Defining Approach Anxiety
Imagine you’re in a crowded bar. You’re looking around when suddenly your eye catches on someone. There’s instant interest—you feel an intense desire to talk to them. But you don’t. Instead you feel a pang of anxiety. Discouraging thoughts flood your head:
“What if they’re already in a relationship?”
“What if I say the wrong thing?”
“I’m going to embarrass myself.”
“I need a drink.”
“It’s too late. I’ve just been staring their direction and not saying anything, now it’s awkward.”
“They weren’t so interesting, anyway.”
That pang of anxiety and the lies you tell yourself to avoid initial confrontation is called “approach anxiety”.
What It Means
Approach anxiety is what keeps you from meeting new people. It’s the cognitive dissonance between two competing desires: you want to talk to an interesting person / you very much want to avoid social shame. It is also a sign of a lack of skill and self-assurance: if you felt like you knew what you were doing, then you wouldn’t feel anxiety (you’d feel excitement).
More deeply, learning how to handle approach anxiety is the first step on a path towards self-acceptance, confidence, initiative, and strength under pressure. It is a trust that you’ll be able to navigate social situations with ease. Even if you make mistakes, the consequences are manageable; you know how to gracefully return a wayward interaction back to wholeness. There is no stress when talking to people; it’s fun. Your mind is focused on the social interaction, enjoying the playfulness of it; it is awareness and flow.
Luckily there are techniques that help to manage and grow from approach anxiety. And it’s important to note that approach anxiety is just the most visible aspect of a deeper cause. The aim of these techniques is to train the mind in “conscious interaction” (i.e., entering a higher state of awareness of your surroundings and the meanings of things) and inner change.
There are a number of fun rules and games you can play as a way to practice approaches themselves. These appear to only superficially solve the problem, but they’re a healthy way to build some quick experience while you learn to calibrate, and they create a platform from which you can grow.
Here are some examples that you can start using right away:
The Three-Second Rule
This is a quick-start trick for getting over the initial sting of approach anxiety. Here’s how it works: as soon as you spot someone who you would like to talk to, you have three seconds to make the approach. Don’t give yourself time to think—just walk up and say the first thing that comes to mind1.
1. You could, optionally, prepare a general-purpose “canned routine”, but unless you created it yourself specifically for yourself, I would advise against it.
The 5×5 Game
This is a slightly more involved version of The Three-Second Rule. Set a timer for five minutes. The goal is to approach five targets within five minutes. If you feel the need to be held accountable, then you can optionally a) give the timer to your friend to hold yourself socially accountable or b) give your friend $25 and tell them to give you $5 for each successful approach within that time-frame (and to keep any leftovers for themselves) to hold yourself financially accountable. However, I would advise to prefer intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic: hold yourself accountable for satisfying your own drives.
The Intentional Rejection Game
This is a way to bathe yourself in the “negative” experience of rejection. You set an initial number of targets to approach—three to five—and your goal is to elicit a rejection as soon into the interaction as possible (without being a complete asshole, but by playing around with social acceptability). It’s a bit like stepping into a cold pool of water—you can go slowly and feel the cold more acutely, or you can jump in and get it all over with until it’s a minor inconvenience. And it helps re-conceptualize rejection not as something to be feared but as a success of its own.
The Anxiety/Excitement Axis
For a moment, imagine what anxiety feels like. The majority of people will feel it somewhere in their belly, maybe high up where the stomach is. Let the anxiety pass. For another moment, imagine what excitement feels like. If you’re like most people, then you may realize it’s in the exact same spot. And if you look deeper, you may realize that the emotion of excitement feels nearly identical to anxiety.
This is The Anxiety/Excitement Axis. They are two sides of the same coin; two interpretations of the same emotion. It is only your “frame” that has changed. From one view, the feeling is a negative reaction to one’s expectations; from the other, positive. The feeling cannot be controlled, but the perception of it can. Thus, it is possible to train yourself to expect and experience excitement and to gradually, through awareness and gentle mental redirection, transmute the unintentional experience of anxiety into the intentional experience of excitement. Over time, the change becomes ingrained, habitual; and you become authentically optimistic about new social interactions.
You learn to look forward to approaches.
Dive Into Fear
The effects of reframing this axis are much larger than approach anxiety alone. The person who learns that anxiety can transform into excitement also learns to dive into fear2. Fear often represents the unknown3. If this is the case, then the solution becomes clear: make it known. Master it. And the only way to do that is to dive right into it, to gain the most complete type of experience possible.
2. With proper consideration first, if necessary. Never blindly.
3. One notable exception: legitimate mortal fear due to a clear and present physical danger. Do not apply these concepts too broadly.
Learning Through Challenge: Embracing The “Suck”
If we see anxiety and fear as excitement, and if we dive into fear, then it also makes sense to begin to reframe certain kinds of anxiety as opportunity. We can now attune our sense of excitement to show us most clearly the lessons we haven’t yet learned; the source of stress that we can and should approach.
This is the slog through uncomfortable situations that people refer to when they give the advice, “Get out of your comfort zone.” These are the spaces where you have not yet developed competence. So: time to practice. And, if you embrace from a place of growth-seeking, then you’ve also given yourself purpose.
Our default response to rejection is often avoidance, in both situational and emotional senses. In the situational sense, we refuse to participate in situations that might elicit a rejection. In the emotional sense, we refuse to tackle the thoughts and feelings of rejection, even when it unavoidably happens. Strangely, we prefer the feeling of failure through an inability to act rather than failure through direct action, as if we are more responsible for the outcome of a decision by choosing action over inaction.
If, however, we are intentional about rejection, then we take control over our experience of it and begin the path towards mastery of that experience. That is, not passively accepting rejection as an overriding negative emotion, but instead actively engaging in that emotion, learning how it presents, affects us, and changes as the situation changes.
One way to accomplish this is through Gamification, as presented above. The following are more conscious aspects of rejection engagement:
The opposite of avoidance starts with awareness. Pay attention to the emotion. Understand how it works. And, in order to accomplish your study of it—purposefully elicit it.
Don’t waste your time with Why’s—these only reinforce a narrative of failure. Thinking of Why is a trap for the mind. Instead, think of How—how you might see things differently, how you might think and behave differently, and how those differences affect and are affected by a feeling of rejection.
Most importantly, change your relationship with your emotions. It is not necessary to become upset at your emotional state simply because it does not conform to your desires. That only compounds the problem in the case of rejection. Instead, acknowledge that the emotion exists, mentally inspect it, and then let it wander off wherever it needs to go.
Eventually, awareness naturally transforms into a form of emotional processing. This is a very large topic, but in short: emotional processing is the ability to feel your emotions more fully and to straddle the line between the subjective and the objective experience of them.
Many of us might feel as though we’re emotionally blunted. We see others experiencing emotions that we don’t have or that we feel much less severely, as if watching through opaque glass. In truth4, we simply don’t understand what we’re feeling when we feel our emotions, and so we tell ourselves we’re feeling nothing special at all, or that it’s too confusing to bother trying to untangle. It’s a bit like listening to music without understanding music theory, or drinking wine or scotch without having developed a palate first—we can distinguish pleasant from repulsive, but we lack subtlety. And thus we find ourselves dancing off-beat, or indiscriminately drinking past our tolerance, and being unable to effectively communicate to others what we enjoy.
The alternative is a place of deep understanding, of knowing which situations are good for us and which we may need to finesse into fit. Of being able to taste the many flavors of an experience without repulsion.
4. With few clinical outliers.
Gamification and Diving Into Fear, as described previously, are examples of Exposure Practice. That is, purposely exposing yourself to situations where rejection is possible (or likely, or intentional).
Most of us are already familiar with the idea. We learned to appreciate wine, or coffee, or working out, or solo travel, or speaking up in a business meeting or in a new group of friends. Initially it feels like it’s too much—too bitter, too intense, too tiring—but with repeated practice we first learn to tolerate and later to appreciate and seek out the experience.
Additionally, any sense of pain or discomfort from an experience is reduced as we broaden our horizons. Consider the first few times you stubbed your toe as a child. It was probably catastrophic for your emotional makeup. Nowadays, you’re likely to curse and shout, but within a few (subjectively long) seconds, though your toe might throb, you’re back to normal. No big deal. The pain of each experience is similar; the only difference lies in how you process the emotions. Through repeated exposure, the same processing can be applied to the painful side of rejection.
Combined with the other techniques listed here, rejection can transform from sharply painful, to throbbing and unpleasant, to entertaining. There’s an often-repeated way of looking at things: “There are only two outcomes to any situation: success, or an entertaining story.” By approaching repeatedly, you will gain many entertaining stories to tell your friends, and not an insignificant number of successes.
Silencing The Inner Monologue
Your mind will search for any avenue for escape from anxiety. That’s what it’s designed for, after all. Your brain is the result of the accumulation of billions of years of evolutionary pressure, trying to save you from danger so that you can live long enough to reproduce. Ironic, then, that it misfires in social situations and prevents you from meeting a partner you could potentially conceive with.
The ancient brain was simpler. In the face of danger, it would scream, “RUN!”. There are still important, surviving vestiges of it that exist within us today. This is why your heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket during times of stress. That’s your body’s way of preparing you for a sprint to the exit. But the modern mind is more sophisticated. It doesn’t simply tell you to run, instead it searches for reasons why you should run.
Here are some rules for shutting down that “RUN” command:
No Conditions or Excuses
In general, there are no special conditions that you need to meet in order to talk to a person. You don’t need to know if they’re single, or freshen your breath, or learn the right thing to say…you just need to open your mouth and eek out something that could, conceivably, sound like, “Hey”.
No Second-Guessing or What Ifs
There is no reason why you should be guessing the outcome of an interaction before it starts. You’re in the Here and Now, not in some hypothetical scenario in your head. So rather than working things out in your head, work things out with the person right in front of you.
It’s better to say anything than to sit there thinking of the best thing to say. You don’t need to work out the mechanics of social interaction when talking to a person any more than a baseball player needs to work out the mechanics of his body to hit a baseball; it is simply done. A chess player doesn’t stare at an unplayed board and try to imagine how his opponent might play their pieces—he has to make the first move to see how things might unfold. There is a time for mental chess later on, when approach anxiety is a distant concern. But right now, it’s useless and distracting.
Thinking is a delay. Going to the bathroom is a delay. Getting your friends to psych you up is a delay. That’s your mind’s way of waiting for some externality to appear and save you from having to talk to a person. And if it does it well enough, the waiting itself becomes an excuse because “the moment has passed”. Instead, realize that the only time for action is right now.
Saying What’s On Your Mind
Your internal monologue poses one other problem: it’s internal. Once you get it out of the way, you open yourself up to externalize your thoughts—that’s what a conversation is, ultimately. The best way to learn this lesson is by simply saying what you’re thinking: unfiltered.
Honesty and Openness
You may feel some apprehension at the idea of saying what’s on your mind. It’s probably not socially appropriate a lot more than you’d wish, or maybe you just lack confidence in your own thoughts. Being open with your thoughts is a kind of vulnerability and could be daunting. But consider the alternative: by hiding the truth of who you are, you are necessarily create some faux persona to represent yourself. Anyone who meets that persona believes that’s you. And if you want to maintain your relationships beyond initial meetings, then you’ll need to maintain that persona forever (or at least find some way of resolving it back to your authentic self, which defeats the purpose of being fake in the first place). It’s much easier to start by presenting your honest self, and then any personality work you do can work on your core personality itself rather than some persona of it.
Failure and Calibration
You will, probably often, say the wrong thing. People will react poorly to the things you say, or be offended. This is perfectly acceptable. In fact, it’s the only way to learn what’s right. You can only know where the boundaries are in social interactions by trespassing against them.
Self-Assurance Through Experience
With enough positive experience, you’ll build a sense of confidence around your personality. You can own what you say—it’s an honest expression of who you are, said without equivocation. That doesn’t mean you’re never wrong or that you never need to make amends after a harmful mistake, but rather that you mean to say what you say, unabashedly.
There’s only one way to turn these techniques into reality: go out and approach as many people as possible, as often as possible, in as many conditions as possible. Talk to your servers at restaurants, your bus driver, the woman who sells you coffee, patrons in line with you, your coworkers. Practice starting conversations in passing—people you pass in the bar or club, people on the street or in the aisles of the supermarket. Always be starting conversations, building experience and habit, so that when you do finally see that person who makes your heart flutter, you’re already saying something to them before you realize you’ve started talking.