Social anxiety is the form of anxiety that keeps you from connecting with others. It keeps you isolated and without many friends and stops you from having fun at events that “everyone else” seems to enjoy.
Basically, it’s pretty lonely. But you can move beyond it.
Some of us are better at hiding our social anxiety than others. But whether the people in your life would be surprised or not that you are suffering, you know that you are, indeed, suffering. And you’d like some relief.
It is possible.
Is it Social Anxiety or Are You An Introvert?
Social anxiety and introversion are different animals although they often get thrown together. When I’m working with someone who says that their problem is that they get anxious in social situations one of my first questions is how much they actually want to be in social situations.
It may surprise some of us to know that there are people who really don’t want to attend that dinner party, that large birthday event, or that wedding. They just don’t like being around large groups of people. They’re not afraid or anxious: they just don’t get much from it.
Sure, that can limit what some people allow themselves to do. Sometimes someone may come to counseling because they feel they have to attend their brother’s engagement party (and, worse, give a speech!) But by and large, they are content with their lives of coffee shop meet-ups and solo (or couple) vacations. Introverts are often pretty darn happy.
What can be difficult for some people is that they desperately want more. They want to show up to events. They want to meet up for drinks, attend town halls, and New Year’s Eve bashes. But they don’t allow themselves to do so.
- worried they’ll say something foolish,
- afraid they’ll have nothing to say
- worried no one will talk to them,
- worried someone will talk to them.
Any of that sound like you? That’s closer to social anxiety and it’s getting in they way of you enjoying your life.
Because all of that kind of thinking keeps you stuck in your head you stop doing the socializing that you actually want to do. You’re so focused on the possible negative outcome that you get paralyzed.
No wonder you just stay home!
What’s the Worst That Can Happen (in social situations)?
So now we know that you want to be more social and that social anxiety is what’s keeping you away. Let’s play out what those fears actually lead to.
If you do say something foolish… And if you are left alone… Or if the conversation does lag then ask yourself this: What is the worst that happens?
What will you have to contend with if your worst fears come to pass?
Because one of the great things about the worst thing happening is that you often realize that you survive. That if you get past the feeling of shame you get to the learning part of all of this.
You get to develop more compassion for yourself and to stop holding yourself to such perfectionist standards. You also begin to find the people who like the imperfect you. The you that has quirks and idiosyncrasies and maybe even likes you because of those, not just in spite of those things. (You may have gotten the latter message from family growing up.)
This isn’t easy, of course, and in sessions you’ll need to spend some time examining and defeating the negative thoughts that get in your way. But you don’t need to do all of that on your own, without a net. It’s precisely what counseling is for! But a focus on the worst that can happen can be a great counter-point to your fears.
The Big Fears of Social Anxiety: Abandonment & Rejection
Two major fears that are underneath all those negative thoughts are abandonment and rejection. They’re not mutually exclusive and are often found together. One reason why counseling can be so helpful regarding these is that our expectations for whether others will stay or leave are laid down when we were very young.
Once our expectation is set that we will be left alone or made to feel shamed for wanting to be with someone (mom, dad, or whoever is important to us at that time) we develop ways to cope. These were adaptive at the time, but have become maladaptive now that we’re adults. We all come up with our own, but some common ones are
- Rejecting someone before they reject you
- Isolating ourselves
- Being irritating, or easily irritated by others
- Engaging in not-so-social behaviors
- Paradoxically, sometimes we form initial bonds way too intensely, way too soon, only to pull away way too quickly
All of these serve to defend ourselves from the hurt of someone leaving us. Many of them keep people away. It’s what they were designed to do when we were younger because as kids we don’t have much power.
The problem is that we haven’t gotten rid of these coping methods and as adults, these once helpful strategies are doing more harm than good.
Here’s a difficult truth:
It may take some time to really examine how much work you did to avoid connection before you can genuinely connect with others in the way you want to.
Overcoming social anxiety isn’t simple. Your annoying social anxiety may actually have been a coping strategy that the younger you used to deal with rejection and hurt feelings. If you want to overcome this you’re going to need to really challenge those paralyzing negative thoughts. Soon you’ll realize that some of the risks you take to engage with others are worth it.
But you don’t have to do it alone.
Therapy is such a good tool for this because the nature of therapy is connecting with the therapist. And if you can do that and use the therapy as a place to experiment you’re well on your way to going to that Oscars party!
If you’re struggling with social anxiety and are looking for some support, please don’t hesitate to get in touch to discuss how we can work on this together. You don’t have to suffer with this and always be alone.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He is a Brooklyn therapist (as well as also seeing clients online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.