What does mindfulness reveal about social anxiety?

My own mindfulness practice – daily meditation – has given me an increased awareness of two things in my everyday life. I’m more aware of my breathing – I’m more likely to notice if I’m holding my breath. And I’m more aware of the pace of my thoughts – I’m more likely to notice if my thoughts are going too fast for my own good. In turn, these two kinds of awareness have given me a new way of understanding the anxiety that I sometimes experience in social situations. 


I can see that at its essence, social anxiety comes from thinking. It comes from a barrage of mental activity that draws me inward. 

Social situations are hyper-stimulating and people are complex. When you’re with a group of people, there are lots of things you could think about. What are they thinking? What are their values and motives? How do they perceive you? How do they perceive each other?

Any of these questions can trigger a cascade of thought that easily veers away from the social situation itself. Before you know it, you’re reminiscing about a past experience or unresolved issue in your own life.

This sets up a conflict between your inner thoughts and the people around you. Your mind is racing as you try to analyze the situation, your thoughts are drawing you further inward, but the people keep “interrupting” or stealing your attention away from this inner world. You wish the people weren’t there to get in the way of your thoughts. But you also wish your thoughts weren’t there to stop you from connecting with the people. Switching focus back and forth between the inner and outer worlds is a struggle. You feel stressed all the way around. So you start holding your breath.

What’s the “fix” for this? Be more aware of the pace of your thoughts. Remind yourself you can introspect, analyze, cogitate later. See if you can release some of your thoughts, just like you would do in meditation – observe them and let them pass. Be present for people now. The more calmly and fully you breathe, the better everything will work out.


Yes, social anxiety comes from “caring what other people think,” but that kind of concern is good and natural. We shouldn’t fight against it. We’re social beings. We naturally care what other people think. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t have a civilization.

The important thing to observe is that “caring what other people think” can result in two fundamentally different behaviors. It can send you further inward or it can send you further outward.

Here’s an example. I was at a mixer at a cultural institution – an elegant private library – and I was standing near a guy who was dressed up in a three-piece suit. I concluded that his choice of attire indicated that he cared a lot about appearance and that he valued formality. This led me to assume that he would be displeased by my own appearance because I was unshaven and my shirt was untucked. So I avoided the guy. My “interest” in him, my attention to what his values and concerns might be, resulted in an inward retreat that blocked me from connecting with him. I assumed he would disapprove of me based on the values he was signalling with his clothing.

But my “interest” in him, my concern about his thoughts and opinions could have led me in the other direction. I could have approached him and complimented him on his three-piece suit. I could have asked him where he got it. If I was concerned that he might disapprove of my less-formal attire, I could have jokingly asked him if he was OK with how I looked. I could have asked him if he wanted others to dress like him, or if he only dressed so formally because he wanted to stand out and be unique. If that was a real question in my mind, why not share it with him in the form of a joke?

The point is that “caring what other people think” can lead in two directions: inward or outward. We can speculate internally about the questions that we have, or we can approach other people and ask them those questions directly – filtered through some degree of politeness.

Social anxiety comes about when we let our concern for what other people think drive us further inward rather than leading us outward to engage with those other people and find out what they really think.


When I’m around strangers, I’m often frustrated that they don’t know, and can’t see my true self – that they don’t really know who I am. At the same time, if they don’t respond to me, if they don’t seem to appreciate or understand me, if they don’t show a lot of interest in me, then I assume that’s because they’re indeed seeing my true self and rejecting it. I interpret their response as a verdict on who I am. I feel hurt.

What’s the fix for this? It’s to remember that we’re all wearing masks and responding to each other’s masks. When a stranger encounters me in a social situation, they might know a few details about me and might notice a few aspects of my physical demeanor. Those details comprise the “mask” that they are responding to. Everything they say to me is something they’re saying to that mask.

But even if we were all naked, we’d still be wearing “masks,” because the forms that our bodies take are coincidental and do not represent the essence of our inner selves. Remembering this point can make social situations easier to navigate. When someone responds to you (including the “response” of ignoring you) they’re responding to the mask you’re wearing as they perceive it. That’s all.


I love people. Really, even though I’m an introvert, I fundamentally want to engage with people and be around them. So this means that I’ve had wonderful, satisfying, enlightening, delightful, hilarious social interactions in my life and I can remember them. But that means I have high expectations of future social interactions. I want things to go well. 

I enter social situations with high hopes of how good I’m going to feel and this sets me up for disappointment.

I enter social situations with high expectations of how well I’m going to “perform” and this sets me up for frustration.

I have high hopes but negative assumptions about my ability to “be social” and about other people’s perceptions of me.

What’s the fix for this? Well, one fun experiment is to look around a crowded room and imagine that everyone is cheering for you. Imagine everyone is chanting your name in excitement and adoration. Then look around again and notice that they’re not actually doing that. Then tell yourself, OK, the only reason they’re not chanting yet is because they haven’t yet gotten the cue. 

The point is, you should assume that people want to like you and are ready to like you.

If you assume that people want to dislike you and are ready to dislike you, that’s probably one of the reasons why you are experiencing social anxiety. But you don’t have to suffer from that assumption. Your assumptions are your choice!


Social situations bring to mind what others can take from you, by not responding to you, by not appreciating you, by not understanding you, by not valuing you. The idea of loss is anxiety-provoking. Instead you can focus on what you can give to others. Is there a way you can make someone else feel good, feel appreciated, feel understood? Even if not, remember that you are giving something by your presence. You are giving something to others just by being there with them in the room. Think about what you are giving – the gift of presence – and see if you can feel proud that you’re giving that presence.


In conclusion, social anxiety comes from five things: 1) thinking too much, and breathing too little, but you can work to tame your thoughts, and you can remember to breathe more; 2) caring what other people think, but you can let this concern send you outward rather than inward; 3) taking people’s responses personally, but you can remember they’re only responding to your mask; 4) expecting too much from the situation while assuming that people don’t want to like you, but you can expect less and assume they do want to like you – your assumptions and expectations are truly under your control and you can claim that control; 5) focusing on what you might lose, but you can refocus on what you can give and what you are giving.


To be clear, this essay is about social anxiety that arises from within the self. It does not address anxiety caused by the outer world – by the cruelty that people can exhibit to one another. It does not address trauma. I’m not a psychologist and this essay is not about social anxiety as a clinical disorder. This essay is only an attempt to share insights arising from my personal mindfulness practice that have helped me overcome anxiety in social situations, in the hopes that these insights might be helpful to others too. ■

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