Heres something you can try on your own. The first time I did this, I was amazed at the difference it made.
Pick a day when you are feeling good. This is important because, if you have things on your mind, or you have just endured some negative experience, this wont work. Fortunately, everyone eventually has a day where they feel just a little better than normal. Im convinced that this has a lot to do with our body and brain chemistry.
Now, just get out of the house and carry on with your normal day. Go to work, take the bus, go shopping – whatever. You dont have to have a particular event planned – just do your normal routine. Ill use myself as an example.
As I am walking down my laneway, I force myself to straighten up and look around. Normally, I would be walking with my head down, in my own little world. Next, I make eye contact with a few neighbours and give them a smile and a wave. I usually avoid their glances on a normal day.
As I am waiting for the bus, I make a conscious effort not to fall into my own insecure thoughts. Instead, I avoid staring at the ground, concentrating instead, on my surroundings. I dont put any pressure on myself to start an idle conversation with anyone, I simply try (with great effort) not to appear serious, depressed, antisocial. I am constantly aware of my facial expression and try my best to maintain at least a neutral look. If someone looks my way, I give them a brief smile – more of a friendly acknowledgement really.
As I board the bus, I make eye contact and smile at the bus driver. Making my way to the back, I glance at the people (or look straight ahead) instead of staring at the floor. This has always been tough, because I feel as though everyone is staring at me (like an audience). When leaving, I make sure to tell the driver to have a nice day.
At work, I make eye contact, smile, and force myself to say a few more words than I would normally. Sure, I dont feel like it, but in keeping with my day long experiment, I force myself to be a little friendlier, a little more talkative – and a whole lot more approachable.
I have to admit that at the end of the day, Im exhausted because Ive had to be on my game – acting out some charade.
However, without fail, I end up feeling so much better at the end of it all. People treat me with respect, and they are friendlier and more talkative. I interact with them on a level that I dont experience often. I feel a surge in self-esteem and I feel more confident that Im making progress and that there is, actually, a wonderful life beyond social anxiety.
Besides the temporary confidence boost, why would I put myself through this torture? Two reasons:
First, I can keep up my exposure practice. It gets me out into the real world. You cannot stay within the safe confines of your home and think your way to getting better. Real-world experience is critical – end of story – non-negotiable.
Second, I need to prove to myself that this is indeed how society functions, and that in order to make any progress, I will have to eventually develop a friendlier disposition. At some point I will need to naturally change the way I interact with people if I want the same courtesy in return.
Obviously, these experiments are not enough to cure me of my social anxiety, but they do give me a taste of what a normal life could be like. The experience makes me realize that I am not helpless and I can change things and make an impact if I put my mind to it.
Hey, it requires a little effort, but I have yet to be disappointed. The key here is to just kick it up a notch – just a little out of the old comfort zone. If you overdo it, things could backfire. Also, a drastic change in your personality might take some people by surprise.