People suffering from social anxiety disorder often suffer from very low self esteem and see themselves in very negative ways. This is caused by both a process of negative self evaluation and a fear of negative evaluation by others. People with SAD will often believe highly negative things about themselves such as “I am inferior” or “nobody wants to talk to me” or “If I try and speak up in public I will make a fool of myself”. These negative evaluations are thoughts to be formed from memories of social situations going badly in early life. These unpleasant memories are then automatically activated when the person is in any kind of social situation, leading to misinterpret the current situation as being the same as their unpleasant memory, leading to higher levels of anxiety.
In order to understand how to overcome social anxiety we need to understand how the relationship between self evaluations, memories and levels of anxiety works as fully as possible. One question which has yet to be fully answered in relation to this theory is whether this process of negatively evaluating yourself only occurs in relation to social situations or whether it happens all the time. Do people with SAD suffer from low self esteem all the time, or only when anticipating or actually going through scary social situations?
To test this theory the current study examined levels of anxiety and self esteem in people with social anxiety disorder and those without in different situations. In one condition participants were told they would have to give an impromptu speech about a given topic, which would trigger feelings of anxiety. In the other condition participants were given the same list of topics but told they would not have to give any kind of speech. Levels of anxiety and self-esteem were compared between these two conditions and between people with SAD and a control group.
It was found that those participants with social anxiety reported lower levels of self esteem than the control group in the speech-giving condition, but not in the no-speech condition. Anxiety levels followed the same pattern- being higher for the SAD group who were told they would have to give a speech than the control group, but in those who were not told they would give a speech there was no difference.
These results show that self esteem is lower for people with social anxiety when they are anticipating having to be involved in a stressful social situation (such as giving a speech) but not the rest of the time. Anxiety is also higher for those with SAD when they are thinking about social situations but is normal in non-social situations. While this current study does not show a causal relationship between self-esteem and anxiety (it does not show which one causes the other) it does provide support for the idea that self esteem is a variable construct that is different depending on the situation.
This is good news for social anxiety treatment as future research can focus on how to change these negative self evaluations and teach the person not to think of themselves in negative ways when they are in social situations.
For more information on how to deal with social anxiety visit our social anxiety page or connect with us.