Whilst I have struggled socially my entire life, it was only in the past year that I was diagnosed with anxiety. Rewind to last April and I was working for a publishing house and loving every minute of it. This was not meant to be, however, as I was made redundant after just 3 months of working there. It was a typical last one in first one out scenario and I was told not to blame myself but I found it impossible not to. Although I was devastated and it seemed like there were rough times ahead, I received a call later that day where I was offered a job interview for a teaching assistant agency (I had applied to this months before and completely forgotten about it). It wasn’t my ideal job but I was just thankful I had another opportunity and that financial stress would not become a problem.
After attending the interview I was told I had the position and would expect to start in around two weeks due to a pending DBS check and references. Now I won’t go into specific detail about the experience I had with this agency nor how I was treated but how I felt both physically and mentally was destructive beyond compare. Needless to say it did not take 2 weeks to start work, it was significantly longer. In that time I had to do things I never expected nor wanted to do.
Like many people, I despise confrontation. I avoid it where possible; with friends co-workers and strangers. I have been known to choose to remain utterly miserable in certain situations, rather than risk conflict with another human being. But, the longer I waited to start work, the more stress started to mount. To get the ball moving and relieve some of these pressures I made an appointment with someone who was giving me the run around, resulting in so much stress. Now I do not find it easy to talk to people I’m unfamiliar with in a normal situation so to physically confront this person was astronomically out of my comfort zone.
Gearing up for this meeting was difficult. I realised that I was going to have to be assertive, one thing I am most definitely not. I knew I could not let fear and panic cloud my judgement. We’ve all been in a social situation where something is said or something happens and the palms go sweaty, your vision clouds and you just want to escape, no matter the consequence. I could not allow that to happen this time. I had to prepare. It’s difficult to remember exactly how I made it through. The whole event is blurred in my mind but I came away with some coping techniques, which I’ll share with you here.
The first thing I did was to identify any conversation that would lead the meeting into confrontation. That way if any of those subjects arose I could dodge them whilst still relatively calm; I’d maintain control and it would not escalate into confrontation. Now there was no guarantee I could estimate correctly exactly what would have been said, but at least I was somewhat prepared for any confrontational curve balls thrown my way. It raised my confidence knowing that I was ready for the worst outcomes my brain could concoct.
The second method was to focus on my body language. It has become clear to me over the years that how I present myself directly influences how others treat me. Now obviously, this isn’t always the case but certain postures and body movements on a subconscious level can signal to somebody that you are passive and this can be taken advantage of. Things like twiddling fingers or fiddling with something, not maintaining eye contact or looking downwards all subconsciously send out messages like this. This is not a quick fix and is still something I have to work on almost a year later, but noticing and subsequently challenging this involuntary behaviour can help in signalling to the world that you are confident even when you don’t feel it. The best way I found to practise at first was on strangers you would have to come into contact with fleetingly, like shop keepers or bus drivers. This small window of communication is perfect to work on how you project yourself as it only occurs in a small window of time, not long enough for panic and doubt to set in but long enough to pay attention to these tiny details in your body language.
The last preparation method was monitoring my tone of voice. I find that when panicked my voice can trail off into a series of stutters and I become so flustered I forget what I was talking about. If this sounds familiar to you, don’t worry. Through personal experience I can say that just being aware of this does indeed help to improve the way you speak. Again this is something that can be practised on common strangers. It’s hard, however sometimes it can be useful to let these everyday interactions occur and the conversation to move forward. We often feel we have to engage in small talk regardless, so why not turn it to your advantage? I believe it helps in a slightly tougher situation to know how you will use your voice in a way to start the conversation. Starting even toned and confidently will make it much easier to maintain this way of talking throughout whereas starting nervously can trigger self-doubt to instantly fluster you and cause the conversation to go downhill quite quickly.
After all this self-analysis and preparation, the meeting occurred and fortunately went the way it needed to for me with minimal conflict. I hope that some of these preparation techniques are helpful and have given you something to think about. These slight changes have made a significant difference in uneasy social situations for me, and I believe they can be a great first step in expanding your social comfort zone too.