On the very first page of Charles Rycroft’s Anxiety and Neurosis, he mentions that “anxiety is such a common experience that one would be disinclined to believe anyone who claimed to be immune to it”. And in this age of advanced technology and unremitting faddism, one may well swap in “social anxiety” to account for the perplexing spike in this generation’s self-conscious feelings of ineptitude, failure, and embarrassment, when tasked with confronting social situations.
It’s important to note from the outset that social anxiety is difficult to summarise, and it’s different for each person. It may feel at times, upon entering a new social situation, that you’re sinking into quicksand. All you’re thinking is “I have to get out of here”, or “I don’t fit in”.
Plus, it’s not an easily resolved issue; there isn’t one cure-all that can magic away all of one’s nagging, drawn-in attention. Sometimes words don’t help, and sometimes we don’t listen. But there are a number of things that, when approached with the right attitude, can help cordon off those social fears. Baby steps.
Anxiety can be conceptualised as both a state (the immediate experience), and as a trait (a predisposition to respond “anxiously”). And what determines how we act are our thoughts, or cognition. Thinking plays a central role in social anxiety.
To utilise the Clark and Wells model for social anxiety, we can better understand how anxiety comes about, and how to overcome its influence. First, there is a trigger situation like a party, or a date, which activates in the subject assumptions or implicit understandings. These assumptions can differ from reality, as assumptions often do. You might assumes that, because everyone is looking at you, you are being judged, and more often than not, you might assume the judgment is negative. This situation is therefore interpreted as socially dangerous.
People naturally respond to danger by protecting themselves, by becoming “safe” again. How? Talking only to “safe” people we already know, or about “safe” topics that aren’t likely to evoke anger or debate. This is inclement for the formation of social bonds because they are preventing themselves from showing off their full nature, of not being the “real” them.
What you begin to think now is “I’m not doing this right”, “I won’t think of anything good to say”, “They all think I’m too shy”, which gives rise to self-conscious behaviour. Drawing inwards, remonstrating yourself, fidgeting. We sometimes refer to this state as being “painfully aware” of ourselves. But the more we focus inwards on all our shortcomings, the more threatening the situation becomes.
The offspring of this vicious cycle is a progressive feeling of inadequacy. Every time we enter a social situation, we remember past embarrassments. The familiar tension starts to rise. The anxiety increases, and the feelings become psychosomatic: people describe themselves feeling “hot”, “flighty”, “uncomfortable”, or “physically ill”.
Reducing the risk of appearing socially awkward becomes a sort of art. Evading messages on social media, making excuses not to go out, and pretending not to see their associate on the street, are all forms of risk-reduction. It is an understandable thing to do, but it is counter-productive.
Often social anxiety has its roots in our upbringing. We develop an image of ourselves as inadequate or never quite measuring up. Our present day experiences undergo a form of psychological transference, and we become the image of our younger selves, small, vulnerable, and prone to mistakes. But this form of self-awareness makes situations worse by producing the wrong type of information.
For example, our relationships can become debilitated by our self-awareness. If we were to think of ourselves as constantly inadequate, we would fear that our partners share this belief. We might fail to notice the good points, and how they are genuinely interested or attracted to us in spite of how we assume ourselves to be.
It’s important to remember that feeling anxious in social situations is completely normal. We’re our own worst critics and this can prevent us from engaging properly with others. A lot of the time it’s just down to our personality.
We’ve all heard of extroverts and introverts, but what we may not realise is that everyone falls on a different part of the spectrum. You might be an introverted extrovert, for example – someone who enjoys being out with people but who occasionally needs time alone to recharge. Or, you might be an extroverted introvert – someone who likes to be left alone, but who needs occasional company to combat loneliness.
The main thing is that we accept our personalities and ensure we work towards social goals that make us feel comfortable.