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What Social Anxiety Feels Like and Where It Comes From

What Social Anxiety Feels Like and Where It Comes From

What Social Anxiety Feels Like and Where It Comes From

What Social Anxiety Feels Like and Where It Comes From

Do you often dread parties, anxiously fearing awkward conversations that expose the contents of your mind for all to see?

Do you cringe at the thought of meeting people?

Around others, do you find yourself spinning with worry about what they think of you or how you measure up?

These are just a few of the manifestations of social anxiety.

Social anxiety can be a paralyzing, frustrating, and chaotic experience. It’s a very out-of-control feeling that can leave you very torn: torn between the human need to be social and connected to others and the feeling of wanting to run away and hide from what feels like an oppressive, all-consuming monster. It can feel as though you have no clothes and no skin—as if people can see right inside you.

And when you’re alone again, away from the social scene, you may notice your immediate relief being slowly replaced by feelings of isolation, disappointment with yourself, and hopelessness.

Social anxiety can derive from many sources: early traumatic experiences, generalized anxiety expressing itself in particular ways, and a more sensitive disposition interacting with a highly stimulating world, among others.

In the paragraphs that follow, I want to address one aspect of social anxiety and offer some tips for how to think about and work with it. Specifically, I want to discuss how social anxiety can be a reflection of what is happening for you on the inside.

Social Anxiety as an Internal Mirror Image

If you struggle with social anxiety, you may be projecting onto the outside world what you feel inside, perhaps partially or entirely unconsciously. Inside, you may feel the (self-fulfilling) constellation of thoughts and feelings you notice in social settings:

Social anxiety can derive from many sources: early traumatic experiences, generalized anxiety expressing itself in particular ways, and a more sensitive disposition interacting with a highly stimulating world, among others.

  • Anxious anticipation of socializing or being with people, about being judged or exposed, or just having to deal with awkward conversations.
  • Heightened anxiety (maybe manifesting in sweaty palms, pale skin, or rapid heartbeat) in a social setting, particularly if you feel what you anticipated you’d feel: anxiety, feeling judged, awkwardness, and the feeling you don’t belong.
  • Often what goes along with this, even when things are going OK, is a running inner commentary of comparison: how everyone else is NOT anxious, just you. How everyone else is able to connect and has so much to say and is so articulate, just not you.
  • Depending on how difficult it gets, you may want to run, but first have to devise the best escape route in order to not attract attention.

These thoughts and feelings may echo how you felt as a child in your family of origin. If so, you may have internalized them, and now replay them in social settings of one type or another.

Specifically, as a child, you may have felt alone, anxious, and not quite adequate in relation to your family. Especially if there was anxiety, insecurity, or self-criticism in the family system, and no one was really aware of or dealing with it, you may have internalized it and made it your own.

Attending to Your Inner World

In order to reduce social anxiety, especially if the family scene I described resonates for you, it’s important to attend to your inner world in a consistent way. Here are five steps you can take:

  1. In a journal, draw a line down the center. On the left, write “Family Environment” and on the right, “Social Anxiety.”
  2. Spend some time thinking about your family environment. Look for any similarities you experience in your social anxiety and your childhood. Specifically, was there a lot of criticism? Anxiety? Did you feel judged? Insecure? Write your observations down in the left-hand column.
  3. Track the thoughts and feelings you notice in social settings. (This is a great exercise because it distracts from your anxious thoughts and gives you an immediate tool to work with your anxiety.) Write down any repetitive thoughts and feelings you experience in the right-hand column.
  4. Take some time and compare and contrast. You might be surprised how much you learn about how your past affects your present experience. Write down any insights and, especially, feel whatever feelings arise.
  5. When feeling social anxiety, breathe into your belly consistently. Reassure yourself. Tell yourself that, most likely, everyone in the room is anxious in one way or another.

These are some great initial steps that may open your eyes to how your inner world, especially memories and emotion, affects your present-day experience. For more in-depth work and permanent change, psychotherapy is an excellent way to work with social anxiety because you can, in real time, observe and share your anxious thoughts with a trained professionalwho can help you navigate the memories and hurts that keep you from having a more satisfying social life.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ben Ringler, MFT, therapist in Berkeley, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.




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