I remember my first meeting as a district manager for Hewlett Packard. It was at Columbia Lakes Resort and Conference Center in West Columbia, Texas. I was responsible for the Ultrasound group and had become part of the Medical Products management team for sales, service and the clinical staff. This was a group of individuals I looked up to and thought important. I held them in high regard and felt a bit apprehensive about my role and ability to contribute. Prior to this, I had been told in different situations to “speak up” in meetings. I dismissed this for the most part as, in most instances, I was outspoken, gregarious and typically took the lead when things needed to be done. In this particular instance though the admonition by a senior manager to “speak up” landed. As a result, I shrunk further from the conversation.
What was it that caused me to behave in this manner? I began to take more notice of this behavior, when it occurred and the limitations it created. In most situations I would have been considered an extrovert. Confident and bold in my actions and decisions. Yet, I noticed in situations involving “important” people, I would exhibit signs of anxiety. This social anxiety would lead to a lack of confidence and nervousness. An inability to effectively navigate the most innocuous interactions.
In selling situations, I would become anxious when speaking with high level decision makers. In the corporate space, I was at ease with peers and teams, yet struggle upstream developing and managing relationships. I even noted an anxiety associated with those I regarded as "successful" outside of my professional life. What was going on?
As time passed, I left the corporate world and became an entrepreneur. I had a couple of successful ventures, turning around a distressed business and building another. The concern over my previous issues associated with social anxiety dissipated and I felt that I had overcome it for the most part. After the sale of my last firm I had the opportunity to gather with a group of CEO’s for a week of connection and roundtable discussions on a variety of topics. And there it was again! What I thought I had overcome was back. I would choose not to go to dinners, participate fully in discussions or be vulnerable in any way. Turns out, living in my entrepreneurial world, having complete control and not having to do what I didn’t want to do, created a false sense of confidence that was now being revealed again.
Social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people. This can often lead to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-consciousness, embarrassment, humiliation, and even depression. A person who becomes (irrationally) anxious in social situations, but better when they are alone, may have a problem with "social anxiety". For me it was a fear of not measuring up leading to feelings of inadequacy. Social anxiety can also be interpreted as a lack of “presence” given the anxiety associated with meeting others or having to engage “important” people.
That experience forced me to understand more about what was limiting me and why. After all, embarking on a career as an executive coach might be very short lived if I was unable to engage completely at the highest levels. There are a host of resources available to help mitigate this anxiety. Research indicates that cognitive-behavioral therapy, produces permanent changes in the lives of people. The following are some of the resources I utilized to overcome this, which I hope will help you if you find yourself engaged in a similar struggle.
1) One of the greatest contributors to my journey was a book: Change the World by Robert Quinn. The book is grounded in ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). ACT encourages psychological flexibility. An understanding that thoughts aren’t necessarily “true” and commitment to your values will shape your decisions and associated behaviors.
2) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy concepts. As the name suggests, CBT encourages you to identify and evaluate the associations between (cognitions) thoughts, emotions and behaviors. A rudimentary understanding of this therapy and utilization of journaling and worksheets can bring clarity and allow greater management of your thought life.
3) The Bible – I’m guessing you’re at least familiar with this book, but for me it was a matter of understanding my value independent of the assessment of others. With this understanding, others no longer had the power to define what I thought of myself – my value was secure.
You’ll find a lot of articles and resources for overcoming social anxiety and developing executive presence. I’ve written several myself. Until you are able to own and accept who you are, the mantra’s, rituals and 5 easy step guides will only be temporary at best. Invest the time, address the underlying belief system and you’ll be prepared to live life free of this fear.