I know firsthand how difficult social anxiety can be to deal with. But after many hours spent hiding in bathrooms and crying at work, I’ve been surprised to discover that it can also be a wonderful gift. Researchers have found that those of us who struggle with social anxiety are exquisitely attuned to other people’s needs. I always joke that the reason I’m so good at client services is that I am deathly afraid my clients will be unhappy.
I do realize there’s a risk of sugarcoating things. As psychologist Ellen Hendriksen writes for Quiet Revolution’s blog, for anxious introverts, the “social antennae are too sensitive.” Ironically, we can read a room, even if we can’t walk into it with confidence. We may imagine people judging us, or pick up negative judgments that aren’t there. We might think there’s something wrong with us and end up avoiding situations that we might even enjoy.
Hendriksen also notes that social anxiety is a learned behavior, usually stemming from a childhood situation where we learned we did not fit. I know for me, I forever feel like an outcast because until I was about nine, I was one. I had no friends, and no one would have lunch with me because I was weird and my mom never packed me anything good to trade. My height didn’t help.
But I’m a grown-up now, and with care and intention, I’ve learned to make anxiety into a useful tool. I tell myself that people do like me now, and I use those attunement skills for good. These are a few of the areas where I’ve figured out how to make social anxiety work in my favor–and where you can, too, if you’re anything like me.
Preparation, Organization, And Attention To Detail
I bet you were never the type to wing it! Anticipatory anxiety means you rehearse before doing, and plan for the big events. You plan your body language and practice your tone of voice, in addition to your facts and figures. Perhaps fear of not being good enough means you prepare for every line of a speech and transition in a slide. Being prepared can be a healthy adaptation to anxiety–it just means you’re in control of your work and yourself when it matters.
And because you’re attuned and you can read a room, if your perfectly prepared remarks fall flat, you can pivot on a dime and meet the tone the audience wants.
You have no time for time wasters! You don’t procrastinate. You know the best way to quell the fear and anxiety is to tackle something head-on, so you start the day with the scariest thing on your to-do list. Then, you give yourself a little treat.
You also use your avoidance to be more judicious in choosing the times when you actually do press the flesh. You know the people who spend all their time at conferences or lunches? There’s a plus in putting yourself out there, but a lot of it is expensive hype. Being early for meetings, even if you did so because you were terrified, makes clients happy. Also, hello: if you always arrive at the airport an extra hour early, you’re much more likely to get upgraded.
The drive of anxiety can come from a dark place. Some people’s secret to getting things done is simply being obsessive about everything they set their minds to–which can be a double-edged sword. But this is different from a drive that gets fed by the validation of others, one that yields achievement that isn’t truly about what you want. A drive born of anxiety is generative and forces us to create solutions.
After all, behind every rags-to-riches or unlikely origin story of success is a deep anxiety: the threat of poverty, loss, and failure drive something great. Anxiety means that every day you have something to prove–hard to live with, great in business.
Putting in place a support system for your anxiety also means you have a support system for setbacks. You’ve built a network of employees, friends, family, and a kitchen cabinet to keep you going. You’re probably good at managing your personal infrastructure and know how to build the scaffolding: the fact that you need to rehearse a scenario (say a business trip in which your kids will be in others’ care) in order to survive it means you have the mechanisms in place for healthy transitions!
My colleague has just been treated for her ADHD as a 44-year-old. The tactics she’s learned to manage her daily life sound very much like mine: lots of lists, practice at prioritization, and breaking down the work of the day into bearable chunks. This way something that feels unbearable comes first, and then is followed by completely bearable tasks. For example, a scary call with a client would precede busywork like filing receipts or something enjoyable like writing. It’s all about the structure that works for you.
The old chestnut that the best remedy for stage fright is to imagine everyone in the audience in their underwear? When you struggle with social anxiety, you can automatically see everyone in their underwear–figuratively at least. You can flip the script from being about yourself (“Does anyone like me? Am I stupid?”) to tune into how other people feel. Perhaps they’re anxious themselves, faking their extroversion or enjoyment, or simply having a bad day. Or perhaps they’re really enjoying themselves with you and think you’re pretty smart. Can you let go and enjoy with them? Nonverbal cues and mirroring others’ signals win friends and influence people. Plus, they help you get out of your own head.
Your own struggles with anxiety, and how they affect you at work, can also give you insight into your coworkers’ challenges, whether they’re dealing with a new baby or a broken leg. Giving support can lead to getting support–and a healthier, more empathetic office for everyone.
This article is adapted with permission from Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home) by Morra Aarons-Mele.