I promised in the previous text about social anxiety that this time I will deal less with general things and answers to the question of WHAT? Now my intention is to concertize the story in the text “From shame to shame and back – Social anxiety” by focusing on specific forms of social anxiety and at least get closer to the answers to the question of HOW? I promised to talk about social anxiety in the narrow sense, so let’s start with that.
Social anxiety is considered to be excessive anxiety and fear of those situations in which we are the focus of other people’s attention and their possible negative evaluation and criticism. A socially anxious person has a strong desire to avoid such situations. The intensity of the problem is often recognized precisely to the extent that the person avoids this situation (completely, from time to time, or rarely). There is a possibility, therefore, that a person has a desire to avoid such situations, but not to develop avoidant behavior, which could then be called shyness. Shy people do not develop avoidant behavior for situations that may be essential to achieving their life goals and values, and people with intense social anxiety do just that, which is often the trigger for them to start psychotherapy.
In a narrower sense, situations in which social anxiety comes to the fore are: meeting new people, meeting people of authority, talking on the phone, coming to the house, teasing others, situations where we need to do something in front of others, eating in front of others (sometimes within their own family), the use of public toilets … Sometimes public appearances are added to this list, but in the previous text, I singled it out as a special category. Many other authors agree with us, who do not classify public appearance as social anxiety in the narrow sense (despite many common characteristics), because the vast majority of people in the general population have a “problem” with public appearance.
What does social anxiety look like?
In one clinical study, during which three dozen cases of social anxiety were observed for three years, the following characteristics were shown (in at least 50% of cases):
•The person “perceives” non-acceptance or criticism by other people (note that the word is perceived in quotation marks).
The person expects rejection or criticism from other people.
• A person tends to defend himself against (most often) non-existent criticism or rejection by others.
• The person’s perception that they are less capable (less or not enough in the client’s vocabulary) compared to other people.
• Has very rigid ideas about what constitutes satisfactory public behavior (and is unable to cope with “variations on a theme”).
• Imagine in advance situations in which she might be embarrassed (develops anticipatory anxiety).
• Preoccupation with the idea and fear of exposure to evaluation by other people.
• The experience of someone watching us (“Someone is watching us – someone is watching us all the time”).
• Fear of situations in which our sudden withdrawal (the right word is escape) will be noticed and others will realize that we have a problem.
• Experience of “captivity” in a social situation.
• Progressive experience of discomfort.
• Preoccupation with other people’s reactions to us (facial expressions of interlocutors and other aspects of non-verbal communication that are often misinterpreted as “non-acceptance”).
• Preoccupation with one’s own bodily changes during a “critical” situation (redness, sweating, trembling, voice change).
We will elaborate on the last two aspects because they are of special importance for psychotherapeutic work. Let’s start with hypersensitivity to non-verbal signals from other people, which are mostly misinterpreted. Just as a person suffering from panic attacks is preoccupied with internal bodily signals that he misinterprets as an impending catastrophe, so a socially anxious person lurks and misinterprets nonverbal aspects of communication with other people (even verbal ones).
A socially anxious person closely monitors how other people react to it and watches for any sign of disapproval that makes them even more upset when they notice it. Every moment, every blink, every pause in another person’s speech, grimace, movement is followed. And of course, at some point, to catch that much-needed sign of disapproval, criticism, ridicule… because whoever searches usually finds it! OF COURSE TO FIND when he misinterprets some random reaction of the interlocutor or group of people. There is also the possibility of noticing a real sign of disapproval, but then he certainly exaggerates the consequences of that reaction, so he is overly upset. It is similar and quite related to those situations in which we are afraid to enter a room full of people, or after others have entered before us because then everyone will see us and everyone will look at us. And if by chance someone laughs at something, or a group of people laugh at each other, – “Disaster, they must be laughing at me”.
Lesson no. 1: Not all people always think exclusively about us, nor do they react exclusively to us.
They have people and other content in their heads, which is usually not related to us. People are most often burdened with their own “baggage”, thoughts, problems, and contents that we cannot even imagine (and should not). And what is even more important: People are usually burdened by their own performance, in front of us and others, that is, by the impression they leave.
Anxious people often have this anticipatory anxiety, anxiety in advance whose basic content is “What can go wrong?” Unlike other forms of anxiety, in social anxiety, unfortunately, there is a possibility that what we worry about in advance really happens. In fact, it is true that it usually does happen.
And why does a socially anxious person worry in advance?
She worries that she will blush, that she will sweat (“I’ll get two big spots under her armpits and those disgusting peas of sweat on her forehead”), that her voice will change and become squeaky, that she will stutter, that her tongue will bind and that dumb… Yes, when a person is very worried about this, and when he is more burdened with hiding his bodily symptoms of discomfort, then usually these symptoms intensify and the “terrible” scenario really happens.
All this doubles the problem of social anxiety because in addition to the illogical, rigid, and nonconstructive belief “I must not be negatively valued”, a person develops another, secondary unhealthy belief: “Other people must not notice that I am uncomfortable… I must not blush, sweat… if that happens, I will be a complete fool … “. In social anxiety, this second, secondary problem: that other people do not notice “weakness” is often a much bigger problem than the primary one.
In the context of mental health, as well as gradualness and practicality, it is important that the socially anxious person first solves this secondary problem. How? By allowing herself to see her physical symptoms of anxiety (that is, she will give up the demands she makes on herself, that they must not be seen in any way) and she will focus on talking to the person and what she will say or do.
Lesson 2: First, therefore, we need to give up the mistaken and unfounded belief that signs of inconvenience must not be seen and that the consequences will be rejection or a similar “catastrophe”.
Socially anxious people usually exaggerate in imagining the negative consequences of situations in which other people reveal their problem, that is, they notice external physical signs of discomfort. Whatever the consequence of that, it is quite certain that none of them can be catastrophic, unbearable, and fatal. Once we understand and adopt this, we will not be burdened with hiding our discomfort, but we will focus our attention on the content of the communication or something we need to do in front of other people. Therefore, our performance will be better.
You have probably noticed that shame is an elemental component of social anxiety. In fact, it can be said that a socially anxious person is actually afraid that he will be embarrassed in the situations listed above. Shame and fear of shame are the ingredients that give strength to the problem of social anxiety.
The difference between anxiety and shame is that anxiety happens before a person enters a “threatening” situation and can sometimes last as long as the situation itself.
However, when the situation passes, the anxiety disappears. Shame begins during the “threatening” situation and can last a long time after the experience is over (some authors believe that social anxiety occurs – a person has experienced shame in a social situation in the past, which left a strong impression on him).
Shame can be psychologically understood as a form of social influence. By causing shame to individuals, the wider community controls his behavior now and in the future. Every society has unwritten rules about what shame is, so it should not be done. As long as we do not hurt others (and ourselves) and as long as the consequence of our behavior is only SHAME, let us keep in mind that these are only imaginary social rules subject to change. These rules change with age, with the historical moment, with the culture in which we live… So, they are not carved in stone, nor do they represent any law.
Lesson 3: If someone currently thinks something bad about us at the expense of being embarrassed in front of them, it in no way makes us a worse or less valuable person.
It is only the current opinion of that person, not the essence of our being. That is why therapists sometimes give overly shy clients exercises against shame (to intentionally expose themselves to a situation in which they will feel ashamed and endure discomfort).
Apart from being horrified by such a situation, a person should realize that she is not damaged in any way by someone thinking something unfavorable about her at the moment.
Often clients, at the beginning of therapy, know how to say that all this is much easier said than done. That’s right. That is why one should not only speak but also work. Only if we act rationally if we replace self-deprecating beliefs with self-motivating, rational and constructive ones, and if we persistently practice them in reality, can we reduce the problem to a minimum or solve it.
Lesson 4: Don’t make the sentence “It’s easier said than done” an excuse to give up, but a reason to work on it and be persistent. We don’t just do things in life that are easy. Big changes in the direction of progress usually require a lot of work and effort.
It is best to consult a psychotherapist for more detailed guidelines on solving the problem of social anxiety. The way of perceiving the problems we have described here is closest to the cognitive-behavioral forms of therapy, in this particular case RE & CBT.
I hope you liked the content about social anxiety?
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