Relationships- Why do I feel such anxiety around other people?
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Stefan Kelly BA(Hons) Counselling, MBACP accredited
16th December, 2008
Almost everything we do in life involves relationships of one kind or another. Whether it is dealing with the local supermarket checkout assistant, bringing up children, interacting with colleagues in the workplace or talking to your child’s teacher at Parents’ Evening.
Work with some of my clients has involved exploring such normally routine exchanges which for them, have been laden with anxiety, dread and fear. I’m sure some of us are able to identify other certain situations which raise stress levels such as a job interview or meeting a new group of people.
Sometimes a feeling of anxiety can be a normal, appropriate, healthy response. Where things become more difficult is when stress and anxiety reach such a level as to stop us doing the things we want to. At times like this the feeling of insecurity that it can bring is so overwhelming that it is almost impossible to focus on anything but being scared.
For others, however, anxiety is a constant where it affects almost every aspect of their lives. Anxiety seems ever present, always there in the background, inexplicable and perhaps inducing a real sense of dread in anticipating the next stressful situation. It is common for one’s thinking to be dominated by trying to avoid that social encounter or by planning how to get away.
The curious thing about how we handle relationships of any kind now, in the present, is the effect on us of relationships in our earlier life. Most of us were influenced by significant people in our earlier lives and it is how we experienced, or interpreted our relationships back then that can drive our feelings and behaviour now.
Very simply put, we ‘learned’ how to behave in response to our unique emotional experience of relationships with parents, family members, teachers and other ‘important’ people as we were growing up.
Of course many relationships are remembered as warm, nurturing and helpful. Unfortunately for some however, relationships or aspects of them with certain people were less than healthy, or at least perceived as such. Here, perhaps the response to experience of trauma, discomfort, humiliation, abuse, loneliness contributed to feelings such as helplessness, resentment, low self worth. Often protective or defending behaviour of self was developed in order to survive emotionally as a child.
As we grow into adulthood aspects of this earlier ‘survival’ behaviour can remain as well as those feelings of fright, humiliation, anxiety that we so acutely experienced earlier on. These feelings may be ever present now or lay dormant until a certain situation arises. Seemingly routine things like queuing alone in the post office, waiting in the school playground to collect the kids, fear of being shouted at by the husband, fear of social settings or parties.
The thought of these kinds of scenarios can trigger echoes from the past and the ‘learned’ and by now, instinctive behaviour kick in. This means that feelings and behaviour that have been shaped by experiences of the past and are replaying in the present either consciously or not.
So the idea that it is forming a new relationship with a complete stranger to reduce or dissipate these fears seems rather ironic!
Humanistic or Person Centred therapy has as its central tenet, that the relationship between client and therapist is the thing that will help the healing process. When, as a client, you can start to feel that you can trust the counsellor and feel listened to, the process of self exploration can begin. It is exactly that feeling of safety, understanding and non- judgement, the complete opposite to the earlier life experiences, which will allow you and your counsellor to work towards understanding why you think, behave and feel as you do.
As your therapeutic works progresses you are likely to find your relationship with your counsellor strengthens. Within the private boundaries of the counselling relationship you will come to experience warmth, genuine respect, challenge and a space where you are the centre of positive attention. You will learn that it is OK to express what is going on for you and that you have the right to have your own needs met.
The hope for therapy is that this new learning, self growth, can be carried into the outside world and start to bring about the changes you want in your day to day life- you will have the autonomy to decide how you want to be in the relationships that troubled you so much before.
And remember- This Is All About You.
About the author
Stefan is co-founder and Clinical Director of The Eaves Counselling and Psychological Services based in Surrey.
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