Perry, a salesman with a medium-sized shipping and receiving company in Alberta, recently received a lukewarm performance review from his manager. While Perry received high marks for handling paper work, helping the tech team design a sales-friendly tracking system and working on the company newsletter, he lost points in generating new business and providing customer service.
Perry had to admit the feedback was true. He liked to hide out in his office, preferring to do paperwork rather than interacting with colleagues and customers. Inherently shy, he found being with other people was nerve-wracking. During meetings, his heart would pound and he’d blush, tremble and sweat.
Despite efforts to appear at ease around others, co-workers found him withdrawn and aloof.
Perry agonized over sales meetings and service calls. He spent sleepless nights worrying about his performance. As a result, Perry came to avoid sales, social and networking situations. His career was beginning to suffer.
His experience is common, and known as social anxiety. The chance of developing social anxiety at some point during one’s lifetime is 13 per cent. Expressed differently, slightly more than one in 10 people will suffer a bout of it. Social anxiety is the third largest mental health care problem in the world, according to American psychologist, Thomas Richards.
Social anxiety is the fear of interpersonal interaction. Sufferers worry about being negatively judged and criticized by others in social and business situations. They can experience anxiety when being introduced to others or when they are the centre of attention. For example, having to introduce themselves to others at a table, make a speech or presentation, ask a question in public, or speak at a meeting can trigger the anxious feelings.
Socially anxious people sometimes experience discomfort when they’re observed talking to others, while writing or talking on the phone. In some cases, interacting with people in authority or who seem to have greater prestige can cause intense fear, nausea, dry mouth and negative self-talk.
Success in business is predicated on the ability to develop and sustain long-term relationships, putting socially anxious people at a disadvantage. Research indicates that people high in emotional intelligence, the hallmark of which is social adeptness, are more likely to succeed at work.
Unfortunately, anxiety sufferers will avoid meeting and interacting with the very people who can help their career, their business and their sales. Socially anxious people often anticipate being nervous before entering a business situation, fearing they’ll get tongue-tied. Sometimes, that fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
People suffering from social anxiety know they may be hurting their careers, and often work hard to cover up their symptoms. Many try to downplay the problem or force themselves to be social – to no avail.
But social anxiety can be overcome. Here’s what to do if you or someone you know may be socially anxious.
1. Recognize Some Anxiety is Normal and Helpful
Most people, when faced with a social situation, a public speaking opportunity or a chance to meet important people will feel nervous. It’s natural. With the right amount of anxiety, people’s performance can be enhanced. However, when an individual is too nervous, she can make more errors. Recognizing that some nervousness is normal and even helpful is important.
When Perry realized that even the most extroverted sales rep got nervous before a presentation, he felt a bit better.
2. Seek Support
It is advisable to seek out people at work who will understand the effects of social anxiety-withdrawal, reluctance to meet new people, shyness or apparent unfriendliness. Some supervisors, colleagues or co-workers might believe that socially anxious people can force themselves to be outgoing. Educating others to the signs and symptoms of social anxiety is important.
Perry’s boss told him to just get out there and meet people when he realized Perry was afraid. That proved ineffective: Perry felt ashamed thinking his anxiety was noticeable, and withdrew even more. Socially anxious people want to be comfortable being with others and admonishing them to “get over it” doesn’t help. Supportive managers, and colleagues can listen and empathize with their anxious co-worker.
3. Stay Away From Alcohol or Substance Abuse
People may use alcohol or other substances to “relax” in social situations, deal with nervous feelings when making small talk or to cope with fears of making a social faux pas. When this becomes a social necessity or other people become concerned about an individual’s alcohol or substance use, there is cause for concern. Refrain from using alcohol or other substances as a confidence booster. It doesn’t work in the long term and can lead to serious addiction.
4. Positive Self Talk
Many socially anxious people use negative self-talk to criticize themselves, exacerbating the situation. Saying, “People notice me sweating and think I’m stupid”, or “This isn’t going to go well”, or “They’re better than me, I’m going to look foolish”, will make one even more nervous. Rephrasing negative thoughts to be more positive can help-“I can rehearse this presentation and it will go well”, “I am worthwhile no matter what”, for instance, are alternatives.
Perry realized he told himself that he was inferior to others. He thought things like: “I’m no good, everyone here is better than I am.” When Perry examined his self-talk, he decided to focus on what he had to offer. Whenever he was tempted to self-denigrate he told himself, “I’m happy to contribute when the time is right”.
5. Watch Out For Problematic Beliefs
Challenging unhelpful beliefs such as, “I never get it right” or “People are always judging me” is important when dealing with social anxiety. When you feel afraid, think of times that a social or business interaction went well. Most people are concerned about what others think of them and are probably hoping to make a good impression rather than appear judgmental. If you have to make an important sales presentation for example, focus on the message and the superior nature of the product. Try to accentuate the positive: “We have the best product for this company and we can prove it” rather than “I’m terrible at sales presentations.”
6. Get Help
Contact a psychologist who has expertise in treating social anxiety issues through your local psychological association or Employee Assistance Program. Be sure the health provider understands social anxiety and be prepared to engage in both individual and group therapy. People suffering from social anxiety have good success rates in therapy and report progress afterwards too.
Perry obtained help from a psychologist and has started networking, calling customers and leading presentations again. He still feels nervous but is able to manage the thoughts and feelings that previously paralyzed him. Co-workers have noticed a difference and Perry’s social life has improved.
Social anxiety can sideline a career, but it is treatable and manageable. Having good interpersonal skills is important to both business success and well-being. It is a skill and gets better with practice. Don’t suffer in silence. Get help – it’s worth it.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at email@example.com
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.