A Productive Way to Think About Social Anxiety
Challenge assumptions, practice acceptance, and tolerate uncertainty.
Posted September 9, 2016
One of my friends mentioned to me the other day that he hated giving presentations at work. Despite being knowledgeable about his job, outgoing in casual social situations, and a great communicator, he trembles and struggles to speak when he stands in front of an audience. When I asked if he knew why this happened, he said, “because I worry that people will think I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
We’ve all had experiences like these, although the situations, anxiety reactions, and explanations vary. For some, the most difficult situations involve starting a conversation with an attractive stranger, asking for assistance from a supervisor at work, or giving a presentation in class. The anxiety reactions usually include physical symptoms, like shaking, sweating, shallow breathing, or muscular tension, and distracting thoughts about whether we’re as socially effective as we’d like to be. And upon reflection, the explanations people provide for social anxiety often relate to self-doubt or concerns about others’ appraisals. Some familiar examples include “I don’t have anything interesting to say, “ “He’ll think I’m not attractive enough,” or “Everyone will know I’m nervous.”
The way we think about social anxiety can have a big impact on the intensity of symptoms. For example, we’re most likely to experience discomfort when we convince ourselves that a social situation is threatening and when we believe that we don’t have the coping resources to manage the social challenge effectively.
If you find that your social anxiety gets the best of you in specific situations, it’s helpful to take some time out to examine the problem. One approach is to ask yourself a series of questions to evaluate the threat and the degree of risk. You can also work on anticipating potential problems and the strategies you might use to cope. If you’re truly serious about addressing this problem, it’s best to go through this process well before the anxiety-provoking event, provide answers to these questions in writing, and use specific examples. Here are some sample questions:
- What is threatening about these social situations? Do I have any reason to believe that others want me to underperform? What’s the evidence for and against this belief?
- How likely is it that others will respond with negative feedback, such as criticism or ridicule?
- How do I know this? Have I received direct feedback in the past or am I making assumptions about unclear reactions I get from other people?
- Have I experienced social setbacks before? Was I able to recover? What did I do? What could I do?
- Suppose things don’t go as well as I would like, what’s the worst thing that could happen? What’s the most likely outcome? If I experience a setback, can I recover, learn from the experience, and do better in the future?
- How do I evaluate my own social skills? What do I do well? What can I improve and how should I get started?
After you’ve gone through the process of understanding your own beliefs, correcting cognitive errors, preparing a useful mindset for interacting with others, and making progress toward improving social skills, your concerns about social threats and coping resources are likely to be more realistic.
When social activity begins, it’s important to set these concerns aside and attend to what’s relevant in the moment—communicating with clarity, showing genuine interest in others, creating meaningful interactions, and enjoying the experience the way you do when social anxiety is absent.
Of course, this is easier said than done, and most people find that, despite good intentions and the desire to focus only on the interaction itself, it’s easy to be distracted once again by the noise—concerns about effectiveness and evaluations from others.
And here’s where self-acceptance and tolerance of uncertainty are important. Because no matter how much we prepare, our social behavior will be imperfect. And no matter how much we try to dictate what happens, there are aspects of social events that are uncontrollable. And no matter how much we try to make predictions, the social future is, to some degree, uncertain. And no matter how polished we are, we will encounter others who form critical opinions, make cruel comments, or otherwise refuse to maintain relationships with us.
So how can we think productively about social anxiety? Is it important to restructure our assessments of threat in social situations and be aware of available coping mechanisms? Yes, because social anxiety is often related to overstating the degree of risk, and we can problem solve to address existing deficits in social skills. Should we also accept that being distracted by self-evaluative thoughts and social setbacks is inevitable? Yes, because social experiences are meaningful and it’s normal to be frustrated when the process isn’t as comfortable as we’d like it to be. But rather than engaging in a harsh critique of the process and a decision to avoid social contact in the future, we can acknowledge our unproductive thoughts, and continually redirect our attention to what’s truly meaningful in the moment.