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Making friends has always been rather difficult for me. I was badly bullied in my first year of school, I became extremely isolated from my peers in high school, and though I finally made close friends at university, everyone moved away after graduation. I know many people have experienced similar problems to this and will relate to the struggle of starting from scratch (so to speak) as a shy or socially anxious person.
I must admit that I have sometimes (okay, several times) turned to Google during particularly low moments. Reading about other people dealing with the same issues as me is comforting in a way, plus there are often articles with tips and advice for coping with anxiety and conquering shyness on the path to make new friends.
Unfortunately, a lot of this advice is not entirely helpful. As such, I wanted to draw attention to some of the more common or egregious oversights in advice for making friends when you’re socially anxious.
Don't bother trying to make friends outside of work or school
What if I’m not in school? What if my work environment is not conducive to socializing? Lots of people work from home, run their own business, work at a family business, or else work at a job where meeting new people and making friends is difficult. Personally, I had a summer job where almost all the other staffers already knew each other and were close friends, which often led to me being boxed out.
What are you supposed to do in that type of situation? Quit and find a new job? Obviously not. While it can certainly be easier to meet and connect with others if you are in that kind of school or work environment, those who aren’t in that position shouldn’t give up. Instead, it’s better to seek out other areas where you can mingle with new people – especially like-minded people. I personally started attending a local drop-in board game night; I know everyone there will be at least a little nerdy like me, there’s easy conversation topics centered around gaming, and the group is usually fairly small and thus less intimidating.
Reach out! Invite someone to hang out with you
The issue with this piece of advice is that it assumes you already know someone well enough to invite them to hang out. If most of my Facebook friends are people I only knew casually from university and haven’t spoken to for six months, it’s going to be pretty weird if I message them out of the blue looking to see a movie or something. I’m sure some people could pull it off, but that’s a tall order for someone who struggles with social anxiety.
A critical step that should precede this advice is “How to Meet People (And Actually Talk to Them)”. This is an area where I still struggle (partly because my anxiety means I tend to have difficulty speaking around strangers), but I’m making some progress.
Actually, perhaps that’s the better advice: You don’t have to make a great leap of faith right away and make the bold move of inviting someone you barely know out to coffee or a movie or whatever. You just have to keep taking small steps toward the ultimate goal of finding someone you click with.
Go to a party and...
Similar to the item above, this assumes that I have parties to go to. If I’m socially anxious and struggle with making friends badly enough to turn to the Internet for advice, there’s a good possibility that I’m not getting invited to any parties. Unless, of course, this advice is targeted specifically toward people in college or university, where parties are frequent and invitations are optional.
Another possible problem is that introverts are over-represented among the shy and socially anxious demographic. In that case, parties honestly wouldn’t be the best place to start looking for new friends. Introverts prefer smaller groups and can get overwhelmed in the loud, hectic party scene.
Better advice? If you don’t mind going alone (and, in the case of women and certain minorities, feel safe going alone), trying going out to a local pub. You can drink if you’re inclined and have something to eat, which can help alleviate the sense of being out-of-place. Plus, pubs often have sports games playing on TV or live music, which could offer conversation topics. It’s also worth looking into a number of other venues as well – book clubs, classes like yoga or pottery if it’s within your budget, local art or music events, etc. As I mentioned previously, I’ve been attending board game nights. This has gone on for about four months now, and on a couple occasions other regulars invited me to hang out with them. It took about two months for this to start happening, and I had started feeling discouraged by how long it took to make a connection beyond the limited scope of game nights, but I’m glad I stuck it out because they’re a great group.
The Main Takeaway
Anxiety is a really tough thing to work through. It can make simple tasks feel very daunting and – depending on the source and manifestation of your anxiety – certain situations can seem impossible to conquer. Trust me, I’ve been there.
But, as hard as it may be, the only way to truly overcome anxiety is to face it. Not to sound like a Nike ad, but sometimes you have to just do it. There are good and bad ways to do this. If you try to take on too much at once, you can feel overwhelmed and even more defeated than you did before you started.
Ultimately? Baby steps are key. And that can look different for everyone. For me, baby steps were signing up for a month of yoga because meditative exercise is excellent for managing my anxiety. Baby steps were attending drop-in board game nights where I knew I could leave at the end of a round if I got too uncomfortable or panicky. It was checking in with myself after I did something nerve-wracking and realizing that the situation wasn’t as bad as I had predicted.
Meeting new people when you’re socially anxious is a serious struggle but, with patience and self-love, you can do it.
Helgoe, Laurie. 2010. “Revenge of the Introvert.” Psychology Today. Retrieved May 8, 2017 (https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201009/revenge-the-introvert).
N.d. “Introversion.” Psychology Today. Retrieved May 8, 2017 (https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/introversion).
Cain, Susan. 2011. “To Socialize or Not? That is the Question.” Psychology Today. Retrieved May 8, 2017 (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/quiet-the-power-introverts/201103/socialize-or-not-is-the-question).