Socially Awkward and Anxious; How Can I Connect With Others?

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 20-year-old girl who’s suffering from paralysing social self-doubt and anxiety. I don’t know if I really have a medical condition, but your advice would help me a lot.

I am a Chinese immigrant in Australia; I’ve been here for at least nine years now. From the outside I look like someone totally normal: I’m actually pretty, I’m smart, empathetic, successful to a certain degree (I entered medical school last year), I’m kind-hearted and I enjoy having fun. However, for at least five years I’ve been trying to connect with people, and have never been successful.

I have the impression that I can only connect with a few shy Asians, yet I feel that I should be able to befriend not only the shy people but the awesome people too. However, whenever I try to approach the people I truly want to be friends with — the not-so-shy people — I become ‘not socially attractive’ enough for them. I can’t help but feel unnatural, like I’m forcing the contact. And of course then, we don’t connect to each other, so it’s pretty awkward.

When I’m trying not to force it I actually still feel ‘dependent’ on that other person — I’m just trying to say whatever is going to catch the their attention. So I’m not sure of how I should talk…and so I’m not confident. Sometimes I want so badly to connect with them, but how?

Maybe it’s because of the cultural differences between us? If so, I’m willing to change myself in order to merge with the majority.

Because I’m anticipating the eventual fail of my next attempt to befriend a classmate, I become more and more afraid to go to school. I don’t want to be reminded again and again of how bad I am in social situations — I don’t want to worsen my image in the eyes of my potential friends. I’m feeling anxious and almost helpless. I’m not sure how to act at school anymore.

My goal is very simple: to have a gang of friends and to be generally appreciated. Can you tell me what’s wrong with me please and give me some concrete and practical suggestions? That’ll greatly help me and my years ahead struggling in med school.

Psychologist’s Reply

My first response is to say that I admire you for pursuing a such a challenging degree as an international student! It takes a lot of courage and openness to other cultures to live and study outside of one’s country of origin.

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You mentioned that you wondered if the difficulty connecting with others is related to cultural differences. It may be. Depending on how acculturated you are and also how open your Australian peers are to folks of other cultures, there could be some initial barriers to connecting with each other. With others who are of the same cultural group as you, it would make sense to feel more comfortable and confident.

You say you would gladly change to merge with the majority culture. I would encourage you to instead explore and develop your unique identity and the strengths that you possess. You described yourself as smart, empathetic, attractive, fun, and kind. Social connections and relationships will develop most naturally when you allow others to get to know the person you really are.

You mention that you have “paralysing” social anxiety. The DSM-IV-TR defines social anxiety, or social phobia, in part, as the fear of acting in a way (or showing anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing and “a marked and persistent fear” of social or performance situations in which the person is “exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.” I don’t have enough information to know if you would qualify for an actual diagnosis. But if you struggle with social anxiety, the tendency is to become preoccupied with what others think of you. You become hyperaware of yourself and your flaws and imagine that others are focusing on those flaws too. In reality, you are probably more aware of yourself and harder on yourself than others are, by far!

A type of therapy that is often used for social anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). One aspect of CBT is to examine your beliefs and to challenge errors in your thinking. You stated that you are not “socially attractive enough” for others to be your friend. I don’t know what others think of you, but actually, neither do you! “They don’t like me” is typical of the kinds negative self-talk statements that social anxiety can create, and is a thinking error called “mind reading.” A suggestion might be to consider what evidence you have for this belief. You can then begin to challenge this thought as merely a fear generated by your own negative self-evaluation, rather than the truth.

You asked for some ideas about what to do. First, it may be helpful to remind yourself to focus on the other person next time you are interacting with a potential friend. Social anxiety creates a self-focus, e.g. “Did I say the right thing? Am I offending that person?” Instead, focus on the person in front of you. Get to know him or her. Ask questions about him or her and really listen to the answers. Share common experiences you may have had. In class, remind yourself that your goal is to listen to the professor, focus on the material, and learn.

Second, be on the watch for negative self-talk such as, “she does not like me.” You mentioned that you are anticipating failing at your next attempt to make a friend. Create some positive self-talk statements that you can use as reminders as you enter in social situations or at school. For you it might be, “I’m a likeable, empathetic person” or “I will be able to handle this” or “I’m here to learn and so is everyone else.”

The third suggestion is to practice some techniques to physically relax your body in social situations or even in class. When anxiety hits, feelings of panic, tension, or even a sense of warmness or sweating can contribute to a feeling of self-focus and awkwardness. Breathe deeply, filling your abdomen like a balloon. Breathe ten times, focusing on the breath coming in and out of your body. Practice at home until you are able to use abdominal breathing to reliably relax your body. Use the breathing together with positive self-talk and a goal to focus on what others are saying about themselves (instead of mind reading what they might be thinking of you). Experiment with what works for you.

For more information about social anxiety and help available, check out the National Institute of Mental Health website. There are also many useful self-help books that can walk you step by step through conquering shyness and social anxiety. If you continue to have difficulty with connecting with others and want to pursue professional help, you might see your medical provider to inquire about anti-anxiety medication or find a therapist who treats anxiety disorders.

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