This is the third in a series of posts about my experiences with social anxiety and finding my voice. Find the first post here, the second post here and look for the final instalment in two weeks.
In the first part of this series, I talked about how social anxiety has impacted my life, and the things I did that made it worse. My last post was about all the ways that I've been working on changing my mindset from fear to openness. Since having a healthier mindset doesn't change anything without actually putting myself out there, this week I'm covering some of the actions, behaviors and situations that have pushed me outside my comfort zone, and helped me become stronger and less fearful. If you haven't already, make sure you read last week's post on mindset shifts, since I've found that pushing myself to do scary things without bringing a ton of mindfulness, softness, and self-care to the table just makes me feel worse about myself.
As I did last week, I'll also try to share some ways that you can apply what I've learned to your own situation, however different it may be from mine.
I spent 10 months on my own in very far away places where I knew no one and barely knew the language. I went because I wanted to see if I could overcome some mental barriers - social anxiety being the biggest one - and I was surprised at how well I did.
I vividly remember the day I went on my first tour by myself. We got off the bus and headed to a restaurant for lunch and the thought of sitting alone while everyone around me gathered in conversation was too much to bear. Before we entered the restaurant I approached a nice looking couple and asked if I could sit with them. They said yes and we spent the rest of the day enjoying each other's company. From that day on I was rarely alone because I had seen how easy it was to find someone to talk to. It was a crash course in connection and taught me so much.
What you can do
The biggest reason that I met new people on my travels was that I had no one with me to rely on. If I wanted connection and company, I had to seek it out.
While I find it so much easier to break out of a mindset of shyness when I'm far away from home, you can put yourself into similar circumstances by taking part in activities without bringing a friend with you. Take an art or fitness class, attend a Meetup, or learn a new language and surround yourself with strangers. Don't go in with the goal of making a dozen new best friends, but simply with an attitude of friendliness and openness. I only stayed in touch with a handful of the people that I met in 10 months, but the practice I gained from constantly starting new conversations was invaluable.
Long term relationship
After years of feeling like a complete failure in dating, imagine my amazement and delight when I found myself in a relationship with the same person for six months - longer than I ever had lasted before - I had made it! My partner Matt was easy to talk to and I met him soon after my big trip so I was still riding high on the courage and confidence I had developed. Little did I know how much further I had to go.
I had NO idea how much communication was required to make a relationship work and it was almost unbearably hard for me to open up to the extent that I needed to. I couldn't believe that he wanted me to tell him EVERYTHING. But the relationship was more important to me than anything ever had been so I did the work, slowly and painfully, and brought down my walls and defences. I'm still bringing them down.
This process has taught me so much about who I am, and showed me how much more I can be. I am grateful every day to have met someone so committed to loving me and helping me be my best self.
What you can do
Practice communicating in any relationship in your life. Choose one person - someone that you feel comfortable and safe with - and decide to be open and honest with them at all times. Push yourself to gently speak up if something is bothering you, and to be generous with kind words. The more you practice opening up instead of keeping things to yourself, the easier it will get in all aspects of your life.
Starting a business
Much like solo travel, deciding to be an artist/entrepreneur has pushed me to overcome my limits because the amount of scary things I have to do to be my own boss has skyrocketed. I need to build my network, pitch my work, and ask for help on a daily basis. Though I'll never be an outgoing extrovert, I am learning to put my social hat on when I need to and do things that make me uncomfortable.
While it was incredibly important for me to learn to accept myself as I am, for a long time I thought that meant that it was okay for me to stay the same. I thought it gave me permission not to connect or communicate because it just wasn't my strength, even though the pain of it struck me almost every day.
Now I know that I can accept who I am while also working to do better. I'm no longer trying to fix myself, but I am working to meet my potential. I know that I'm capable of so much more and I'm working every day to see how far I can go.
What you can do
You don't have to be an entrepreneur to practice reaching out to people. You can join a committee or sit on a board, or do volunteer work that involves sending emails and making phone calls (two things I hate doing!). You can offer to take on a new project at work or offer to plan an event. Whatever you do, commit to doing some small scary thing every day, preferably something that involves connecting with another person.
And don't forget to follow up with people! I find it so easy to let something go if I don't get a response, but a lot of opportunities have come my way from reaching out to people multiple times. It feels icky but the truth is that people are busy and their lack of response often has nothing to do with how much they value what you have to offer - you need to remind them that you have something they want!
I never thought of Toastmasters as something that might be useful for me. I've been public speaking since I was eight years old, did some acting in university and love performing as a belly dancer: I am not afraid of being on stage. But Matt convinced me that it would probably help with my stress around meeting people and making conversation so I signed up.
I've been a member of a local club for almost a year and a half and it has made a significant difference in how I feel about social interaction. A big part of every Toastmasters meeting is impromptu speaking and thinking on your feet, which I have always struggled with. Practising this skill in a supportive environment helps me to stay focused instead of spiralling into negativity and I'm noticing that the words I need always show up.
I used to dread the end of meetings or classes, or the breaks between, because everyone around me would seem to fall naturally into conversation while I was left on my own. I remember the moment when I realized that I wasn't having that problem any more. Suddenly, I was one of the people chatting with the people around me like it was no big deal. It happened partly because I was growing more comfortable with the members of the club, but the regular practice and the knowledge that I always had something to say helped a lot.
What you can do
Join Toastmasters! There are chapters all over the world and I promise that the supportive atmosphere is a great place to learn and grow. I would be happy to bring you to a meeting at my club if you want to see what it's all about.