On social anxiety
Social anxiety can be defined simply as the fear of social situations, where the sufferer believes, with surety, they will be judged negatively. Like those who suffer from other forms of anxiety, those with social anxiety often develop coping behaviours (the archetypal example involves standing in a corner at a party, swirling your drink) or they practice avoidance. Part of the pain of suffering social anxiety is that the person afflicted knows that these behaviours don’t address the underlying problem; they merely keep one safe from undergoing much discomfort and the possible threat of social rejection.
Perhaps it is not often emphasised enough in the discussion of social anxiety that socialising is not always an easy affair: it would not be a sweeping generalisation to say that most of us have a wariness about that which is unfamiliar, and so when we enter a social event where the people and/or the situation is relatively unknown to us, we are apt to feel some nervousness at least. This is because most of us like to belong, which means we are far from indifferent about what others think of us, much as we might be tempted at times to profess to the contrary. While moderate or severe social anxiety is a greater affliction than pre-party ‘nerves’, the two are not radically divorced from one another, as clinical levels, so to speak, are often caused by a ruminating over fears that many people have to a lesser extent.
I propose the idea that clinical levels of social anxiety are quite often a result of succumbing more to fears that many people have, as my work with socially anxious clients has suggested that this can be a reassuring thing to know. Those with considerable social anxiety usually think of themselves as being ‘weird’ or an ‘outcast’, as if their fears were frankly unknown to other people. Ironically, self-help literature or e-marketing websites can sometimes accentuate the pain of the condition, as some forums promote, for example, the idea of achieving ‘unlimited confidence’, implying that anxiety about any form of socialising is eradicable, and therefore the sufferer may feel much pain over the discrepancy between this blessed state and their own seemingly intransigent self-doubts. Consequently, it is more accurate, and more helpful, for socially anxious people to understand that the task is to acquire more confidence in social situations, even if they retain, like most people do, at least some vestiges of anxiety. Realism in this case is like how it is in any other: fanciful end goals may need to be relinquished, but on the plus side, we are now in the realm of the manageable, which can be reassuring to those who are anxious and demoralised.
Here are some ideas about how to tackle your social anxiety:
- Firstly, related to what I intimated above, it is rational to expect social situations to be awkward and frustrating and even scary at times, as we are entering unfamiliar territory, and we want to make a good impression. However, some people with social anxiety believe the contrary, as they subject themselves to a cruelly judgemental viewpoint, namely that the ‘natural’ state for people is to go about with unfaltering confidence. Unsurprisingly, as they go into a social event, they then often take their own nerves as something portentous - a sign that they have unfairly gained admittance to a self-confident universe. If they could accept that their own discomforts and frustrations were not without good reason, they’d have less cause to fear their fear.
- Related to the above, the socially anxious person expects others to be essentially at ease in company. Of course, people vary in how much they are socially confident, but for those nervous in company, there are only two camps: the confident and the shy. A kinder and more plausible outlook would be to see your anxieties as quite possibly shared by those that you meet, even if they don’t display it much or don’t quite suffer from them to the same extent as you do (although some indeed might). In other words, it can be helpful, in your imagination, to humanize the other people at a social event, so that they don’t seem so radically different and unapproachable.
- For those with considerable social anxiety, a social event is not a get together or a conference, but a courtroom, where your worth is to be put on trial. A significant-yet easily overlooked-feature of social anxiety is that the person exaggerates the extent of other people’s interest in them, as though others were there almost exclusively to pass judgement on them. This is most unlikely. What is more plausible is that other people are more concerned about how they are coming across than in vetting you. If you consider that practically everyone is more preoccupied by themselves than anybody else, this can help take away some of the fear of being a negative focus of attention.
- Anxious people in general scan the environment for signs of threat and they often interpret ambiguous signs in a negative fashion. At a party, for example, the socially anxious person may hear the uproar of laughter and wonder if they are laughing at them; or they might approach someone stoical faced and conclude they don’t want to talk to them. What is helpful is to focus on neutral things in a social situation and, when contemplating a so-called threat, reflect on whether you can know for sure that your pessimistic conclusions are justified or not. Sometimes they will be, of course, but often they won’t be.
- An essential dimension of tackling social anxiety is to confront rather than withdraw from what you fear. The alternative is to purchase a security that means you miss out of all the good things socialising can bring. These episodes of exposure to what you fear must be done gradually, lest you find the situations too overwhelming, and are likely to retreat to your haven of choice. For example, if you normally go to a social event and hardly talk at all, a good first step is to speak to at least one person for a few minutes rather than try and be centre of attention. Modest as this may seem, it’s by taking these small steps that long-term progress is achievable.
Although overcoming much of your social anxiety is possible given enough time, it can sometimes prove too challenging a task to do on your own. In such cases, consulting a counsellor can make a big difference, as their knowledge and encouragement can provide you with enough confidence to take the necessary risks to overcome your fears.
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