“I was looking forward to the party and I liked everyone there, but afterward I felt so down. I couldn’t stop worrying about what I’d said that sounded stupid, or if I hurt someone’s feelings. But I can’t possibly have social anxiety. I love socializing! I have plenty of friends.”
I’ve heard a version of that story many times—people in therapy experiencing what they call shyness, self-criticism, or loneliness in social situations. When I suggest this might fit the category of social anxiety, they’re shocked. They picture a person who huddles in the corner at a party or tries to be invisible in work meetings, never speaking above a whisper. The reality is social anxiety could affect anyone around you, from the bubbly girl in your class who is secretly praying she won’t be called on by the teacher, to the take-charge guy in the office who goes home exhausted from the strain of interacting with others all day.
It’s true that one model of social anxiety is the extreme: a loner who fears any contact with other people. This person might be diagnosed with “social anxiety disorder,” a clinical term which involves a high degree of distress, significant interference with daily functioning, and often panic attacks. It’s more common to have a less severe version of the condition, which wouldn’t be labeled a disorder—it’s just a major, sometimes daily, challenge.
Social anxiety can show up in many ways, such as not wanting to be the center of attention or dreading walking into a room of strangers. The unifying factor for everyone who struggles with it is a persistent fear they are being judged critically. It’s a sense any interaction could be fraught with danger, where we run the risk of messing up and being seen in a negative light. In this way, it can turn occasions that ought to be pleasant—like parties, weddings, or holidays—into torturous ordeals.
Below are some common misconceptions about social anxiety, along with more detailed information about the ways this condition can present itself.
1. Everyone with social anxiety is an introvert.
Believe it or not, you can be confident or personable and have social anxiety. You can know you’re basically a likable person and still worry everything you say is wrong. This is because social anxiety isn’t about your overall view of yourself but rather the conviction you are being judged and are bound to fail.
It can be surprising to discover someone who is outgoing and successful also frets over how they come across. The condition is distressing whether it’s obvious (hiding in the back of the room at a wedding) or subtle (telling a story to a group, but grinding your nails into your palms under the table). Sometimes struggling in secret is harder because people don’t believe you have the condition or discount how much you’re suffering, or don’t know they need to offer you more support.
2. If you have social anxiety, you can’t be good at public speaking.
Many socially anxious people are quite good at giving lectures or heading up meetings. In fact, many actors, who make their living speaking in front of others, struggle with social anxiety. This is because giving a speech or reading a script is a learnable, practicable skill, and one that offers fewer opportunities to mess up than impromptu socializing does. Many worriers plan far in advance and rehearse multiple times, so that a presentation becomes more like a memorization activity, or a performance, than a nightmare scenario.
Public speaking has the additional benefit of allowing the speaker to feel in control of the room. Since the belief is everyone is always watching and judging, it can feel relieving to enter a situation where that element is assumed and can to some extent be prepared for.
3. If you have social anxiety, you feel it most of the time.
The condition can affect you only in certain settings, or only some of the time. Some of the people I work with in therapy feel confused when they attend two social events but struggle through only one of them. “Why can I deal sometimes but not all the time?” they wonder. Luckily, we can examine the difficult times to explore what makes them worse.
Usually, what seems baffling at first soon yields important truths. Each of us has elements that make us more anxious based on past experiences (such as the time we fell during a school dance), messages we’ve heard (a parent reminding us we’d put on weight), or societal norms (a fear nice girls are never loud and boisterous). When we can uncover our personal triggers, they become easier to soothe.
Like any other anxiety, this one can itself become the source of angst. Sometimes people aren’t really anxious about the social event—they’re more anxious they might feel anxiety, and the fear of what might happen overcomes them.
4. Social anxiety affects you only during social interactions.
Some people worry incessantly before a gathering, but once it starts, they’re in the moment and feel less concerned. Others don’t dread the office holiday party and enjoy it while it lasts, but the next morning face self-recrimination. Social anxiety doesn’t have a timeline, though it typically affects the same person in the same way during each occurrence. In other words, once a pre-worrier, always a pre-worrier. It’s not uncommon to be engrossed in a conversation and truly enjoying it, only later to recall the conversation as tormented or littered with your blunders.
Like any other anxiety, this one can itself become the source of angst. Sometimes people aren’t really anxious about the social event—they’re more anxious they might feel anxiety, and the fear of what might happen overcomes them. In these cases, it’s important to remember all the times the anxiety doesn’t exist and reinforce the idea it isn’t in control.
5. If you have social anxiety, you don’t feel it with people you’re close to.
It’s a little like the Phillip Lopate satiric poem, which begins: “We who are your closest friends feel the time has come to tell you that every Thursday we have been meeting as a group to devise ways to keep you in perpetual uncertainty frustration discontent and torture …” The condition convinces people that others could be misinterpreting them, teasing them, secretly thinking negatively, leaving them out, rejecting them, or talking behind their back. This is sometimes only with strangers, but it can seep into any relationship.
For some people, it’s the closest friendships and romances that cause them to feel the most vulnerable and exposed. Some partners get frustrated they aren’t being trusted to be kind and understanding. But social anxiety isn’t usually a result of real rejection; it’s a perceived threat of eventual rejection.
Because social anxiety is so individualized, and runs the spectrum from severely impairing to hidden but distressing, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. The best course of action to soothe these difficult emotions is to get a deeper understanding of where and when they may have started, what triggers them, and possible tools to calm them.
Perhaps more than any other issue, social anxiety is helped by therapy, whether one-on-one or in a group setting. This is because so much of the condition is based in shame or the feeling one is basically lacking. Having the support of another person who can give objective feedback is invaluable. To learn to be vulnerable and real with one safe person, or a group who really gets it, is one of the best ways to attack social anxiety and replace it with what the anxious person so dearly needs: a realistic and secure sense of self.