Uh-oh! There’s a social event looming. Perhaps it’s a night out with friends, or a wedding, or a family reunion. Or maybe it’s a committee meeting, or an office party; a book club meeting, a networking event, a conference, a business meeting. Whatever it is, you don’t want to go. Your mind is whirring: Will I enjoy it? Will I know anyone there? Will I say something foolish? Will they like me? Will they think I’m boring? Will I have a bad time? Maybe you’ve got a knot in your stomach, or sweaty hands, or a racing heart. You’d like to pull out, to make an excuse, to postpone… Oh, what a relief it would be if the event got cancelled!
Ever felt a bit like this? I know I have, many, many, many times in my life. This is an example of what psychologists like to call “social anxiety”. Basically, the term means anxiety or fear related to social interaction with others. And it’s normal. Yup, you heard me right. Social anxiety is NORMAL. Almost everyone feels anxious in at least some social situations. Yes, even that friend of yours who is always the “life’s blood” of the party, and all those social butterflies and masterful story-tellers and outrageous extroverts who always seem to have something interesting or funny or clever to say. Even they experience social anxiety in some situations.
So why is social anxiety so prevalent? I’m glad you asked. To answer this question, let’s go back in time, right the way back to the stone age (or if you like big words, the “Neolithic era”). You’re a cavewoman or a caveman and the world is a dangerous place. You’re surrounded by wolves and bears and sabre-toothed tigers. Lots of mean critters outside your cave, only too eager to gobble up a puny two-legged naked ape for lunch.
If you want to survive in this world, you have to belong to a group. If the group kicks you out, you won’t live long by yourself. The wolves will have you for breakfast. And if you survive breakfast, the bears will have you for lunch. You won’t make it to dinner time.
So how does your mind ensure you fit in with the group? It compares you to all the other group members. It asks: Am I measuring up? Am I fitting in? Am I doing the right thing? Am I following the rules? Am I contributing enough? Do they like me? Am I doing anything that might get me rejected?
Does this sound a bit like your mind, at times? If so, join the club. We all have minds that sound a bit like this! We inherited them from our stone age ancestors. And as a result we are constantly comparing ourselves to other members of the group, and assessing whether we are likely to be rejected. We’re not consciously aware of it a lot of the time, but it’s continually happening – even in our sleep at times. (Ever had one of those dreams when you’re naked in public and everyone is staring at you? No? Oh – err – maybe that’s just me then!)
The number one myth about social anxiety is that it’s abnormal: everyone else out there just loves social interaction, and there’s something wrong with me for feeling anxious about it. And when we buy into this myth, we can easily beat ourselves up: “What’s wrong with me?”, “Why am I like this?”, “I shouldn’t feel anxious”, “I’m being silly”, “I’m defective” etc. And of course, this self-flagellation (I feel smart when I use big words like that) doesn’t help; we’re just piling harsh self-criticism on top of our social anxiety – which is likely to make it even worse!
Of course, some people’s lives are much more affected by social anxiety than others. Research shows around 50% of the population find that social anxiety has a significant negative impact on their life, and around 12% of the population are so badly affected by it, they meet criteria for a diagnosis of “social anxiety disorder”. So in my next blog, we’ll look at why social anxiety affects some people so much more than others, and what makes it worse, and what makes it better. But for now, I want to leave you with one practical tip to help you deal with it. (There are many more practical tips to follow in my next few blogs on this topic; I just want you to experiment with this one for now).
Tip #1 for Social Anxiety: Acknowledge it’s normal
When you’re feeling social anxiety, take a moment to acknowledge it. With a kind inner voice, tell yourself: “This is normal, everyone feels this at times.” This won’t get rid of your anxiety, of course; but it’s a whole lot better than beating yourself up for having a perfectly normal and commonplace human experience.
15 Sep 2017
We can all benefit from making the effort to learn mindfulness, acceptance and self-compassion skills. When we have these skills, we can respond more flexibly to our painful thoughts and feelings.