November 20, 2019 by Cláudia
Despite my big realization that being genuine and a truthful representation of myself was more important than what others thought of me, as it turns out, letting go of social anxiety is harder than what my original post about social anxiety made it seem. It’s been 2,5 years since that post and I regret to say that things are… more or less the same. Unlike other struggles like depression and generalized anxiety, it seems that I’ve made little progress when it comes to my social anxiety and it would perhaps be helpful to understand why.
The way I understand it, social anxiety has been a tougher struggle to manage because:
- There is a general preference for extroverted people with high social skills.
- Society in general still thinks of social anxiety as an adorable manifestation of awkwardness instead of the actual crippling disorder that it is.
- I’ve been trying to manage it by implementing a false solution.
Even though I know intellectually that a lot of people feel some form of social anxiety, I still feel like an alien. I know that I’m not alone in this. But it often certainly feels that way. When I compare myself to others (usually not anyone in particular, just «people», or «society in general»), there is this intense feeling of unworthiness and inferiority. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that my self-image is negative. I have grown to feel strong and genuine feelings of self-love and self-worth. However, my place within society is still broken and the perception of myself integrated in that society is still distorted.
One thing that doesn’t help is this obsession with image and with portraying a vibrant social life. Comparing myself to others ends inevitably accentuating even deeper the feeling of social inadequacy that my social anxiety already enhances.
Even though social media play a part in this, they simply act as an amplifier for social norms and conventions. The inconvenient truth is that our society favours extroverts who exude confidence and who live through social settings as if it is second nature to them. When I say that society favours extroverted people with high social skills I highlight this second part because being introverted/extroverted doesn’t actually say anything about your social skills but of the balance between alone time and social time that keeps you comfortable. Even if being extroverted may make it more likely that people develop stronger socialization skills, it doesn’t mean that they will have what it is considered «good», and therefore desirable, social skills. Thus, as an introvert with social anxiety, I already feel like I’m in trouble.
Furthermore, social anxiety is still portrayed as a funny quirk. The recurring character of the socially awkward teenager who is picked on and who protagonizes a series of embarrassing situations might be fun to watch in movies but, I dare say, does not represent most of what social anxiety actually is. Most of their experiences are very unrealistic for a normal teenager in general but especially for someone with social anxiety. No, awkward teenagers don’t usually get to date the most popular people in school and go to every party (like the TV-show Awkward, sigh). And in real life, the awkwardness is not usually perceived as charming nor funny. It’s just awkward.
But mostly, I think that what has been preventing further development has been a false confusion between social anxiety and introversion. Whenever we discuss social anxiety it is usually implicitly presented as a synonym to introversion and the antithesis of extroversion, being the first undesirable and the latter desirable. Social anxiety and introversion are usually coupled up when they really shouldn’t. One is an actual anxiety disorder and the other defines a comfortable balance between being with others and doing activities by yourself.
Social anxiety defines a feeling of discomfort (sometimes bordering on panic) in social situations caused by the unrealistic fear that others may perceive you as ridiculous, uninteresting or socially inadequate. It can manifest in similar ways of generalized anxiety disorder but it differs from regular nervousness when it has a negative impact on someone’s social life or mental well-being.
It might lead someone to avoid uncomfortable social interactions to their detriment, such as not picking up a phone call with a job opportunity (yes… that is a personal example), cancelling on projects that they were looking for or avoiding to speak to someone despite the need and want to socialize.
Therefore, social anxiety is not introversion. While introversion may also lead to avoidance of social situations, this avoidance is actually beneficial for mental hygiene and to recharge social energy. Whenever social anxiety leads someone to avoid social interactions, the result can be an increased doubt about self-worth and a heightened feeling of inadequacy.
Essentially, one is an actual disorder that needs managing and that negatively impacts one’s well-being and the other is a characteristic that leads to a balanced and fulfilling sense of self and social life. It is a characteristic, a blueprint for the amount and intensity of social interactions that we can comfortably handle and it doesn’t need fixing, despite what society tells us.
Hence, one of the problems that I identified with my approach was trying to fix a problem by presenting a false solution. Instead of working on the underlying issues, the overall message was that I should try to attain a social model that is unrealistic for me and just doesn’t apply to the initial problem.
I did try hard to find a solution and a way to feel more comfortable. But I was looking in the wrong places. In the numerous workshops for social anxiety, teamwork and public speaking the overarching message was «behave like you are confident». However, the actual behaviours that they wanted to foster had nothing to do with confidence. The underlying message was actually «behave like you are an extrovert».
However, social anxiety has nothing to do with how often you crave social interactions. It has to do with a deep-rooted fear associated with social interactions and an unrealistic negative image of self in society.
What I just recently realized was that I’d been taking the opposite approach in dealing with my social anxiety. I thought that I needed to challenge myself and put myself in social settings that made me uncomfortable but I was attempting to fix something that never needed fixing – my introversion. By doing this, I ended up creating unnecessary frustration and self-doubt.
In my original post, I was ready to adopt a tough-love strategy. No more of that. I will now be for myself what I needed to be all along: kind, patient and gentle. The rest will follow.
I have thought of actual strategies that I have slowly started putting into practice and that are actually helping me become more confident in uncomfortable social situations. I want to think them over and put them more to practice and I then intend to post them soon(ish).