This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.
Light, easy, and honest conversations drive connection. And when we feel connected, we generally feel more at ease with ourselves.
Conversations don’t always go this way though. And when conversations get uncomfortable, for any reason, it’s only natural to have an urge to avoid them.
Why do we avoid conversations? Often times we avoid conversations because we’re anxious about being negatively judged or coming across as awkward. And ultimately, we believe we won’t be able to cope with the discomfort it may bring us.
In this article I will talk about different reasons we may be anxious about interacting with others, which may lead us to avoid conversations. Then I’ll introduce practical strategies we can implement.
“I Hate Small Talk”
“I hate small talk.” I hear this all the time from clients I work with.
- “It feels fake”
- “It’s extremely awkward”
- “It’s always about the same thing”
- “It has no purpose”
First, it’s important to realize that it’s normal to not feel comfortable with small talk.
Small talk occurs because one or both people aren’t ready to reveal their complete selves to other. That is, one or both people are uncomfortable.
Small talk is, by definition, a little (or a very) uncomfortable.
Small talk is essential though. It helps us dip our toes in the water to see if this is a person we want to reveal more personal information to, or keep hidden and get out of the conversation quickly.
Without small talk we’d never start the journey toward connection or we’d constantly reveal too much of ourselves too quickly. We’d scare everyone off or get hurt.
We avoid small talk because journey toward connection can be awkward and uncomfortable. This is especially trued for those of us dealing with a certain level of social anxiety.
Small talk is risky. We risk being judged. We risk the other person not being interested. And all of that hurts.
“I’m Socially Inept”
“I’m socially incompetent” is a very common belief we tend to hold:
- “My eye contact is lacking and awkward”
- “I’m not sure what to say next”
- “I always cause these awkward silences”
We can all improve our social skills. At the same time, I find that it’s usually not a true lack of social skills that make people avoid conversation. It’s simply a belief we don’t have the necessary skills.
In short, it’s not lacking skills, it’s lacking the confidence.
And this belief we hold becomes a self-fulling prophecy: We believe we are socially inept, so we approach conversations awkwardly and nervously, which makes others hesitant or confused when engaging with us.
“I Don’t Want There to Be Conflict”
Conflict can be extremely stressful. It’s very normal to put off conversations when we think there will be a disagreement or argument.
When conflict avoidance is a pattern it can lead us to constantly getting walked on and we may find our emotions start to boil over.
When conflict avoidance is a pattern, it may be because we had a previously bad experience and we’re trying to avoid that happening again. It could also be to low self-esteem and truly believing that our point of view has no value. It may also be because we fear it will make our situation even worse.
Just like small talk, conflict and disagreements are essential and unavoidable. Conflict is trading short-term discomfort for long-term connection with someone. That is, healthy and regular conflict drives us to more understanding and deeper connections with others.
“I Won’t Be Able to Cope”
“I won’t be able to cope” is a underlying belief that is very common when we’re socially anxious. The belief is often covert, however.
An underlying belief of “I won’t be able to cope” often reveals itself in more surface level questions:
- “What if there’s awkward silence?”
- “What if I freeze and can’t think of anything to say?”
- “What if they criticize me?”
The answer to these are usually, “I won’t know what to do. I won’t be able to handle it.”
When we latch on and believe these kind of thoughts, it’s only natural that we’d avoid conversations.
Overcoming Our Avoidance of Conversations
Having an understanding of why we’re avoiding a conversation can be helpful. But, it’s not the answer. We must take action to break our pattern of avoidance.
Here are key concepts that are important to understand:
- The vicious cycle of conversation anxiety
- How our Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors influence one another
- How our flawed, unrealistic thinking drives avoidance
I’ll explain these concepts, which will lay a foundation for practical actions you can experiment with.
The Vicious Cycle of Conversation Anxiety
Avoidance is anxiety’s fuel.
Anxiety tells us to avoid and when we do, we get a reward: instant comfort. Essentially, anxiety says, “Great. You were in danger, you escaped the danger, so I won’t send you anxious sensations and thoughts anymore. Good job.”
The only problem is, avoidance is like a drug. We need more of it to get the same level of relief the next time around.
As we get closer to entering another conversation our anxiety is telling us not to engage in, our anxiety will get more intense. It says, “Wait. I thought we already solved this issue. I told you it was dangerous you listened and we were find. What are you doing?” So, it sends more intense signals to our body and brain.
This is the vicious cycle of anxiety. The more we avoid, the deeper we dig ourselves.
Anxiety lies to us. 99% of the time we need to do the very thing anxiety is telling us not to do.
Most of the time we’re avoiding a conversation not because we’re in actual danger, but because we simply don’t want to experience the uncomfortable emotions that it will cause.
When we know we’re not in danger and anxiety is screaming at us not to do it, the best thing to do is to do it.
Thoughts – Feelings – Behaviors
In psychology, there is a foundational model of how humans operate. We all experience Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors and all three of things are interconnected and all three influence one another.
For example, we may have the thought, “I won’t be able to handle this conversation.” This will of course cause us uncomfortable emotions. Maybe anxiety or fear. Which will lead us to have an urge to avoid the conversation.
When we are triggered and emotionally “hot,” this process is instantaneous. We quickly jump from a Thought or Feeling and instantly act. In this state, it’s very difficult to be aware and parse out our Thoughts from our Feelings and from our Behaviors.
This is helpful if we are in actual danger. For example, you’re driving down the road, someone suddenly cuts you off, and you instantly slam on the breaks.
The process is slow when we’re emotionally calm. In this state, we can easily parse out the three parts of the process.
This concept can be very helpful for doing self research. When you find yourself avoiding a certain conversation, instead of just doing what your first urge is, take a moment and try to see if you can recognize the three parts.
As we become more aware, it’s common that we realize our Thinking is often to blame.
Flawed and Unrealistic Thinking
In psychology, we call unrealistic thinking Distorted Thinking. Distorted thinking is normal. If you’re honest and you’re human, all of these will likely sound familiar:
Forecasting: “If I speak up, what I say will be viewed as wrong and my ideas will be shot down.” Forecasting is when we convince ourselves we know with 100% certainty a negative outcome is going to occur.
Mind Reading: “I know John is quietly criticizing me every time we talk.” Mind reading is when our brains convince us we know what someone else is thinking and we know their intentions. None of us have the ability to see inside someone else’s brain.
Catastrophizing: “If I call him, I know he’s going to argue with me, call me names, and talk behind my back. I’ll lose all my close relationships.” Our brains are great at coming up with worst-case scenarios.
Personalization: “Every time I share an idea, Karen shoots it down. I’m so stupid.” Our brains love to blame us for things that actually have nothing to do with us. It’s likely Karen has her own personal stuff she’s dealing with. Perhaps a way she tries to feel secure is by criticizing others’ ideas and it really has nothing to do with you.
Black and White Thinking: “I can’t speak up.” Black or white thinking doesn’t allow for middle ground. In this example, maybe it’s really challenging to speak up, but it’s not that we CAN’T.
Should Statements: “I shouldn’t feel nervous in this conversation.” Should statements are ways of placing expectations on ourselves. It’s a covert way of beating ourselves up. It’s very normal to feel nervous in certain conversations.
Negative Filter: Maybe we think, “Conversations with Mike always go South,” when in fact we’ve had more positive interactions with Mike than uncomfortable ones. Negative filter only allows our brains to see and hear negative information. It ignores and minimizes any positive information.
Emotional Reasoning: “My heart is racing, I have butterflies in my stomach, I must be in danger.” Just because we feel there is a threat, doesn’t mean there is an actual threat. Our emotions mislead us all the time. Especially anxiety. Anxiety is the master bluffer.
Now that we have a good foundation, here are some practical steps we can take.
Write Out Your Worst Fear
Take out a piece of paper or open a blank word document and start writing out the worst-case scenario when you think about having the conversation you’re trying to avoid.
Let your mind get creative and take it as far as it will go.
A great way to prompt your mind to keep playing it out is to keep asking yourself, “And then what will happen.”
Often times it ends up something like this:
- I won’t have anymore friends
- I’ll be living under a bridge
- I’ll die alone
This activity does a couple of things:
- It forces our brain to get very specific with its fear: Worry and fear thrive in remaining vague. And when they remain vague, the fears become very hard to challenge and reason with.
- It shows us the absurdity and unlikelihood of the event actually happening: As we force our worries to get very specific, we start to see how crazy the fear actually is. It’s usually very unlikely the fear will happen and it’s usually something not desirable for us, but something we can easily cope with, if it did happen.
Practice Looking AT Your Thoughts vs FROM Your Thoughts
When we notice Distorted Thoughts, it’s tempting to beat ourselves up: “There I go again. Another flawed thought.”
It can also be tempting to make it a goal to stop our unhelpful thoughts. This is a setup for failure.
Distorted Thoughts are part of being human. As long as your remain human, you will continue to experience distorted thoughts.
Even more importantly, is the more we try to stop a certain thought, the louder the thought becomes.
Think about it. If you want to stop a thought, you have to focus on stopping that thought. It’s impossible.
For example, close your eyes for 15 seconds. While your eyes are closed, just notice your thoughts and see what comes up. At the same time, try your hardest not to think of a pink elephant.
It’s impossible. The pink elephant is either in the front of our minds the entire time or we notice a background thought repeating over and over, “Don’t think about a pink elephant.” Or maybe you’re able to force certain thoughts in the front of your mind to drowned out the pink elephant, but then it pops back up.
In psychology, we call this Thought Suppression. And Thought Suppression doesn’t work.
Instead, just try to notice your thoughts. Become an observer of your thoughts rather than a participant. This is what I mean when I say look AT your thoughts, not FROM your thoughts.
As soon as we step into the role of the observer, we diffuse the the anxiety that is tied to the thoughts.
Engage in Conversations You’re Avoiding
As long as we’re not going to be emotionally or physically harmed, the best thing we can do is to step into those conversations.
Practice, practice, practice.
We are doing the exact opposite of avoiding. Remember, avoiding maintains the cycle of anxiety. Leaning into the anxiety and discomfort breaks the cycle.
Try to scale up. Don’t start with the most uncomfortable conversation, instead, try with easier ones first. Try with conversations you find more annoying than frightening. Then work your way up.
Focus Externally, Not Internally
A very common reaction when we find ourselves socially anxious is to hyper focus on our internal state. We focus on body sensations that might signal danger, we are paying attention more to our thoughts and self-talk than the conversation itself, and we focus on our “Mind Reading,” imagining what the other person is thinking about us.
Instead, shift your focus to the external.
It’s not that you’re completely ignoring the internal, that’s likely impossible. Instead, we are simply getting completely involved in the conversation instead of our judgements and Distorted Thinking.
Again, scale up. First practice this shift in focus in non-social environments. Try it while driving or while taking a walk.
The try it in easy conversations.
When we practice like this, we start to become aware of just how much we live inside our heads and the “What if” thinking.
Mark Twain once said, “Some of the worst things in my life never happened.”
If you experience some level of social anxiety in your life, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re likely a very thoughtful, empathetic, and caring person. Most socially anxious people are.
And if you’re reading this, it means you’re really brave to be considering changing your patterns around avoiding conversations.
As you start to implement new strategies and experiment, it’s important to be easy on yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others who seem to have no problem at all in difficult conversations. They’re likely very experienced or just really good at concealing their anxiety.
Instead, try to just stay focused on the goal of the conversation and your intentions behind wanting to change up your patterns.
If you found this article helpful, you might find the Self Help section of this website to be useful.
This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.