approach anxiety

Approach anxiety is a common phenomenon that occurs when we want to initiate a conversation with a new person but don’t because of fear or worry.

Often times these fears and worries stem from our belief system and perspective. But once we learn how to “reframe” these situations – by looking at them from a new perspective – we can better motivate ourselves to act in more life-enhancing ways.

It’s natural for many people to feel anxiety when first meeting someone new: a girl at a bar, a potential employer, a friend of a friend, or some stranger in public.

Sometimes it’s harder to approach someone or initiate a conversation than it is to actually carry out the conversation once it has already started.

This kind of social anxiety is known as approach anxiety. It occurs whenever we want to meet someone new but are too worried or afraid to do it. Often it comes from beliefs such as:

  • We think that we aren’t good enough or worthy of the person’s time.
  • We think that we will do something stupid and embarrass ourselves.
  • We think that we will be rejected as a person.
  • We think about what other people will think.

These are some of the most common causes of approach anxiety, but there are probably others too. I believe that we can learn to better manage most anxieties by using a technique called reframing.

Reframing (also known as “cognitive restructuring”) is a popular tool in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) where an individual investigates their belief system and replaces unhelpful beliefs with more life-enhancing beliefs.

Here are some reframes I have found helpful for managing approach anxiety:

Your presence is a gift

As I mentioned before, one of the key causes of approach anxiety is that we feel like we aren’t worthy of someone’s attention. We may find ourselves thinking or saying things like:

  • “Why should they want to talk to me?
  • “That person is way out of my league.”

We can begin to reframe these thought patterns by focusing more on how we add value to our relationships. Then we can begin thinking more productively:

    “Of course someone should want to hang out with me – I’m smart, funny, and a loyal friend.”

The key is to identify your strengths and positive attributes, then recognize that you are a person that people should want to meet and get to know better.

Because if you don’t believe you are a person worth getting to know, it’s going to be tough for you to actively approach new people. But when you believe you are a person worth knowing, you’ll feel more free to initiate conversations. You believe that anytime you interact with someone you are offering value to them: your time, your attention, your energy, etc. So when a person rejects you, it’s their loss, not yours.

This kind of reframe can help eliminate a lot of the baggage when it comes to approaching new people. We often feel as though we have to “prove ourselves,” and when we get rejected it hurts because we feel like the person has denied us as a human being. But if we have self-esteem and we understand the value we offer to others, we realize that when a person “rejects us” they are the one’s missing out.

Any failure is a learning experience

Let’s say we continuously try to meet new people and everyone one of them turns us down. Maybe we have an incredibly poor track record of job interviews or dates or public speeches, so we begin to believe that deep-down we aren’t fit for success in these areas of our life.

The truth is that no amount of failures can dictate how we succeed in the future. In fact, failure is often times an integral part of success. The best hitters in baseball bat only .300, that means they fail every 7 out of 10 times. Even as awesome baseball players and future hall-of-famers – they need to face failure everyday.

Failure is not something that we can completely eliminate from our lives because it is a part of our growth. When you begin to reframe your failures as learning experiences, you see them as a good sign – a sign that you are testing your boundaries and exploring new territory. I would be more concerned if I wasn’t failing, because that probably means that my growth is coming to a halt and I’m not pushing myself enough.

“If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

Thomas Watson

See the bigger picture

Rejection can be a really painful thing, but often it is only temporary. Sure, in the moment that we embarrass ourselves, make a mistake, or say something stupid, we may feel like we are in the pits of hell – but as time passes these memories tend to have less power over us.

Imagine yourself 90 years old looking back on your little blunders while you were in high school or college. From this perspective, do you really think these memories will still resonate with you the same way they did back when they were actually happening? Probably not.

And if we can maintain this “big picture” perspective, we often learn how to put less emphasis on the little things. Because in the long-run, most of it is just little things. When you look at the bigger picture, do you really care that you got rejected at that job you wanted 40 years ago? Or that girl who slapped you at a bar during your first date? Or that embarrassing first attempt at sex? Or that time you farted during a business meeting?

Most people are too preoccupied with their own lives to really remember all the times you messed up and embarrassed yourself.

Most of the time, there are just too many other things going on in the world for people to focus on all your past mistakes. If you could forget about these past mistakes as quick as your peers could, you’d be in a much better position to put your best foot forward.

So remember to look at the bigger picture of these little events, and often times you’ll find it a lot easier to move on. Usually, they aren’t as big of a deal as we tend to make them out to be.

Transform anxiety into motivation

“The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear… the professional knows that fear can never be overcome.”

Steven Pressfield

As the Pressfield quote suggests, anxiety and fear never truly go away. Even professional performers admit that they experience a little anxiety every time before they step on a stage or into a field. I believe the same is true whenever we meet someone new. There is always a bit of social anxiety because we never quite know what a person is going to be like or how they may react to us.

I recently saw an interview with comedian Robin Williams about how he gets incredibly silent and lethargic before he gets on stage. That’s his body’s way of managing the fears that come with every performance he does. Professionals don’t ever get rid of their fear, they just find ways of managing it better than most people.

There is a rule in the pick-up community called the 3 second rule. The idea behind this rule is that the very moment we start experiencing anxiety, that is a sign to approach now or never. So instead of viewing anxiety as an inhibitor or a reason not to approach, they view it as THE reason to approach. By doing this we learn how to view anxiety as motivation.

There was actually a study done by a Harvard scientist that seems to support this kind of reframing of anxiety. Students who were told that “nervousness was a good thing” ended up performing better on an academic exam rather than students who weren’t told this. This suggests that by viewing our anxiety as a positive motivator we may actually be able to turn it into one.

I think this is true because both anxiety and motivation (or thrill-seeking) are very biochemically similar – both are based on the stress hormone cortisol. Take for example, the thrill-seeking found when we ride a rollercoaster, watch a scary movie, engage in a challenge, or celebrate the holidays. These kinds of “positive stressors” have been coined eustress, and endocrinologists like Hans Seyle believe that these are healthy stress responses that aid our excitement and life satisfaction.

So can social anxiety and approach anxiety become a kind of eustress? I believe they can. I believe that when we see these stressors as a sign of motivation or thrill-seeking we are more likely to channel that energy into something more enjoyable and productive. So even though the response of approach anxiety is the same from a biochemical standpoint, I think that how we interpret these feelings of anxiety is ultimately what will affect our behavior and well-being.

In the end, individuals who interpret these anxieties as motivation to approach a new person will be far more likely to act on these thoughts and feelings than those who interpret these anxieties as a sign of fear or inhibition. Remember, anxiety won’t ever go away completely, so it is up to us to manage it in a way that benefits us more effectively.

Managing approach anxiety

I think if you integrate one or more of these reframes you will definitely see a noticeable change in how you manage approach anxiety. A lot of anxiety is all in our heads, and when we learn how to think more effectively we can often times overcome a lot of unnecessary inhibitions.

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