You have that one friend in your life who is so completely awesome. Your friend is funny, possibly has a good sense of style, and you always enjoy spending time with them. However, you’ve noticed your friend is also scared of going out in public, going to parties, or hanging out with new people.
You want to help them but you don’t want to become that person they stick like glue on at parties or the therapist in their lives. You know they deserve so much more than the life they are living. So what do you do? How do you help someone with social anxiety without becoming a caregiver or codependent?
I know we all know the word anxiety, but what does it really mean or cover? Anxiety is being afraid. Having some anxiety is a normal part of life. We all feel anxious sometimes and it can be helpful for our survival, but sometimes it misfires. Anxiety then can lead to avoidance where you avoid what you are scared of. This feels great at first, but then the next time we go to face the problem it feels scarier and more dangerous until eventually it becomes something near impossible to face.
Instead of avoiding things, you have to face the things that scare you, but little by little until you are ready to move up to terrifying things. Once you start facing your fears, you’ll realize it wasn’t as scary as you thought it was and the fear will go away.
Okay, how do I do that for my friend though?
First, Check Your Boundaries
You know you really want to help your friend, but what boundaries do you need to have to protect yourself? You can have both compassion and empathy for your friend, but you do not have to be their only person to help them through their social anxiety. You don’t have to be the sole one they come to with their panic attacks or when they feel anxiety, or when they feel any emotion. If you notice this relationship already feels uneven in terms of you also getting your emotional needs met, you may already be their caregiver and that may not be a role you want to continue in.
Before you start this journey, check-in with yourself and ask yourself what role you want to have. It’s okay to say you want to be the one to get them started and then for them to turn to other friends. Or to be the one who wants to see them through the first few steps, but also for them to have a support system and see a therapist. You may even need to consider what is going on in your life or how much time you could devote to this task. Whatever you choose here is okay.
Start With A Conversation
Start this conversation at a time when they are calm and regulated. When they say they are afraid of parties or afraid of social gatherings, what do they really mean? Are they afraid of socializing, small talk, big groups, etc.? Really narrow into what their fears are so you understand their anxiety. This is a place where you can relate and say “oh, I’ve been afraid of that too,” but not necessarily a place to talk them out of their fears--this is a listening place.
Another great thing to know is when did these fears start and what caused them. Knowing how long they have been avoiding these situations or what started it may help them connect to wanting to change or give you another piece of their puzzle. It may also be a great place to refer to a trauma therapist for them to work through what happened.
The final piece would be to ask them when their successful moments were, what helped them then, and what could you do to help them recreate those moments. Ask them to dream of what their life would be without this anxiety and let them know you and others can help them have that dream if they are willing to begin to work on it.
If they say no, that’s okay too. You planted a seed that may one day sprout, and until then, it is still their life and their choices.
It may also be helpful to refer them to this article here on How To Calm Social Anxiety & Fears So They Don't Stop You From Making Friends.
Make A List Of The Things
Okay, don’t make a list of all things, just the things that scare them--and recruit others to help. This is a great time to make an anxiety pyramid with them putting at the top the thing that scares them most and at the bottom the first step they can take towards it. Next to it they can also put coping skills they can use at each step.
To help your friend with social anxiety without becoming the caregiver or codependent, this is a great place to recruit their other friends and talk about others who can help them achieve these steps. Who else could they call or show these plans to? Who can they put next to some of these steps? If they say no one, ask them to try to find one person or steps they could take themselves. Part of running this marathon to beat separation anxiety may be them doing some of these steps alone as part of the process.
The last step of the pyramid would be to add dates and then put the pyramid in a place where they will see it, such as a phone background, on the fridge, or a bathroom mirror.
Finally, they begin practicing the steps.
Have Warning Signs/Safe Words
Before starting this journey, both of you will need to know your warning signs and safe words in case this project gets to be too much. Your friend who is socially anxious may sometimes need to step away from a project or may need you to practice coping skills with them when they start to feel anxious.
You may need to sometimes step away for your own mental health or in managing your own life, and that’s okay.
This is a great place to have warning signs and safe words for both of you to keep going without ruining your relationship or you becoming codependent or their caregiver. Those may be moments you go back to what was working in your relationship, whether it was movie nights, eating out, talking on the phone, or even taking a break from each other. It is important to put your relationship back into balance before it becomes uneven and unmanageable.
Celebrate Every Success
The final part of this journey is to celebrate every success your friend has. Find a way to celebrate each step together, such as watching funny videos, getting a manicure/pedicure, having a movie night, or just sending funny memes to each other, but some way to celebrate and enjoy the beauty that life has to offer.
You are an amazing person for wanting to help someone through this pain and suffering even if they aren’t ready or are. Whatever steps the two of you take, will still be steps towards a better future.
If you are wondering about passing anxiety on to your kids, or teenage anxiety attacks, calming your own social anxiety or fears about making friends, check out our blog.
If you are still wondering how to help someone with social anxiety without becoming a caregiver or codependent, or even how to navigate some of your friendships and relationships with boundary setting, or how to be more assertive in your relationships-- call us today at 757-296-8794 to schedule your free consultation today.
Mary Willoughby Romm is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Virginia who provides online therapy for Willow Tree Healing Center. She enjoys transforming the lives of women, college students, kids, tweens/teens, and families through providing communication strategies, coping skills that work, allowing a safe space to be heard, and actively working towards helping you with your challenges. She is certified in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (ages 2-7) and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, counsels substance abuse in teens and adults, and practices Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy.
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