How to Make Friends When You Have Social Anxiety

Making friends is tough if you have social anxiety. But with determination and persistence, you can do it. The upside is massive: a rich and rewarding social life.

Part 1: Overcome your fear of social situations

Exposure therapy has been shown to be effective against social anxiety. Here’s how to do it:

Make a fear ladder

Exposing yourself to situations that make you anxious can help you overcome your fear.

Make a list of social situations that you find difficult. Rank them in order from least to most frightening. This is called a fear ladder.

Here’s an example:

  • Make eye contact with someone at work or school and smile
  • Ask a work- or study related question
  • Ask someone if they have any weekend plans
  • Have lunch with coworkers or other students
  • Make small talk in the breakroom during lunch on topics such as the weather or a TV show
  • Ask someone out for a coffee or walk one lunchtime
  • Ask someone if they’d like to see a movie at the weekend

Climb the ladder

Slowly expose yourself to each social situation on your ladder. Do not be tempted to skip ahead too quickly. Aim to gradually push yourself beyond your comfort zone.

As you ascend the fear ladder, you will start interacting with more people and develop your social skills, which are both essential if you want to make friends. Keep a record of your achievements and reward yourself when you move to the next step.

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Learn to deal with your anxiety in social situations

You need to learn how to cope with strong, unpleasant feelings of anxiety because you will probably experience them during exposure therapy.

Here are two techniques to try:

Slow breathing: Try to breathe out as slowly as you can. Imagine you are filling up a balloon. This slows down your heart rate. You don’t need to worry about your in-breath because it will lengthen naturally.[1]

Grounding: Shift your focus away from yourself and towards your surroundings. Identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.[2]

Part 2: Grow your self-esteem

“Because of my shyness and social anxiety, I have no friends. I avoid social events because I don’t want to come off as socially awkward. I feel lonely, and that it takes a toll on my self-esteem.”

In the following chapters, we’ll talk about how you can increase your self-esteem and polish up on your social skills

Challenge your negative self-talk

People with social anxiety tend to think they aren’t very good at forming meaningful friendships or even socially inept. But research shows that socially anxious people often underestimate their social skills.[3]

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When you start berating yourself, try changing your inner monologue. Forcing yourself to think positive thoughts won’t work, but choosing to look at the situation in a more realistic, compassionate light can help.

For example, if you tell yourself, “I’m so boring, no one in the room will like me,” you could replace it with a more encouraging statement like, “It’s true that not everyone will like me, but that’s OK. No one is universally loved. I’ll just be myself and do my best.”

Stop comparing yourself to others on social media

Social media isn’t always a direct cause of social anxiety, but it can make it worse if you compare yourself to other people.[4] Don’t scroll through pages and feeds that make you feel insecure or inferior.

Rather than using social media to compare yourself to others, you can use it to connect with like-minded. Here’s how to make friends online.

Part 3: Refine your social skills

Make sure your body language is “open”

“Closed” body language, such as folded arms or crossed legs and avoidance of eye contact, signals to others that you’d prefer to be left alone. Make a deliberate effort to stand or sit up straight, smile, and look people in the eye.

Mirroring someone else’s body language during a conversation—for example, leaning forward slightly when your conversation partner does the same—can create a feeling of rapport in most situations.[5] However, it’s best done sparingly; others may be able to tell if you’re intentionally imitating them.

Focus on other people

Looking outwards will distract you from your self-scrutiny and help you learn more about those around you. Give yourself a goal during a conversation. For example, you could try to find out 3 new things about a coworker over lunch, give someone a sincere compliment, or offer to help them solve a problem.

Focus on being a good listener and try to adopt an attitude of curiosity. When you concentrate on what someone else is saying, you’ll naturally feel less self-conscious.

Practice making small talk

Small talk is the first step towards friendships. Good topics include the weather, current affairs, travel plans or vacations, hobbies, work, pets, and general family-related topics. Avoid bringing up very niche topics that few people will understand, finances, past relationships, other peoples’ problems, religion, politics, and serious illness. Keep up with current affairs and local news so that you always have something to talk about.

Use open questions that start with “what,” “why,” “when,” “where,” or “who” rather than questions that invite “yes” or “no” answers. They encourage the other person to give you longer answers, which makes it easier to keep the conversation going.

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Take every opportunity to your practice social skills

For example, if you see a work colleague in the breakroom at lunch, smile and ask, “How was your morning?” If you happen to pass your neighbor in the street, take a few minutes to talk about their weekend plans. You won’t make friends with everyone, but that’s OK. It’s all good practice.

Part 4: Meet more potential friends

In this chapter, we’ll talk about how to make friends if you have social anxiety. You can also read our main article on how to make friends for general advice. Here’s our guide on what to do if you have no friends.

Connect with other socially anxious people

Look on Meetup to find a group for people who struggle with social anxiety in your area. Try to find a group that is well-established and meets at least once per week; you are more likely to make friends if you see the same people at every meeting. If you feel very anxious about attending, reach out to the organizers before you go. Tell them it’s your first time and ask whether they could introduce you to a couple of people when you arrive.

Online communities such as the Social Anxiety Support forum and the Tribe Wellness Community offer people with anxiety disorders a chance to give and receive encouragement and advice.

Sign up for a group that centers around an activity

Join a group or class that lets you learn a new skill whilst interacting with other people. Because everyone will be focused on the same task or topic, you’ll feel less pressured to think of things to talk about. Try to join a group that meets on a regular basis so you can get to know people over several weeks or months.

If you meet someone who seems friendly, ask them if they’d like to get together for a coffee immediately before or after the group starts. If you enjoy each other’s company, you could then ask if they’d like to meet up another time for another activity.

Try an app specially designed for making friends

Talking to people online can be less intimidating than meeting them face to face. Apps like Bumble BFF let you talk via instant message before deciding whether to meet up in person.

When putting together your profile, list your favorite activities and make it clear that you’d like to meet people with the same interests.

If you match with someone, don’t be afraid to make the first move. Send them a friendly message that includes a question about something they’ve written in their profile. If you click, ask them whether they are free any time soon. Suggest a “friend date” that involves an activity to minimize any awkward silences.

Reach out to old friends and acquaintances

If you have a college friend, former colleague, or distant relative you haven’t seen for a long time, send them a message or give them a call. They may be delighted to hear from you. Rekindling an old friendship can be easier than meeting new people because you already have a shared history. Ask how they are and what they’ve been doing recently. If they live nearby, suggest the two of you meet to catch up.

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You’ll get a 100% free custom report with the areas you need to improve. 

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Part 5: Nurture your new friendships

Communicate regularly

Some people will want to hang out every week, whereas others will be happy to text occasionally and meet up every couple of months. However, maintaining a friendship requires effort on both sides. It doesn’t have to be perfectly balanced, but you both need to be willing to initiate contact regularly.

Try reaching out when:

  • You have significant news to share
  • You see something that made you think of them
  • You want to go somewhere or try something and think they might want to come along for the ride
  • It’s been a while since you hung out and you miss them
  • It’s their birthday or another day that is special to them

Accept invitations

You need to spend, on average, 50 hours with someone before you become friends, and 140 hours to become close friends.[6] Say “Yes” to all invitations unless it would be impossible for you to attend. If you can’t go along, apologize for declining the invitation and offer to reschedule.

Don’t be afraid to suggest alternative activities or places if your friends want to do something that makes you anxious. For example, if your friend wants to go to a noisy bar and loud environments always make you feel overwhelmed, suggest somewhere more low-key for a drink and perhaps a meal.

Be the kind of friend you’d want for yourself

Try to be someone who is fun to be around, offers practical and emotional support in times of need, and doesn’t indulge in gossip. When you make a mistake or say something you later regret, apologize and ask for forgiveness.

Don’t lie or sugarcoat unpleasant truths; a 2019 poll of 10,000 people shows that honesty is the number-one most sought after quality in a friend.[7]

Deepen your friendships by opening up

People with social anxiety can find it hard to feel close to potential friends and talk about personal issues. These barriers can get in the way of emotional intimacy that is important in friendships.[8]

When a friend confides in you or talks about a personal issue, reciprocate. You don’t have to reveal every little detail about your life, but let them get to know the real you—that’s what friendship is about. Don’t worry if this doesn’t come naturally to you at first. With practice, it will be easier to let others in.

Consider telling your friends about your social anxiety

If those around you know you get anxious in social situations, they can support and encourage you. Telling your friends also helps them understand your behavior. For example, if you tend to avoid eye contact, they will be less likely to think you are aloof if they know you have social anxiety.[9]

You may find that your friend has similar problems. Lots of people have no friends and struggle to grow their social circle as an adult. Sharing your experiences can bring you closer together.

Part 6: Consider therapy

If you’ve tried to push past your social anxiety, but self-help measures aren’t working, consider making an appointment with a therapist. Look for a therapist that offers cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), because this type of treatment is very effective for social anxiety.[10] Ask your doctor for a referral or find a therapist via the GoodTherapy directory.

Therapy is also a good idea if you have (or suspect you have) a mental illness that makes it hard to socialize. For example, between 35% and 70% of people with social anxiety disorder also have depression.[11] Because depression can cause a lack of energy and interest in socializing, the two conditions need to be treated together.

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Viktor is a Counselor specialized in interpersonal communication and relationships. He manages Socialpro’s scientific review board. Follow on Twitter or read more.

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