Here are a few things that helped me overcome my own social anxiety, and learn to actually enjoy being around people, over a period of a few years.
The following is an email exchange I had today. I’m sharing it here because I think it might help other people as well 🙂
Good morning, Kevin!
I recently read your article “Transcend Introversion & Extraversion Through Meditation” at Meditation Magazine, and I would like to know if you could recommend some further resources on this particular topic? For as long as I can remember (since I was really little) I’ve been EXTREMELY introverted and and socially anxious. Now I find myself in my mid-30’s with only one friend other then my husband, and frankly I don’t want to remain hermit-like for the rest of my life. Right now I feel like I’m observing my life instead of fully experiencing it and engaging in it, and when you described what happened during your tree meditation it really made me yearn for a similar experience for myself.
I’m definitely willing to put the work in to become more socially and emotionally open (yay for neuroplasticity!) but I’m hoping to find some more guidance through the process. There are some phrases in the article that sound like they used to be links to other helpful articles on the subject, but they’re not linked to anything now. Is there a way that I could access those articles, or do you know of any other resources that I could look up to teach myself how to extravert?
Thank you so much for taking the time to read!
Thank you so much for your kind words.
I’m not sure I have the links anymore (I wrote that article several years back) but I’ll give you a couple of tips that really helped me go from extremely shy/anxious to extremely outgoing/relaxed:
1. Meditate every day.
Meditation helps you become more aware of your what’s going on in your unconscious mind, and less wrapped up in your anxieties. I’d recommend checking out my YouTube channel (youtube.com/kevinellerton) for more detailed meditation lessons. I’ll be uploading many more meditation lessons over the coming months, including one that I’m going to make specifically for you today to help with social anxiety, so please make sure to subscribe to my channel to get updates (you can also follow me at facebook.com/kevinellerton because I tend to post my new videos on there as well).
2. Read The Places that Scare You by Pema Chodron.
There are a lot of amazing books I’d love to recommend for you (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle and Be Here Now by Ram Dass are two of my personal favorites) but I think for working with social anxiety in particular, you should read “The Places That Scare You” and really try to apply it to your life. The basic idea is that difficult emotions (or “dukkha” in Buddhist language) are a normal part of life. You can either spend your life resisting them, or you can charge straight in and be at peace with them.
3. Interact with the world!
Steps #1 and #2 will help with the “cognitive” part of social anxiety, but you also need to work with the “behavioral” aspect. A friend of mine likes to say that “it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.” To really change your lifestyle, you need to actually go out and interact with the world. Yes, I know that it gives you anxiety and you don’t like it and it sucks (at first). But as Pema Chodron says, “Go to the places that scare you.” I don’t mean you should go to bars and clubs and parties and stuff like that (unless you really enjoy doing those things). Instead, do the things that you would normally do, or that you would like to do, but be more interactive.
If you pay attention to and observe the world around you, you can begin to interact with it, to play with it. Even when you’re “alone,” there is much to observe and interact with. The grass is alive. The trees are alive. The squirrels, the birds, and the bees are alive. Smile at them! Say hi to them! I know it sounds silly to say “hi” to the grass, but if you do it from a place of presence and mindfulness, you may actually feel the life force in those vibrant green blades. You may even find the birds and squirrels responding to you, in their own ways. If you’re mindful enough, even the rock and the concrete and the Earth itself has an aliveness to it. As you place your feet on the ground, the Earth responds by exerting an equal and opposite force on your feet. By interacting with these non-human elements of the world around you, you can begin to develop connection, love, and appreciation for the external world.
You can then practice bringing that same connection, love, and appreciation to humans as well. Just like you would smile at the squirrels or the birds or the grass, smile at and interact with the humans around you. When you pass someone in the street, say hi 🙂 Ask the girl at the grocery checkout line how her day is going. Stuff like that. When it comes to practicing with other humans, you will fail, many times. You will slip into social anxiety, you will slip into worrying about what other people think of you. Nobody acquires a mindset like this immediately, just by reading about it, or just by practicing it for a couple of days. These human-interaction habits are deeply entrenched in the neural networks of your brain. Try to practice interacting with the world (trees, grass, squirrels, people, etc) every day. It might take you a week, or a month, or a year, but over time, your brain will rewire itself (check out my article on “neuroplasticity“). By practicing consistently, you’ll start feeling more and more naturally, effortlessly interactive over time.
Practicing this kind of interactiveness is what really helped me get over my social anxiety and become more relaxed, playful, and interactive with people (and with the world in general). There’s one other thing that I would recommend to you as well, if you want to actually meet new friends and like-minded people:
4. Hang out in places that you really enjoy hanging out in.
When I was younger, and I wanted to “meet people,” I would go to bars and clubs and parties and things like that. When I got older and started being more “interactive” with the world around me, I started to realize that there were a lot of awesome places I would rather be, rather than bars and clubs and parties. I really enjoy meditating and being in nature. I can do this by going outside into the woods by myself and meditating out there. But if I actually want to meet people… why not go outside and meditate in a park? Or in a monastery in the mountains?
In this way I started meeting people who enjoy the same things that I do, who want to be in the same places that I do. I found a lot of very like-minded people. I found the same thing while traveling. I wanted to go to certain places (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, etc). When I went to those places, I wanted to go to more specific places (a specific beach that has cheap grass huts, for example, or a place known for its spiritual community). When I found myself in the places that I really wanted to go to, I also found myself surrounded by people that I really enjoyed hanging out with. Many of these people have become my lifelong friends.
You don’t have to have these specific interests; if you love to read, for example, you might meet new friends at bookstores and libraries. You get the idea. Essentially: the easiest way to meet like-minded people is to figure out where YOU really want to go, then go there. And don’t forget to observe & interact while you’re there.
I hope this helps!
Update, August 22nd 2017:
In the time since I wrote this article, I recorded a guided meditation for social anxiety, which you can find here:
I’ve also released an eBook that can help you open your heart and connect with other people. These practices really helped me overcome my social anxiety, and I believe they can be helpful to others as well. You can find that eBook by clicking on the image below. If you’re interested in purchasing the book, you can use discount code MedMagSocialAnxiety30PercentOff to get 30% off 🙂
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