If you’ve ever felt intense discomfort around others, you’re not the only one. Social anxiety (SA) is one of the most common mental health problems and at least 7% of Americans experience its symptoms. However, when it’s happening to you, it can feel like a nightmare coming to life. You’re in front of people, at a party, or giving a workplace presentation, but you can barely speak because you’re sweaty, nauseous and blood is rushing to your face. You didn’t want to stand out, but now it feels like everyone is judging you. This can cause you to avoid similar situations in the future — maybe it’s easier to be alone, you may think to yourself.

It seems like you’ve solved it. No social interactions, no social anxiety. Right?

But that’s not how things tend to play out. The more isolated you become, the worse symptoms of anxiety and depression will usually get. In fact, researchers found that depression almost always develops after the onset of social anxiety. We need meaningful human connections for positive mental health and by avoiding social situations, we limit our potential to make those connections because of fear. Interestingly, many therapists believe that the key to conquering this fear has little to do with other people. Instead, social anxiety is improved when we work on our most important relationship — the one we have with ourselves.

What Causes Social Anxiety?

Sometimes the feelings of social anxiety are so intense that we can’t figure out what’s causing them. The longer we avoid those feelings, dodging every get-together and turning down jobs that put us in the spotlight, the more confusing it can be to unravel the mystery. This is why cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often recommended for social anxiety. It can help you to identify the thoughts and emotions that are happening before, during, and after a stressful scenario. Typically, in this process people find that they perceive others to be negatively judging their behaviour. Small non-verbal responses from other people might feel threatening or belittling. There’s also evidence that direct eye contact feels more dangerous for people with social anxiety.

Although some people might simply be more genetically predisposed for social anxiety, there’s also a theory that it’s an important part of evolution. It prevents us from acting in ways that could risk exclusion from our community and maintains socially acceptable behaviour. However, if we’re too sensitive to this judgement — and the judgement isn’t warranted — it will negatively affect our social lives. So why do we believe we’re being judged all the time? And why do we believe our behaviour is outside the realm of normal? By following this path of our thoughts, it might become clear that we’re the ones doing most of the judging, not those around us.

The Role of Shame in Social Anxiety

Shame is a complicated feeling to identify. Often we mix it up with guilt, which is more related to remorse about our behaviours after the fact. Shame, on the other hand, is remorse for your sense of self rather than your actions. You might feel like there’s something intrinsically wrong with you. This makes it hard to accept that others don’t feel the same way.

In research on social anxiety and shame, there’s a lot of overlap. It’s believed that a central element of social anxiety is the desire to appear favorable to others and a failing to achieve that objective. If we don’t consider ourselves favorably, we’ll always fail at convincing others. Often, our negative self-talk is expressed through the rejection of others. Try an exercise where you write out what you imagine another person thinks about you. Don’t think too hard about it and just write. You might be surprised to find that it’s your own voice saying those mean and hurtful things.

Real Judgement vs. Perceived Judgement

There’s a good chance that you’re not buying any of this. You’re convinced that you know the truth — people are judging you and the results are not good. This is why working with a therapist can be useful. Together, you can sort through thoughts and feelings with curiosity instead of judgment. You can loosen up your fixed view of the situation and start to wonder, “What if I’m not 100% right about things.”

Therapy for social anxiety might involve unpacking how you feel about yourself. What is the source of your shame? What evidence can you find to challenge these negative ideas? By avoiding the difficult feelings of social anxiety, we also miss the opportunity to discover positive qualities that aren’t getting enough attention. You have exceptional strengths and you bring value to the lives of others, but those facts have slipped out of view. Eventually, these positive ideas will feel as real as those judgements once did.
Then, if anyone is truly judging you in the future, you might find that you’re less bothered by it. You’ll forget the haters and not let them interfere with your joy or wreck your confidence. Full of self-love, you won’t be as dependent on the opinion of others. Who cares what someone thinks? Not you. The connection with yourself will be the ticket out of social anxiety and into a brighter future. If you struggle with social anxiety and would like to find a way out of the shame and self-judgment that is keeping you from enjoying full and meaningful connections with others, connect with a licensed therapist today.

Originally published on Talkspace.

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  • Jessica Bloom


    Jessica is a Toronto-based writer with bylines about mental health in New York Magazine, Medium, Vice, and Playboy.