In part 1, we discussed what social anxiety looks like and the various ways it can appear in people’s lives. But where does it come from?
There are many views on how social anxiety develops. Some people believe that if they had parents who were quieter or didn’t socialize much that they just inherited this type of personality and lacked adequate role models for socializing. While this kind of parental identification could have an impact, it’s difficult to point to this as the core cause of social anxiety because, most likely, we have also observed positive forms of interaction throughout our lives, as well.
The issue is generally less that we don’t know what to do, it is more about the confidence in ourselves to perform — or maybe we feel that we can force ourselves to perform the behaviors, but we feel like an impostor when we do.
Social anxiety is primarily related to lower levels of confidence and self-esteem, which are often the results of a combination of experiences growing up. There is fear that, in social situations, we may be judged for who we are, how we appear, or the things we do or don’t say (e.g., “I didn’t ask about her job and she asked about mine. Now she thinks I’m self-centered and is going to reject me.”).
If we are judged, then we will be rejected as not good enough for the other person, and thus reinforce our fears of inadequacy in ourselves. These concerns, while they feel overwhelming at times, are often magnified in our minds and can be inconsistent with reality. For example, “If I take a deep breath or blink too much while listening to him talk he’ll think I’m bored or uninterested”). Could he think this? Of course. Is it likely? Not so much.
One of the big issues with social anxiety is a relinquishing of power to other people, especially people we don’t know. We place ourselves at an inferior level before meeting people, which gives people we don’t know all the power over us. So we end up entering a social situation feeling that we need to find a way to prove ourselves as worthy in their eyes rather than entering as equals to share an experience together.
What are these experiences that created these confidence and self-esteem issues?
There are many types of experiences that could diminish confidence, self-image, self-esteem and self-worth. These are commonly based on our experiences with peers and parents, teachers, or other caretakers when we were growing up. The common link between these experiences is that they left us feeling judged, inadequate, and rejected, and each time this happened, it increased our belief that we have something to fear in similar situations in the future.
For example, as mentioned in part 1, the anxiety of eating in front of people can be a crippling element of socializing (since many areas of socializing involve food). I worked with a person who suffered heavily with this area of social anxiety. When he was a child, dinner time at his house was basically a lesson in manners. “Keep your elbows off the table,” “Chew with your mouth closed,” “No talking while chewing,” “Don’t slouch,” etc.
Regardless of the worth or validity of the lessons, over time, meals became internalized as a threat of constant criticisms and judgments from others who were watching and triggered significant anxiety.
Anxiety is an alarm in our bodies to a perceived or real threat. With perceived threats, even if the threat isn’t likely to happen, the perception that there is a real threat triggers the “fight or flight” response in our bodies. Our bodies are physiologically prepared to attack or run even if we are forcing ourselves to sit and eat. Therefore, our digestive systems are not prepared to receive food (which is also why when we’re feeling anxious we can find it difficult to swallow and our breathing rate increases — our bodies are ready for a battle, not relaxation or eating.).
Conversational anxiety generates more from the feeling of inferiority. Growing up, this could mean that we were taught as children that we were inferior to our parent(s). Or it could mean we were teased by peers for saying certain things, or certain behaviors, or showing certain sides of ourselves. Generally, the more criticism, judgment, and rejection that we receive, the more we attempt to close off sides of ourselves that we feel could hurt us.
How We Hide
Over time, we may develop methods of hiding the elements of ourselves where we lack confidence and feel threatened, and instead, we try to manifest inauthentic ways of covering up our insecurities. This is often what leads to social anxiety. Our biggest fear is that the pieces of ourselves that we are trying to cover up will be revealed — that the person we are talking to will see our true selves, and inevitably (just as happened as a child with parents or peers), we will be judged and rejected.
Luckily, there are ways to overcome these issues, and those will be covered in part 3.