Beating social anxiety
Social anxiety is the inner voice that tells us, whilst we are in or are contemplating being in a social situation, that we are not good enough, not interesting enough, that others are judging us negatively. It can be accompanied by shyness, however, we can have social anxiety without being shy. This critical inner voice can become so insistent and powerful that it builds a wall between the other/s and us, and we are no longer fully present and available to engage freely with them. Rather than focussing on the interaction we become fixed on our critical voice, which is disapproving of our behaviour. We start to feel a whole host of emotions including anxiety. As a result, we feel more and more ungrounded until we are overwhelmed and the only option is to flee.
Social anxiety can lead to avoiding or struggling in certain social situations. These vary according to the individual. Some avoid one-to-one relationships, others avoid group scenarios, for some, it manifests at work and stops them applying for roles with more responsibility or a higher profile which includes public speaking.
The socially anxious individual considers themselves deficient in certain social situations. Therefore the basic self-belief is, ‘I’m not good enough’. At the heart of this issue is non-self-acceptance. Ultimately the key to change is to be in better relationship with oneself: self-acceptance. This is a theme that is widely talked touted in spiritual and self-help books. I imagine that it is certainly not new to the reader. But what does that mean? It sounds so simple and yet seems so difficult for many of us to truly understand or put into practice.
Firstly it can help to consider and become more aware of how it is that we have such a harsh relationship with ourselves. In gestalt therapy, we talk about ‘introjects’. These are beliefs that we have taken to be true due to hearing them voiced by our carers when we were too young to analyse them objectively and then perhaps reject them. ‘You bad girl’ could be one such belief. ‘You ugly thing’ could be another. These are extreme examples however these parental messages can also be implicit. A parent ignoring us when we are angry in order to teach us a lesson, a parent who becomes anxious when we act vivaciously. We deduce from these situations that what we did was ‘not OK’. As a child, the next step from that is that “I am not OK’. Children also often pick up these messages about themselves when parents separate or when the family is undergoing huge stress and transition or when a parent becomes less available due to sickness, depression or addictions, amongst other things.
Being aware is the first step towards change. According to the foundational text of gestalt therapy theory ‘awareness is like the glow of a coal which comes from its own combustion’ (PHG, 1951:75). In part two I cover the second and third steps.