Social anxiety is normal. It’s not just you and it is neither your fault nor a sign of weakness. If you are human, it is safe to assume that you, at times, experience social anxiety. You may feel that social anxiety makes you wrong, broken, or defective. Instead, I’d like for you to think of social anxiety as your birthright. Rather than it setting you apart from your fellow humans, it is actually something that ties you together within the broader human race. Social discomfort, to some degree in some situations, is normal. In my entire life, I have met only one person with zero social anxiety. Let me tell you about him.
The Story of Carl
Carl was a fascinating middle-aged man that I had the pleasure of meeting when I was training to be a psychologist. He did not care in the least what other people thought about him. As a result of his genuine lack of concern about social rejection, he had absolutely no social anxiety whatsoever. He simply did not care.
Carl lived alone in a tiny apartment in Boston. He never pursued a career. He had no desire to impress people with the typical gadgets, trinkets, and doodads that most of us work hard to accumulate. He didn’t care. He owned one ripped, gray T-shirt that he wore daily and never washed. So what! He couldn’t smell the stink anymore and certainly didn’t think about other’s judgments. He didn’t care. He owned one pair of pants, a matching pair of ripped grey sweat pants.
When he was out and about and felt the call of nature, he’d simply pee in his pants. After all, who did he have to impress? He did not care. This is what zero social anxiety looks like.
Do you still want to completely get rid of your social anxiety? Would you trade places with Carl if it meant you would have zero social anxiety for the rest of your life? No? Me neither. Social anxiety is part of the cost we pay for being part of a human community.
Social anxiety is only considered a problem if it:
- Negatively interferes with your social or life goals or activities.
- Causes excessive suffering.
If social anxiety, for example, were to prevent you from getting up on stage and performing a Broadway musical in front of a thousand people, this is only a problem if you are a professional performer who passionately wishes to be able to get up on stage and perform. The terror of getting up on stage and prancing around dressed like a cat while singing your heart out is not problematic if you are just an audience member attending the performance.
If you cannot attend the show because of fears of being in the crowd, however, and you would love to be able to subject your spouse to an evening of singing felines, then it might just be a problem. The thought of bungee jumping terrifies me. My fear of plummeting from a high bridge toward the rocky ground below while trusting my safety to a glorified rubber band wrapped around my ankle, however, only earns the status of a “problem” if my life’s ambition is to take a job as a bungee instructor (which probably has its ups and downs).
Social Anxiety is Not a Disease
Yes, that’s right. Social anxiety, shyness, and even introversion are not diseases. In fact, they are perfectly normal human experiences. Much of my professional life, however, is spent working with teens and adults who are extremely concerned about their social anxiety. Most of them are wishing for the day when their anxiety leaves them in peace so that they can carry on with life. They are waiting until it feels comfortable and anxiety-free to venture out into the world of friendship, job interviews, dating, and so forth.
They are waiting for a day that is likely never going to come.
Social anxiety is normal. As children, we go through a period of very intense stranger anxiety, where we “shy away” from all but those adults with whom we have learned to be comfortable over time. Long lost Aunt Bertha would come for a holiday visit, see us, and dive right in, ready to smother us with hugs and kisses. What did we (and countless other little ones) tend to do in the face of such an intimidating onslaught? We likely latched onto our parent’s legs and looked away … occasionally sneaking peeks to see if the threat had vanished.
In fact, mental health professionals are often more concerned when young children display no social hesitation in the presence of new adults. But isn’t that supposed to go away when you get older? While most of us do feel less socially anxious as we get older, almost all of us remain socially hesitant or downright uncomfortable in at least some situations. It is a normal reaction and, to some degree, may even be necessary for living in a community of fellow humans. (Remember Carl?)
If you look at social anxiety as simply consisting of the expected presence of prickly feelings and thoughts, at least to some degree in certain social situations, maybe it does not need to seem like such a powerful and malevolent force. Rather than seeing social anxiety as a demon haunting you, perhaps you could begin to see it as a lifelong, albeit occasionally annoying, companion in life. This companion has no real power to hurt you, though your response to anxiety can make things go from normal anxiety to phobic anxiety.
You can learn to cope and thrive with social anxiety … even though you may not believe it to be possible! If you are like many people whose lives have been limited by social anxiety for a long time (maybe your whole life), you may not believe things can improve. I imagine that many of the people reading this book on some level are doubtful that the words on these pages could possibly offer anything that could truly help make their lives better. I’m going to ask you to set that belief aside for a bit and do the best you can to read on with an open mind. Just let that old belief be in the background without clinging to it for now.