We all get that feeling. The faster heartbeat. The nervousness. The sweaty palms. The anxious glancing around. When it comes to addressing a stranger we all react in the same way. It doesn't matter if we sit in our room all day, everyday, or if our job is to talk to strangers. The reaction is there, although to different degrees. Whether you're asking a professional salesperson or a hermit, approach anxiety is a problem we all face, every day.
So what's going on? Why do we fear other people so much?
We are a product of two things, when we talk about psychology. Nature and nurture; part of what we do is genetic and instinctual and the other part is the result of how we're socialised. This causes so many inexplicable problems as they conflict in various ways. Approach anxiety is partly the result of this. Since our earliest ages we have been taught the idea of 'stranger-danger'. As we grow older this is compounded by the media's constant coverage of murders, rapes, robberies and the like. In recent years, the concern for internet safety is another virile issue. These social safeguards are as much a part of our socialisation as any other. It's there to protect us, to build on our instinctual wariness of strangers and help us identify threats to our safety.
However, it can sometimes cause serious damage to our social success. This is because our major instinct, when it comes to other people, is in fact to bond. To create connections and communities. To expand our social circle. This is a thing we are driven to do for survival. Ages ago, when people lived in isolated tribes, the person alone was a person dead. Today, we face a similar problem, although not necessarily as drastic. Isolation has been shown to be linked to depression, increased blood pressure, decreased cognitive function and suppression of the immune system among other things. Our bodies need contact and the more the merrier.
“Approach anxiety is a classic case of our evolution fighting socialisation. Trying to talk to women; drawing a guy’s attention; stressing about how to network at an event. It’s hard to reconcile the two and make these things happen.”
As you can see these two drives can be at odds at times. It causes the classic 'fight or flight' response that our bodies use when it thinks there's a threat. Floods us with adrenaline and stops us from saying hello! The problem is that we think people are going to shut us down, eliminate the threat they have been socialised into believing you are. We're under the impression that our socialised safeguards affect others to the point that they aren't willing to experience any social contact outside of what they know!
So what can we do? Well, unfortunately there's no instant fix. In fact, approach anxiety never completely disappears. But we can overcome it, and for many of us it will be quite straightforward. Think of this; the majority of people linger around the average mark. For everything. Whether we're talking about athletic ability, mathematical prowess or, in this case, or social proficiency. We're talking about they ways we act and react, the ways we think and feel and the ways in which we perceive the world. We may all be unique, but scientifically speaking, we generally conform pretty readily to the average. That's what average means, right? The middle.
So when we are concerned that others will shut us down, it's probably unlikely. Chances are the potential business contact, friend or partner are just as willing to consider talking to you as you are talking to them! How likely is it that you'll turn around to a stranger in a cafe or a bar who remarks on your jacket or the way you held the door open for that lady and say, 'hey man, screw off. I hate meeting new people'. It's the same for others. Of course, there are times when it's inappropriate to talk to strangers. But for the most part, being social is rarely unwelcome. This is especially true of social settings, like bars or clubs. People don't go to these places to ignore everyone. They could have just stayed at home otherwise. People are there to meet new people. No, talking to people is the point!
- approach anxiety is a barrier that affects everyone on a deep level. It's a result of our two most basic conditions, instinct and socialisation.
- approach anxiety never really goes away, but it can be overcome.
- probability tells us that most people are relatively willing to receive strangers, as long as we make the effort and are engaging, because that's what the average person would do.
- probability tells us that we are really similar to everyone else and the chances of being shut down in most cases is pretty minimal because we, like most other people represent the 'average' of the population.
So don't let approach anxiety get in the way. Fight it and fight it hard. It's not going away, but you can work through it by taking action. I'll give you a tip on how to get started, seeing how it can be overcome, with a little sweat. Talk to some people who are paid to be nice to you. Waiters, cashiers, the receptionist at the gym. They will never shut you down. Once you've tried that, move on to strangers in social settings. Once you see how receptive people are, overcoming approach anxiety will be a that little bit less overwhelming!
Edit: I want to note (as was pointed out to me by a reader), this really downplays how difficult socialising can be for those with really high anxiety (especially clinical social phobics). This article is geared for the every(wo)man. So, if the suggestions I make here seem unrealistic, please don't feel marginalised. Just start smaller, because it might not be so easy for you.
For more tips and tricks on approach anxiety check out our article on why small talk is so awkward. Or perhaps you'd be interested in knowing about three things that bump up your attractiveness? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.