Guide, Don't Push
Like I mentioned in this post, I hate avoiding things because of my anxiety. I want to be able to go to events and I often feel like they’re too far outside my comfort zone to handle on my own. However, I may be able to do it if someone helps me.
I have two fantastic best friends that are great at guiding me out of my comfort zone. Guiding, not pushing. Here’s an incomplete guide on how to help someone with social anxiety leave their comfort zone.
First, ask if they want help. They might be content where they are. They also might be too anxious to ask for your help. Ask knowing the answer might be no.
If they say they want your help, ask exactly what you should do. Chances are, they already know what they need, but you may not. I’ve asked people to order before me at a restaurant or sit on either side of me at a play (my friends thought I’d need an aisle seat, but I was fine as long as I wasn’t sitting next to a stranger).
Help answer all their questions about the event. I like to know the location and the schedule before I go. It helps me break the event into pieces, so it doesn’t feel as scary. However, I may be too anxious to ask for this information on my own.
At the event: DO NOT LEAVE THEM! Don’t assume your friend will be fine without you, and even asking if they will is a bad idea. I’d say I’d be fine, even if I wouldn’t, because I wouldn’t want you to be “stuck with me.” Ask prior what their thoughts are on this.
Help come up with an exit plan. I like to know where bathrooms and drinking fountains are, because they’re good ways to leave for a few minutes. If you know where they are, point them out.
Check on them throughout the event. Discreetly ask if they’re okay. A look is better than a verbal question and a gesture like a thumbs-up can tell you all you need to know without anyone noticing. Also look for signs of anxiety, like fidgeting, trouble breathing, or a nervous tic. Your friend can tell you what to look for if you don’t know.
If they say they’re not okay, please, please, please don’t ignore them. This is the moment they trusted you to help with. If you notice they’re not okay, help. Provide a way out, but don’t ask “Are you okay?” or “Do you need some fresh air?” Keep the attention away from them. For example: “I need to go to the bathroom, will you come with me?” Or “I need some fresh air, want to come?”
If your friend is very nervous, tell the other people there you might not be able to stay long. Ex. “Hey, we’ve got [excuse], so we might only stay a few minutes.” Or, provide a set time to leave. You can make up a bogus appointment or reason that requires you both to leave by exactly 2 o’clock. Knowing how much longer the event is helps greatly with anxiety.
Basically, stay with your friend and watch out for them. If they have to tell you they’re anxious and need to leave, you weren’t paying attention to the nonverbal cues they’ve likely been giving you for half an hour. Once I get to an event, leaving is a great source of anxiety. Enough that I’ll stay even if I’m wildly uncomfortable, because walking out is too terrifying.
Above all else, remember that no means no. If they say they can't do something, don’t force it. You can ask if they’re sure, or say “would you be able to with my help?” The answer may be yes, and your offer will be highly appreciated. But if the answer is still no, drop it.
I don’t want to be held back by my anxiety, and you can help. Guide me out of my comfort zone, don’t push me. Like I’ve said about a million times on this blog, be gentle.