Social Anxiety: We Worry About Faults, Ignore Our Strengths
Thursday, January 8 2015 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Social anxiety: we hear the term with increasing frequency. Formerly known as social phobia, it involves the experience of heightened anxiety in social situations. That description, though, barely touches the surface of what social anxiety truly is. Social anxiety relates to thoughts and feelings inside of us as they correspond to people and settings outside of us. Indeed, with social anxiety, both our inner world and our outer one contribute to the feelings of worry, unease, and even fear that can almost paralyze us.
For someone living with social anxiety, any type of get-together can cause sheer agony. Picture an imaginary person named Alex (notice that "Alex" is gender-neutral because social anxiety doesn't discriminate based on anything). Alex is supposed to have lunch with a group of friends tomorrow.
With Social Anxiety We Worry About Imagined Situations
All evening Alex frets. Alex’s imagination creates all sorts of disastrous scenarios, ranging from being judged or laughed at to making a blunder so huge it causes these friends to run away forever. As much as Alex hates going out with people, the thought of being ostracized and alone forever is even worse. Alex is now physically ill. Alex’s head hurts. Alex’s stomach hurts. Alex is exhausted, but the moment Alex goes to bed, a jolt of nervous energy hits, creating the jitters and guaranteeing an anxious, sleepless night that will give Alex lots of time to ruminate and worry about the looming lunch.
Because Alex has social anxiety, which goes beyond mere nerves, these thoughts and feelings are present in the morning. Alex agonizes over what to wear, knowing that everything looks stupid and unflattering anyway. Alex knows that all conversation will be ridiculous because everyone other than Alex will say the right things. Alex looks in the mirror and curses, then goes to change into a new outfit, one that isn’t sweaty.
Notice anything about Alex’s situation? The main thing occupying Alex’s thoughts, and impacting his/her emotions, is worry, fear and anxiety over how the others would judge and perceive him/her, how they would laugh, ridicule and ostracize and how Alex would screw up and make mistake after mistake. Yet the lunch hadn’t even happened yet.
Social Anxiety Makes Us Focus on All Our Faults and What We Do Wrong
With social anxiety, we can become so caught up in our perceived fears and imagined disasters that we don’t have time to focus on anything else. When we are thinking about our degree of failure and how much we are afraid to engage in situations, we’re not thinking of all that is good about ourselves. We are so concerned about our weaknesses that we forget about our strengths. When we switch our focus, we can loosen anxiety’s stronghold.
Something insidious about social anxiety is that it slithers deep inside of us and doesn't want to get out. It tricks us into thinking that we are bad, that we do have countless reasons to worry about doing or saying the wrong things and pushing people away.
I've wrestled with social anxiety, and it liked to bring up examples from my past, pieces of evidence that I wasn't fit to be around other human beings. If I tried to think of a strength to counter a perceived fault, anxiety laughed loudly and piled on more faults, effectively burying me.
It is indeed true, though, that focusing on our faults prevents us from focusing on our strengths. When we’re only thinking of all the mistakes we think we make, we can’t see that our mistakes aren't really all that detrimental to our lives and that we have many positive things about us. In short, we all have great things to bring to any setting, and we should train our brains to pay attention to those good things.
To Reduce Social Anxiety, Keep Track of Your Strengths and Believe in Yourself
Perhaps try this: brainstorm all the things you’re good at, all the delightful things about you. Be patient with yourself because anxiety won’t easily let you believe that you have these strengths. But you do, so be persistent.
Keep a list of your strengths and positive traits with you and look at it often. When you look in the mirror, find your beauty (it’s there). When anxiety tells you how many mistakes you make, tell yourself specific things you do well (you can draw from that list).
In changing your focus, you are taking power away from anxiety. When it tries to tell you horrible things about yourself, tell it otherwise and put it in its place. Just think of how peaceful it will be when you can sleep the night before a get-together, get dressed in the morning without thinking the wrong outfit will destroy the world and you with it, and relax when you interact with others because you believe in all the good things you have to offer. In your face, social anxiety.