One of the most common questions I receive is: “How do I eliminate my fear in social situations?”
It can be a particular environment or person that triggers fear, or simply a crowd.
The fear isn’t the issue. The real problem is our response to that fear. We tighten up and typically isolate ourselves, even amid a group of people. If we do attempt to put ourselves out there and interact we’re in our heads and the interaction is flat.
It’s no different than fear that arises at work or in competition. Most of us choke when the pressure gets higher. Most of us settle for second place (or worse) while making excuses and shifting blame.
A small percentage of us have the ability to excel as the pressure increases. We typically elevate those individuals to the highest positions and hold them in the highest regard.
What secret do those rare individuals share? The answer is a simple habit that allows them to take that same rush of fear (or sadness, insecurity, anger, etc) that sabotages most of us and use it to their advantage.
What exactly do they do (subconsciously) instead of getting into their head and sabotaging themselves in these make-or-break situations?
Before we can even be aware of discomfort in our body our brain is aware of it and attempting to divert our attention. It starts flooding our consciousness with thoughts meant to either get us away from the source of that fear or to sabotage the situation so badly that we don’t try to do something silly like that again in the future. When this fear-driven, subconscious response happens, there’s a corresponding tightness in our body — a physical flinching against the uncomfortable feelings.
Instead of indulging our fear-based thoughts like most of us, individuals who excel under pressure use them as a signal to enact their special habit:
Step 1: Take a DEEP, full-bodied breath (stretching the diaphragm and belly.)
Step 2: Put as much focus as you can muster on the area of tightness or discomfort in your body as you can muster.
Step 3: Continue breathing through that tightness until the knots release and that energy trapped there starts flowing through your body. Massage that tightness with your breath.
Repeat steps two and three until tightness dissipates and invasive thoughts and heart rate slow down to resting (also a great cure for insomnia.) Now one may proceed from a calm place with the added instinctual energy that we were previously avoiding.
Our instincts understand that a particular challenge may be scary or difficult, but they know we can do it. They tell us we can do anything. They hold our courage, creativity, and deepest wisdom. The more knots we unravel, the more the answers we receive are in line with our ultimate desires and potential.
“You begin by placing your thumb on the burn. Then you stay until you are the shape of the fire that travelled you” – Victoria Erickson
Social tension, when massaged out with deep breaths, becomes the “bass” that gives your interaction full bodied harmony (instead of being flat.) If we like someone so much we’re feeling some fear it’s a compliment that adds excitement to an interaction. These feelings can be intense and the discomfort severe, but the most attractive of us are those who can stand in the eye of that storm and face these universal fears with courage.
Instead of trying to hide that fear when we look someone in the eye as if to say, “I’m not okay, there’s something wrong with me,” now we can look people in the eye and say, “I know it’s scary, but it’s not that bad. We can handle it and enjoy the kind of emotional connection we’re all starving for.”
As one workshop alum and community contributor put it: “If you regularly hide a part of yourself, you will occasionally fool people – but it will require constant effort, an enormous amount of friction, huge internal discord, significant self-loathing – and your façade will invariably fail you.”
If someone is more self-conscious, they’ll interpret your negative judgement of yourself as a negative judgement of them and you’ll be perceived as cold and conceited. Either way, when you reinforce the habit of running away from your “negative” emotions, the people around you will reflect it by also growing uncomfortable and closed.
This new habit sounds simple, but for most of us, implementing it is a lifelong challenge, and typically the most difficult habit to really get in practice. The thing that makes it so difficult is that our thoughts are so darn seductive!
We think that voice in our head is helping us and have reinforced this belief our entire lives. We think that our fear-driven, sabotaging voice in our head is giving us advice and helping us navigate a situation and propel it in our best interest.
Sometimes the thoughts just feel good to listen to, such as empowerment fantasies. Like trash television (which I sometimes enjoy,) we can just turn it on and listen to it and avoid the reality in front of us. Your brain always knows the most distracting thing to say to get you paying attention to it instead of the “bad,” instinctual experience in your body.
Here are some common tricks your brain plays to try to grab your focus away from the tension in your body when you first try to develop this new habit:
- “Am I doing this right?” This is a common trick your brain plays to distract you. Judging your emotional experience, thinking it should be more like something else instead of what it is — just tricks your brain plays to get you caught up in the mental masturbation. Even when there’s silence, it’s an opportunity to get more comfortable with silence, and often a precursor to more turbulent emotions if we can stay away from distractions and focused on the feelings in our body.
- Trying to label/analyze your feelings every step of the way, ie, “This must mean that”/ “this is from that thing from my childhood.” Again, our brain isn’t helping us. Trying to label or analyze everything through that lens of fear and scarcity will only make us feel neurotic and victimized.
- “You’re not getting this quickly enough” — another form of judgement. There’s knots that need to be loosened, but we’re too busy in our head trying to figure out how to do it better.
- “My feelings are just too overwhelming.” If you’re an adult facing an emotional experience that was too overwhelming for you in that moment you’d pass out. Still conscious? You can handle those feelings.
Again, mastering this habit is a life-long challenge against an adversary who knows us better than we know ourselves. That voice will always take over from time to time. That’s okay. Every time you jump into your head is simply another opportunity to practice massaging those knots and unleashing your instincts. We have unlimited opportunities to rewire our neural pathways!
Despite the enormous challenge in front of us, we have a secret weapon: deep breaths. I listed it as step one in developing this new habit because simply taking one begins to halt the progress of the old habit. That one breath begins to slow us down and makes the thoughts easier to ignore.
As another community regular put it: “I don’t even want to bother listening to my instincts until I’ve slowed down my breath, because if my breathing is fast & shallow, I’m most likely just listening to head chatter.”
Just to emphasize this once again: you can’t be comfortable with yourself without deep breaths.
The other good news in this fight for your potential is that the more you notice your thoughts taking over, catch yourself with a deep breath, and massage out the tension in your body, the stronger those muscles become, and the easier it gets to do this and be confident and comfortable in any situation in the future.
Perhaps the greatest example of this, and a source of inspiration I reference frequently, is found in champion tennis players. In their outstanding book, The Power of Full Engagement, Loehr & Schwartz describe a scientific study done in which professional tennis players had their vitals recorded while playing. The results showed a distinct difference in the players who had won the most championships consistently throughout their careers. The heart rate of those players, and those players only, sunk to resting in between points.
To emphasize, in the maybe ten seconds between the end of the last point — walking back to the line, throwing the ball to the server, bouncing it a couple times, then serving again — the most consistent champions were getting hundreds of little breaks while their opponents had none. With all of the pressure of a crowd and a championship on the line, those rare players are able to take a few deep breaths, clear their mind, relax their body, and slow their heart rate from peak exertion to resting in seconds. If they can do that, then we can work up to taking a few breaths and instantly calming ourselves in an intimidating social situation.
The flipside of this is that your “autopilot” is to listen to that voice in your head while avoiding the tension in your body. It’s just easier to do and forget we’re doing. Unfortunately, the habit you perform more each day, old or new, is the habit that gets reinforced.
Say you meditate three times a day, twenty minutes each — a strong meditation schedule for anyone. For one hour that day you focused on not getting stuck in your head and did your best to catch yourself with deep breaths and massage out the underlying tension instead. For one hour a day you began building a new neural pathway focused on embracing parts of yourself you’ve previously avoided.
For the other fifteen waking hours of that day you were on autopilot, distracting yourself between the chatter in your head and whatever limited things they told you to do. For fifteen hours you reinforced the old, well-worn neural pathway which says that your instincts are uncomfortable, bad, and need to be avoided.
Which habit got stronger that day? Which got weaker? In an intimidating situation, are you now more likely to jump into your head and sabotage yourself, or to unleash your power and make the most of that situation?
It takes discipline, but if we can keep our focus avoiding the broken record and breathing through as many knots as possible for at least 51% of our day, then tomorrow the new habit becomes stronger and the challenge becomes easier. The more your practice this, the easier it becomes to not feel overwhelmed when faced with more intimidating situations.
Once you’re consistently embracing your more challenging feelings outside of social interactions, now I’ll start to bet on you doing so in less intimidating conversations. Once you can be comfortable with yourself in those less intense conversations, now you’ve got a chance of facing the most intimidating interactions and being charismatic.
Still having trouble avoiding the broken record and breathing through that tension, even in the most comfortable/secure environments? That’s normal, especially at first when your muscles need to get stronger and you’re undoing a lifetime of self-limiting habits.
Try stretching the tightness in your body as you breathe deeply into it. Tightness in your chest? Pull your arms back and extend your heart forward as you breathe. Tightness in the stomach? Lengthen your spine and arch your back a little as you breathe, etc.
Are you still finding it nearly impossible to get out of your head? That’s an issue of self care, and you should skip ahead to Chapter 4 and prioritize it immediately.
You’ll know you’re doing this right when you begin to feel more comfortable in more situations. You’ll still feel all of the same feelings, only instead of feeling overwhelmed you’ll feel okay, like you can handle it.You can meet a situation that normally would have freaked you out in the past, take a deep breath, release the tension, and face whatever challenge is in front of you.
You’ll know you’re doing this right when you face a rush of fear and smile. As that energy flows through your body you revel in the power inside of you and your developing courage.
Develop this new habit, and begin reaping the rewards in every area of your life.