Does talking to strangers make you anxious?

Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.
— Shirley MacLaine

People are always a bit surprised to find out that I'm an introvert and I don't like groups.

What they're even more surprised to find out is that I also used to suffer from crippling social anxiety.

I was pretty fearless as a kid, but school (secondary school in particular) totally broke me. I was bullied so badly that I ended up leaving school at 14 and then opted out of college so I could do my A-levels by correspondence.

For a long time after that social situations with people I didn't know were a living hell. I had no idea how to 'be'. I'd learned that being myself was unacceptable, so what was left? For a long time I just avoided any kind of social situation, or hid behind the people I knew well. Eventually I found a workaround by becoming an odd, diluted, what-I-thought-was-socially-acceptable version of myself. Oh, and alcohol helped too.

Needless to say, I don't recommend any of these solutions.

Misfits, weirdos, and freaks. Oh my!

What really helped me was going to work in a fancy hotel.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the hotel trade, let me fill you in. The catering industry attracts the most wonderful bunch of misfits, freaks and weirdos (Anthony Bourdain wrote about this phenomenon brilliantly in his book Kitchen Confidential). I felt right at home.

More than that, though. my years in hotels taught me how to focus on making other people feel good. When you're working in a fancy restaurant, your sole job is to make everything lovely, whilst being as invisible and unobtrusive as possible. I found I had a knack for making other people feel comfortable and safe.

Perhaps because I had spent so much of my life NOT feeling like that, I found that I just knew what was needed. Maybe the lighting needed to be changed, or they needed a different fork, or they wanted to talk about their day on the golf course. Whatever they wanted had nothing to do with me, it was all about them.

Focusing on the other person

I started applying this principle to my social situations too. I'd always ask myself what the other person needed in that moment. I learned that most people generally love to talk about themselves, so I practised asking people a lot of questions about their lives.

I can't say that it always went perfectly, or even that I'd recommend this approach. It backfired a few times and I got taken advantage of quite a bit. It was total trial and error!

But gradually, by focusing the other person whenever I had to interact, I became more comfortable and was able to join in a little more and slowly start to share parts of myself.

Many years later, I still get a bit nervous before I speak to someone new, and don't even get me started on groups! YUK (unless, weirdly, I'm the leader or organiser in some way).

People are amazing

But I know how important it is to connect. I've built several businesses from the ground up just by talking to people.

And the biggest thing I've learned? People are amazing. They're kind and generous and compassionate, and make you want to hug them until their heads pop off! They're also incredibly forgiving when it comes to a bit of awkwardness, usually because they're pretty awkward too.

(Some people are dicks, but with a bit of practice you can spot them a mile off)

So, if you struggle with any kind of social anxiety or awkwardness, don't worry. It's completely normal. Keep practising, be brave when you can, and, most of all, have faith in the kindness of strangers.

This post was originally published in my Sunday Letter - click here to sign up and get community-building goodness direct to your inbox every week.