Social anxiety and shyness – ‘What if others think badly of me?’

I was worried about being a good guest, or not being a party pooper or, you know, am I going to be what everyone expects me to be? People had such great expectations about me being hilarious person all night which was, you know, rubbish… I’d be fearful of things and always see the downside of things.”Garry McDonald, Logie award winning actor
Most of us have experienced some social anxiety from time to time – perhaps when making a speech or giving a performance, when meeting your boyfriend or girlfriend’s parents for the first time, or on the first day of a new job. This kind of anxiety is a normal part of life and comes from a desire to make a good impression on people who are important to you. What is the difference between this and severe social anxiety?

Sometimes called social phobia or social anxiety disorder, severe social anxiety becomes a problem when you worry all the time about the negative judgments of other people. You might find that you become very self-conscious as you try to evaluate your own actions – ‘Did I just say something stupid?’ ‘Can she notice that I am blushing?’ The fear is that others will think badly of you (e.g. see you as foolish, incompetent or weak) and that if they do, it would be terrible – perhaps it would leave you open to criticism and ridicule. Because of these worries, you find yourself becoming very anxious in a range of social situations.


What is it like to live with social anxiety?

If you experience social anxiety difficulties, the types of situations that cause anxiety can vary widely. Commonly feared situations include public speaking, unstructured social events such as parties, or going out on a date. But it can also be stressful to do things in public, such as eating, drinking or using a public toilet. For some, even walking down the street can be anxiety provoking as we fear what people might think of our appearance. For others, the main issue is fear of upsetting or inconveniencing others, which can lead to difficulties in being assertive or asking for help. One of the problems with social anxiety is that you can start to get anxious about the possibility of others noticing that you are anxious, which becomes a vicious cycle.

The biggest problem with severe social anxiety is the way that it starts to affect your life. As the anxiety takes hold, there are more and more social situations that need to be avoided. This can significantly affect your friendships, your studies, your career and your ability to do day-to-day tasks. If you are finding that your social worries are limiting your life, the good news is that effective treatments are available.


Things you can do

  • Recognise what is happening and talk it thorough with someone you trust. The more embarrassed and secretive you are about your social fears, the more power they have over you. Often talking it through with someone can help you to regain perspective.
  • Become aware of the thoughts and expectations you have about social situations. It can be useful to think about how you would judge others if they were in your situation. Would you have such high expectations of them? Would you say to them the negative things you say to yourself? This can sometimes highlight the unrealistic standards we have for ourselves.
  • Challenge these thoughts if they are not realistic. How likely is it, really, that others will judge you negatively? And even if some people do think badly of you, does it have to matter so much? Will it matter in a week, month or year?
  • The key to overcoming social anxiety is challenging yourself to gradually face your fears and go back into the social situations you have been avoiding. However it’s pretty difficult to do this all on your own. It’s really important to get help and support – either from friends and family, or from your psychologist.

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