Until 2013, clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen ’99 was on what she describes as a “very typical academic path.” A year earlier she’d become an instructor at Stanford’s medical school, and, while she enjoyed her research and working with patients, two things didn’t sit well with her: “First, as a clinician, my ability to help people was limited to one person at a time. Second, I was surrounded by these interesting research projects that were staying within the ivory tower. I wished more people had access to the knowledge and the treatments that were out there.”
These concerns were the catalyst for Hendriksen’s new book, How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. With empathy and a healthy dash of humor, she offers strategies for dealing with social anxiety—a subject she’s familiar with on a personal level, she says.
“If anxiety were a religion,” she quips in her book, “I would be a lifelong congregant.” These experiences help her relate to her clients at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, where she currently works. Below, she offers her top tips for approaching one particular anxiety-inducing scenario: a party.
Turn your attention inside out. “When we are feeling anxious,” Hendriksen notes, “we tend to turn our attention inward to our own thoughts.” Maybe you’re kicking yourself for what you’re convinced was a silly comment, or consumed by the fear that someone might notice your hand shaking as you take a drink. But this intense internal focus makes it almost impossible to engage in a conversation. Instead, “pay attention to anything that is not you.”
Give yourself an assignment. In an oft-cited study, Australian researchers found that both socially anxious and naturally outgoing people display similar levels of social competence when speaking with strangers—assuming that the participants have been given a task. (“Get to know each other as well as possible in five minutes.”) Hendriksen suggests walking into a party with a similar goal, such as introducing yourself to three new people: “Just giving yourself an agenda can take away the uncertainty that gives rise to anxiety.”
Try to let go of perfectionism. “So often we want to drop this perfectly timed, witty comment in the conversation,” Hendriksen notes. But by the time you think of an elegant turn of phrase, the moment has passed—and you end up not saying anything at all. Remind yourself that it’s okay to lose your train of thought or to trip over words. Without the pressure to perform flawlessly, you’ll end up acting more natural.
Drop your “safety behaviors.” Whether it’s wearing your sunglasses indoors to avoid making eye contact or continuously using headphones to minimize the potential for small talk, behaviors designed to make you feel more protected often come off as standoffish or aloof to others. “That’s one of the biggest light bulb moments for clients that I work with,” Hendriksen says. “Once they drop these safety behaviors, they realize that not only do they feel better, but they get a better response.”