Social anxiety is an intense fear about one or more social situations. It can be generalized to all social situations, or it can be activated in specific situations, such as having a conversation, meeting new people, being observed while eating, drinking, walking, etc., or performing in front of others, such as giving a speech or speaking in front of a class. According to the Social Anxiety Institute, social anxiety is the third largest mental health care condition in the world today. So, if you’re dealing with social anxiety and feeling alone, statistics show that you’re not; at least 7% of the population is right there with you!
Dr. David Moscovitch, a Clinical Psychologist at the University of Waterloo, discovered that social anxiety is more than just a fear of being embarrassed. Rather, it’s an urge to cover up a perceived flaw. People with social anxiety believe that something is fatally wrong with them that makes them socially undesirable, and they fear that this perceived flaw will be seen by others. Finally, they believe that when this flaw is discovered by others, they’ll be humiliated and rejected.
Here’s an example of a situation that someone with social anxiety might find themselves in, and their thought process:
Joe is an average guy, but he believes he’s really boring and that if people find out how boring he is, they won’t like him. One day while Joe was talking to his friend Martin, there was a long pause in the conversation. Now, long pauses in conversation with people we’re comfortable with are pretty normal! In this case, however, Joe perceives the long pause as an “awkward silence,” and believes that the awkward silence confirms his worst suspicions: That he is boring and at fault for the awkwardness. His brain became flooded with thoughts about how Martin must be noticing and judging Joe as a boring person. With these thoughts, Joe’s mind is filled with even more anxiety, and he can’t think of what to say to Martin next. It’s so overwhelming that he can’t bear the idea of being placed in this situation again where he might be judged as boring, so he proceeds to avoid social interactions as much as possible. In reality, Martin didn’t think Joe was boring, and he wasn’t judging him, he was lost in his own train of thought and didn’t think much of the “awkward” silence at all.
This is why Dr. Moscovitch stresses that Joe’s fatal flaw only exists in Joe’s mind. He perceives himself to be boring, and so finds information in the conversation to confirm that his perception is true. People with social anxiety are extra sensitive to social blunders, to the point where they often believe they’re the only ones who make them. The truth is that social blunders are part of what makes us human. Everyone is boring some of the time, we all trip over our words and we all have awkward moments. As Dr. Ellen Hendrickson states in her book How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, “nothing is wrong with you, it’s just the blemishes of being a person.”
While it’s normal for everyone to feel socially self-conscious from time to time, “social anxiety is like self-consciousness on steroids”, as Dr. Hendrickson says – it’s a big and heavy feeling, and often very tricky to work around. Because of this, people who have social anxiety are often quite distressed and unable to function as fully in their lives as they’d like. When self-consciousness reaches this level of social anxiety, most people benefit from getting help with regulating it.
How Does Social Anxiety Work?
Social anxiety works in a cycle of fear and avoidance. People begin to avoid the social interactions that make them feel anxious because the anxiety they feel is so painful and unbearable. They understandably want to protect themselves from the trauma of feeling rejected or inadequate. Unfortunately, avoiding social situations only makes things worse because when we’re not interacting with our source of fear, the fear increases and becomes much scarier. On top of that, when we avoid certain social situations, we’re also unable to practice the social skills necessary to get through them and the associated anxieties. When we feel we don’t have the necessary skills for something, we continue to avoid it and the cycle of fear and avoidance continues.
Are There Good Things About Social Anxiety?
Many people with social anxiety believe there’s something wrong with them and want to change their personality altogether. They often believe that the opposite of social anxiety is confidence. In her book, Dr. Ellen Hendrickson points out that people with social anxiety tend to have a lot of desirable traits. They’re so anxious because they desperately want to connect, and so are sensitive to the needs of others to such an extreme that it becomes a fault. In fact, psychopathy; not confidence, is the opposite of social anxiety.
People with social anxiety tend to be very conscientious, compassionate and caring, open to new experiences and agreeable. They have all the traits that would make a person socially desirable, they merely are inhibited by fear and an excess of shame. It’s, therefore, best to work through social anxiety by removing the fear and developing confidence on top of the amazing characteristics that are already there! It’s a process of learning to be yourself without fear. Dr. Hendrickson points out that your true self is the self you are without fear. Think about the person you are when you’re most comfortable, maybe when you’re with a pet or with a person you trust or doing an activity you enjoy. That’s who your real self is, and that person is lovable and worthy of connection.
How Can We Move Past Fear and Shame and Live the Life We Want?
My next blog post will detail eight strategies for working through social anxiety. In the meantime, I recommend picking up Dr. Ellen Hendrickson’s book How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. It is also a great idea to talk to a counsellor and see how you can work together to come up with a plan to work towards quieting that inner critic. For any question, feel free to contact us.
Burns, D. D. (2008). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper: New York.
Hendrickson, E. (2018). How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. St. Martin’s Press: New York.
Moscovitch, D. A. (2009). What Is the Core Fear in Social Phobia? A New Model to Facilitate Individualized Case Conceptualization and Treatment. Cognitive and Behavioural Practice, 16, 123-124. Available from https://uwaterloo.ca/psychology/sites/ca.psychology/files/uploads/files/moscovitch_2009.pdf
Neff, K. (2018). Self-Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/
Richards, T. A. (2018). What is social anxiety? Social Anxiety Institute. Retrieved from https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/what-is-social-anxiety Thompson, S., & Rapee, R. M. (2002). The effect of situational structure on the social performance of socially anxious and non-anxious participants. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 33(2), 91-102. DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7916(02)00021-6