How Rules Both Help and Hinder Social Anxiety

Medical Reviewer

People who suffer with social anxiety are constantly worried about saying or doing something wrong. If they think they’ve done so, they feel embarrassment and humiliation.

Learning from Bridget Jones

Do you remember the Bridget Jones movies? What is it about her character that so many people identify with?

Bridget is full of insecurities. She sets goals she fails to meet. She blurts out the wrong things at the wrong times. She manages her life in chaotic ways, makes blue soup for her guests, smokes, drinks, and worries about her weight. Yet, for all her social blunders and anxieties, Bridget is a really likeable person.

One noticeable feature is Bridget’s reliance on self-help books. Bridget thinks she’s a bit of an ill fit in society, so she uses her self-help books to provide guidance on how she should behave and what she should say. Part of the reason we warm to Bridget is her attempts to follow the rules, which are often conflicting, and which rarely suit the situation she’s in.

Getting around social awkwardness

No matter how socially sophisticated a person is, there is nothing that can guarantee they won’t experience moments of embarrassment or rejection. Each person occasionally draws a blank on what to say. And all people have times when, despite their best efforts, they are simply boring. What really matters is the meaning they attach to these moments.

The idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to behave is instilled in us from a very early age. We grow up with these rules because they are an efficient and effective way of getting along. Social rules guide our behavior in the jobs we do. I know several people who are entirely socially skilled when they are “in role” but who feel awkward and anxious when not.

There are all sorts of social conventions and it’s true that some quite subtle skills can be learned and applied. Most of us, however, are equipped with sufficient skills to get along just fine. It’s really more a case of doing what feels right and responding flexibly as we go along. The more comfortable you feel the more likely it is you’ll make those around you feel the same.

Making mistakes

The more you think mistakes matter and the more you think people will think badly of you for making them, the more likely you are to retreat inside yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Most of them are insignificant. People with a smidge of self-awareness know this and they understand and typically overlook the mistakes others make without judging them or feeling the need to point them out.

One thing we can learn from Bridget Jones is that a person’s anxieties and embarrassments can be endearing. They may also be amusing, of course, but often the reason we smile is that we can easily imagine ourselves in that exact situation. So, while social rules can be useful, we shouldn't be overly concerned about living up to them all. They frequently change, they differ from situation to situation, and they can sometimes stifle the very things that make us unique.

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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