Let’s Talk About Social Anxiety

How does social anxiety tend to manifest itself in a situation where the sufferer is meeting lots of new people?

While we use the term “social anxiety” to mean a shared cluster of symptoms (fear of social embarrassment, avoidance of social situations, awareness of excessive unreasonable fear in social situations, and sometimes panic attacks in social situations); everyone’s experience of anxiety is unique to them and their life experiences. When I work with a patient in therapy, I always find it useful for us to come to know and understand what thoughts and feelings are specific to their experience of social anxiety. Often what is triggered when we are afraid of meeting new people and/or entering new groups are all the times in our lives where we experienced shame around others. Usually unconsciously and in the body, we “remember” the times we were teased at school by other kids, put down by our families, or humiliated or called out by a teacher in front of the class and it feels threatening to enter a new social situation and risk getting hurt again.

What are some tips for people who are afraid to enter unfamiliar social situations? Is there a mindset they can have, a practice they can develop, or a technique they can use?

What gets triggered when we are feeling afraid of a new social situation are all the times we felt bad about ourselves around others. Because of that, it can sometimes help when preparing for a social activity to actively remember times when social situations went well – a new group or situation where we met a good friend, times we enjoyed a party or a group when we made people laugh or ended up feeling connected, safe and good about ourselves. Hopefully we can then enter the situation with our self-esteem higher and from that part of us that feels we are good and worthwhile people to meet, someone that people like and enjoy.

Another good exercise is to walk oneself through the social situation imagining it going well through to the end – meeting good people, feeling connected to them, and having an enjoyable time where we feel good about ourselves.

Why do we find it so comforting to know that a friend will be where we are going?

A friend is an active reminder and proof that we are someone who is a lovable enjoyable person that people want to meet. Additionally, it can be exhausting to meet new people, there are often anxieties about ourselves and others when meeting for the first time. We are busy sizing people up, reading their reactions to us and others and trying to feel out how to have good times together. We are often asking questions to get to know someone and answering them with a lot of our defenses up to protect us. A friend can provide relief from this pressure, we can let our guard down around more around a friend because we know they like us, we know about each other’s lives and can usually have easy conversations together.

Is “needing to be liked” such a bad thing? Doesn’t everyone want to be liked? When does this “need” become a problem?

We all need to be liked from the moment we are born – it’s how we get people to want to take care of us and help us stay alive! Humans are social creatures and having positive experiences and relationships with other people is a key ingredient to having a happy & fulfilling life. This is why solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments in prison. Needing to be liked isn’t a problem in and of itself. What can sometimes be a challenge is if we don’t have enough experiences of ourselves as good likable people that it’s hard for us to relax around people enough to enjoy them and they us; when our need to be liked and our worry around that blocks our ability to connect with other people.

How easy is social anxiety to “cover up”? Might we think it’s more obvious than it is? ie, we think everyone sees how awkward we are, but really, we look totally normal to everyone else?

Social anxiety is likely more obvious to the person having it than anyone else. Often in new groups everyone is worried to some degree about others liking them and so focused less on you and more on themselves; it’s sort of the phenomenon of speaking one by one in a group; we are often practicing what we will say while others are speaking and often don’t hear what they say. One of the hardest parts of social anxiety can be that we are feeling so intensely anxious that it feels like what we worry about is actually happening. It’s good to try and remember that it’s mostly in our head.

We throw around the terms extrovert and introvert all the time. But what does that mean from a psychological perspective? In a practical way?

Extrovert and introvert are social tendencies and connected to a combination of inborn temperament and how we were socialized in our families. Part of becoming good and less anxious about socializing is practice! Some of us grew up in families where we had people over and parties all the time and probably are more comfortable socializing (assuming those experiences went well and we enjoyed them). Some families tend to stay at home with each other and hide when the doorbell rings or turn down party invitations. I tend to think of introversion and extroversion as situational and on a scale. Some of us may be extroverted in small groups but not big ones, some of us may like to go to parties but have one on one conversations, sometimes being more of an introvert or extrovert on a given day can be based on our mood and how much energy we have. It’s sometimes hard to say who is introverted or extroverted, it can be more of a mix. Either way, the wonderful news is that no matter who you are and what family you are from, you can improve your ability to feel comfortable in social situations through knowing yourself and practice.

Where does social anxiety come from? What triggers it? How can we treat it, deal with it, or get rid of it?

See answer to first question. Essentially social anxiety is unique to each person and consists of all our experiences in groups and social settings that contribute to us feeling like bad, unlikable, unwanted people. It can be triggered in new settings that feel like they have the potential threat of us repeating those bad experiences of ourselves with others. The more that we can experience and focus on good experiences of ourselves and others and the more we practice and have those experiences, this can help us feel more competent socially and then we can tend to predict a happier, more pleasant social experience.

Anything else you’ve observed about this phenomenon/issue in your years as a therapist or just your own life as a person?

I have seen many people get better with their social anxiety; social anxiety is often a “rational” response to past experiences of bad social situations. I have seen people who have been unable to go out and meet people, to enjoy going to a party, who obsess over how they acted and what others thought of them in groups get real help in therapy. They work on understanding where the problem started, what is going on for them when they get scared and nervous and usually can start to feel better about themselves just through the process of doing that instead of thinking they are somehow “defective.” I have seen people become more and more comfortable with themselves and enjoy more and more social experiences. So there is hope!