Christmas is just around the corner. For lots of people it's a time for celebrations, office parties and meeting new people. If you're someone with social anxiety it's a time of dread. Isn't doesn't have to be.
If you’re someone with social anxiety the chances are you share a set of common beliefs with others. These boil down to thinking badly about yourself, setting standards that are too high, taking on too much personal responsibility and some issues around emotional reasoning. I’ll unpack each in a little more detail.
Thinking badly about yourself relates to the belief that you have nothing interesting, witty or intelligent to say. You place yourself in the situation of social outcast, where virtually everyone else in the situation seems relaxed and socially slick. The reality of the situation is that we can all find ourselves in situations where we feel socially awkward because we have little in common with those around us. The fact remains that social chemistry typically occurs between a couple which then may extend to others. Some people’s entire social circle involves couples who may never actually meet as a group. Put another way, there are more people like you out there than you might imagine. People feel relaxed in some situations and less so in others.
The social anxious person also tends to set quite high standards for themselves. They worry about being boring, repeating themselves, making politically incorrect mistakes. They feel they should never be dull and put the person they are speaking to in the position where they make excuses to move away. If this same person stood back and listened to the typical conversation of other people they would observe all the things they fear doing themselves. They would also find just how acceptable these stumbles, repeated stories and jokes that fall flat are.
This brings me on to a third core belief, which is to do with personal responsibility. Any situation that rests responsibility on the shoulders of one person can become exhausting. Social anxiety is an exhausting business – why? The central reason is the belief the person has that they are fully and entirely responsible for how well a social situation goes. If it doesn’t match their personal expectations they think it’s their fault. It’s as if other people in the situation don’t have any responsibility to be civil, responsive, inquisitive or entertaining. All social interactions carry a shared responsibility but typically this is something overlooked by the person who is social anxious.
A key issue with all forms of anxiety is one of vigilance. Socially anxious people tend to monitor their own feelings as evidence of their social competence. In fact they become so focused on their own feelings and physical reactions that they pay scant attention to what is going on around them. Socially anxious people typically assume their anxiety is on display to the world. It’s true that excessive anxiety might be met with a question as to whether you are okay, but in most cases people are pretty effective at hiding their true emotions. It’s not easy, but taking time to move your attention away from yourself can help to reduce your anxiety. In this way you’ll probably notice the body language of others. It can be quite revealing to watch all the clutched drinks, crossed arms and legs, lip biting, pen clicking and nervous laughter. Give it a try and you'll see we're (mostly) all human.
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Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.
Updated: December 6, 2016