One of the things that I have been noticing in my practice is how often people come to see me for social anxiety problems. I also have been aware of how reports seem to indicate this malady to be on the rise in recent times in the western world. So what can we make of this? I have started to question how much of this excessive amount of anxiety is societal and how much is learned behavior coupled with a genetic predisposition.
Even without delving into how our societal values vastly influence the importance of social status and its representation through social and traditional media, and even putting aside personal history I am starting to think that a fundamental part of the problem comes from being stuck in the teenage developmental error of assuming and believing that while everyone else is worth knowing and/or has a wonderful life we are not. This makes us feel insecure (and deepens our preexisting insecurities) and puts us in a position of being at -1 in social situations.
Let me explain: if we all realized that we are in the same boat and that everyone is as ‘messed up’ and as fundamentally OK as everyone else the way we relate would change. We would stop trying to impress others or being impressed by their seeming social success and we would relate to them as equals; as a result, when talking/meeting a new person we would both start at level 0, not level +1 or -1 (better or worse than them).
The first step to beat social anxiety
Step number one then would be to question the fundamental assumption that others are better than us and decide to take a position of fundamental equality. Every time you realize you are putting yourself down when comparing yourself to someone else ask yourself the question: how do I know this is true? Can I prove it? What is the evidence against it? And actively look beyond the surface.
Question your own values. What makes you worth knowing is not how much money you have or how thin you are (among other common concerns) but the unique flavor of the way you experience the world. There is no right or wrong way to experience it. There is only genuine communication of your experience and genuine interest in other people’s experience. When we genuinely tell others how we feel about anything we connect as equals, it is easier for others to accept us and as a result, our anxiety assuages.
A practical exercise to overcome your fear
Finally: think about someone who seems at genuine ease with others. What are they doing? Model yourself after their positive qualities you wish to acquire. And when in a difficult situation ask yourself: what would this person do? Now take a leap of faith and do it. Notice what’s different. Persist. Change takes time and effort. You will get out of it as much as you put into it.