Ever experienced social anxiety? Perhaps you’ve felt excessively self-conscious, dreaded a social event, or have worried that others will view you negatively. Maybe you’ve felt incompetent, inadequate, and uninteresting, worried about being the center of attention, or feared being humiliated by others. Or perhaps you’ve aspired to make a perfect impression on others and have doubted your ability to do so.
While social anxiety can manifest differentially among individuals, many of us have experienced social anxiety to some degree. Social anxiety has evolutionary roots that are part of a natural reaction for us to seek approval from our social groups. Indeed, social anxiety is considered to be a form of competitive anxiety, triggered by perceptions of feeling inferior, of a low social rank, and at risk of losing vital social resources (e.g., approval, interest, and support). Our increasing focus on competition and the greater prevalence of social anxiety in Western, individualistic cultures, may in part explain why social anxiety is increasingly common in today's society.
Despite its prevalence, social anxiety has many misconceptions. Social anxiety involves a fear of being negatively evaluated by others in social situations. In more severe cases, people diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder have extreme fears about social situations and suffer great distress, disruption, and interference to their daily lives. However, these fears are often completely disproportional to the actual threat they're facing.
For those experiencing a social anxiety disorder, feelings of fear, dread, or unease regarding social encounters can be paralyzing and may present as physical symptoms such as a rapid heart rate, dizziness, trembling, hyperventilation, and feelings of being detached from one's surroundings. Given the distress associated with social anxiety, it is important to identify factors that contribute to its onset. One factor is perfectionism.
Similarly to people with social anxiety, perfectionists set unrealistic standards for performance in social situations. However, given their underlying sense of inferiority and tendency to view themselves negatively, they criticize themselves harshly when they do not meet their standards. Indeed, situations of interpersonal evaluation and the prospect of being judged by others are extremely threatening. And any sign that their inadequacies will be exposed to others will engender profound feelings of shame.
To compensate for their inadequacies, perfectionists often engage in behaviours that promote a sense of perfection and conceal any signs of imperfection. Paradoxically, perfectionists tend to assume the worst and judge their performance in social situations harshly. Their excessive self-consciousness and fear of being judged by others will trigger intense distress, persistent rumination over past events, and even greater worry regarding future events.
Indeed, this creates a vicious circle in which a heightened fear of future situations increases symptoms of anxiety. And any visible symptoms of anxiety become even more difficult to conceal from others, fuelling greater dread, worry, and signs of imperfection. Research also suggests that social anxiety may increase levels of perfectionism, which further exacerbates symptoms.
Fortunately, there are small actions we can take to help break this cycle. For example, people who are socially anxious focus greatly on their inner thoughts and how others perceive them in social situations. Instead, when placed in these situations, we can aim to distract ourselves from our thoughts, by focusing outwards and paying greater attention to the present and our surroundings. Additionally, while many of us are driven to avoid the situations that bring us fear, it is important to gradually increase exposure to threatening situations such as speaking up in a meeting or initiating a conversation with someone new.
Lowering the social standards we set for ourselves may also help to counteract these ill-effects. After all, it's exhausting maintaining an image of perfection. If we learn to let our guard down, own our imperfections and reveal our quirks and authenticities, we will relate and connect much more deeply to others. So let’s lower our unrelenting standards—it will be liberating.
Note: If your perfectionism and/or social anxiety are severely affecting your life, seek help from a professional. To find someone near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
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