So you just got back from the party, and your brain is in full overdrive. You start thinking, “Why did she say that?” You try to read between the lines. “Is she mad at me? What did she mean by that? Was she joking or serious?” Or even more likely, you worry about something you did. You say, “Why did I say that? I’m so awkward!”
This is called post-event rumination. It’s a nasty little cycle that makes your social anxiety worse. But you can fight it with the powers of CBT. So let’s look at the cycle first, and then we’ll talk about a few easy ways to reverse it.
You all know that feeling: you come out of a work meeting or hangout with friends, and you start thinking, “Why did I say that? I should have responded this way. I am such an idiot.” Or “What did he mean when he said . . .” Or you think, “I was the most awkward person at the party” or “I overshared way too much information.” Or maybe you worry, “Did I hurt someone’s feelings?
This type of overthinking can be a symptom of social anxiety disorder. It can also just be a symptom of anxiety in general. But when you over analyze your personal relationships to the point that you’re afraid of an emotional connection with another person, you’re essentially slipping into a mental rut called rumination. It’s really common, and there’s a lot you can do about it.
In this post you’re going to learn four ways to stop overthinking every social situation.
So first, you go to a social event, and then you evaluate yourself, and then you ruminate. That word means to chew the cud. You basically regurgitate your evaluation, and then you re-evaluate yourself but darker, and then you come to the conclusion that you’re the most awkward person in the world, which increases your anxiety, which you take with you to the next social event, and the vicious cycle continues.
But these two steps in the middle, this is where you can intervene. You can change how you evaluate yourself and stop rumination, and then your anxiety won’t keep going up and you’ll reverse the cycle.
So let’s learn three cognitive restructuring techniques that help. Cognitive restructuring is just a fancy word for saying “changing how you think.” But it makes me feel smart to say it.
1. Your Self-Evaluation Is Distorted
So number one, let’s start by admitting to yourself that your self-evaluation is probably distorted.
So let me give you an example: I read this story on Instagram: a shy young lady is sitting on a bus, and she brought her dog with her. A man gets on the bus. He sits near her, and he says to her, “Are you allowed to have dogs on the bus?” She just shrugs and looks away. But inside she’s freaking out a little.
Is he judging her? Is he going to try and get her kicked off? Is he going to start some trouble? And then out of the corner of her eye, she sees him pull his little dog out of a very nondescript pet carrier. He wasn’t judging her; he just wanted to be like her.
So if you’re a sensitive person, your view of yourself is most likely distorted to see yourself more negatively than reality, and there’s a very high chance that whatever thing you said or did isn’t as bad as you imagined. If you have anxiety, you’re probably anxious, not awkward or offensive.
So the first distortion is the belief that what you said or did is so much worse than it actually was. And I’ll call this horriblizing.
Now, the second way your self-evaluation is distorted is by emotional reasoning. So if I feel anxious, I must have been awkward. If I feel embarrassed, I must have been doing something wrong.
To defeat this, we need to get good at naming emotions and separating emotions from reality. So stop saying, “I was so awkward,” and just admit to yourself, “I felt fear” or “I felt anxious.” You shift your language from labels, like labeling yourself “I was so awkward,” to experiences: “Here’s what I felt.”
Now, if you actually don’t know how to say hi to someone, if you’ve never been taught how to introduce yourself, then you could benefit from learning some social skills. But most people are socially anxious, not socially awkward.
So be honest with yourself. You have a tendency to judge yourself harshly. What you did is probably not as bad as you think it was. If a friend had done it, you probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it.
So there’s another sign that your self-evaluations are distorted. If you have a different standard for yourself than for others, it means that you’re not seeing things clearly.
2. Everyone Is Not Looking at You
Number two: the second big cognitive distortion with social anxiety is that everyone is looking at me. Everyone’s noticing how sweaty or awkward or offensive I am.
Sorry, they probably aren’t. They’re probably not spending much time obsessing over every little thing you say or do.
The trap of social anxiety is that you get sucked into this hole of self-examination that just makes you more anxious. This is egocentrism. It’s not pride. It’s not cockiness. It’s distorting reality to think that everyone else is looking at you, that you’re the center of their world.
When it comes to changing how you think, you can’t just stop thinking this way. The more you try to suppress a thought, like being worried about yourself, the more attention you give it. This is the classic pink elephant example.
So instead, you need to shift your attention to something else. And in this case, it’s other people. Here in the present moment, shift away from being stuck in your thoughts, and redirect your attention to the here and now.
You can use mindfulness to notice these egocentric thoughts, and then shift your attention to others. How are they feeling? How was their day? What are they doing this weekend?
Or if it’s after the party, you could think, “What’s some nice thing I could do for Parker? Or “Who could I invite next time?” or “What would I rather be doing with my time instead of judging myself and overthinking everything?” Find something that matters more.
Basically, when we shift our attention outward, we just won’t have as much energy to dwell on ourselves.
3. It’s Not the End of the World
Number three: even if your biggest fears came true — you did say something dumb or someone else was judging you harshly — it wouldn’t be the end of the world. The cognitive distortion, the faulty thinking here is, “It would be catastrophic if I messed up. It would be a disaster if I got rejected.”
Social anxiety is this deep evolutionary instinct that is based on our ancestors’ ancient need for survival. It’s this idea that, like, “If I get kicked out of the tribe, I will starve to death and die.” So the distortion is “If I get rejected, it would be terrible. I couldn’t handle it. I would never recover.”
So let’s be honest for a minute. Could you survive if you got rejected? Would the world actually end if you said something dumb? It might hurt. It might feel uncomfortable. But you can handle having feelings. You can get really good at feeling feelings.
These distortions, and especially rumination, are all attempts to protect yourself, to avoid feeling real and vulnerable. You ruminate and obsess in a vain attempt to control what you can’t control: other people’s opinions. Or you overthink to avoid feeling fear.
This is a habit you’ve developed to protect yourself from having feelings, and it’s backfiring. And spending all this time trying to white-knuckle perfectionism in a social situation is a complete waste of time and energy because you can’t be perfect. There’s just, there’s just too much ambiguity in social situations.
So you have two options: (1) You can try to white-knuckle yourself into perfect interactions. How anxious do you think you’ll feel if you do that? How fun will that be? (2) Or to practice real acceptance and vulnerability.
4. You Can Handle Not Being Perfect
And that takes us to number four: you can handle not being perfect, and so can your true friends.
So with the thought, “What if I messed up?” Well, maybe you did. Maybe you did say something stupid or hurtful. Did the world end? Can you make space for imperfection in order to have real relationships with real people who really mess up pretty frequently?
Would you rather have a sterile relationship where you only show your good side at all times, you keep everyone happy, everything is perfect, and never truly feeling accepted because you know the other person doesn’t know all of the sides of you, or would you rather have a real relationship based on real humans who really mess up?
They do good, they apologize, they make up, and they accept others as they are. Social anxiety is fueled by underlying beliefs like “I must be perfect to be accepted. I must never make anyone else uncomfortable. I must never make a mistake in front of another person. I must never be weird.”
So what do you do? You have to shift what you value from perfectionism to real connection. Let go of futile attempts to control a situation by doing everything right, and choose vulnerability instead.
There is no perfect social interaction. Choose to be willing to feel. Be willing to be imperfect, honest, vulnerable, to show up and just say, “I will be social anyway. I’ll mess up, and that’s okay because it’s worth it to me to engage with people.”
Being real is better than putting on a perfect show, at least for any lasting relationship. And when you do actually mess up, you can make repairs because that’s how real relationships work.
But stop seeking constant reassurance. This is just an attempt to avoid feelings. Choosing your values is all about letting go of what you can’t change, which is other people’s opinions of you, and putting your energy toward what you care about, which is real connection with other humans.
So just to summarize, here’s four cognitive distortions that lead to overthinking, rumination and social anxiety.
Number one is faulty self-evaluation. If you’re judging yourself differently from others, then you’re not seeing clearly. Name your emotions and let go of self-judgment.
Number two: everyone’s looking at me. No, they aren’t. Shift your attention outward.
Number three: If I messed up, it would be catastrophic. I wouldn’t survive. No, you’re safe. You can handle having feelings. Even if you did mess up it would be okay.
And number four: I have to be perfect to be accepted. Replace that with “I value real human connection and all of the feelings that come with it.”
Okay. I hope that’s helpful. Thank you for reading, and take care.