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One Nerd’s Advice for Overcoming Social Anxiety: 3 Seconds of Courage

I’ve hinted before that I don’t enjoy large social gatherings. I dial it up to 12 on the introvert scale, so social anxiety has always been a part of my character sheet.

I was labeled as ‘shy’ as a kid and, as an adult, people refer to me as ‘quiet.’ I’m not a fan of parties, I don’t enjoy weddings. But I’m as happy as a clam at home in the evenings, messing around with nerdy little isolationist hobbies, like cleaning comics and being a field medic to GI Joes.

The irony is that my professional background is in creating welcoming environments that encourage individuals to connect and create community. On top of that, I speak regularly in front of hundreds. It’s no problem for me to turn it on when I need to. So, despite being introverted and uncomfortable in new social gatherings, I’ve learned a few things about pushing through social anxiety.

Now, to be clear: I simply want to share a small slice of my experience in the hopes that it might be an encouragement to my fellow Nerds. After all, we all have a desire to lead a rich, full life among friends, and sometimes that means we have to get out there and stretch our horizons a bit.

But I fully understand there are many times when professional counseling or medication is best and I certainly don't want to minimize that by suggesting that all it takes to overcome social anxiety is read a few simply tips, then 'buck up.' In fact, I have a daughter with a clinical diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder.

My Tip for Overcoming Social Anxiety

At some point along life’s way I realized that I’d begin to feel anxious as I anticipated unfamiliar social situations. This anxiousness would often lead me to procrastinate or even mentally talk myself out of it.

Then I was hit by the obvious. I only needed a paltry amount of courage to walk through the door, where 99 times out of 100 it turned out that it isn’t wasn’t nearly as big a deal as I was working it up to be in my head, and I ended up having a wonderful time.

So my advice is this: 3 Seconds of Courage.

It only takes 3 seconds of courage to walk through a door, to pick up a phone, or to instigate a conversation. It’s a few seconds of anxiety, then you are in the mix, but it’s often that 3 seconds of inaction that prevent us from taking that next step.

It might feel daunting to tackle that social situation, but it’s not intimidating to think I need to summon a meager 3 seconds of courage, then just do it.

How to Make a Saving Throw for Overcoming Social Anxiety

Here’s an example: Years ago I took the plunge to join in with a Dungeons and Dragons 5e Adventurer’s League at a local game shop. At that point in my life, it had been years since I had played D&D, so my anxiety meter had already started to scale up:

  • My D&D play was rusty. (Anxiety level +1)
  • The D&D 5E rules were unfamiliar to me. (Anxiety level +2)
  • I hadn’t been to this game shop before (Anxiety level +3)
  • And I didn’t know anyone who would be playing (anxiety level +4).

No way I was going to make this saving throw!

But like most uncomfortable social situations, I’ve learned to intuitively break it down into manageable chunks:

  • I wan’t familiar with the rules so I felt like I’d be ostracized for being a newb. It took 3 seconds of courage to download the free Basic Rules so I could give them a read. It turns out it was easy to get up to speed. (Anxiety level -1)
  • I wasn’t looking forward to going to a place I was unfamiliar with, so I took 3 seconds to look up the website and familiarize myself with directions. (Anxiety level -2)
  • I didn’t know who would be playing, so I broke that down into easy chunks where 3 seconds of courage would do the trick. The event was organized via Meetup, so I took 3 seconds to familiarize myself with the brief bios of other attenders. They looked like a fine, friendly group of people. (Anxiety level -3)
  • I took 3 seconds to make a quick comment on Meetup asking if it was OK that I was a first timer. Several other attenders immediately replied that new folks are welcome and the ice was broken! (Anxiety level -4)
  • I still felt a rush of nervousness when the day came and it was time for me to walk through the front door of the shop. You know what? It only takes 3 seconds to open and walk through a door. (Anxiety level -5)
  • When I spotted the tables of other players, I felt another rush of nervousness as I wondered what to say. You know what? It only takes 3 seconds to say, “Is the the weekly D&D group?” (Anxiety level -6)

I hope you’ve gotten the idea. I also hope that my experience in overcoming social anxiety can be helpful for you if you’ve also felt the temperature rise as you’ve thought about social gatherings.

Truth be told, I rarely (if ever) consciously think ‘3 seconds of courage’ anymore, even though it was a literal tool I’ve used in the past. It’s completely second nature for me at this point.

Social anxiety is something that is baked into my character sheet, so I suspect I’ll always generate that bead of sweat when I first think of an interaction in a new social environment. But by learning to break situations into small, manageable chunks, I’ve learned to not allowing myself to be psyched out, because I realize that each step only takes 3 seconds of courage and even someone as cowardly as I am can handle that!

My Tip for Overcoming Social Anxiety: Closing Thoughts

I realize I’ve only scratched the surface of social anxiety, and again, I don’t want to minimize it at all. I just wanted to share my experience with you in the hope that it might be helpful in some small way. Just the other morning my daughter was feeling anxious, but we broke her next steps down into small little chunks. She said, “Oh, I can do all that, no problem.” and away she went, anxiety free.

Now I encourage you to think about an interest you’ve been meaning to explore further. I bet there is a group out there who digs the same thing. And doing that search only takes 3 seconds.


POSTLUDE: If you want to dig a little deeper, I encourage you to read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, an excellent book on how we as a society can value introverts. From the back cover:

At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over working in teams.