 minutes, get to the counter, and still not know what she wants?" 

To an Asian guy at Game Stop: "Last time I was here, the store guy had never heard of Minecraft" 

To a senior citizen: <You don't have to say anything, keep smiling and they will talk to you>

But what makes starting conversations so incredibly difficult has nothing to with picking a conversation topic or opening line. 

What makes starting conversations difficult is fear. 

Fear of rejection. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of awkwardness. Fear of failing to make a good first impression. Fear of exposing our inadequacy and insecurity. Conversations are notoriously unpredictable. Most of them are average and uninteresting, but every now and then they are really good or really bad.  

It's not that I'm reminded of high school when I'm in a bar, at a cafe, or going to a party. It's that feelings of anxiety, panic, and insecurity overwhelm me in the exact same way they did back in my adolescence. And it's not like the situations are that similar either.  It's the emotions  that are the same. The emotions of the past cloud my view of the present. 

The Bible talks in images. In Ephesians, the image is taking off the old man's clothes and putting on the new garment of Christ. It means removing negative beliefs based on a narrow set of haunting memories and replacing them with positive ones based on a broader, more accurate reality. Christianity isn't a denial of what's evil; it's an affirmation of what's good. 

There are four beliefs that set me free from social anxiety. They give me the courage to start a conversation and minimize fear of rejection. I choose to trust these beliefs even when presented with evidence to the contrary. I believe they're true.

1) People are lonely and would like to talk but are afraid to start a conversation: It's a pretty simple formula to be good at making conversations: Be far more focused on other person than you are on yourself. Self-consciousness, insecurity, narcissism kills connection. The broader reality is that everyone is lonely and more than ever, longs for quality human interaction. Everyone wants to be heard. But most people don't listen. So more often than not, people are not willing to risk starting a conversation because the outcome is not guaranteed, it takes work, they don't know what to say, and they're fearful of all the things I'm afraid of. 

This belief is so motivating for me because it demystifies people. It helps me stop pedestalizing women. It makes me less intimidated of men. It's even changed how I view social groups. I used to think I was the only one who felt like an outsider to a clique. Now I realize most members of cliques feel insecure about their status, including the leaders.

2) I am called to be a witness of God's love to this world: No matter how deeply I understand that people are lonely it is still not enough to overcome social anxiety unless I recognize my unique role in addressing people's loneliness. There are lots of ways to establish this belief. 

For example, I can say to myself, "Fred, you're the man. You are unstoppable".  I've done it and it helps. Other pastors do it too. But I like going with something with a little more grounded in reality and less in my ego. So there's this: "I don't know this guy but I bet he's got a unique story of brokenness and beauty and I would love to hear it."

God made me to ask questions and I can learn from this person. Maybe he can learn from me. Perhaps we can be a blessing each other. Who knows? I have a unique story and so do other people and it's exciting to imagine how God might allow our stories to merge and shape each others'. In order not to take things too seriously, I don't think that much about having a deep, profound conversation. I just like to talk about whatever the other person is interested in. If it gets deep, cool. If not, it's still cool because I've learned something about geocaching or Crossfit competition or aquarium upkeep or how to paint intricate drawings on your fingernails.

3) Rejection is a remote possibility and often outside of my control: Rejection is rare. I haven't experienced much. It's probably because I've played it pretty safe. The fear of rejection is far more potent than the actual thing. And when I've experienced it, it has not been personal. It has been completely out of my control. In most cases, there's nothing I can do about it. In fact, I have come to view rejection more and more positively. Rejection is a great learning tool. It teaches me about people - when people are most receptive to talking and when they're not. It also means I'm putting myself out there, it means I'm learning to take risks, and if I'm rejected for my faith, it makes me more like Jesus.

And often what we think is rejection isn't. I used to start conversations in a small, quiet voice. Or I would mumble. Or both. People would respond "What'd you say?" OR "Are you talking to me?" OR not pay attention at all because they didn't know I was talking.  Conversational momentum killer. Or more accurately, crash before take-off. That's not rejection, that's poor execution. Sometimes poor execution is unavoidable if English is our second language or we have a speech impediment or whatever. The only way to work on those weakness is to get out there and get conversational touches. Practice. Get feedback. Make adjustments. Repeat.

4) Rejection is an opportunity to view my worth as God's child: Even if I am rejected or more commonly, if my expectations of the interaction fall short, then I can rest on my worth as a beloved son of God the Father. He loves me for who I am, not for what I do. 

One of the toughest things for me to do is to express verbal affection towards my wife. I have expectations about how she'll respond. I want fireworks to go off. I want to hear the violin playing. I want the moment to be just right. I want to feel romantic and inspired and worthy. The words never come out the way I imagine them. In those moments, I rest in my worth as a beloved son. It feels good. It helps me to have more realistic expectations. It makes me less invested in how others respond to me. That's what freedom feels like. That's how to crush social anxiety.


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