I am not a medical professional, and this information should not be taken as medical advice. If you have any questions, or think you may be suffering from a medical condition, please consult your doctor.
If asked, I wouldn’t have considered myself a socially anxious person. I thought I was a bit awkward, a bit shy, but I didn’t think I suffered from social anxiety. But when I read How to Be Yourself, especially the chapters on the myths of social anxiety, so much of it sounded like me.
“Social anxiety is fundamentally a distortion: it’s a mistaken belief that something is wrong with you and everyone will notice.”
When situations make us anxious, we either avoid the situations all together, or we endure them. This is reflected in the different levels of social anxiety:
- Socially awkward moments. We all have these from time to time. The last time I went to a movie, the ticket collector said, “Enjoy the movie,” and I replied, “You too!” That is a socially awkward moment.
- Shyness. This is when we’re comfortable on our own or with a small group of people, but are really quiet and awkward and nervous in large crowds. I feel like I started here and then upgraded.
- Social Anxiety. The fear of being judged and found lacking is so great that it actually prevents you from living your life. I might’ve drifted over here…
We can endure socially awkward moments and shyness, but Social Anxiety (as a condition) leads us to avoid situations where we might get judged. And it is these following myths that lead us to avoidance.
Five Myths of Social Anxiety
1. I have to watch myself and my anxiety.
We all have an inner critic, and our inner critic is LOUD. So focusing inwardly is not the answer. Our inner critic will always tell us the wrong thing, because we always feel worse than we appear. By using our inner feelings as a gauge, we’re missing out on other people’s reactions. And focusing on our own feelings can make us start to act weird, unconsciously. For example, if someone feels awkward eating around other people, they might start covering their mouth when they take bites, which is stranger behavior than taking a bite.
The key to getting out of our heads is to focus on the task at hand. Don’t worry about how awkward you look or feel; focus on getting the job done. Oftentimes, that will help you notice external cues from other people and help you react accordingly.
2. Everyone can see how I feel.
Socially anxious people are usually more in-tune with their bodies than others, so we have a heightened sense of how we feel. And because of that, we think that other people can see what’s going on inside us. Which is not the case at all. There’s a huge discrepancy between how we think we look and how we actually look.
Public speaking is the number one fear people have, even before death. But think back to any speech or presentation you’ve given. How many times has someone expressed surprise when you told them how nervous you were? How often did people respond with, “You did great, I couldn’t tell you were nervous at all”? And think about the speeches and presentations you’ve seen. Could you tell the speakers were anxious? If so many people have a fear of public speaking, shouldn’t more people look nervous?
That’s because, for the most part, our inner feelings don’t reflect outwardly. So acknowledge what you’re feeling, but don’t let the feelings take over.
3. People will judge me.
I struggle with this constantly. Why is that person looking at me? Did I do something weird? Do they think I’m stupid/strange? We worry that complete strangers will judge us for who we are, what we’re doing, where we’re going. But most of the time, people aren’t even looking at us! And if they were, they probably didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.
Even if they do notice something, it’s usually just that – noticing. Have you ever looked at someone in outlandish garb and thought, “Hm, that’s a very bright muumuu”? What did you do afterwards? Probably nothing. Other people are doing the exact same thing.
And if you come across a random stranger who does happen to be judging you, why does it matter? Who even is this person?
4. I have to do things perfectly.
I also struggle with this. It’s never more glaringly obvious than when I try to tackle something new. Softball, for instance: on my first day, I was fretting endlessly about striking out or being tagged out, and kicking myself for not catching balls. WHAT? I had never played softball before; my sole experience with the game is watching baseball. Why did I expect to have professional skills my first at-bat??
The standards of perfectionism we place on ourselves are so high that we have no chance of ever meeting them. So in its own twisted way, perfectionism isn’t about being perfect – it’s about never being good enough. If the standards I had for my first ever softball game were that I hit every time I swing, and catch every ball that comes my way, and land on every base I run towards – I completely failed. I failed before I even signed up for the game. Hell, I failed before my friend even thought to invite me to join the team.
This myth also causes dichotomous thinking: if we’re not perfect, then we suck. There’s no spectrum or in-between, it’s all or nothing. We either turn it inward (“I’m such a loser”) or outward (judgment, anger, hypersensitivity to criticism). Social media doesn’t help either, because social media allows ourselves to curate and present the best image of ourselves. FOMO (fear of missing out) is an outward manifestation of social anxiety that is exacerbated by social media. It makes us feel rejected or alienated, like we’re not good enough to be a part of the group. If we decide not to go to an event, and then see pictures of everyone having a great time without us, it can lead to envy (which is essentially a mix of inferiority plus resentment).
What we can do to combat this need for perfectionism is, “dare to be average.” Allow yourself to be less than perfect. Instead of spending your life on one amazing piece of work, do multiple, above-average pieces of work. The total value of the multiple pieces will far exceed the value of the one. But, “perfectionism is only a problem if your high standards are getting in your way.” A brain surgeon should by no means lower her standards. Someone like me, on the other hand, should aim to hit at least one ball per game, instead of all the balls. No one can hit all the balls (see: batting averages for the MLB).
5. I have no social skills.
This is not true. We all have social skills; they are just inhibited by our anxiety. Think of times when you hang out with your friends and family (or, people you like). You can talk for days, you can crack jokes like a stand-up comedian, you can weave stories like a master storyteller. The skills are all there; it’s just a matter of getting rid of the inhibitions that keep you from accessing those skills when you’re in unknown situations.
Our social skills shine when we’re in comfortable situations, so try to recreate that feeling of familiarity when you’re in social situations.
And it’s ok if you do something embarrassing; studies have shown that doing something embarrassing actually makes a person more likeable. Because who wants to hang out with a perfect person all the time? Embarrassing things make for great stories down the line; you can start laughing about it now.
What social anxiety boils down to is us thinking, “I’m not good enough.” Oftentimes, that’s not true. We are good enough. We are better than good enough. And we have to stop telling ourselves we’re not. We have to remember that these myths of social anxiety are just stories our inner critics tell us.
This is a wonderfully written book. Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist who has learned to overcome most of her social anxiety (because if we’re being honest, we never really fully overcome it, do we?), so she understands where we’re coming from. This book opened my eyes so much; it explained sides of me I never had the words for. I would recommend it even if you don’t feel any anxiety. If nothing else, it would help you better understand socially anxious people.