How Barbara Walters and Gretchen Rubin Helped Me Overcome Social Anxiety

When I was envisioning our wedding a year ago I decided to keep the bridal party simple and have my two sisters stand up there with me. I’d made a mental list of the important women in my life and realized that I could either have 15 bridesmaids or 2. There really wasn’t much in between. So I went with 2.

Investing in and maintaining close, meaningful friendships is at the core of my being. I have friends who I met before either of us were potty trained. I recently cancelled a speaking gig and lost a boat load of money because it was so important to me to witness a girlfriend of 10 years get married. It was money well worth losing.

Given my proclivity to making and keeping friends, I get asked about building a network a lot. People say, “You’re so social and you seem to know everyone. You make friends so easily. How do you do that?”

When I tell them the truth, they’re usually surprised.

I have social anxiety.

No, it’s not diagnosed or anything. But it’s real.

I would so rather speak in front of thousands of people than go to a cocktail party where I don’t know anyone. The idea of going to a wedding where I only know either the bride or groom and I don’t have a date gives me palpitations.

I was nervous about talking to waiters and waitresses, let alone striking up a conversation out of the blue with a random bystander. I started my network marketing business at the tender age of 18 I realized that I would need to learn to talk to strangers in order to be successful. 

I really wanted to build my business. My dream of creating financial freedom by the age of 30 so that I could stay home with my kids one day and live abundantly was ripe.

I knew I needed to do something about my fear.

I started going to a counselor who specialized in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT.) We would sit in her chintzy living room and I would go through probably half a box of tissues per session, at least.

We role-played. She gave me assignments each week.

Advice From The Queen Of Questions Herself

She recommended a book to me that totally changed my life: How To Talk To Practically Anyone About Practically Anything by Barbara Walters.

(It’s out of print and relatively expensive to get a copy but well worth it.)

Here’s what I learned from Barbara Walters that helped me move through my social anxiety and build my treasured community (I much prefer that word to network):

  • Remember that everyone is human. No matter if you’re a foreign dignitary, a Fortune 100 CEO, a billionaire entrepreneur, a stay-at-home mom, or a plumber, everyone is human and everyone is struggling with something and is excited about something.
  • Be genuinely interested in the humans around you and find out what they’re excited about and what they’re struggling with.
  • Ask about things that have nothing to do with their career. Often people in leadership or high profile positions spend all day thinking and talking about work. A great conversation about their little girl’s ballet recital can be so refreshing and disarming.
  • Connect with your heart. I’m genuinely enchanted by people’s stories about their kids and how they first met/fell in love with their significant other. These are my go-to topics because my heart opens when I ask about them and usually the person I’m talking to’s heart pops wide open when they start talking about them.

Bringing It Home With Gretchen Rubin

A few years ago I was at SXSW. I was one month into The Freedom Tour, had been blogging less than a year, and ran into Gretchen Rubin at a party. I’d read her book The Happiness Project in one sitting on a plane to France because I found it so delightful and engrossing.

I was star struck. I was totally nervous to be talking with a NY Times Bestselling author and super successful blogger.

So I remembered Barbara and started asking Gretchen about her kids. Before I knew it, I’d forgotten that I was talking with a celebrity.

Gretchen began telling me about her wacky and wonderful obsession with miniature things.  She described these whimsical little dioramas of rooms, cityscapes and other scenes that she’d created within her kitchen and bathroom cabinets. (I’ve since learned that she’s written and shared about this extensively but at the time, it was completely news to me.) I was completely bewitched by the idea of going to grab a handful of almonds and being greeted by a tiny world living on a shelf inside the cabinet.

I have no idea if Gretchen remembers the conversation or me, but that’s not the point.

The point is this:

twitter_standingYour genuine interest in another human is one of the greatest gifts you have to give. Give it. (Click to tweet)

When you strip off your own layers of pretense and ask people real questions about their real life as a human being, you create connection.

Connection is the greatest intangible currency we have. It’s what we live for. And it’s within our power to create it whether we’re checking out at the supermarket or interacting with senior executives during the biggest meeting of our lives.

If you ever experience social anxiety remember this: everyone is human. Start there and you’ll do great.

Do you ever experience social anxiety? What have you done to get over it that’s worked for you? I’d love to hear your tips and I know everyone else would too! Please leave a comment below.

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14 comments

  • Beth Thibodeaux

    Oh, Kate! Yes! Such sweet synchronicity! I just watched Barbra Walters last night on Oprah’s “Master Class” series. What an incredible story of determination and overcoming fears and obstacles! I, too, would prefer being on stage rather than a solo cocktail party goer. Throughout my life, my tendency and prefererence toward introversion often kept me in the observing role, taking it all in, processing internally while beautiful moments would pass me by; yet connection is paramount to my soul. So, now I enter in, sometimes still slowly and cautiously, but I approach. I’ve realized I’m not responsible for the other’s perception or acceptance; I must only honor that voice in me which yearns for authentic connection. Offer genuine interest; let it be; hands off without controlling the outcome. There is real freedom in that. Your words are honest, encouraging and timely, and I’m so grateful to have made that connection with you the other day, too. All beautiful blessings to you on your wedding day!

  • Mary

    I had terrible social anxiety in my late twenties. I came up with a great idea to cope with it. I had a roommate in college who was a poster child for extroversion. She could talk to anyone. So I taught myself to stop and think “What would Tricia do?” when I was in a situation triggering my anxiety. Then I would step into role playing her. I stood like she did, used her hand gestures and talked the way she did. And slowly, I became more comfortable talking to strangers. And after a while,I didn’t have to think about her as it become more natural to me. Soon it just became something I could do without thinking too hard about it at all. And then the anxiety abated.

  • After meeting you at Reveal I can tell you it’s working!! You are amazing! I would have never guessed that you have a history of social anxiety. Ever! You shine brightly and it’s magnetic.

    I have a funny social quirk: When I’m in a big group if the group is talkative I tend to go quiet and if the group is quiet I get really talkative. I like to create balance. I really love pulling quiet people out of their shell, but if people are really talkative in a big group – like my family – then I just get quiet and observe everyone else.

    I’ve been practicing jumping in with the talkative ones more, but it definitely takes some extra gusto. I think I never have enjoyed ‘fighting’ for attention (again from being the youngest growing up in a really big family) so I get tightness in my throat when I feel like I have to fight for airspace, but I’m definitely not a shy person.

    All that said, if there is dancing at a party, I’m beyond golden. And if there are amazing people to connect with, I’m also beyond golden.

    Big love to you for your big day!!!

    Kelsey

    • Thank you so much Kate for your post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I am now involved with a network marketing business and am slowing overcoming my social anxiety. It is mostly at mixer events where I don’t know a soul or only one person. Oh, how that anxious or nervous feeling creeps up on me!! I will remember your tips next time I’m in a mixer type setting and just go with it. We are all humans with a need for connection :)

      Cheers and best wishes to you on your beautiful day!!

      Beca

  • Mairead Murphy

    Great article Kate! xo

  • Kate I love this blog post! It really speaks to me as well. Once I’m warmed up with a group I’m fine. But often at the beginning of the event I feel paralyzed and secretly want to run to find the exit door!

    But one day I was being pulled by my inner guidance to get out of the house and go out that night. It was a Friday evening and I was newly single, just moved to SF from NYC. And while I felt so shy I just knew I had to go out to see this DJ I liked. I thought once she starts her set and I can dance I won’t feel as uncomfortable. Little did I know that I totally messed up the time she was playing and I missed her set!? So bummed I was at the bar and chatted with the guy next to me asking if the next DJ was going to be any good? Yeah, it’s hip hop. Ok I like that! Turns out he was the DJ! Haha!

    Because I was chatting with him his big group of friends assumed I was with them. And before I know it I’m talking to this one guy. Joking around we had fun talking and dancing the night away. This man has now been the love of my life for the past 6 years and counting. You never know who you will meet when you are not being protected by the safety of your group of friends.

    Much love to you Kate on your special day. You bright light and inspiration into my life. Wishing you a lifetime of joy and fun! xx Julie

  • Meaghan

    Love it Kate. I am sitting here reading this and realizing these are things that are apart of me because I genuinely love people. I love that one-on-one connection and I love hearing people’s stories. But being on stage, that’s a different story. When I am playing music its fine because I am in my soul. I would like to be there speaking. More practice perhaps?

    Thanks again!

  • Brittany

    I’ve realized that almost everybody has social anxiety of some form or another. It’s like you said: “Remember that everyone is human”…I used to be really shy, and I still have moments of it in groups of people that don’t necessarily resonate with me. I considered myself to have social anxiety. When I told this to people they were always really shocked because in their eyes I seemed outgoing. Or ppl that have said, “you’re a lot better at making friends than I am.” And it’s always surprising to hear this because I still sometimes feel like that shy, awkward little girl. At first I just forced myself into those uncomfortable, meet new people situations. I noticed people are more encouraged to be themselves if the people around you are open to receiving. Thus, naturally, I endeavour to treat people around me with acceptance and genuine connection (what goes around, comes around) and you become that open, sunny, friendly individual that people want to chat to! Now more than ever, I’m realizing, hey it’s not that big of a deal, because everybody has social anxiety! Everybody wants to be accepted, and nobody wants to be judged. When I started to notice this pattern, social anxiety didn’t seem like that big of a deal; and when it’s not hovering in your mental map, then you begin to allow the authentic you to shine. And in the moments when anxiety does creeps up, it doesn’t have the same weight it once did :)

  • I just love this post! The point about connecting on a human issue works so well. I used to go to events and tell people how inspiring I found them or thanked them for their work. It’s nice to do that but it’s hard to go beyond that in a conversation. What you share is so much more effective. You can connect with someone over something else, NON work related and THEN throw in a ‘thank you for X’ comment

    stops the pedestal vibe!

  • Maxine

    Hello Kate :) So happy to have read this about Social Anxiety and your experience of it. It really helps to know people I look up to, such as yourself, are human too (just as you say!) and can experience this anxiety as well.
    I’ve been experiencing social anxiety for a long time, now in my mid 30’s and working in retail, I find it relatively easy when connecting with customers in store because I’m excited about what we have there for them (I work for the Australian active wear range Lorna Jane). But get me in a small social situation or to perform on stage and I get extremely anxious/nervous.

  • Thanks, Kate! Love the stories, honesty and insights. Totally relate to living in that in between space of being comfortable public speaking but feeling less at ease in a new social scene or party. A big breakthrough for me in understanding this dynamic came in learning the enneagram, a map of the human experience or 9 personality patterns. Once I discovered I had an extroverted and assertive type but am actually an introvert– I better understood my own experience of life, especially socially. Now I teach and coach using the enneagram and see others have a similar “aha”– especially if they are always able to perform well but still feel small, scared or intimidated on the inside. Thanks again for writing about this important and nuanced topic– and congrats on your wedding!

  • Molly

    What a brave and inspiring post, Kate. Your honesty is compelling. As someone who deals with anxiety and panic disorder (diagnosed!) on a daily basis and works diligently to thrive despite it, your message obviously speaks to my soul.

    Thank you for creating awareness and light around these types of challenges – something I think more people cope with than any of us realize, even if it’s on a small scale.

    Bless you for continuing to bring light and happiness to the world, and very best wishes for the wedding day of your dreams and more!
    -Molly

  • ” Yes, as a business owner providing genuine service is a daily practice of ‘how I can serve better before even calculating what I’m getting . . .

    Thank you for sharing your experiences & wisdom always, Kate ~ ”

    Big Hugss, Sunghee

  • […] admit that I have a little social anxiety. I’m not the kind of girl you’ll find yukking it up with random people in an elevator, and I […]

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