‘Marcie’ was painfully shy, or at least that’s how she’d always thought of herself. Even as a child she had always felt nervous, especially around other kids. She remembers feeling quite lonely then, with only one close friend and living in fear that attention would be drawn to her in the classroom.
Suffering from Social Anxiety
Now, 37, single, and working for a software developer, she continues to feel alone and isolated. A few years ago she had to move several hours away from her family and friends for a new job, and the adjustment has been difficult. In the last 6 months, she’s started to feel really down, losing interest in things she once enjoyed, feeling like she has no energy, and sleeping poorly. Her doctor said she was depressed and started her on antidepressants, which made her feel a little better for a while, but a deep sense of loneliness, boredom, and dissatisfaction lingers.
Marcie keeps to herself at work. At first, coworkers tried to include her in conversation and invited her for drinks after work. But Marcie always turned them down. She felt tense, awkward, and self-conscious around others and didn’t seem to know how to carry on a casual conversation. When she got anxious, her face flushed, she started to tremble, her heart raced, she felt hot and sweaty, and she felt like she couldn’t breathe properly.
She was convinced other people noticed her anxiety and were thinking “What’s wrong with her?” and “What’s she so nervous about?” and “Is she mentally ill?” In her state of intense anxiety, Marcie was convinced other people were staring at her and conjuring up all sorts of negative conclusions about the way she acted, and the minute they paid attention to her, her self-consciousness increased.
On occasion when she tried to say something, the words didn’t come out right and she was left feeling deeply ashamed and embarrassed. Sometimes she would mentally rehearse what to say to people, but that seemed to make matters worse because when uttered out loud it came across as canned and insincere.
If she was told about a meeting scheduled at work, Marcie’s anxiety escalated the closer she got to the event until the anxiety was unbearable. She might spend a couple of sleepless nights worrying about how she could cope with any upcoming social occasion.
Although she would feel some relief afterward, it was always short-lived because she would start mentally rehashing the event and what people might have thought of her. The tendency to replay past social interactions over and over would often cause her to conclude that she had embarrassed herself once again, which only cemented her conviction that she was hopeless around other people.
Marcie’s main strategy for coping with her intense social anxiety was to avoid it if she could.
She avoided a variety of interpersonal situations, such as making appointments, attending social gatherings or having a friend over for dinner, starting conversations and expressing opinions, going on dates, and answering the phone, as well as numerous performance situations, like speaking at meetings, eating/drinking in public, shopping in a busy store, walking in front of a group of people, and performing before an audience.
If she couldn’t avoid a social situation, Marcie would say as little as possible and leave as soon as she could. She found her anxiety was a little better if she had a few drinks and kept a tranquilizer handy in case she started to have a panic attack.
Marcie suffers from a social anxiety disorder, one of the most common forms of anxiety disorder, which afflicts an estimated 15 million American adults (6.8%) in a given year. The condition often begins in childhood or early adolescence, and it can take a chronic course that lasts for decades. Social phobia can cause a lifetime of disappointment, loneliness, and distress and is often associated with other disorders like major depression, generalized anxiety, and alcohol use disorders.
What Will People Think?
Marcie was gripped with fear that others would notice her anxiety in social situations.
She was convinced they would notice her flushed face, trembling hands, halting speech, and then wonder what was wrong with her. She told herself they were probably thinking, “Poor girl—she looks so anxious,” “What a weak, pathetic person who can’t even relate to other people,” or “She probably has some severe mental illness.” This made her so self-conscious her anxiety increased — but it also made her concern about her lack of conversational skills actually come true as it made it even harder for her to listen and concentrate on what people were saying to her.
In the end, the anxiety was so great that Marcie would leave these social functions as soon as possible. Escape brought her instant, unbelievable relief. Every time, she would vow never to put herself through such torture again.
People with social anxiety not only fear the negative evaluation of others but also often have high standards of social performance—like they should be witty and entertaining or should feel perfectly relaxed, comfortable, and confident. Of course, setting standards so high that they’re impossible to reach only increases anxiety and reinforces the conviction “I just can’t handle social situations.”
We all care what others think of us. It’s perfectly natural as human beings to want to be liked by others, to receive their approval, acceptance, and maybe even their admiration. Compliments, praise, and positive feedback from significant people in our lives make us feel great; criticism, rejection, disapproval, and negative feedback feel terrible.
Feeling embarrassed is one of the most uncomfortable, if not traumatic, emotions we all feel so of course, we try our best to avoid making a negative impression.
So it’s perfectly normal to feel somewhat nervous and tense when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar social situation or have to introduce ourselves, carry on conversations, or give our opinion — all while appearing relaxed, confident, and even engaging and witty.
Everyone thinks at times “How am I doing?”, “I wonder what they think of me?”, “I hope I didn’t say something stupid,” “I really feel like a fish out of water,” or “I can’t wait to get out of here.”
We look for indications from others that we’re doing okay, that we fit in; and we may feel uneasy, even embarrassed if we pick up that others are bored, uninterested, or, worse, annoyed with us.
After leaving these awkward social interactions, we rehash the night’s events in our minds: how we “performed,” other people’s reactions to us, and trying to come to some conclusion on the question “Did I make a fool of myself?”
If you have social anxiety, everything I just described probably feels magnified a thousand times. Maybe you feel paralyzed by fear in social situations, living in dread of making a negative impression, the possibility of embarrassing yourself may have become a full-blown catastrophe that you can’t risk. You’re so convinced that you look awkward and inept, you start monitoring your every word and gesture in an effort to make a good impression.
But over time you seem to be losing the battle: the harder you try to fit in, the worse the perceived outcome. You’re positive you’ve embarrassed yourself, so you look back at social interactions with shame, remembering them as the worst experiences in your life. Eventually, you decide you can’t put yourself through such torture anymore; better to avoid others as much as possible than endure such humiliation. And you start isolating yourself, withdrawing behind walls of self-protection, barricading yourself from the rest of humanity.
But this comes at a great cost: you often feel alone, with a profound sense of dissatisfaction and reduced quality of life. The other great cost is you become less practiced in the “arts of social discourse” and you feel more and more awkward in social situations. You’re caught in a vicious cycle that seems impossible to escape!
When Does Social Anxiety Become a Problem?
In one survey 40% of people considered themselves chronically shy, and in another general population study, 7.5% of adults had significant symptoms of social anxiety. If you happen to find yourself at one of those uncomfortable cocktail parties where you hardly know anyone, look around you. If there are 50 people at the party, there is a good chance that at least 20 of them are feeling at least some discomfort and maybe five people are feeling fairly intense levels of social anxiety – just like you.
The Socially Anxious Mind
Like other anxiety conditions, social anxiety operates as a vicious cycle. You anticipate social encounters with some degree of trepidation, then you find yourself in the social situation experiencing unhelpful thoughts and actions that drive up your anxiety, and then afterward you rehash and brood over the social encounter, which only exaggerates the dread with which you anticipate the next social interaction.
Social Anxiety Checklist
Read each question carefully and determine which ones are most relevant to your current functioning in social situations. If you’ve answered yes to more than 6 questions, then social anxiety is probably a significant issue for you.
- Do you almost always feel quite anxious in a variety of social situations that you encounter on a daily basis? __Yes __No
- Do you often feel apprehensive or worried about upcoming social events? __Yes __No
- Do you avoid or make excuses to get out of social obligations? __Yes __No
- When you can’t avoid a social encounter, do you try to leave as soon as possible? __Yes __No
- Do you tend to assume you are making a poor impression on people or that they are judging you in a negative manner (e.g., thinking you are stupid, incompetent, disturbed)? __Yes __No
- Are you intensely afraid of saying something embarrassing or humiliating When talking to others? __Yes __No
- Do you try hard not to appear anxious in social situations? __Yes __No
- When you are around other people, do you try to say as little as possible to avoid drawing attention to yourself? __Yes __No
- In social situations, are you preoccupied with your performance, tending to “over-analyze” how you are coming across to other people? __Yes __No
- Do you rely on various coping strategies to reduce your anxiety around others, such as avoiding eye contact, rehearsing what you say before speaking, or taking deep breaths? __Yes __No
- Has social anxiety held you back in your occupation, family relations, leisure activities, or friendships? __Yes __No
- After a social interaction, do you often go over and over in your mind what you said or how you came across to other people? __Yes __No
- Do you seem to have a particularly good memory for difficult or embarrassing past social encounters? __Yes __No
- Do you often feel like you don’t know what to say to other people? __Yes __No
- Do you believe you are particularly incompetent or inept around other people? __Yes __No
- Is embarrassing yourself in front of others just about the worst thing you can imagine? __Yes __No
- Do you have problems being assertive or stating your opinion? __Yes __No
- Would people who know you best say you are a shy or anxious person? __Yes __No
- Do you feel like everyone is looking at you in social situations? __Yes __No
- Do you think you are more anxious in social situations than most people? __Yes __No
- Have you been socially anxious or inhibited most of your life? __Yes __No
- Have you tried to overcome social anxiety but had only limited success in beating it? __Yes __No
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