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Just a few months ago, I read on someone’s Instagram sharing the youngsters’ thoughts on socializing with adult family members. Some youngsters will try their best to avoid any kind of social gatherings with adult family members because of the fear of being judged and misunderstood. They are also afraid of being asked sensitive questions and topic, that they will not be able to voice their thoughts properly (because the adults won’t listen). And most importantly, they felt like the family gatherings seem like a waste of time where people boast about themselves, belittle others, and backbite each other.
I honestly felt sad when I read it. These kinds of conducts at social gatherings could result in some youngsters in developing social anxiety. This will be a negative example for them and may likely hinder them from developing social skills they need in the future. Social relationship, especially family relationship, has a huge place in Islam.
Abu Hurairah narrated that the Messenger of Allah said:
“Learn enough about your lineage to facilitate keeping your ties of kinship. For indeed keeping the ties of kinship encourages affection among the relatives, increases the wealth, and increases the lifespan.” (Jami’ Tirmidhi 1979)
As stated in the hadith above, maintaining ties of kinship has so many virtues in it. It is very unfortunate if some negative past experience can prevent some people to develop a better and healthier social relationship in the future. As a Muslim, it is our duty to be a good human being and spread positivity in this world. We can start by the smallest things first, including trying to fix and improve our social relationship.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety disorder is currently the third largest mental health condition in the world. According to the National Institute of Mental Health; social anxiety disorder can be described as “An intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others. This fear can affect work, school, and your other day-to-day activities.”
The symptoms experienced by people suffering from the anxiety disorder can span from psychological ones like low self-esteem and constant negative thoughts to physical symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, and trembling when they encounter a stressful social situation.
One of the debilitating things about social anxiety is that the sufferer should face their fears (social situations) on a daily basis. Some of those social situations can become very stressful and it makes them experience the anxiety every so often. The general tip people usually offer to someone with anxiety is this infamous one: “Just face your fear.”
The truth is, people with social anxiety face their fear every single day. What they need is a strong support system from family and friends and a handful of tips that may help them to manage their anxiety. Here are several tips that might be useful for people with social anxiety disorder:
Start with the right intention
Just like any other acts, our aim to do better at social relationship should be for the sake of Allah. Yes, excellent social skills will likely to bring us success and happiness in this world. However, the most important thing is that with the right intention, our efforts to build a better social relationship could be the means for us to attain His paradise in sha Allah.
Remember that enhancing our social skills, which includes, managing our social anxiety is a form of applying good character in life. Islam is a religion of good character, there are several hadith which emphasize the importance of it:
Abu Hurayra reported that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “I was sent to perfect good character.” (Al Adab Al Mufrad)
Abu Wahb narrated that :
‘Abdullah bin Al-Mubarak explained the good character, and then he said: “It is a smiling face, doing one’s best in good, and refraining from harm.” (Jami’ Tirmidhi 2005)
Abu Ad-Dardh narrated that the Messenger of Allah said:
“Nothing is heavier on the believer’s Scale on the Day of Judgment than good character. For indeed Allah, Most High, is angered by the shameless obscene person.” (Jami’ Tirmidhi 2002)
Every time you try your best to smile to a neighbour or a coworker, even when you feel that it’s very awkward or maybe they don’t even return to smile back, remember that you’re doing a sunnah of showing a smile and good character. When you attend a wedding party where you don’t even know who the bride/groom are but you’re being a dutiful kid to your parents to accompany them, remember that you are doing a very noble act by making your parents happy. So many social situations can be turned into an act of worship with the right intention in sha Allah.
Have a Positive Mindset
People with social anxiety disorder tend to overthink their actions/words and focus a lot on their own selves. Instead of enjoying the conversation, their minds will wander around with such thoughts as:
“Will I sound stupid if I say this?”
“Is it awkward if I hug her before we part or should I just shake her hand?”
“Is it okay if I really tell them about my story? Will they judge me?”
“They probably don’t like me since no one really pays attention to what I’m saying.”
It is actually good to be thoughtful and considerable in social gatherings. But for people with social anxiety, these thoughts prevent them to maintain a meaningful conversation since they focus a lot on ‘what will happen?’ instead of ‘what is actually happening’. It is imperative to understand that these negative thoughts are only thoughts, not facts. Some of them might be true, but most of them will not happen at all. Yes, some people may disagree with our opinion and some gestures might be awkward for some people but that’s okay. As long as we don’t trespass the boundaries, such as speaking rudely or being very inconsiderate of others’ opinions, then it is okay.
Nobody is perfect. It is impossible to always say the right thing and being liked by everyone. It is okay if some people disagree with us or some people don’t like us. Even with ourselves, we don’t agree with every opinion we hear nor do we like every single people we meet, right?
Instead of worrying about the judgment and other negative scenarios. We can focus on positive things like how to improve our speech so people could understand them better and how can we make the conversation more fun.
Develop a Plan
Before we go to any social situation, make a plan on the things we will say and do. There are several things which we may encounter daily, we can develop a habit plan for that. You can even start rehearsing the dialogue with yourself before you act it out in real life. For example:
- Meeting with Neighbors: Smile, say salaam (or hello to non-muslims), ask about their day, maintain a cheerful tone, say salam again and goodbye before parting.
- Meeting with School Friends or Co-Workers: Same with above, don’t forget to say the magic words ‘please/thank you/sorry’, don’t hesitate to reach out to them, be direct in your business.
After we go home each day, we can review every social encounter we had that day and notice the progress or what’s still lacking. Maybe you have conquered your fear to finally ask for your friend’s help and directly tell her what you need, but you still forgot to say ‘please’. You can make a new goal to be more aware of saying ‘please/thank you/sorry’ the next time.
For occasional social gatherings like meetings, halaqas, presentations, or wedding parties, you can make a more detailed plan for it. One of the things which alleviate the anxiety and brings comfort is the sense of familiarity. Make sure you know someone you’re close with who will attend the same event. It can be by talking to your close classmates about your upcoming class presentation so you know that someone already gets your back. Or you may contact your close co-workers who will attend the same social gatherings about when will they go to the event, you can even carpool with them. The goal is to make you feel safer at social gatherings. The sense of familiarity can be gained from non-living things too! Preparation is the key, by preparing a good presentation slide, jotting down the possible questions that you might get after, using comfortable clothes, and rehearsing the presentation could make you feel more relaxed at the event later.
In a family social gathering, a more complex strategy should be developed since the people involved are the ones we have to respect since they are important people to our parents’ lives (and our life too). And we have a duty to be good to our family. They might ask uncomfortable questions to you such as:
“Why do you look fatter/thinner?”
“When will you get married?”
“When will you have kids?”
You can simply answer it with your honest answers, while still maintaining the cheerful tone. Older generations usually do not understand that it’s not okay to ask very personal questions and it’s hard to change their mindset about that. Some of them tend to like lecturing the youngsters so much. Even if they start lecturing you about life and you disagree with some of their points, you can join them by offering your point of view while maintaining the politeness. If there’s a chance of getting into an argument or when you feel totally uncomfortable, you can always excuse yourself to a bathroom or patio or to do other things such as preparing the food. The key is to preserve the family relationship while taking care of our own mental health.
Remember that the strategy of developing a social plan is only a strategy to make you be more relaxed and spontaneous in any social gatherings in the future. We cannot make a plan for every social gathering we will encounter, there will be a sudden meeting or presentation which require us to think quick but at the same time to go with the flow. The goal is to make us more skilled at handling social situations better. So the next time we suddenly meet an old friend at a restaurant or our boss asks us to deliver a quick presentation, we can manage the fears because we are already skilled to handle the situations well.
Make gradual progress
We cannot expect the social anxiety to vanish overnight. Take small steps from the plan you have developed. The key is on progress not on perfection. Having a social anxiety is a burden to have at first, don’t add the burden by being too hard on yourself which might trigger the anxiety even more.
In any social situation, if you feel like you want to excuse yourself to someplace quiet to fix your mood first, then do it. Or maybe you can go outside and take a little walk to calm your mind. You might have an excellent week of a social relationship full of progress and then suddenly you feel like you’re so tired you want to cancel a gathering with your friends next Friday. It is okay, take your time. You can try again next time. After all, you’re the one who understand yourself the most.
Also, don’t forget to give yourself a treat for the accomplishments you have made. You have succeeded at making a new friend on your cousin’s wedding? Or you took the initiative to help your neighbour whom you never really talked much before? You deserve a treat <3 It is an act of self-love and it will motivate you more to achieve more progress!
It’s okay not to be okay
A social situation has a very dynamic nature. Sometimes we simply do the things outside what we have planned. Moreover, we cannot control other people’s thoughts and actions. Hence, it is highly likely that something unpredictable will happen. Maybe eventually you will say or do something awkward, or you will hear a rude conversation that really bothers you, or maybe you receive eye-rolls and forced laughter. And then a huge rush of anxiety and disappointment wash over you.
We wonder to ourselves. We failed again this time, will it be really worth it to try again?
The answer is, yes, it is always worth it to try again. It is okay to feel embarrassed and disappointed. After all, we’re just humans with our complex emotions. Don’t let the setbacks prevent you from making a progress. Your feelings are valid. It is okay to experience those fears and negative emotions. When awkward or uncomfortable things happen, let yourself feel all the emotions and then make a mental note to learn to handle it with grace the next time.
To all the people with social anxiety out there, may Allah help you to conquer your anxiety and be a better human being. For every single act of kindness, you will make a difference in this world and will be rewarded in the hereafter too in sha Allah.