June 2, 2016 by Angus
When Shyness Becomes Social Anxiety

How you might not really be who you think you are

Shyness is common enough. Social anxiety, too.

Most people have a certain level of shyness in social situations. It doesn’t really inhibit our social existence. But for others, shyness can turn into feelings of anxiety. That anxiety can reach an impacting level on their ability to function. Connecting in their social world falls apart and shyness slides into what we call social anxiety.

Often, people who suffer from social anxiety feel there is something inherently wrong with them. They believe they’re defective.

But what if their self-belief were nothing more than “hallucinations”?

Today, I’m going to make the case that a lot of the negative things people believe about themselves are nothing more than “hallucinations”. Further, I want to stress that, the longer one has lived with these “hallucinations”, the more real they seem to be.

Often, our negative beliefs – our “hallucinations” – are at the heart of chronic stress and anxiety.

The ironic thing about these negative beliefs we can have is that they so often don’t feel like beliefs. They just feel like the truth.

Often, these happiness crushing beliefs lie out of our awareness. We didn’t choose them. They’re manifested but their root cause remains unknown. Perhaps they arose as a result of cultural situations. Maybe it was a family circumstance. Peer groups or traumatic incidents in our lives may have injected these soul crushing beliefs into our self-belief system.

No matter how, once they’ve taken hold, we begin to filter our everyday lived experiences using these negative beliefs about ourselves. On and on goes the process, making them more true to us with every day.

Lining up on the slippery slide into social anxiety

Do you believe you’re incompetent at maintaining conversations?

Such a self belief will make you spend much more of your attentional energy monitoring other people’s reactions to everything you say or do. You’ll over monitor your own performance, too. That’s a lot of energy “going up in smoke”. As that energy burns up, you’re not pouring it into the actual task of maintaining the conversation itself.

The sad thing about this scenario is that your “performance” in the conversation will be poor. That then only reinforces your belief of social incompetence.

… and there you go! The self-fulfilling prophesy is born. You unwittingly strengthen the negative belief you have about yourself.

A scientific exercise opening perspectives on social anxiety

Many years ago I did an exercise during a clinical psychology seminar that tried to understand the impact of these very same types of performance distractors.

Let’s go through that exercise now. I think you’ll find it very instructive.

In the exercise, one person sat in a chair. On either side of that person, two others sat. Their job was to speak into the ear of the person sitting in the middle. They had to tell her all about their last holiday experiences, simultaneously.

So here you have it. The person in the middle is sitting down with two people, one in each ear, telling her two very different stories about past holidays.

After two minutes, the holiday story telling was stopped. Then the person in the middle had to tell a fourth person everything she’d been told. She had to remember the details of both holiday stories.

Now, of course, that was a pretty tough task.

Imagine having two different voices pumping detailed information into your ears and trying to remember the respective narratives and smallest details.

Right from the start, the task of retelling the two narratives was seriously undermined.

This is the sort of “handicap” we can impose on ourselves when social anxiety manifests itself in our lives.

Let’s take a closer look at how this process might arise in our lives. Consider how it might foster the conditions for a lack of social confidence.

A normal life without social anxiety

OK. Let’s go further with this. Let’s consider a fable, one that might just be more real than you think. Consider it as relating a life-long process but we’ll speed it up, like it happens in just a few weeks.

You’re going to need your imagination. Ready?

Good. Now imagine yourself looking out a window. You see a man. His name is George.

George is walking down the street. He’s a normal looking guy. Nothing particularly odd about him.

Now, George works at a hardware store. He has a wife and two kids.

On Thursday evenings, George plays tennis with some friends. On weekends, he is a soccer coach. He also referees his son’s soccer team.

Sounds pretty normal, right!

Occasionally, George likes to have a drink. Now when he gets together with neighbours, George tends to drink a little too much. Fueled up, he often starts arguing. He gets loud. He starts ranting about current affairs. A big news event sets him off.

Now, normally, George doesn’t drink. It’s only at these parties. Usually, he’s a quite balanced, calm guy.

George’s sex life is good, too. He and his wife have no challenges there. OK, it’s not as exciting as it was in the early days. But they’re both content.

As a father, George is good. He spends more time with his kids than most fathers. He comforts them when they’re sad. He takes care of them when they’re sick. When they do something wrong, he guides them onto the “right path”.

George is also reasonably popular. He gets on with most people and has no trouble with coworkers.

All sounds good?

Sure, George is pretty fine.

But then, let’s suppose we do something to George.

Injecting The Venomous Seeds Of Social Anxiety …

Imagine this. We have the power to render a particular thought in a “chemical configuration”. We can then take that “chemical configuration” and inject it into somebody. Once injected, that “chemically configured” thought becomes an inextricable part of that person’s life.

Now, let’s inject one of our “chemically configured” thoughts into George. Remember, once injected, the thought will become an inextricable part of George’s life. He’ll have to live with it for the rest of his life.

Let’s inject the thought, “I need everybody to like me in order to achieve happiness”.

Here’s poor old George sleeping away. Prick, in goes our kneedle. Squeeze. In goes the serum. Now George unknowingly has the thought, “I need everybody to like me in order to achieve happiness” inextricably fused into his life.

What’s going to happen to George now, over the next few weeks?

At first, we won’t notice any change.

Over time, as we look closely, we might start to see little things start to happen. George’s way of walking may subtly change. His previous confident saunter will slowly become more hesitant. Inside, he’ll start to worry about how other people are walking, too. He’ll begin watching them, imitating them.

Now it’s Saturday night. We follow George and his wife to a neighbourhood party. George loves these parties. Usually he’s one of the popular guys there.

But this time, something is a bit off. George seems nervous. He doesn’t know who to talk to. He stands there, fumbling with his hands. One of his close friends comes over to ask him if he feels OK.

Two of his neighbours are having their weekly argument about recent news events. They’re discussing the hot and provocative issue of legalising drugs. When one of them asks George what he thinks, George pauses: “Well, there are really two sides to every question. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Not too quickly.”

What? The neighbours look strangely at George. Who has ever seen George take such an unsure position in an argument like that! Where’s the George who’d jump on his soapbox and fire away confidently?

After the not so great party, George and his wife return home. They go to bed. George wants to have sex. But unlike his usual confident self, he seems indirect and unsure of himself. He tells his wife at least five times, “You know if you’re tired, I understand.”

She persistently reassures him, “It’ll be all right.” But George is uncomfortable. he keeps asking, “Is it all right for you?” Running over and over in his mind is the question, “Am I a good lover?”

At soccer practice the next morning, George has more difficulties. A boy’s father asks him to play his son, Matthew, more often. But Matthew isn’t a very good player. Matthew doesn’t practice. He doesn’t show any real motivation and doesn’t want to be there and picks fights with the other boys.

But George is afraid to say no to this parent. He puts one of his star players on the bench, whose father isn’t at the game. Matthew joins the team. The team loses the match.

Several years go by. George develops other problems. He has trouble with his marriage. Erectile difficulties have appeared.

George becomes attached to his work, putting in long extra hours. He pleases his boss. His wife feels abandoned.

The party invitations have dried up. His friends stop calling.

Medication has entered his life. Tranquilizers haven’t helped.

The only injection that seemed to work very well was our “chemical configuration” … the injected thought, “I need everybody to like me in order to achieve happiness”.

Our injection has worked 100%.

Creating Your Own Life Without The Seeds of Social Anxiety

That thought – “I need everybody to like me in order to achieve happiness” – can work as one of the core cognitive determinants of what we call social anxiety.

By injecting that thought into George, we have ruined his happiness. He has become a people pleaser. He has become a social phobic.

Now it may seem strange that one thought can cause so much misery. But the thought we injected into George was particularly damaging.

George lost his individuality. He’ll continue to do so, as long as that thought runs through his life blood. He will wander around trying to please everybody. Curiously, though, instead of getting people to like him, the thought will bring about the opposite reaction.

In real life, George’s “injection” might have been given when he was only 7 years old. Maybe he got it when he was 14, 19, or 27.

In our story, we sped up the process of its effect.

Perhaps the “injection” was a nasty comment from a teacher. Maybe it was a stumble during a class presentation. Was it a vicious bullying incident?

The effect of these events may have been minor on the surface. Slowly, however, they rusted and corroded George’s beliefs about himself. His world changed.
Today, after our “injection”, George is far from living his best life.

What “injections” have you received over time, without your knowledge or consent?

Let’s start looking for the antidote!

If you’d like some help with that process, let’s talk.


Clinical Psychologist Sydney

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