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5 Myths Causing Your Social Anxiety

Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
By Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach who received her clinical psychology doctorate from University College London. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, Business Insider, and elsewhere.
Photo by Stocksy

I once had a litany of excuses to avoid group events. You see, I was fraught with fear that people would think I was stupid or not good enough. The easiest way to avoid confronting this belief was to avoid events. And the surefire way to believe my belief was to never prove myself wrong.

However, out of necessity, through trial-and-error and various baptisms by fire, I uncovered the mindsets that perpetuated my social anxiety. Our mindsets are the invisible scripts that run and sometimes ruin our lives, and nurturing more realistic — yet compassionate — mindsets is how I learned to be comfortable with myself.

Eventually, "I'm busy" became more of an autopilot response, though it would've been a genuine explanation for spending time nourishing my introverted self. Back then, sites like mindbodygreen didn't exist, and I had no idea my experience had a name.

See charisma as the roots of a tree. When it's present, the tree can bear fruits of fluency, high-impact communication, and leadership.

I stumbled awkwardly through my journey. By the time I was working with my clients on their issues, I understood, because I'd walked in their shoes once. If you feel plagued by social anxiety, this doesn't need to be your story. In combination with my psychology and coaching work, I spoke to my mentor Garth Spiers (executive coach and charisma coach) and my colleague Linda Ugelow (visibility coach), to uncover the top mindsets that make your social anxiety worse. Here they are:

1. "I suck."

Imagine you're sitting at a table with six other people. Someone's talking, and you're thinking, "Oh God, I suck at being in groups." Chances are, you've missed out on a few minutes of conversation as similar situations replay in your head. You feel anxious and think, "I'm really bad at this. Why did I even bother coming?" You go home replaying all the things you should have done and feel even more defeated about yourself. You tell yourself, "I have no confidence," and this affects your performance in other parts of your life, where you carry this dirty little secret.

When we obsess over our deficiencies, we plunge into a vicious cycle of self-loathing, and this becomes a global assumption about our lack of confidence. Garth advises that we need to shift our idea about what exactly confidence is. It is a feeling of capability or comfort within a certain context. And many of us are more confident driving cars than meeting new people. Being able to disentangle a lack of confidence from the rest of our life circumstances can help us reclaim our sense of control.

2. "I need to come up with something clever."

A successful executive client of mine once told me, "I'm always stuck in social settings racking my brain to say something clever. Then I feel frustrated and want to run away." "Any reason for wanting to sound clever?" I asked. "Because that's what people like, right?" he mused. "Think about the last time someone said something clever and it got you upset," I replied. He paused for a minute, and he passionately declared, "Too many times. Just last week I was talking about how horrible it was at the anniversary of my father's death, and someone tried to get all clever about it."

It hit him then that connecting in groups isn't always about sounding witty. As we reflected on the most meaningful interactions he had, he concluded that it's all about the other person being present, echoing almost everyone else. In the words of my spiritual teachers Tay and Val, it's all about bearing witness to someone's suffering. And it isn't simply when our friend is suffering; it's being there for them, through their joys and pain and everything in between.

The easiest way to be present? Stop touching your phone, and listen deeply. You don't have to memorize every word they're saying. Simply get the gist, ask questions, and empathize. That will do way more than a clever remark. And if you find yourself in a circle where everyone's trying to one-up each other with sardonic retorts, perhaps it's time to ask yourself if that environment is healthy for you.

3. "People who are charismatic are psychopaths."

Once upon a time, I told myself exactly that. You see, the story my history teacher told us of Hitler as a hypnotic man who riveted the nation and spearheaded mass genocide made me wary of "charisma." And truth be told, it was yet another excuse to keep things the way they were — because to quote one of my favorite literary characters, Isabel Spellman, we human beings are great at adapting but crap at changing. So we'll adapt to keep the status quo frozen rather than change ourselves.

Indeed, people in the Dark Triad — psychopaths, narcissists, and Machiavellians — may initially appear charming, but their self-aggrandizing charm wears off. We become tired of them eventually. And debunking charisma based on a few outliers is the same as saying that all proponents of a faith are terrorists because some members twist its tenets. Instead, Garth proposes that we see personal skills as the root system of a tree. When charisma is at the root, the tree can bear fruits of fluency, high-impact communication, and leadership. When the roots are social anxiety, the tree's fruits can appear to look beautiful, but in reality, they’re infested with fear and a sense of being an impostor.

4. "I'm overwhelmed with anxiety right now."

The feeling of sheer terror that percolates in every cell; the heart that threatens to slams through your rib cage; the breathing that's accelerating at the same rate as the thoughts screaming in your heart. Anxiety is overwhelming and can engender feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Linda says we must not simply "feel the fear and do it anyway."

Indeed, when we try to deny our experiences, our bodies are in a state of fight-or-flight, and we're unable to really enjoy ourselves. Instead, ask yourself, "What can I do right now that can help me feel more relaxed?" She suggests repeating to yourself, "I am safe," and breathing deeply.

Breathwork is a simple yet effective method I teach my clients to help them stay present. The breath is our friend, it follows us, yet we often forget that we have a body. Try this three-minute meditation next time you're anxious. Linda also suggests that we should do other body-centered practices, like rooting into our feet on the ground and engaging in the Wonder Woman pose — when we feel that sturdy support under us, we tell our body we are powerful, and it generates a cascade of hormones that increases our sense of confidence. Now, how's that for an ingenious hack?

5. "It's just not the way I am."

Do you feel resigned to being socially anxious forever because you see it as part of who you are? If so, you don't believe that ever being competent in social situations is your lot in life.

But really, the greatest difference between the person who works the crowd confidently and thinks "I'm crap; I'll never be like that," and the one who goes "How do I get there?" is that the second knows it's a matter of developing the skills, mindsets, and self-compassion.

On my journey toward overcoming my social anxiety, I learned that the most socially confident people fell into two groups. The first group was people who were brought up in an environment where everyone else was socially confident — what we're exposed to as young children is what we take to be our outcome in life. The second group is people who once identified as socially awkward and worked their way to confidence. And the commonality in both groups is that both prove social confidence can be taught.

Linda's top tip is to set an intention before you attend any event. Ask yourself, "How do I want to feel as I get ready to go? Do I want to feel excited? Curious? Happy?" Then, spend five minutes tapping into a time when this feeling was present. Focus on where this feeling is in your body, the color of this feeling. Then, visualize yourself in the event, reveling in that feeling and color.

Mindset work isn't about instant results — otherwise, I'd happily open my wallet for "thought surgery." Instead, it's about consistently showing up for yourself and setting the intention to love yourself and grow into who you really are, unencumbered by the crippling perspectives that color how you presently see yourself.

Reframing your negative mindsets about social anxiety has two purposes — it tells you you're not alone, and it builds foundations for success. With practice, it starts becoming ingrained into who you are, the same way "I am socially anxious" was once tattooed on your identity.

If you’d like to become free of social anxiety, here’s a gift I made for you: a daily exercise to detox yourself of mindsets that keep you socially anxious.

Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy author page.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology

Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.

She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.