The 3 Most Common Stress Triggers: Social Interactions Part 3

Social anxiety

Today it's time for the last post in a three-part blog post series titled "The 3 Most Common Stress Triggers." Just as a quick reminder, the 3 stress triggers - or Pain Points as I like to call them - are:

Today's post is going to be all about the third most common anxiety trigger which is social interactions. In my experience talking to people - or worse yet: talking to a group of people can be an immensely stressful experience. 

For most of us, it happens at work. When social anxiety hits, we start fumbling our words and try to talk way too fast to make up for our brains freezing in fear. This of course only makes you feel even more insecure and stupid. Maybe you clear your throat to camouflage your embarrassment or try to smile to make it seem like you're cool with it but you're not and you only come across as weird. 

If you neglect your face-to-face social skills, you'll never be able to create a great first impression of yourself. In fact, you'll just come across as awkward and odd. 

On the other hand, if you learn to keep your composure when talking to other people and clear your mind of all those anxious intrusive thoughts, you'll be more successful at work and you'll be able to quickly establish deeper and more meaningful relationships with people. 

The Fear of Rejection

The single most crippling form of emotional stress that stops you from casually talking to strangers is fear of rejection. Whenever you walk up to someone to have a talk, what you're actually doing is you're exposing yourself to judgment and criticism by that person. And depending on the situation, that can be pretty darn stressful in and of itself. 

I mean what's the best thing that could happen? You get along well and you become friends. And what do you think is the worst thing that could happen? They may end up not liking you, they could think you're boring and simply not worth their time. 

The second option is pretty scary. No one likes to be dismissed, rejected and ridiculed. In fact, research shows that being rejected by another human being activates the same pain center in the brain as physical injury does. Think about that for a second. You can feel just as bad as if you had been physically maimed by a lion just by being rejected by some random guy you don't even know?


Now imagine how you would feel if you were not talking to just one person but you were actually giving a public speech in front of 100 people and they rejected you? 

Suddenly all that sense of shame, rejection and humiliation would increase a hundred-fold! No wonder most people are frightened to death in a public speaking situation.

Why Fear of Rejection Is a Good Thing

The counter-intuitive thing about fear of rejection is that it's actually a really good thing. In fact, if it wasn't for this gut-wrenching fear of being rejected by others, you wouldn't be here in the first place.

If you go back in time, just a couple of hundred years ago, being rejected by your community was equal to a death sentence. In many medieval villages in Europe being cast out was the worst thing that could happen to you. If your community abandoned you, you were as good as dead. 

If you think of a wolf pack, they're very strong and coordinated when they're together. They're able to catch a prey that's several times the size of an individual wolf. But if you single any one wolf out, it's close to useless on its own. Being part of a tribe is a huge evolutionary advantage.

So naturally, being rejected and ultimately cast out by that tribe - or even by a single member of the tribe - is dangerous. Trying to survive on your own in the wilderness has been a bad idea throughout most of our evolution.

So whenever you try to talk to a stranger or give a speech in front of a group of people, that butterfly in your stomach is an evolutionary heritage, the very reason that you are here today. 

How to Tame Fear of Social Interactions

Fear of rejection really becomes a problem in your relationships and an obstacle to performance when it is triggered by the slightest hint of criticism or judgment. 

For example I know someone that gets stressed whenever the person they're talking to stops smiling during the conversation. They're very sensitive to facial expressions, gestures and all the non-verbal cues of communication. And they get really stressed out easily when these cues are not positive.

If whenever you talk to someone you feel that you're bothering them or you're wasting their time, then I want to share with you an insight I had several years ago that I think will help you. 

Stop Mind-reading

So the first thing you need to understand is that most of the time it's not about you at all. I know that it's very easy to think that if you're talking to someone and they don't look like they're interested then you must be boring them to tears or they must think you're a joke or something.

But you know what? 99% of the time it's something else that's on their minds that they can't stop thinking about. For all you know something terrible could have happened to them that day. Maybe they were yelled at by their boss, their spouse had fallen ill, these things happen to all of us. 

So from now on before you assume that the non-verbal cues (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc.) you're getting are meant for you, I want you wake up. Hold on for a split second and think of another possibility of why you're getting that vibe. Because in all honesty, you can't know for sure that it's you. You can only guess. 

If it's really bothering you, ask them if anything is wrong. Chances are they'll tell you what's going on and it will help you feel better about yourself. 

Personal Story

For one year I've worked as a Hungarian-Japanese translator at a Japanese company. Right after I graduated college I landed in this weird community of 130 Hungarian workers and about 20 Japanese managers. I've always been very scared of speaking out in front of many people and all of a sudden I found myself making a living out of it. 

Anyway, the first 3 months were very hard. I was basically living my life outside my comfort zone. Every week there was a factory meeting on the shop floor with all 150 employees gathered. The CEO would make a few minutes long speech in front of everyone and I was supposed to translate every word of it. Mind you, although I did speak Japanese I didn't understand all the specific terminology that was floating around the company. As you can imagine, I made a lot of mistakes. 

And there was another senior translator that would participate each week and make sure that I was doing a good job. So I couldn't just make stuff up to make it sound okay. I had to actually do a good job. 

Then there were manager meetings where I would have to translate in front of a dozen accomplished people discussing management-related abstract stuff and I had to actually make sense. These were probably the most embarrassing hours of my life. 

Every morning I woke up anxious and scared. My bowel movement was excellent and I was always thinking about excuses not to go in that day. Before, during and after public speaking jobs I would sweat, my mouth would go dry and my pulse would go up. My mind would go foggy and I'd get depressed and panic. 

It was literally baptism by fire.

But it worked. And what I realized was that I had been both right and wrong. I was right because most of those people didn't even care about what I was saying anyway. Most of the time they had way bigger problems on their plates than what I was saying. 

And I was wrong because nobody judged me. Like literally; nobody, not even once. In fact, it turned out that whenever I thought I did a terrible job people were actually pretty okay with it. It turned out that my fear was irrational and no matter how much I panicked, or felt light-headed, everything turned out just fine. 

And mind you, I stuttered, I mumbled, I slurred my words, I cleared my throat in a feeble attempt to hide my confusion; I did all those embarrassing things in the book and guess what? It was all okay. 

In fact, when the day came that I left the company, my phone was ringing all the time because they were desperately trying to make me stay. 

Final Thoughts

The bottom line is that whenever you talk to somebody you can't possibly know what going on in their heads or what's happened to them that day. If they look bored or they frown it's probably not you. In fact, don't let your insecurities bottle up; go ahead and ask them if something's wrong. They'll appreciate your concern and probably be happy that someone is willing to listen to them.

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