Anxious people are frequently hyper-concerned with being perceived positively by others. However, a catch-22 is that anxiety can sometimes lead to behaving in ways that make a poor impression.
The purpose of this blog post is to help loved ones, co-workers, and the anxious person themselves better understand these patterns. I'll also give some suggested solutions that anxious individuals can use to mitigate these problems.
1. Getting caught up in thoughts about social evaluation can result in lost opportunities for connection.
A few nights ago, my neighbor was putting up his Christmas decorations* and they looked great. I wanted to call out and say that, but something stopped me. I was caught up in my head, thinking, "They probably think we're lazy or stingy for not putting up decorations when everyone else does."
A reality check on that thought was that I had no evidence my neighbor was thinking that, and it's only about half of our street that decorates, not everybody. And, even if he was thinking that, I still should've called out and complimented the decorations. In the moment, my anxiety got in the way of an opportunity to reinforce a positive social connection with our neighbor.
Solution: The next day, after I'd had a chance to correct my thinking, I did compliment the decorations. As in this scenario, it's often possible to go back and recover from lost opportunities for social connection after you've had a chance to challenge your anxious thinking.
2. Perfectionism that leads to procrastinating and avoiding can make you seem unreliable.
Imagine this scenario. You get a work-related email from someone you want to impress. You're not immediately sure how to respond and want to get it "just right," so you hold off. The next day, you're still feeling anxious about how best to respond, so you put it off again. The more days go by, the harder it gets, and the more embarrassed you feel about not having responded. Now you're worried the other person is thinking you're unprofessional, disorganized, or disinterested, which they very well might be (or not).
Solution: Focus on your values as the driver of your behavior. This can sometimes make it easier to promptly decide how to respond in interpersonal situations in which you feel perfectionism pressure. In general, pick one to three relevant core values, and let your behavior reflect those. For instance, your relevant core values might be authenticity, conscientiousness, and creativity. How would those values help you decide how to respond to the email? This can help take the focus off social-evaluative concerns. When you act in line with your own values, it's easier to let the chips fall where they may. No one can completely control others' reactions, but whatever those reactions are, you'll feel better and more at peace if you've acted consistently with your own values.
3. Being caught up in your anxiety can sometimes make you insensitive to others' emotional needs.
Anxiety is a powerful emotion. The evolutionary basis of it is that it has developed so that it grabs our attention, and it's hard to distract yourself from it. One way this plays out is that when you're consumed by anxiety and ruminative thoughts, it can feel like dealing with your own stress is all you can manage. This can sometimes lead to imbalances in relationships. For instance, when your spouse or partner gets home from work, you might desperately need to debrief about something that is making you anxious, but this can crowd out when your spouse needs some attention paid to what type of day they've had, or whatever is on their mind. Your emotional needs might seem more intense than theirs and therefore more of a priority, but it becomes a problem if this is always the case. If your ruminative mind is running on hyperdrive about an unrelated topic, you might seem to not be concentrating when others are talking.
Solution: If you have a trusting relationship with your partner, try letting them call you on it when you're not paying as much attention to their thoughts, priorities, and emotions as they need. Instead of viewing getting self-absorbed as a personality flaw, treat it more as a symptom of anxiety and see it less judgmentally.
4. Relying too heavily on a few people can create stress in those relationships.
Anxious people sometimes only have a small circle of people they trust. If it's hard for you to develop trust or to approach people you're not already close to, this is understandable. However, this can sometimes result in relying too heavily on just one or a few individuals in a way that strains those relationships.
Sometimes anxious people rely heavily on their romantic partner, parent, or sibling to run interference for them. It's common for anxious people to avoid asking for help in general, but have a few people they excessively ask for reassurance, help with decision making, or assistance in a particular area in which they feel unconfident (for instance, with technology). At work, a person may only have functional relationships with a few trusted colleagues and anxiously avoid other teammates. This can limit opportunities and strain relationships (e.g., if you're always asking the same people for help, while at the same time avoiding asking for input from a wider circle of people).
Solution: The main fix for this pattern is to recognize it and, as much as you can, develop collaborative working relationships with all your teammates. If you think a particular person is likely to be unfriendly towards you, check whether you have any evidence for this, or if your thinking is fear-based.
5. Being caught up in your anxiety can sometimes make you demanding or indirect.
Anxiety can sometimes cause people to overcompensate by being excessive. For instance, you worry about being late for a flight so much you demand that your family go to the airport excessively early. Or something is stressing you out so much that you want it resolved right now, even if the other people involved want to deal with it later or wait to see how the situation plays out.
On the other hand, anxious people can sometimes be less inclined to ask directly for what they want. They might fear that being told no would harm their relationship with the person they've asked. They might hint or beat around the bush instead, and this can get frustrating for everyone.
Solution: Allow other people to put in place reasonable boundaries when you're being truly excessive, and again don't personalize this pattern, but recognize when your urgency is being driven by anxiety. Take opportunities to practice asking directly for what you want when this seems appropriate.
Anxiety manifests in a wide variety of ways. Any particular anxious individual may display none of these patterns or all of them to various degrees. For loved ones and co-workers, recognize that these anxiety-driven patterns can be extremely difficult for the anxious person to adjust, especially if they're in the midst of a clinical anxiety problem that needs treatment.
*I've had this post sitting half-finished in draft since last December!