"Every time I step outside my apartment, I can't help but feel like people are staring at me. On the street, in my classes, at the grocery store. I constantly feel judged, and it makes me feel like something is wrong with me." - 18, F, NY
People who experience social anxiety are particularly susceptible to the “spotlight effect,” which is when we overestimate how much people notice or care about us. Picture the scene of a student walking into the cafeteria, convinced that everyone is staring at them with judgment. In reality, most people are far more concerned with themselves than they are with others. We are often our own worst critic, and we pay attention to mistakes and details – the stain on our shirt, the "dumb" thing we said during a meeting, that one time we tripped on the sidewalk – far more than anyone else does.
One of the best ways to combat social anxiety is by practicing self-compassion. According to self-compassion pioneer Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion is the act of being warm, patient, and caring with yourself when you make a mistake, feel inadequate, or experience suffering. You are human, which means you're going to make mistakes or have embarrassing moments. Learning how to show kindness and love towards yourself regardless of your imperfections can free you from your anxiety about being judged and criticized by both yourself and others.
In order to practice self-compassion during moments of social anxiety, try practicing one of the following exercises:
Ask yourself how you would treat a friend. Would you criticize, ridicule, or insult them? Hopefully not! Think about how you would talk your friend through this stressful moment, and offer yourself that same kindness and compassion.
Change your critical self-talk by telling yourself an encouraging statement, such as one of the following: 1) I don't need to listen to my inner critic, 2) I deserve to be myself, 3) Everyone here is imperfect, unique, and human like me, or 4) Only I can decide how I feel about myself.