There are environments in which we may feel comfortable and peaceful like a corner of our home, next to our loved ones, or somewhere we can be alone. One of our most fundamental needs is developing intimate relationships in which we feel accepted and supported. When we feel accepted, we can rest in the sense of knowing we will be free of judgment and our body can begin to relax. But, how do you know if you are really accepted and free from judgment? The answer to this question varies for everyone. While some of us may perceive a glance as a sweet gesture, some of us may find social environments threatening and our perceptions can stem from our childhood. Besides, if we experienced trauma in our childhood, or if we felt unsupported, made fun of, etc. we may carry a negative self-perception around with us.
Let’s discover more.
Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, occurs when an individual believes that they will be judged, ridiculed, or excluded and can result in excessive worrying in social contexts. If you are running through worst-case scenarios in your mind before, during, and after social experiences, if you constantly worry about what people will think of you, and experience tension and anxiety by just reading this, you may be navigating social anxiety. If these feelings affect your daily routines, relationships, and other areas in your life, you can begin to consider how you’re talking to yourself, recognize your scale of judgment, and start to implement strategies to relax.
When you experience extreme social anxiety, everyone can appear as a potential threat, critic, judge, or perceived trigger. In fact, this experience is not inherent within us, as the belief that we will never receive approval and acceptance can be rooted in that which we did not receive in our childhood. Yet, no child deserves to be excluded or disapproved. The inability of your childhood environment to give you the support you needed does not make you “flawed” or “abnormal”. The approval of others is not the basis of a person’s existence or a reflection of someone’s character.
It may become difficult for you to speak up and express your opinion in a meeting full of people. Or perhaps it’s become impossible to eat alone in a crowded cafeteria because you feel that everyone’s eyes are upon you. The threat here is being judged, criticized, or disliked by others, appearing flawed and worthy of rejection. This fear of rejection can become so intense that anxiety spreads throughout your body and you may not know what to do. Some common displays of social anxiety are: mental fogginess, trembling hands, excessive sweating, stuttering, and in some cases our immediate flee response is activated, so we just run away from the situation.
And of course, in the short and long term, this situation can make you suffer from mental exhaustion, paranoia, heart complications, stomach pains, muscular contractions, and migraines.
If you think you are experiencing social anxiety, you may consider paying attention to the here and now. Being logical can be helpful while being present. For example, when we have lunch at work we just want to eat, and disconnect with our colleagues, so it’s highly unlikely that somebody is judging you. Here are some ideas to help you manage these challenging feelings.
When the tension in your body increases, notice it and take a moment to sit with those thoughts running through your head. You cannot read other peoples’ minds, however, you can notice your own thoughts and test their accuracy. It is unlikely that others around you are constantly watching your every move. Look around and observe them. What are they doing? What is their purpose? Are they there to judge and criticize you? Are these people truly threats?
What’s going on around you? Who’s there? What are you saying to yourself at that moment? How is your body reacting? Checking in with your own body can be very healthy and useful when it comes to better understanding yourself. That said, fixating on yourself excessively can reduce your openness toward others, at times making it difficult to communicate and socialize. Imagine that you were monitoring everything about yourself and had to sustain that effort through an entire meeting while still participating. That kind of focus can be exhausting and that’s why it’s important to look at the outside world with curiosity.
Being able to accept yourself as you are is a big step forward. There is no other you in this world and you don’t have to be like anyone else. We all have flaws and positive features, and even if you still struggle with them, other people’s opinions will not diminish your positive features. You are valid as you are. We all are.
Besides logic and self-acceptance, try to nurture your self-compassion. The core of many challenging emotions we experience as adults is the result of different challenging experiences in our childhood. So the next time you feel embarrassed and observed by others at work or in a social environment, try to shift those fast-paced and intense emotions for more compassionate ones, it’s what your inner child needs.
Shifting your thoughts can help you improve your mood, and altering your mood can help you find calm. As you calm down, your body relaxes and you can feel freer and more at ease. Once you prepare yourself for the social environment and take baby steps in the setting that worries you the least, you then have the chance to test whether the catastrophic scenarios are true possibilities.
Were the scenarios you were afraid of true? Can you be less critical of yourself? Can you accept yourself as you are? Try to stay in the present moment and ask yourself the following questions to calm down:
Being neutral can be difficult at first, but the more you experience finding even ground, the easier it will be to manage your anxiety. Try to see the conditions as a whole, filled with both pros and cons.
Meditation and being in the moment are known to help alleviate some anxiety. Getting to know your body, observing in which situations your anxiety increases, and using breathing techniques to relax your muscles will also help you manage your anxiety. Before stepping into any meeting, date, party, or social environment, make sure you check in with your body and try to find a place of calm. In this way, you can grasp the thoughts passing through your mind more easily and let your body release you from any negative thought spirals. The more neutral and unbiased you are in your thoughts, the more you will be able to distinguish a real threat from a perceived one.
We can indeed manage manage negative thoughts and social anxiety by working on ourselves, but it can also feel extremely challenging with the current resources we have. So if you try to handle it on your own, but don’t feel significant improvements, or if it simply becomes too much for you, you can get in touch with a mental health professional.
Just remember that it is still quite possible to worry less by working on the core of your negative thoughts, acquiring new perspectives, and entering social situations little by little. Remember that you are special for being you, and other people’s opinions of you do not define you. Your own thoughts are your own reality. Be gentle, understanding, and compassionate with yourself.
Translator Ebru Peközer