If you have Social Anxiety Disorder (also called Social Phobia), you fear situations in which others can get a good look at you, such as eating together in a restaurant, giving a presentation to a group, introducing yourself at a meeting, entering a party, even introducing two friends who haven't met before. Some people experience a generalized kind of Social Phobia and fear a variety of social interactions. Others have a more specialized fear, maybe focused on public speaking, eating in public, writing in front of others, nervous sweating, or using a public bathroom.
People often think of shyness as being related to Social Phobia. They're similar, but shyness is more of a general inhibition in front of others, and doesn't always include the physical symptoms of panic that are part of Social Phobia.
In my work, helping people overcome social anxiety in Chicago, I've noticed two surprising, contradictory features of Social Anxiety Disorder.
The first contradiction is that most people with Social Anxiety Disorder approach social situations with a feeling of unworthiness. They think that they don't belong in the social setting because they don't "fit in" or because they lack some quality - not smart enough, not interesting enough, not pretty or handsome enough, and so on.
They also tend to believe that everyone there will be especially interested in them - in looking at them, thinking about them, and judging them.
So here we have people who simultaneously believe that "I am unworthy!" and also that "Everybody wants to find out about me!".
They're probably not both true! If you experience social anxiety, you probably feel self conscious, and then these thoughts arise as additional symptoms of anxiety, not because the thoughts are literally true.
The second surprising feature has to do with the kinds of physical symptoms people experience as part of social anxiety.
Social Phobia is very similar to Panic Disorder. In each case, people experience panic attacks, which consist of powerful physical symptoms of fear. But the panic attacks people experience with Social Anxiety Disorder are different from the panic attacks which people experience as part of Panic Disorder, in one very important way.
People with Social Phobia have lots more visible, or observable, symptoms. They experience blushing, sweating, trembling, and voice cracking, which aren't usually part of Panic Disorder.
Why do they have all these symptoms that others can observe? Because that's what they're afraid of. They hope so strongly to not show any anxiety that they end up showing it.
People with Panic Disorder don't usually get such visible symptoms, because they're not worried about displaying their anxiety. They're worried about dying, fainting, and going crazy. And so those are the kind of feelings that they get.
With anxiety disorders, you get what you oppose, and Social Anxiety Disorder is no exception.
It's actually your reaction to shame and embarrassment that produces these unwanted symptoms. Shame and embarrassment are uncomfortable feelings which fuel the idea that you have something to hide, some aspects of yourself which are so negative that you figure you should prevent others from noticing them. This leads to secrecy, a powerful force behind Social Anxiety Disorder.
The urge to keep your flaws secret leads you to oppose the symptoms. This is why someone concerned with blushing will find themselves thinking "I hope I don't blush!", and apply some extra makeup in the hope of hiding it. This is why someone concerned with sweating will think "Please, God, let me get through this party without sweating!", and pack some napkins in his pocket so he can dry his hands without observation. And on and on it goes, the same for symptoms of trembling, voice cracking, and so on.
The Panic Trick points out that your gut instinct of how to respond to panic is typically dead wrong, something that will maintain and aggravate your panic, rather than help it subside. With Social Anxiety Disorder, it's the very efforts people make to hide their "shameful" secrets that produce the visible symptoms they had hoped to avoid.
The path out of Social Anxiety Disorder is so much easier when you come to see that secrecy is not your friend; that others will generally be as accepting of your flaws as you are of theirs; and that when you give up your efforts to hide and oppose your visible anxiety symptoms, that's when they become less frequent and disturbing.
My Panic Attacks Workbook has a chapter devoted to this topic. It offers a step-by-step approach to reviewing the role secrecy plays in your anxiety, and helps you evaluate both the costs and the benefits of secrecy about your anxiety. It also helps you plan and use concrete steps you can take, if you choose, to reduce the disruptive power of shame and secrecy in your life.
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Last updated on March 8, 2015