Approach anxiety is an unusual phenomenon: it is irrational and unbeneficial yet remains a very real experience for a lot of people!
Approach anxiety is the manifestation of a number of physiological and emotional symptoms we get when we decide to actively meet a stranger. The time where this is most significant – which is also what makes it highly relevant to the topics on this website – is when thinking about approaching someone we are attracted to.
Humans are social creatures and we live in a sophisticated world of several billion people, yet there are still common scenarios where we find it abnormal to approach a fellow human being and instinctual responses take over our logical desires in those moments.
There are probably a few naturally confident men and women, socialised at an early age, who are reading this and cannot relate to this feeling of approach anxiety. For the rest of us, I’m sure you can think of a time where you really wanted to meet someone, perhaps someone you are physically attracted to, and approach anxiety kicked in; else, you simply dismiss the idea of actively meeting people in this way altogether.
I’ve yet to meet someone, regardless of their situation or relationship status, that hasn’t had their lives enriched by learning to meet more people or overcome their anxieties. This article will explain where approach anxiety comes from and then detail a simple three-step method for overcoming it…
Where does approach anxiety come from?
There are many theories about where approach anxiety comes from but my own research shows it is a combination of learnt behaviour, evolutionary traits and cultural norms. These three causes can be broken down loosely to a fear of strangers, a fear of danger and a fear of rejection respectively.
Fear of strangers:
It is a big generalisation but there is definitely a correlation between people who have strong and confident parental figures and people who have anxieties by default. All behaviour is learnt and obviously our parents play a large role in where we learn the bulk of that behaviour from initially.
Approaching strangers is, for all intents and purposes, not “normal”, and so we learn from society around us whilst growing up that we shouldn’t do it.
Fear of danger:
Whilst related to a fear of strangers, the fear of danger pertains to the possibility that you will in some way be harmed if you approach the wrong person. Obviously this is largely redundant in modern society. Psychologists believe this feeling is an evolved yet outdated emotion originating from when we lived within tribal civilisations and interactions with unfamiliar folk posed a real threat of danger.
The physiological manifestations of an anxiety like the one we are discussing are actually inbuilt mechanisms to prepare for danger of this sort: tensing of muscles, increased heart-rate, blood-flow and perspiration to name a few. These are all wholly unnecessary in this day and age but also difficult to control in an instant.
Fear of rejection:
Anxieties can be described as compound emotions with several subsets, namely fear and vanity. The fear is that a given outcome will be out of our control and the vanity is that our self-image will be tarnished.
It is normally people at either end of the spectrum who struggle most with this fear of rejection. People with a high self-image, egotistical or verging on arrogant, will feel this fear of rejection as an ego-protection mechanism. People with a low self-image will want to protect their ego in this way as a means of damage limitation. Not doing something is often less painful than admitting that you cannot do it!
Both of these examples stem from having too much outcome dependence on the situation. If you get rejected and have outcome dependence it will reinforce the anxiety. On the other hand, if you genuinely have no outcome dependence then by definition you cannot get rejected and the anxiety is treated by our brains as a learning process.
How to deal with approach anxiety:
Unfortunately, like all anxieties, there is no instantaneous cure for approach anxiety (my job would certainly be a lot easier if there was) but there are ways to slowly ease our way out of it.
Like any learnt behaviour, it is the reinforcing of habits that teach us to act in a certain way in the first place, so understanding and relearning these habits is the only way to overcome them. Below is a three-step method for overcoming approach anxiety:
Accept Reject Act
Accept that you have this anxiety:
If you fully accept that you have approach anxiety and want to deal with it, you are one step closer to making the commitment to actually change it.
Reject any limiting beliefs:
Every plausible excuse you can think of for not approaching someone that you would like to is merely a limiting belief, regardless of the specific situation. These range from “The timing/situation isn’t right” to the most popular one, “I don’t know what to say”. Everyone knows that you can just say “hi” so it is not literally having nothing to say, it’s a limiting belief that you THINK you have nothing worthwhile to say! Reject any excuses and don’t pre-empt what people will think of you.
Action alleviates anxiety over time:
It was many years ago now but I still vividly remember the first time I plucked up the courage to purposefully approach an attractive woman that I had no prior acquaintance to. I was shaking like a leaf and was already envisaging her slapping me square across the face or equivalent. Ten minutes later after I had excused myself from our friendly exchange I felt foolish that I was ever worried, and this is exactly the same reaction I get from the students I work with in a dating coaching format.
It’s all very well being told that something is okay but it is only when we actually experience it firsthand that we start to condition ourselves to be comfortable with the situation.
These days, meeting people has become such an ingrained ability within me that wherever I am I find myself meeting new people without even consciously deciding to. It wasn’t without following my three-step process though:
Accept Reject Act
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes from hockey star Wayne Gretzky, which relates perfectly to proactive dating: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” 🙂