Why you have social anxiety - and what you can do about it
We all feel the twinge of social anxiety from time to time (including even the most experienced of counsellors!). It can be a real nightmare to navigate our daily lives in the shadow of social anxiety and, as a psychodynamic practitioner, I often get asked, "Why am I always so socially anxious and awkward?" This is the million-dollar question for so many people...
The answer is unique to you as an individual and likely based on your own life experience. Social anxiety is rooted in your experience of people, relationships and lots of other interpersonal elements that make up your history.
Here are some patterns of behaviours and interpretations that you may identify with:
1. Spatial sensitivity
Social anxiety makes you overly aware of the space that you are occupying. This is referring to both physical space (your body) and emotional space (your personality). You might become clumsier around other people as you start to feel on display and self-conscious. This heightens social anxiety because you begin to associate social situations with embarrassment. You might defend against spatial sensitivity by trying to take up less space e.g. hunching your shoulders or speaking quietly.
2. Fear of trouble
Social anxiety is often driven by fear. If you grew up in a punitive household with authoritarian caregivers, you may fear getting into trouble as an adult. This can lead you to avoid unpredictable situations where you cannot control someone else's emotional response - in other words, most social situations. You may unconsciously fear provoking anger so you might unnecessarily fawn over or flatter people instead. When people feel flattered, they are less likely to become angry at you - but you pay the price by never speaking your true feelings.
3. Compare and contrast
Social anxiety works by making you feel like the only awkward person in the room. You look around you and see a room full of super confident people who are comfortable in their own skin. This is because many of us have the unfortunate skill of comparing ourselves to other people when we are feeling at our worst. These comparisons trap you in the anxiety cycle by lowering your self-esteem and making social situations even more overwhelming. You start to assume that everyone can notice your social awkwardness because it feels so obvious to you.
4. History of abuse
Abuse makes you feel chronically unsafe and keeps your body in survival mode. People who have a history of abuse often unconsciously scan their environment for threats to safety. If you grew up feeling unsafe, you may find it hard to trust people's intentions and live in a hypervigilant state. This can make it extremely difficult to engage socially. A history of abuse can make you feel like you are always waiting for something bad to happen.
So how can you work through your social anxiety?
There are many different tips and techniques that can help you become less anxious in social situations and here are three of my recommendations:
- Get to know yourself as an individual. What sort of situations are guaranteed to trigger social anxiety for you? What kind of personalities make you feel unsafe or tense up? Can you notice any patterns? Can you spot any links to your life experience?
- Try some body regulation exercises. If you can calm down your body, your mind will begin to calm down too. Some popular techniques include square breathing, visualisation and tapping. There are lots of body-based exercises to try so experiment until you find one that works best for you.
- Practice. It might feel impossible to step out of your comfort zone at first but practice socialising with people you feel safe with. Be open about your journey with social anxiety - you might be surprised to learn that the most unlikely people struggle with it too!