Overcoming Social Anxiety & Mental Barriers
Disclaimer: I'm not a licensed mental health professional. For professional resources, please check out the following sites recommended by mental health professionals.
Psychology Today: find a therapist, support group, and much more
National Lifeline: 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Call 1-800-273-8255.
For me, my biggest struggle is with social anxiety. It’s something that I didn’t realize impacted me daily. Looking back, all the choices that I made throughout any given day were made through a filter of "will this put me in an uncomfortable situation?"
I continually asked myself: “Is this going to put me in a situation where I look dumb?” I often felt I didn’t know how to answer a question or react to a comment. Online communication while imperfect and flawed at best was my favorite form of communication. When I was online, it allowed a buffer to let me think first before responding or even look up how I should react or respond to comments and what things meant.
I grew up never acknowledging mental illnesses, especially in myself. In my mind, I was strong and healthy, but the reality was I lived in fear allowing my social anxiety to determine my everyday decisions.
Have you ever stopped to think about how many things you don’t do out of fear?
I don’t mean fear of losing your life or wellbeing, but in the sense that you don’t speak up when you should be assertive. I often took the passive route of not speaking up when I needed something. This often led to wrong assumptions as I never asked for clarification.
Fear sets off our fight or flight instinct. I’m an introvert and getting out of a situation as quickly and easily as possible is my first instinct, which makes flight the default choice for me. In most instances, there is no need for physically fighting someone. For me, I’ve never been in a physical fight.
My take is that it’s often a mental fight with ourselves. We look at what we know is safe and where we feel comfortable. As a result, we take the easy way out and resign ourselves to quietness. The problem is then we don’t book that photo shoot or go out to that party; because, it will be uncomfortable.
Experiences are so important. They shape who we are as individuals. It's easy to blame social media for the idea that everyone else is well put together and always having fun. I always try to step back and look at social media as a highlight reel of one's life. I know this is said often, but I’ve found in my experiences that it couldn't be more true.
Life is made up of a long linear list of experiences, and yet this way of thinking suppresses the chances for enriching experiences. A fulfilled life has many diverse experiences ranging from easy ones to very hard and bad ones. You need those harder, bad experiences to fully appreciate the good ones. The most liberating thing is to realize how good failing can be for your life and how much you can learn from those failures.
My point is that it’s ok to fail in business and in life. Every failure gives us a chance to recognize where we made mistakes and how to correct them for the future.
Growing up, my father was an industrial product designer, which resulted in very critical responses to my projects. It seemed easier for my father to point out where I went wrong than praise me for what I succeeded in accomplishing. It did however, set me up to have the strength needed for harsh criticism. The only wrinkle is that it has created struggles with believing in the sincerity of praise from others.
If you want a full life with strong relationships, you can’t sit back and passively let life pass you by. Many times, you can end up feeling paralyzed by the fear of failure. I know I have, and still do at times. For me, I’m always encouraging people to experiment and try their out-of-the-box ideas to get past their fears.
If you feel stuck, try things and don’t waste time thinking about what if someone doesn’t like it. Experimenting isn’t a waste of time and energy; because, you will gain experiences at the very least. What is life made up of? Experiences!
Let's get practical. We can talk all we want about the need for practice, but we have to actually do it to improve!
Before meeting people, I used to try and think of topics I should talk about and ways to fill possible silence. However, I’ve found this strategy only takes away from being present in the moment. My suggestion is instead to think of all the good things that could result from an interaction.
When I meet this person, when I setup this shoot, I’ll end up with pictures. It will give me an opportunity to practice interacting with others. More importantly, it will add experiences to my life. Who knows, you might even gain a friend. For me, my best friends and most meaningful conversations have come from simply reaching out and asking someone to model for me.
Photography was my catalyst for improving my own social skills. Using photography as a buffer helped my awkwardness. I enjoyed it so much that I would keep doing it no matter how uncomfortable I thought a situation might be. Recently, I was talking with a friend about how my mindset has changed yet my body still says no. For example, I was invited to a party, but standing outside the door I was literally shaking to the point that I worried they'd ask what was wrong with me . The desire to push my comfort zone is so strong that even my quaking fear of an awkward social situation couldn't stop me. Tapping into that same passion, drive and desire to better yourself will drive you forward to success!
Changing fear into opportunities
Pushing out of your comfort zone on a daily basis gives you back control over your fears. It strengthens you, builds up your stamina, and gives you valuable experiences.
Building enough self awareness to realize emotions in the moment and take ahold of them helps tremendously. I'm still discovering the ways I react to situations. Before I never noticed, and now I take note of them. This helps me say during a shoot "hey, here’s what I'm feeling but this is actually what I want - what do I need to do to make that happen."
I was at a social media influencer party one time. The host suggested that everyone try to meet and talk to ten different people. While I didn’t talk to ten people, I made myself meet five new people and have brief conversations. This experience was something that scared me, but I chose to use It as an opportunity for enhancing my social skills and building connections. Ask yourself, “ are you actively seeking a solution or passively accepting your situation?”
Don’t Be Perfect, Do Things For The Experience
I touched on this earlier. Experiences are critical to who we are as human beings. It’s easy to blame social media for the ideals of perfectionism. My approach is to look at social media as if they are highlight reels of people’s lives. People don’t usually show their bad days and failures online. They do show off all their successes and amazing
Strive for excellence. However, be careful to not confuse excellence with perfection. Do your best and avoid letting the desire for perfection block you from life experiences. Be willing to admit you haven’t done this before and stay open to growth. This approach takes the pressure off yourself to be perfect while staying open to feedback.
For example, I used to show horses for a woman. She offered to take me to riding lessons with a professional trainer, and he became frustrated with me because I was forgetting the basics. I had acted like I knew more than I did, and he didn’t realize that It was my first year showing horses. After he knew this, he apologized and offered encouragement instead of constant criticism. My point is be confident in what you do know without labeling yourself as someone that knows everything. Be willing to be the newbie for the sake of experience.
Have you struggled with thinking you’re not good enough and compared your work to others? This is something I struggle with even at this point in my career, but I’ve been able to push through the self doubt. Presenting this course and a workshop scared me. I kept asking myself, who gave me permission to teach? What makes me qualified? What will other people think? I chose to get past those doubts and reminded myself that teaching will add to my life experience and challenge me. This challenge in the end will enrich my life and result in a newfound knowledge and confidence. Notice a reoccurring subject, experiences.
Pushing Through The Beginning phase
It's important to recognize that you’re the only one that's going to live your life. Only you are in charge of your own happiness and the path you choose. You have control over who you let steal your sunshine.
I struggled with this a lot while growing up in a very strict religious family. As a teenager, I started to question what I had been taught all my life and wanted to explore and decide for myself what I believed. This approach was met with a lot of stern talks and even resulted in my family kicking my brother and myself out of my parents’ home for good.
What’s important to recognize is that there are going to be people that won’t support you in your creative endeavors. In my case, that was the people closest to me, my family. It hurt, and it still hurts sometimes today.
Over time, I’ve found and surrounded myself with like-minded people. While we don’t always agree, they constantly challenge me to stretch myself creatively and keep trying new ideas. Sadly, I don’t show my work to my father anymore. His lack of acceptance is something I had to make peace with. I finally realized that I wasn’t ever going to be truly happy where he wanted me to be creatively. After coming to this understanding, I knew that I would only be happy in the path I took for myself as an artist. My advice is to avoid listening to outside voices and practice for your own sake. Don’t try to prove anything to anyone. Push yourself to fulfill your own curiosity and live a full life.
A practice I learned from Berne Brown is to write down on a piece of paper the people whose opinions matter to you. If someone gets you down or you feel attacked, pull out that paper and see if they are on that list. If not brush it off, and continue doing what you do best. Remember you can learn something from everyone. However, letting everyone else make your decisions for you is the fast track to unhappiness. People will easily tell you what to do. Only you can live your life!
What I’m about to say can be hard to take. It requires humility and a willingness to learn.
In the beginning, you’re going to suck. You’re going to be a bad photographer. It’s going to be hard at first. Many people won't look at your photos twice (especially on social media), but that's okay! Let it drive you to shoot consistently, to practice and improve your work.
Should Photography be Your Paycheck?
I was speaking with a friend who was on my very first photo shoot. This friend had finished their college degree, but still felt empty and aimless about what to do with their life. They came to me and expressed concern about what other people would think if they chose to publish their artistic work. They questioned if people would like their work and consider buying it.
My response was why do you want to do this? Is it to make a living? If the answer is no, don’t worry about what others think. Create and put it out there. Find your crowd. Who cares what people think. If you want to make money off photography, we need to take a few steps back. If you want to make a living off your work, the last thing you want to have to worry about is not being able to pay the bills if someone doesn’t like your work and buy it.
Making a living off of your passion is a whole discussion that I will shelve for a future course. Today, I want to talk about it briefly.
If you ask me, I would suggest that you don't expect photography to pay the bills especially in the beginning. For me, I still have a day job in addition to my photography gigs. That takes the pressure off money fueling my creative decisions. I want to be able to create work that I enjoy versus having to take work in order to pay the bills.
Intentionally step out of your comfort zone today. When you catch yourself saying no, choose to say yes instead! Stop and look at the positive things that will come out of the situation. It might be that you realize you went about something in the wrong way. Well, now you know how you should go about things differently the next time. Need a specific assignment? Strike up a conversation with one person outside of your normal circle of friends and photography collaborators! E-mail me with how it went and any lessons learned from the experience!