A big challenge for those of us struggling with approach anxiety, or indeed any variation of social anxiety is that we often think too much.
Many of us can go into a spiral of "what-if"'s, coming up with every possible reason why the world might end (or at least we might get humiliated) if we approach someone, or even hold eye contact or similar.
But, have you noticed how when you're busy doing something else, you might suddenly find yourself saying things to someone you wouldn't normally, or holding eye contact longer than usual? E.g. you might fiddle with your music player, looking ahead and suddenly "wake up" and freak out when you realize you've been staring at this beautiful woman and she's looking back at you..
What you're experienced is what happens when you empty your mind and block out the parts of you that control the patterns you usually follow.
It is one reason I picked up meditation - to learn to better clear my mind of all that cruft to make it easier to not listen to that little voice inside me holding me back from approaching.
But you can get the same effect without an empty mind, but instead by being occupied with something else.
Don't go out just to meet people
I realized that too often when I went out to practice being more social, I did it while focusing all my attention on exactly that. And while that is useful in some ways, such as being able to really examine how pushing through new boundaries make me feel and figuring out what I'm doing wrong, in other ways it is incredibly unhelpful.
Most people don't go outside with the explicit intent of talking to strangers. It's not "natural". It's one of "the" things that makes "PUA"'s creepy to a lot of people: Somehow the concept of going out to talk to women is creepy when the intent is explicit.
That doesn't mean it's wrong or bad or something you shouldn't do, but it does mean most people don't go around picking a stranger, trying to get eye contact with them and then deciding to talk to them all that often. Sometimes, sure, naturally confident people will notice someone they like and decide to approach all focused as well.
Most of the time, however, they have interactions while going about their normal lives. TThey fiddle with their music players or they're about to buy a newspaper, or they're looking for the train that's late, and meanwhile they just happen to catch someones eye or make an observation out loud to the person next to them. Or they go to a nightclub, but go with friends, to have a good time, and just happens to be social to strangers while they are there.
Force yourself to create opportunities
The difference between successfully turning chance encounters into something more starts with something as simple as managing to force yourself to let your eye contact linger a little bit longer, and eventually to smile, and say "hi".
But to get there you need to start by creating the opportunities, and ensure you are more often in a frame of mind where you won't immediately panic and pull your eyes away. Taking away eye contact is often enough to destroy the moment permanently.
Being distracted lowers barriers immensely in this respect.
The next time you go out, try putting on some music and focusing on the music, and just let your eyes drift. Keep the idea of getting eye contact in your head, but don't focus on it. See what happens.
Or try to similarly keep the idea of letting your eyes float slowly and calmly around while you detach from them and think about something else.
If you're familiar with mindfulness meditation, you can apply the principles of mindfulness to this too - just observe but be detached from what you see.
When you come out of your distraction or when you can't keep your mind empty anymore, and notice you're holding eye contact with someone, try to focus on what you feel and not on what your eyes are doing. It's not so horrible, is it?
Try to remain calm. Hold your eyes there. Smile.
Pay attention to what you think and feel, not what you're doing.
I know, easier said than done: Stare at someone and smile without thinking about the fact you're doing it.
Condition your reflexes
But try it. Practice it. Trick your mind into accepting eye contact and reactions to it as something it's allowed to do reflexively without paying much attention to it.
Note that people do this all the time. When you do get eye contact with people, you'll often see them jerk - suddenly their eyes dart this way or that way. That's when they've realized, after absentmindedly letting their eyes float. The amusing thing is that they often have little conscious control over what they do just in that moment, and you can often see the confusion on their face when they've smiled at you or made some eye movement they don't quite get.
A "favourite" of mine is when girls roll their eyes or dart their eyes up. It's typically an indication you don't attract them (if you want to approach her, ignore this - it can be worked through; it's a split second judgement that doesn't take into account anything about you, and could just mean she's in a shitty mood), at least not then and there.
The reason I find that funny is because you'll often see them get a stunned or embarrassed look afterward, when they realize what they just did. After all "good girls" don't make faces like that at people.
Now, consider what you might look like when you're all caught up in eye contact and freak out.
The more you practice various ways of "detaching" while letting your eyes wander, and practice softer ways of "coming back", the more control you'll get over your reactions, and the more comfortable you'll look. You'll be able to notice the flaws in your body language and start correcting them.
Some techniques for distracting yourself
- Listen to music, and concentrate on the music strongly.
- Hum or sing to yourself.
- Try to solve a hard problem
- Focus on your breath, noticing how it moves in, and out and in and out.
- Pick an object to "play with" such as your phone or a ring or something that you don't need to look at but can fix your mind on while you move your hands over it. (though be slow and deliberate, or you'll just look nervous as hell).
While doing these things, try to let your eyes move without deciding where they go. You do this naturally all the time, but it can be a bit tricky to do it "on command". You want to exert a little bit of influence - you want to notice people, and have an idea of wanting to look in their eyes in your head, but you don't want to grasp control strongly enough that it's at the front of your mind - hence the distraction.
How does it work for you?