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Social Anxiety: Is it Really about Low Self-Esteem?

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Social Anxiety: Is it Really about Low Self-Esteem?

Will Bratt

If you or someone you care about struggles with social anxiety, you’ve probably heard the idea that it’s caused by having low self-esteem. In this video Will Bratt explains how that perspective misses the mark, and offers some other ways of looking at it that can help you deal with your own social anxiety!


If you or someone you care about struggles with social anxiety, you’ve probably heard the idea that it’s caused by having low self-esteem. In this video I explain how that perspective misses the mark, and offer some other ways of looking at it that can help you deal with your own social anxiety. Keep watching to learn more!

Hi folks, I’m Will Bratt from Heart & Oak Therapy, supporting better, brighter lives. We’re therapists who do regular videos on mental wellness, and give practical ideas and tips to address your problems and make your life happier – so hit the subscribe button to keep in the loop!

There’s a really popular idea out there that the reason people feel anxious in social situations is because they have low self-esteem. This perspective assumes that because you fear rejection, exclusion, judgment, and other negative social responses, you must not feel good enough about yourself, because if you did, those things wouldn’t matter to you.

 As a therapist, I talk to a lot of folks about social anxiety, and its relationship to self-esteem almost always comes up. But when we take a close look at that perspective, its faults start to become clear. In this video I share how the idea that social anxiety is caused by low self-esteem doesn’t hold much water, as well as some more context-based observations that better explain social anxiety.

 Let’s start with what social anxiety is, and how most people experience it.

As an emotion, anxiety is often about anticipation. In general, it is the emotional response to anticipated negative experiences. When we throw the word “social” in front of “anxiety”, we’re talking about the anticipation of negative social responses or experiences. I talk more about this in our video “How to Address the Fears Behind Social Anxiety”, which you should check out after this one.

If you’ve ever dealt with social anxiety, you’ve probably experienced it as fears and worries around anticipated judgments, rejection, exclusion, or even as a lack of safety in groups or crowded spaces. Common responses to these fears include avoidance of social circumstances, being quiet and careful with what you say, verbal diarrhea – where you fill the air with words and have a hard time reigning it in, and even feeling physically ill with nausea, vomiting, rapid heart rate, and fast, shallow breathing. 

With all that said, people often assume that if only you had more self-esteem, confidence, or thought more highly of yourself, you wouldn’t have these feelings in the first place. Let me explain why this assumption is generally not all that useful.

1.     It’s an overgeneralization

First, and perhaps foremost, it’s often a hasty overgeneralization that your feelings of anxiety around social situations are caused by having low self-esteem. The mental health field is full of hasty assumptions and generalizations just like this, which fail to take the context of your life and lived experience into account. Assumptions like these jump the gun and provide easy answers that lack real insight into your actual lived experience.

What I mean here is that human lives are complex, and our responses, like fear and anxiety, are typically not black and white issues. They’re nuanced and intricate, and they often come to be for a host of intersecting reasons.

When we make the assumption that someone’s social anxiety must be attributed to their low self-esteem, we fail to take these nuances into account and run the risk of choosing easy answers over potentially more accurate ones.

2.     It assumes social fears are necessarily connected to self-esteem

The second problem with the idea that social anxiety is totally due to low self-esteem is that it is an absolute and therefore potentially ill-fitting assumption. When we think that way, we put all our eggs in that one basket, and close the door on more contextually correct possibilities.

As a therapist, I’ve had way more conversations about self-esteem and social anxiety than I could possibly count. I can say that it is simply untrue that all people who fear receiving negative social responses like rejection, exclusion, or judgment, do so because they don’t like themselves enough. In fact, more often than not, the fact that someone wants to avoid negative interpersonal experiences is more of an indicator that they esteem themselves quite highly.

If that last point has you scratching you head, let me explain. If someone fears judgment, exclusion, or rejection, that tells me they care about how they’re treated. Caring about yourself in this way goes hand in hand with how you value or esteem yourself. So if you read between the lines, the fact that someone is anxious about being on the receiving end of mistreatment is more a sign that they esteem themselves highly than that they don’t value themselves much at all.

If you truly didn’t care about something, you wouldn’t feel anxious about how other people treat that thing. So when someone feels anxious about how they might be treated by others, that can be an indicator that they do indeed care about themselves – and caring about yourself goes hand in hand with self-esteem.

3.     Past Experiences

The third way this notion misses the mark is that it doesn’t account for people’s past experiences.

Everything makes sense in context, and people’s past experiences are a totally relevant part of the context around present circumstances. We can’t divorce ourselves from the past, or live like goldfish with no long-term memory. When things happen, we learn from them, and adjust our expectations and actions accordingly.

For example, we might assume that a 21-year-old who was bullied throughout high school, and who has social anxiety around meeting new people, has those fears because the bullying caused them to have low self-esteem, which causes them to feel socially anxious. But what if, having lived through that bullying, they developed a radar for mistreatment, which their social anxiety is a testament to? So instead of the anxiety being caused by not liking themselves, it could actually be attributed to learning that sometimes people treat others in really unkind ways, and their anxiety is part of their resistance to that happening further.

These are three ways in which social anxiety can be about so much more than low self-esteem. Now we’d like you to chime in with your thoughts and perspectives! Your ideas could be really helpful to the Heart & Oak community! Aside from it being all about low self-esteem, what are other ways you make sense of your own social anxiety? Are there some points from this video that ring true for you, or maybe some that we didn’t touch on at all? Leave your response in the comment section!

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Take care until next time, and keep doing the things that help you live a better, brighter life.