Understanding Social Anxiety
What is Social Anxiety?
Social Anxiety is the fear of being seen for who you are and being judged, particularly in social situations involving interaction with others. It is more than shyness and a fear that does not go away. It affects our self-confidence, relationships, work and school life.
How does it manifest?
From an early age we put defences in place to protect ourselves. When a parent does not regularly respond to your needs, you will quickly learn to adapt and find ways to cope. From this way we may acquire a core belief such as “I am unlovable” or “I must not ask for my needs to be met”.
Like sponges we absorb our families’ lessons without realising a core belief is developing inside us. Many of us repeat our parents’ values and beliefs automatically.
Growing up in a family with emotional support or healthy social interaction perhaps caused you anxiety in developing connections and creating friendships later on in life.
Perhaps your Mother saw her role to keep you safe, but with her anxious disposition, took it to excess. Her cautious behaviour prevented you from learning independence and you subsequently learnt not to take risks.
These are just 2 examples depicting how social anxiety can take hold.
Below are some memories that may still cause you embarrassment:
· Navigating the school playground
· Being left out
· Having no-one to play with
· Not being invited to a particular party
· Not being in with the ‘in-crowd’
· Face not fitting
· Finding your place
· Not finding your voice
Why do we hold onto these hurtful feelings from another age? Isn’t it interesting how we mostly recall embarrassing experiences and not happy ones?
What is avoidance and how can it hold you hostage?
Avoidance behaviours are any actions you take to escape from difficult thoughts and feelings. These behaviours can occur in many different ways and may include actions that you do or don’t do. If you experience panic and anxiety, you may already be familiar with acting out of avoidance. Why would you want to put yourself into a situation where you may experience being judged or made fun of?
Avoiding painful feelings or difficult interactions takes a lot of energy because we tend to avoid making connections and in turn are always hypervigilant. Avoiding social interaction isolates us and can lead to depression.
Remember when you faked an illness or ignored a call and then had to cover your tracks. Remember that time you were invited to a party. You didn’t want to attend but eventually you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps and went in fear about what people would think. That’s half the battle won! Well done you!
Now, surrounded by a sea of faces you may have felt really intimidated. Without realising, you picked up your mobile and spent the next hour scrolling back and forth through inane sites with little focus on what you were doing. All the while you felt people were looking at you. The last thing you wanted to do was engage in conversation. What would you say? You felt you had nothing interesting to bring to a conversation.
Physically you felt hot and sweaty, kind of paralysed with a beating heart and wanting to cry.
It is important to find ways to overcome avoidance, as the feeling of relief that comes from it is often short lived, leading to lots of negative thinking.
These feelings are very normal with social anxiety, and I discuss below how to overcome these by framing your thoughts more positively.
What are your fears?
Ultimately, social anxiety is the fear that whatever you’re trying to hide will be exposed to everyone like a gust of wind sweeping away a bad toupee.
Your fears may also be being seen for who you are with anxieties of rejection, humiliation or being exposed.
Your thinking may include:
Will others see through my physical signs of anxiety?
Will others see through me?
I am not cool like the other kids
I am not funny
I am not as clever as……
Whilst thinking like this you are reinforcing these statements which have little evidence to back them up.
What are the symptoms?
There are many symptoms that you may notice when you are in a socially anxious situation. You may experience physical symptoms i.e.: blushing, sweating, or the symptoms of a panic attack. These can be really scary, masking something more physically frightening.
Anxiety and/or depression can also be symptomatic, when thinking about meeting people, engaging in conversation or attending events.
Your Inner Critic – Are You My Friend Or Foe?
Our inner critic is an inner voice in our heads preventing us from enjoying the present. It takes us down a dark tunnel where along the way we meet feelings such as guilt, shame, disappointment and frustration. As a result we spend an awful lot of time in our heads, missing out on the beautiful moments of life that may not be repeated.
Our inner critic is created in our formative years as a result of difficult experience. Through our early development we unconsciously own these destructive thought patterns towards ourselves.
Common critical inner voices include:
"There's something wrong with you”
"You're different from other people”
How Do You Quieten Your Inner Critic?
Firstly, it is important to try and identify what your inner critic is telling you. Acknowledge that this thought process is not necessarily the reality of the situation.
Remember that your critical inner voice is not helpful. It is a destructive learnt behaviour that you adopted based on early life experiences that you've internalized as your own point of view.
Instead of avoiding these thoughts, try being compassionate towards yourself by considering a more realistic evaluation of yourself. So instead of “you are right I made a real hash of that, I am useless”, consider “I found that really hard but in the circumstances, I did the best I could at the time”. Framing things in this way will enable you to use more positive affirmations moving forward. Also, remember to try not to act on the negative voice of your inner critic. Act on your own point of view, who you want to be and what you aim to achieve.
Your critical inner voice may get louder, telling you to stay in line or not to take chances. However, by identifying, separating from, and acting against this destructive thought process, you will grow stronger, while your inner critic grows weaker.
I hope this blog has provided you with some insight into social anxiety. I have listed some helpful resources below should you wish to read more. If you would like to get in touch with me, please do so via the Contact page on my website: www.skcounselling.co.uk/contact.
Ellen Hendrickson: Book: How to be yourself
Brene Brown: Book: I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What Will People Think?" to "I Am Enough"