Fighting your instincts and finding ways that work - a 101 in building your network when living with social anxiety
You know what really sucks? Social anxiety. You know what's even worse? Working in PR and living with social anxiety. A great part of my job is to attend different work events and "network". Complete nightmare. I don't know exactly how many events I've been to in my life where I've ended up hiding out in the loos, trying to summon up the courage to go out and face people. The great news is, I'm not alone. Studies show that up to 7% of the populace suffers from some form of social phobia, and that doesn't even include people who think the idea of "networking" is a bit wanky (which I think is most people).
My own experience of social anxiety worsened significantly when I moved to Sweden. I have a couple of different theories on why this is - the dominating one being that Swedes are a lot more anxious and stiff in social gatherings than Brits are (also there tends to be a lot less booze involved), which, in turn, makes me anxious. Interestingly, I never get socially anxious when I go on solo work trips abroad - I went to London, New York and Austin for work last year and had a phenomenal time, no anxiety in sight. But there's no way around it - I live in Sweden, and in the field of work I'm in I need to be out there to meet and talk to new people. In other words, I've had to find ways to deal with my increasing social anxiety. What I found was that developing coping mechanisms that put you in charge of your anxiety allows you not only to circumvent the situation but actually rise above it, and it might even give you a comparative advantage vis-a-vis the suckers who don't suffer from social anxiety.
You know what I'm really great at? One-on-ones. Well-structured meetings. Taking lead, or being led. I love clear mandates and instructions, even if that instruction is "there are no instructions, just do whatever you see fit" (hint: that is an instruction). I'm rubbish at loose social settings such as mingles, unless I have a specific mission to focus on. Once I figured this out, things became a lot easier. That's when I started saying yes to being on panels, as it would give me a task at hand as opposed to having to figure out how to strike up conversations with strangers. Once you know what frightens you, the easier it gets to figure out how to master it. For me, it's finding a task.
Find what works...
So I know that I don't work very well in formally informal gatherings, such as mingles. But I can't really force myself onto every single panel of every single event I probably should go to, and I still have to get out there and meet people. As a result, I started developing and iterating different formats and concepts to see what might work. Instead of going to events, I started hosting or co-hosting them. Curating guest lists gave me a great excuse to get in touch with some amazing people. I also made a concerted effort to never invite two people that were close friends or colleagues, as I wanted everyone to be equally vulnerable (I know, I'm cruel) and have to let each other in. Hosting or co-hosting also gave me the task of doing exactly that - hosting - which comes with clear instructions. I've invited people over food, to discuss literature, or just to hang out at mine over some cava, discussing all things biz. Other ways could be to host podcasts or do a blog series of and with interesting people. This obviously requires more effort than just going to an event, but it means that your networking starts not when you go to the event, but when you initiate contact with the people of interest. Basically, ROI goes through the roof.
...and skip what doesn't
I now do my best to avoid events I know will likely make me feel like shit. No more launches of this or that, no more corporate anniversary or Christmas mingles, no more networking events. The irony is that once I committed to this and made this my default mode, I started going to events that made sense and felt organic for me to go to. So yes, I still go to events that I neither speak at nor host. The difference now is that I've stopped signing up to them way in advance, so if I go it will be very spontaneous and I only go if it truly makes sense, e.g. if a friend asks me to go with them. Otherwise, I still find that events drain a lot more energy than they give.
I still live with social anxiety. More in Sweden than anywhere else it seems, but finding ways to live and flourish with it has somewhat ironically enriched my life. It allows me to cut the bullshit, critically look at what it is I need and come up with creative ways of getting it.
And one final note - if you suffer from social anxiety, try to talk about it. You'll be surprised by how many others are in the same boat.