Approach Anxiety

Several months ago I was speaking with my friend Morty Lefkoe about fears and limiting beliefs that I noticed among my readers. I shared with him that one of the biggest problem areas was approach anxiety. While many readers appear to be very social online, it’s common for them to be pretty socially timid in person — I know this quite well from interacting with them both online and face to face.

Social timidity is frequently a result of approach anxiety. Instead of proactively approaching new people to form connections (for friendship, dating, networking, etc), these people often hold back. There can be a variety of reasons for why they hold back, but it typically boils down to fear caused by limiting beliefs about approaching people, initiating conversations, expressing interest, etc.

When I shared this with Morty, I figured there might be 5-10 common limiting beliefs that contributed to approach anxiety, such as “being rejected is bad” or “I’m not good enough.”

Morty grew curious about what limiting beliefs he might find if he investigated this further. Since his specialty is helping people eliminate limiting beliefs quickly and permanently, this was right up his alley. I’ve been recommended Morty’s method for more than two years now, and many people have found it an effective way to remove beliefs that were previously holding them back, so I figured the subject of approach anxiety would be a worthwhile area for him to explore, one that would be a good fit for his process. Morty agreed.

Morty also knew that if he could figure out the most common limiting beliefs that contributed to approach anxiety, he could use that information to create a new product that would help people with this specific challenge, so this undertaking made good business sense as well.

Investigating Approach Anxiety

To explore this more deeply, Morty recruited volunteers who felt socially limited by approach anxiety, those who rated their fear at least a 7 on a scale of 1-10. Then he interviewed them to discover what beliefs were making them feel anxious or hesitant to connect with new people.

To Morty’s surprise (and to my own as well), he discovered a great variety of beliefs that contributed to approach anxiety. There weren’t just a handful of them — there were dozens that he was able to identify.

The main problem wasn’t the quantity of beliefs, however. The bigger issue was that there was very little overlap between participants, meaning that each person had different beliefs that contributed to their experience of approach anxiety.

This meant that it wouldn’t be practical for Morty to create a single product to help people eliminate this problem. Morty can still use his method to help such people one on one by phone or Skype, but he can’t turn it into a product because there’s too much variety in people’s limiting beliefs. To eliminate a limiting belief, it must first be identified, and that identification process plays out differently for each person.

I was disappointed that we couldn’t use this idea to create a new product that would help people afflicted by approach anxiety. I liked the idea of helping people to permanently and inexpensively eliminate such a problem. But I didn’t want to let Morty’s initial research go to waste, so I asked him if I could share the backstory about this idea and the beliefs he was able to identify with his volunteers, and he graciously agreed.

I expect this may still be helpful to many people since identifying a limiting belief is an important first step in eliminating it. Sometimes just being aware that you have a negative belief can get you started on the path to letting it go.

Limiting Beliefs That Contribute to Approach Anxiety

For this project Morty focused his interviews on men, so all of the subjects were male. He surely would have uncovered even more limiting beliefs if he expanded this to include women as well.

The age range of the participants was 20-38 with most in their 20s. And as I mentioned previously, Morty asked people to rate their fear on a scale of 1-10 and chose people who answered at least a 7.

Here are some of the feelings these participants reported:

  1. Anxiety when talking to a woman
  2. Fear of being criticized or judged
  3. Fear of talking to an attractive woman

And here’s a list of limiting beliefs related to approach anxiety that Morty and his participants were able to identify:

  1. Change is difficult.
  2. I can’t do anything right.
  3. If a woman isn’t attracted to a man initially, she never will be.
  4. I’m a bother to people.
  5. I’m a dangerous person.
  6. I’m annoying.
  7. I’m a loser.
  8. I’m broken.
  9. I’m inadequate.
  10. I’m inferior.
  11. I’m not acceptable.
  12. I’m not attractive.
  13. I’m not good enough.
  14. I’m not interesting.
  15. I’m socially awkward.
  16. I’m ugly.
  17. I’m unlovable / not lovable.
  18. I’m weird.
  19. It’s wrong to show sexual interest in a woman.
  20. It’s wrong to be attracted to women.
  21. It’s wrong to be turned on by women.
  22. My sexual desire is bad.
  23. People aren’t interested in me.
  24. People aren’t interested in what I have to say.
  25. Relationships are difficult.
  26. There’s something wrong with me.
  27. What makes me good enough or important enough is having people like me.
  28. Women don’t want nice guys.
  29. Women don’t want to be bothered.
  30. Women don’t want to talk to guys.
  31. Women want more financial security than I could provide.
  32. Women want men who are assertive and get what they want.
  33. Women want attractive men.
  34. Women want interesting men.
  35. Women want men who are confident / flirtatious.
  36. Women want men who are witty / make them laugh.
  37. Women want men who treat them badly.
  38. Women want men with exciting lifestyles.
  39. Women want men with money and stability.
  40. Women want popular guys.
  41. Women want security / to be protected physically.
  42. Women want successful men.

This is an interesting collection to be sure, but it’s far from exhaustive. I’m sure you can identify many more, especially if we consider limiting beliefs that women have as well.

We can loosely categorize this list into beliefs about oneself, beliefs about others, and beliefs about interactions.

Overcoming Limiting Beliefs

Many of the self-related beliefs are linked with low self-esteem and a low sense of attractiveness. Eliminating the negative belief is one way to fix those problems. Another way is to shift your focus onto your overall lifestyle, and take more action to create a life that fulfills you. When people are pleased with their lifestyles, it shows. It’s easier to attract people you like when you’re enjoying the other parts of your life. It’s also easier to attract compatible partners when you’re already living a life you enjoy.

As for the beliefs about others, the main issue there is overgeneralization. Everyone has different standards for what they find attractive and what they don’t. These patterns certainly aren’t universal.

With billions of people on earth, we can find many people who may fit those patterns and many who don’t. And in any given week, people can oscillate between matching and not matching these patterns. Sometimes people feel social and would be glad to be approached by almost anyone. At other times people turn inward and prefer more solitude.

One pattern I see here is the implied limiting belief that if you approach someone who doesn’t want to connect with you (for whatever reason), and you get rejected as a result, then you made a mistake and never should have approached in the first place.

Of course there isn’t much real danger in trying to initiate and deepen connections, but that doesn’t make the fear any less real. The fear may be rooted in false beliefs and erroneous assumptions, but it can still exert control over one’s behavior.

There is a matter of calibration involved here, so as you gain experience, you can increase your hit rate, but this doesn’t mean that getting a rejection now and then is a terrible thing to be avoided at all costs. It’s really no big whoop. You basically have to risk some rejection in order to build experience. The more experience you have, the easier it is to read people and get a sense of who’s open to connecting with you and who isn’t. Making a mistake here isn’t the end of the world.

The good news is that when these limiting beliefs were eliminated, the fear went away too. And when the fear goes away, that’s where the fun begins.

Finding Counterexamples

One of my favorite methods for eliminating limiting beliefs is to deliberately seek out counterexamples. If I can find even one or two counterexamples for a belief, then the belief tends to collapse. My mind can no longer pretend that it’s true.

A long time ago I had the belief that women aren’t interested in sex as much as men are. I also had some related beliefs about sexuality being bad or sinful. I can credit 12 years of Catholic school for installing such notions. This certainly isn’t uncommon.

Then I saw the movie Kinsey, which opened my eyes to the notion that sexual desire is a very individual thing. That helped put a dent in my overgeneralized beliefs.

Later I met women who were comfortable talking about sex openly, and they shared thoughts, feelings, and attitudes that contradicted my old beliefs. It took me a while to make the 180-degree turn from my Catholicism-installed falsehoods, but I eventually collapsed those limiting beliefs.

I also had to be careful about installing opposite beliefs like “women love sex more than men do” since that’s an overgeneralization as well. I find it more helpful to accept the notion that this is a very individual thing.

Accepting Variety

Overgeneralizing is an attempt to treat everyone the same, as if you can come up with a single pattern or strategy that works well with everyone. Generalizing works okay in some areas of life, but in other areas there’s too much variety, including in the area of human relationships.

Our brains automatically and unconsciously seek out patterns in specific data, but sometimes they make mistakes, and we need to consciously adjust their conclusions.

Deep down we may indeed have similar needs and desires, but we have different ways of satisfying those needs and desires. So what one person finds attractive, another person finds creepy, boring, or repulsive.

If you can accept this, you’ll see that it’s silly to expect everyone to like you as you are. Some people will. Some people won’t. Such are the vicissitudes of life.

Instead of trying to get someone to like you or worrying about saying or doing the right things to create attraction, it makes more sense to express your personality and preferences openly to the degree that’s possible, and then let other people self-select if they feel they match you.

Alternatively, you can focus on initiating connections with people you find attractive, while accepting that your interest may not be mutual. If the other person doesn’t feel the same, it doesn’t mean you aren’t awesome. It just means the other person doesn’t agree that you’d be a good match. Certainly that isn’t the end of the world. There are billions of other people you can seek to match with.

For the past several years, I’ve mainly been using the expressiveness strategy because I’ve had so much social input coming my way. All I really had to do was to express myself openly and shamelessly, and then I could select among the people who seemed to resonate with what I shared. If people didn’t like me, they usually filtered themselves out of my reality, and if they didn’t, then it was easy for me to decline to interact with them. If people initiated interactions with me as a result of what I shared, then I could choose to accept some of those invites, and at least I was guaranteed to have an interaction with someone who was interested in connecting.

This worked well for attracting people who are interested in me, but it doesn’t give me as much opportunity to connect with people that I find equally interesting. So for the past several months, I’ve been closing most of those open doors (like my Facebook page and the forums), so fewer people can approach me to connect. This gives me more opportunity to initiate my own connections with people I’d like to get to know better and to be more selective.

With my old socialization strategy, I would sometimes stray into my own version of approach anxiety, but of a different sort than the one discussed earlier. I actually worry more about being approached. Will the person be interesting? Will they be honest about their intentions? Are they just trying to get something from me?

As my social interactions became increasingly patterned, I felt I was at risk of developing limiting beliefs like “Everyone needs something from me” and “People are energy vampires.” I thought it best to turn off the flood of incoming connections for a while, so I could have more space to consciously think about what kind of social life I’d like to create and experience.

The benefit of getting limiting beliefs out of the way is that it creates more room for conscious choice.

Training Up

Another favorite way to tackle limiting beliefs is with progressive training. I see limitations as a weight to be lifted. The more you train the relevant muscles, the easier it is to lift and finally dispose of the limitation.

As a child I was very shy. In kindergarten I used to play in the sandbox alone most of the time. If I had any friends, it was just one or two close friends that I played with. I didn’t feel very comfortable socializing with other children, especially in large groups.

In grammar school what I hated more than anything else were speech contests. These were mandatory every year in my school, but I never felt comfortable presenting in front of the class. I got nervous, my hands would shake, and I was pretty bad at it too.

I improved a little from this forced practice, but I still didn’t like that I got nervous when I spoke in front of the class.

Eventually I decided to conquer this fear, and I thought that progressive training would be a good strategy. I started volunteering to speak tech conferences. Then I joined Toastmasters and later the National Speakers Association to keep making progress.

This approach took time, but it worked. The more practice I got, the more comfortable I became with speaking, and the less nervous I was. Now I feel just as comfortable in front of a group as I do playing video games with my kids. What used to be anxiety producing now gets channeled into enthusiasm and fun. I now find myself looking for ways to make it more challenging; if it feels too easy, it isn’t as stimulating for me.

Enlisting Social Support

Another important thing to realize is that you can be afraid and still take action. This is hard to do on your own, but it’s much easier to do when you have some social support. Without social support it’s too easy to succumb to fear and make excuses. But when you’ve committed yourself to people who will hold you accountable, it’s harder not to act.

For example, if you agree to give a speech, you’ll usually find that you can still follow through even if you’re really anxious about it. People do this all the time. They get up to the mike, and for the first several minutes they’re nervous. You can see their hands shaking. Or their voice cracks and they can barely catch their breath. They’re clearly having an emotional reaction, but they still do it.

What may surprise you is that many pro speakers with decades of practice still get nervous when they speak. But they’ve learned that if they agree to speak anyway, they’re going to follow through even if they’re nervous.

Think about how you can apply this idea of social support to other forms of social interactions that may be troubling you. Can you invite a few friends to encourage you along the way and to hold you accountable?

I’ve seen how well this works at some of my workshops. People who can’t get themselves to start up a conversation with a stranger can suddenly take action when they have two accountability partners encouraging and supporting them.

Further Help

Although we don’t have a singular solution that works for everyone, approach anxiety is a problem that can be overcome.

For help in overcoming other limiting beliefs, be sure to read my blog post about this. You can also test Morty’s method to eliminate a limiting belief for free.

However you decide to tackle the challenge of approach anxiety, try not to be so hard on yourself. It’s not the end of the world if someone doesn’t want to connect with you. No matter how weird or broken you think you are (or how cold you think other people are), many people would enjoy your company.

People can provide value to each other in the simplest of ways, such as by listening to each other, sharing a meal, and holding hands as they go for a stroll. If you can smile, you can provide something that millions (probably billions) of people would receive as valuable and worthwhile.