Cultivating Social Skills: An Antidote to Anxiety

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Growing up with a stutter was lonely and isolating. I lost my formative years to an unbearable social anxiety that denied me the opportunity to learn how to interact with others. 

I had friends. I played teams sports. I passed as socially fluent. I graduated college. And, I got my dream job. Yet, no one knew how hard it was to keep my head above water. 

Social anxiety made up a majority of my experience of stuttering, and it’s obvious why. My stutter robbed me of the trial and failure period of life afforded to most children, though kids who don’t stutter still develop social anxiety. However, it’s in the figuring out stage where we define our social baselines. 

I spent my coming of age only trying to hide my stutter and endure the fear, trauma, and shame. Think about this for a minute: for twenty years, the only thing I did was try not to stutter. There was no choice but to condition a personality that defaulted to survival mode. 

I lived with an unhealthy anxiety and avoided social interactions in every waking moment of my life. Living with this constant simmer made me someone I didn’t want to be. 

Becoming social is not innate and takes repetitive exposure to the variety of interactions that conditioned the social anxiety. For me, that was all of them

It wasn’t possible to take all of them on at once, so where and how did I begin?

Through both direct and indirect confrontations with each and every kind of social anxiety-inducing interaction. 

My grandfather’s eulogy, job interviews, presentations, dating, everyday greetings and expressions of gratitude, phone calls, one-on-one conversations, group outings, growing a lasting relationship into a marriage, meetings and mentoring at work, and in the many micro interactions that bridge the gaps between. 

But, it wasn’t just one of these that helped me break through the anxiety. The key was building momentum. There were so many opportunities to seize that were up and down my social fear hierarchy that I had no choice but to go through my belated figuring out stage. 

Momentum began to build by combing self-confidence I had gained through training to become a triathlete and dating. Before I knew it, I was dating my social opposite who forced me out of my shell and into an accelerated indoctrination of how to live like an extrovert. 

Suddenly, I was having hours long deep conversations with my girlfriend, interjecting comments in group settings, and confidently stuttering my way through each new interaction. 

Again, I didn’t focus all my energy on one. Instead, I let the momentum from my other pursuits merge with what I was learning from the different social opportunities gradually change my approach. 

With perspective, it was about an eight-year transformation from being ruled by anxiety to becoming socially fluent, enough. And, I’m still largely an introvert, though better equipped with the social skills needed to sustain a fulfilling life.  

The model:

  • Identify social opportunities 
  • Directly or indirectly confront them
  • Experience what happens when you do
  • Seize each one until it creates less anxiety

Social anxiety is what made stuttering such a traumatic experience for so many years. Being able to strip away the trauma to give way to social fluency was a big reason why my life changed in a relatively short amount of time. 

It was not easy, I failed often, and used what I learned to live who I was on the inside. Walking with the fumes of social anxiety into every interaction is a powerful position from which to oppose its life impeding presence. It will likely always be with me in some form but no longer fighting it has mitigated the fear in favor of openly stuttering when, where, and how I want. 

Cultivate social skills and watch how they change your life. 

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