Social anxiety can feel like living inside a shrinking room, where the walls get closer and the space inside gets tighter. In this video, I share insights into what social anxiety is, why it’s so common, and tangible actions you can take to address some common fears behind your own social anxiety.
Hi folks, I’m Will Bratt from Heart & Oak Therapy, supporting better, brighter lives.
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Social anxiety is kind of a catch-all term that several different kinds of worry, fear, and anxiety relate to. Generally speaking, social anxiety is about anticipating negative social interactions with others. For some it revolves around groups of new people, while for others it’s large crowds. It can also relate to some one-on-one relationships, or to situations where you have a responsibility to others, like at a job.
In this video, I’ll be covering 4 of the most common fears and worries that people relate to social anxiety, along with concrete things you can do to address those fears at their root. The 4 types of social anxiety that I’ll be touching on are:
1. Not fitting in within small groups
2. Being judged for a feature of your identity or an aspect of your experience
3. Being seen or positioned as deficient, inadequate, or incompetent
4. Feeling unsafe in groups or crowds of people
First, let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of social anxiety.
People respond to the situations they associate with social anxiety in many different ways. The most recognizable response associated with anxiety in general is to avoid the situations that we feel anxious in. Anyone who has ever felt anxious can likely attest to the fact that this makes total sense, as avoidance helps us mitigate undesirable experiences.
Other ways of resisting the negative outcomes people associate with social anxiety can include staying quiet or censoring ourselves in groups, chattering nervously and filling the space with words, or carefully curating what we say in order to illicit positive responses from other people. These ultimately all serve the important purpose of avoiding negative responses or encouraging positive ones.
The downside, of course, is that we don’t feel free to be ourselves in these situations. If you experience a lot of social anxiety, you probably feel like your life is made smaller by your fears, and you may long to feel freer and at ease in these social situations.
So let’s get in to 4 of the most common types of social anxiety and what you can do to address them.
1. Not Fitting In
Just about everyone can relate to the fear that they might stick out like a sore thumb in social groups. This makes sense, because, as I laid out in our video “How Most Anxiety is Social Anxiety”, belonging matters for our sense of dignity – and that’s important! I also go into more detail about this in a post on the Heart & Oak blog, which you can find a link to in the description below.
When it comes to social anxiety around not fitting in, there is most often one of two outcomes that people are most fearful of: being rejected and being excluded.
Rejection is rarely, if ever, kind. It often comes with humiliation and alienation, which can make the experience all the more difficult, or even traumatic.
Exclusion, on the other hand, can leave us feeling unwanted or discarded, with an implicit message that we aren’t good enough to be included. So it makes sense to strive to keep these things from happening!
When it comes to actually taking the wind out of anxiety’s sails around our fears of exclusion or rejection, there are a few tangible actions that can help:
One is to go out on a limb and actually acknowledge that you feel anxious in those particular moments. Being the clever person you are, you probably already have a good read on people and circumstances that are safe to do that in. If you’re meeting a new group for the first time and they seem like kind, accepting people, simply acknowledging that you feel anxious when you meet new people can take the pressure to act like you feel at ease or “normal” off your shoulders. Otherwise, that pressure can just amplify the anxiety that you already feel in those social interactions.
Some other more private or subtle strategies in these situations include:
- Focusing on breathing slowly and intentionally if it feels like your breath is shallow and quick. Also, softening your abdomen and opening your shoulders while you breathe into your tummy can support more of a sense of being in control of your heart rate, breathing, perspiration, and other related aspects of your physical body.
- You can also talk yourself through the fear of being excluded or rejected
- If your fears come true, how can you deal with it?
- What power or capacity do you have to handle negative social responses from others?
- How have you dealt with them in the past?
- Who do you know who deals with negative responses well, and how do you imagine they do it
Exclusion and rejection can hurt, but there will always be people out there who care about and admire you for the person you are.
2. Fear of judgment
Now on to the second common fear related to social anxiety: fears of being judged
Anxiety around the fear of judgment is similar to the fear of not fitting in, but different in some distinct ways. While they both relate to not belonging, the fear behind this kind of social anxiety is more about receiving a negative social response about a particular aspect of your identity or experience. This can look like fears of judgment for how you look, your sexuality or gender identity, your socioeconomic status, how you speak, your job or level of education, or stigmatized experiences you’ve had, such as surviving abuse.
I know it goes without saying, but judgment sucks. It reduces us to a diminished essence far below who we actually are, and if it’s for something about ourselves that we really can’t help, it can really hurt. The hurt we experience for being judged is also very contextual. It probably doesn’t hurt to the same degree if it’s cast by a total stranger, versus a close friend, versus someone we don’t really know but admire, versus a family member. My point is, it’s about who we anticipate doing the judging and how sensitive we are about being judged for that particular thing.
If you have anxieties about judgment, questions like these could be useful in helping address them:
- What are the things you’re most wary of being judged for?
- What is it about those particular things that makes them especially sensitive areas?
- What do the people who care most about you appreciate most about who you are?
- Do they know about the areas you’re sensitive about? If they do, why do you suppose they’re still in the picture?
- How do you imagine they’d respond if they knew you were judged for what you’re sensitive about?
- What do you imagine someone else’s judgment toward you would say about them?
- Would their judgment speak more to fundamental problems with you, or to issues they have?
- If you were to be judged for something you’re sensitive about, who would you go to for support? How would that help your sense of value or dignity?
Reflecting on questions like these can be helpful because they can take some of the power away from things we’re afraid to be judged for. That may not change the reality that being judged can really hurt, but it helps us remember that we have what it takes to deal with it.
3. Being seen or positioned as deficient, inadequate, or incompetent
The third common fear behind social anxiety relates to being deemed inadequate, deficient, or incompetent. This is similar to the anxiety around judgment described, but it has more to do with measuring up and being seen as “good enough”.
Being “good enough” is more or less synonymous with “acceptable”, and acceptance and belonging go hand-in-hand. Do you notice a pattern here? This just reaffirms the point that social anxiety has so much to do with belonging, and belonging has so much to do with dignity!
If you struggle to feel like you measure up in the company of others, here are some questions that could help you navigate those issues:
- If not “measuring up” feels like a scary or uncomfortable position to be in, what do you imagine to be the consequence?
- What would it mean to you if that consequence was to come true?
- In your mind, where do the standards for “measuring up” come from?
- Is there anyone around whom it really doesn’t matter if they think you’re good enough or not?
- Who does it feel it matters most around?
- Who accepts you for the person you are, regardless of how good you are at certain things?
- If there was a critic you knew you absolutely could not appeal to, how would you accept their negative view of you?
Just like being judged, being seen as inadequate or “not measuring up” is a total affront to your dignity, but you can’t win ‘em all. Finding ways to accept this and appreciate who you are for all the ways you DO shine may be a more useful way to look at yourself.
4. Social anxiety in crowded spaces
The fourth and final common fear behind social anxiety that I’ll be touching on in this video has to do with being in crowded spaces.
There are plenty of reasons you might feel a sense of anxiety or panic in crowded areas. Often, this relates back to adverse or traumatic experiences people have had, which undermine their sense of safety in the community. That aside, you can probably relate to having an increased sense of tension in busy, crowded spaces, which is contrasted by feeling more relaxed and at ease in less densely-packed areas. No matter how you cut it, we tend to respond to busy spaces with more arousal.
Social anxiety in the context of big crowds is actually quite unique from the previous three kinds of fears. What differentiates it from the others is the focus on physical safety above belonging and dignity. When people feel anxious at the prospect of being in a large crowd of people, they tend to be less concerned with being judged or excluded, and more worried that something untoward them might happen.
If someone has experienced violence, or is fearful of encountering a person or situation that would be scary or uncomfortable for them, the solution isn’t as simple as saying “Just don’t worry about it! I’m sure you’ll be fine!”. If you think about it, it can be a lot harder to watch your back when there are a ton of other bodies milling around you. Sometimes there’s good sense behind our sensitivities and aversions!
If you struggle with anxiety around crowds or big groups of people, these questions could help you explore that in a constructive way:
- What makes crowded spaces different than those with fewer people when it comes to your anxiety level?
- What are you most wary of having happen when you’re in a crowded place?
- What precautions do you take to create safety when you’re entering crowded spaces?
- If you could imagine something happening that would take all your worries about this away, what would that be?
- How have you created safety in the past when you’ve felt fearful or unsafe going into crowded spaces?
- When you reflect on that, what does that tell you about your capacity to handle hard situations?
When it comes to taking care of social anxiety around crowded spaces, the emphasis is generally more on bolstering your sense of safety so that you trust you’ll be taken care of in the ways you need to be.
Being aware of your anxieties, fears, and worries can help you navigate them with intention. When you have a more robust understanding of the fears behind your social anxiety, it’s easier to negotiate with them and live in more preferred and expansive ways.
So, what kinds of social situations do you find you feel most anxious in, and why? Do you have strategies for navigating your own feelings of anxiety in social situations? If you have some thoughts or strategies to share, or any questions about the things I talked about in this video that the Heart & Oak community could help with, let us know in the comments below.
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Take care until next time, and keep doing the things that help you live a better, brighter life.