Social anxiety: that awful, physical and mental fear that someone is going to look at you, judge you and laugh at you. That fear that becomes so serious that you feel real, physical symptoms and are tempted not to go out at all. If you give in to those symptoms and fears long enough it can become a habit and can seriously impede the quality of your life, even leading to isolation and agoraphobia. I am writing from personal experience here, as someone who has struggled with social anxiety for over twenty years and felt the shame and isolation it causes. My mother is agoraphobic and she describes it as a fear that the feelings will become so severe that she might die if she goes too far from home.
Why do we develop social anxiety? Through a lack in our confidence to perform according to our standards in an unknown situation. It’s a fear of inadequacy and of lack of control, of being judged and found wanting by others and of the pain of rejection. It’s emotionally and physically debilitating through the emotional pain and the stress that it creates.
What can you do when you feel social anxiety arising?
- You can stay in, give in to the physical symptoms and fears, and feel shame and guilt (shame choice)
- you can stay home, give in and enjoy the relief of not having to go out (relief choice)
- you can go out and grind through the symptoms and fears (push choice)
- you can go out and focus on the benefits of going (pull choice)
As in the previous article on procrastination, I prefer the pull choice. It doesn’t ease my physical symptoms but it reminds me of why choosing to ignore my fears is the better option emotionally. To help me focus on the benefits of going, I use positive language to reframe my thoughts. “I’m not nervous, I’m excited”, “I’m not anxious, I’m anticipating”, “It’s not a nasty ordeal, it’s a lovely opportunity”.
One of the biggest fears in social anxiety is being the focus of negative attention. A useful way to deflect attention from yourself and ease the pressure of any resultant anxiety is to ask other people about themselves and reflect back with simple phrases and further questions. It’s a low demand style of conversation that can ease you into a social event gently.
Another way to face your secret shameful fear is to make it public! Tell someone you’re nervous. Let them judge you and you’ll discover that actually there’s no judgement. The power of social anxiety’s irrational fear lies in its secrecy; by exposing it, you will realise how irrational it is and how unnecessary it is to struggle alone. Furthermore, by admitting your difficulty you allow others to support you and reassure you. You’ll discover that the world is not as judgemental and cold as you thought!
Finally, I’ll just remind you that although social anxiety causes you to imagine you’re the focus of the attention, it’s actually rather unlikely that you are going to be the focus of attention. Social anxiety says, “What if I do the wrong thing, what if I say the wrong thing, what if I make a fool of myself?” but really who’s looking at you? You’re going home running the evening back through your mind, comparing your behaviour against your own high standards but nobody else cares! All that unnecessary stress is for nothing.
Use these tips next time you go out and let me know if you find it an easier experience, I’d love to hear from you.