How do you make small talk when you have social anxiety? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Answer by Anita Sanz, Psychologist:
I can answer this question as both a psychologist and a person who has had lifelong social anxiety. I never enjoyed making small talk, but I have come to learn the great value that beginning conversations with strangers can have in your life and I no longer avoid striking up conversations. But, I still get anxious before social events, especially when there will be many people I don't know personally yet.
I also get anxious when teaching in front of my class or when I give talks in public or educate doctors in our local hospital...and I do all of these regularly. Why do these things when they make me so nervous? Psychologists will tell you that part of conquering your fear is to "feel the fear and do it anyway" and that the worst thing you can do is avoid the thing you are afraid of. It is definitely true that avoiding something makes it even more fearful to you, which is one of the reasons why it doesn't matter that meeting new people, teaching, and public speaking all cause me anxiety, I still seek out opportunities to do them. I'm not a masochist. I just hate to be bullied by anxiety. And I just refuse to let fear prevent me from doing or having good things in life.
The more I do the thing I am afraid of, the less I am afraid of it. At the very least, I keep gaining experiences to remind myself that I have done this before successfully and I can do it again (even if it's not my favorite thing).
Although I still can find hundreds of other things I am more comfortable doing than making small talk, I can do it fairly easily now. Since social anxiety generally comes from a fear of being judged or negatively evaluated by others, I have found that the best way to manage social anxiety is to give myself a "job" to do. I substitute purpose for confidence and meaning for fear. I don't focus on how others are perceiving me or evaluating me when I am trying to accomplish something important or meaningful. One of the reasons I am almost never anxious when meeting new clients in my practice is that I have a very clearly defined role as a psychologist. I care very much about doing a good job, and that matters more to me than anything else.
But in situations that bring up social anxiety, I need to give myself a meaningful job or a purpose. When teaching, I plan what exercise I want to set up for the class or what information or concept is important that I teach, and I spend a great deal of time contemplating why my students need to know what I'm going to teach them. I don't want to have them leave a class and think "Well, that was pointless." When doing public speaking, I pick topics that I am passionate about, so that what's important isn't ever me, it's what I need to communicate. I have something so important to say that this is what really matters.
At a party or social event, I give myself the meaningful "job" of making other people more comfortable, taking the focus off of myself. I can make people more comfortable by doing one of two things: I can strike up conversations or I can be friendly and respond to anyone who strikes up conversation with me. I find people who are standing by themselves or not really talking and make small talk. You can find lots of ways to begin a conversation and it doesn't really matter so much how you do it, just that you do it. It can make people more comfortable to have someone willing to talk with them, especially if they are anxious in a social setting. If someone takes the risk to come up to me and start talking, I respond by being engaging and friendly and try to get to know them better. That makes people more comfortable than having a conversation attempt fall flat. I have a purpose or a mission, so my anxiety becomes very secondary.
The most important thing to remember about anxiety is that it should never be something you use as an excuse you give yourself to avoid doing something that matters to you. And sometimes, the best way to be able to move past your anxiety is to find the thing that matters to you even more than your fear.