I hate being in a group of people I don’t know. If I can find a way to get out of such gatherings I will. My mind gets nuts with anxiety. I fear that I will be seen as abnormal—that people can see my flaws. My voice usually cracks, sweat pours off my forehead, and I have a hard time thinking of what I want to say. I wish I could be cool like my brother—the golden boy—who can walk into a room and have everybody eating out of his hand. It’s so easy for him; so dreadfully hard for me. So I keep a lot to myself and only see people who’ve know me for a long time. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t really have many friends, not like in college when guys in my dorm were always available. Having a girlfriend, well that’s next to impossible. Who wants to be around someone who has nothing to say?! Meetings at work are a real pain. Even with a prepared speech I try to disappear as much as possible. Or I have a panic attack. So I am not seen as much as a leader, even though I have some good ideas. I’m sure I’ve lost many promotions due to my jitters with people. My life feels very stuck and sometimes I get a bad case of the blues. People see me as a guy on top of the world. I’m reasonably good-looking, young and know how to dress. If they only knew what a fraud I am. I feel like such a failure as a person even when I haven’t done anything bad. Sometimes I get so angry and wish I could do something really bad! Then I’d have a real reason to hate myself.
I wrote about this topic sixteen years ago. Social anxiety is the persistent disabling fear of exposing oneself in a social setting.
It is more than being shy; it is about being estranged from and scared of ourselves. I wish I could say that people today are more willing to express themselves to others. Actually research tells us that just the opposite is true. Social isolation and social anxiety are rampant in today’s society, ironically in an age when most of us are more electronically connected to one another than ever.
About 20% of adults have social phobias. The true rate is likely much higher. We superficially connect but also hide our true selves from others and ourselves. Young adults are especially prone to social anxiety at a much higher rate. I am seriously concerned that too many of us are limiting our emotional lives and self-confidence by being scared of people and not personally getting close to others, putting us at risk for suicide. This development can threaten our civilization and our personal well-being if it goes unacknowledged. It leaves too many of us emotionally distant from each other and breaks the most important rule of evolution: We are primarily social creatures who need each other.
Most of us don’t grasp that what especially frightens us are not external dangers, which are rare, but internal ones, which are pervasive. Sure being in public these days can make any of us nervous, given the mass shootings, frequent gun violence and frightening portrayals of public dangers on TV and social media. We are constantly surrounded by security checks, hidden safety cams and identity checks. Parents are reluctant to let their kids out of the house alone. All such worries are very understandable. What is less understandable is why perfectly normal people would be nervous and panic-stricken just by being emotionally vulnerable to others. Such worries cause many people with social anxiety to be scared of themselves and their own emotional vulnerability. People with social fears are just scared of their own shadow. They see danger where there is none. Over and over they practice avoidance, only making things worse. Left untreated this pattern gets worse over time and results in depression and social breakdown.
Symptoms of social anxiety
People with this syndrome know they have serious social jitters but they don’t know how to lessen their predicament or why they are the way they are. Interestingly enough, social anxiety is not a mental illness and is a very treatable emotional difficulty. Almost all of us have some version of it. No one needs to be stuck with it. The first step is knowing how to recognize it in ourselves.
Common patterns are:
- persistent avoidance of public gatherings, self-assertion, and initiating with others
- physiological arousal of fear in social situations-blushing, rapid breathing, sweaty palms, inability to speak, feelings of entrapment and dread, lightheadedness
- wallflower behaviors in social settings-spectating, being on the outside looking in
- career or love relationship underachievement due to social fears
- harsh self-criticalness or self-consciousness in public gatherings
- continuing view that others in crowds are disapproving of you
- seeing your own social mannerisms as stupid, pathetic, or uniquely inept
- often feeling lonely in a crowd
- difficulty with making decisions and know what you want
- inability and unwillingness to express appropriate anger
- appearance to others as a friendly stranger or someone who lacks an identity
People ask why I am not married. Although I am 35 years old I’m considered quite attractive. Every time I meet a man I like I go crazy over him at first. I like strong, intelligent confident men who can take charge. All the qualities I lack. Inevitably, over time, I discover that he is only in it for himself. I tend not to complain, do what he wants and eat up his adoration. I even believe his lies. Well you can guess what happens next. As soon as I ask more from him he starts distancing from me and criticizes how I look. I keep trying to please him and give up on asking for what I want. I lose weight, become a gourmet cook, and get hotter in bed. But nothing seems like the way it was. So I get more desperate. I go back to flattering him, which only works for a while. Until I find out he is with another woman. Finally it dawns on me that I’ve never been close to anyone in my life. Where am I in all this?
Root causes of social anxiety
This difficulty has several contributing factors: genetics, faulty childhood attachment patterns, cultural isolation and shaming, and overuse of electronic technology. Some genetic factors contribute to this problem. People who are born more sensitive to others are prone to misinterpret and blame themselves for other people’s perceived reactions. They put more energy into getting people to like them than accepting themselves or they withdraw from people altogether. Over use of social media severely make social anxiety worse. During teen years most of us are quite self-conscious. Then we hopefully develop real friendships with peers and learn how to fit in, quirks and all, allowing us to be reasonably confident in ourselves. If we continually live our lives vicariously and exclusively through social media and repeat this pattern into adulthood we never learn that we are acceptable to others as we really are. Most of us are well aware of the hazards of emotional bullying on-line and how vulnerable any of us is to social defamation and vilification. Hence we are forced to be inauthentic. In fact any of us can be pretend on-line to be somebody we are not. However, to be truly confident in ourselves we need to expose who we are to others, warts and all. Such efforts require face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact with others. Our eyes are the windows to our soul. We can get information on-line but we cannot find our souls that way. Confidence-building requires personal social eye-to-eye connection and cannot be done on a screen. It is the way our brains are wired.
Actually the most significant contributor to social anxiety are faulty family relationship patterns in childhood, the very age when are brains are most malleable and vulnerable to trauma. If we learn as children from our parents that we are fundamentally not acceptable, it will leave us with greater lasting vulnerability to emotional injuries in our adulthoods and be terrified of rejection throughout our lives. Such vulnerability is like being a turtle without a shell. Most people with social anxiety have histories with parents who were overly critical or excessively protective of them. Generally we were harmed by people who were emotionally rejecting or overzealously hovering over us, micro-managing our lives. Often this was done by people with no intention to harm us and those who were unaware of the messages they were giving us. Our fear of people today is more about the persistent memory of past traumatic harm we grew up with as kids. Often the only safety we can find today is emotionally withdrawing from people, even to the extent that we hide from ourselves. A turtle without a shell is just not safe.
Recovery from social anxiety
I wish I could say that overcoming social phobia is a piece of cake. It isn’t. It’s best if you can be assessed by a trusted professional who treats this disorder in a psychodynamic way using cognitive-behavioral therapy (and possibly psychoanalytic psychotherapy). This means he or she will discern the degree of social impairment of your difficulty, have a personal and emotionally alive relationship with you that both supports and challenges you and designs a treatment plan with you as a partner in having you take reasonable risks in your relationships. Often this will require you learning more about yourself, witnessing your avoidance patterns, paying attention to your arousal responses, leaning self-forgiveness and reclaiming your body as a source of wisdom.
It is only normal that as you work with a professional in a personal way that you will return to the scene of the crime in your current connection with your helper. You and your helper will recreate what occurred in your childhood that disabled you. This is good news. Indeed old wrongs can be corrected with your helper as you take an active role in the process. The real healing occurs in a loving relationship with a helper that also includes developing courage in outside-the-room relationships. As you develop confidence in yourself you will also likely shed tears of grief for the many years you have lost by being a turtle without a shell. It is through these tears of grief that you will grow a brand new flexible shell and live a long, safe and connected life. Possible helpful reading on this topic is Dying of Embarrassment by Barbara G. Markway, Ph.D. et alia (New Harbinger Publications, 1997)
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
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