Social Anxiety: How to Be a Better Monkey

People with social anxiety often give out signals of their own apprehension

Posted Feb 05, 2010

How You Look is What They See

Better MonkeyPeople with social phobia or social anxiety often give out signals of their own apprehension that inadvertently send the wrong message. For example, many of my patients over the years with social anxiety often don't smile, they avoid eye contact, and they remain silent because they are so anxious that they will either sound foolish or look anxious. Ironically, these attempts to remain "closed" result in the "wrong impression". Many of these people appear to be cold and aloof-and, in some cases, conceited. It's the wrong message and they don't even know they are sending it.

Ironically, they fear that they will appear anxious, but they actually appear arrogant. They also fail to "mirror" or "match" the emotions that others are displaying. For example, other people may be smiling, but the anxious person may remain cool and aloof. This sends the wrong message-that you are not interested and you don't care.

As a therapist I can see this kind of non-verbal defensiveness in our sessions. A young man doesn't smile, avoids eye contact, and speaks in a low, monotone. I suggested to him that he might wonder how this appears to others. Initially, he had no awareness that he was doing this, but-on reflection---it occurred to him that other people might be smiling and looking at him, but he was pulling away. Since he was a good looking and intelligent young man, it was surprising when he learned from friends that some people thought he was unfriendly-even conceited.

Be a Better Monkey

CommunicationIf you watch monkeys in a zoo you will notice that they are continually communicating with each other. Of course, monkeys lack the sophistication of a large vocabulary and they have yet to take advantage of email or Facebook. But they communicate friendliness, interest, warmth, kindness and the willingness to play. They do it non-verbally---or, in some cases, with the appropriate grunts. Monkeys who are good at this kind of communication have other monkeys to pal around with, play with, share bananas, and -if they are especially rewarding-have sex with.

Unfortunately, many people with social anxiety are sending out the wrong monkey messages. My patient was one of them. He was avoiding eye contact, had no intonation or energy in his voice, had a closed-down body language, and didn't mirror the smiles and gestures of the people around him.

I suggested that he "be a better monkey". This started with noticing the non-verbal communication of other people around him and noticing how actors communicated emotion. He was astounded to see how much he had not observed. (Because he was so focused on whether he appeared anxious, he didn't notice the emotions that others displayed.)

The second step was to make more of an effort to smile, make eye contact, nod his head in agreement, ask questions, validate other people, and even occasionally touch the arm of someone he was talking with.

His friends began noticing a change. They told him he seemed like a different person. They complimented him. Women began showing an interest. He had "evolved" to be a better monkey.