At its worst, social anxiety can make ordering a cup of coffee a daunting task, and can make a party feel like a house of horrors. From what direction will humiliation spring? Is it any wonder people with social anxiety learn to cower at home, safe from threats?
Full-on social anxiety can be greatly life limiting, but even those of us who don’t suffer from the worst of it will find useful strategies for those moments of “do I belong?” and “can I handle this?” in psychologist Ellen Hendriksen’s new book, How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.
In a warm and friendly tone, Hendriksen, who herself experiences social anxiety, breaks into manageable chunks the cognitive processes that make benign social situations feel threatening. While there is certainly a genetic component to anxiety in general, she writes, learning and practice can turn predisposition to social anxiety into a sure thing.
The tap root of social anxiety is fear of “The Reveal”—that some sort of imagined fatal flaw will be noticed, noted, commented on, and ultimately destroy us.
“Social anxiety is not just fear of judgement; it’s fear the judgers are right,” Hendriksen writes. “We think there is something wrong with us, and we avoid in order to conceal it. In our minds, if The Reveal comes to pass we’ll be rejected, humiliated, or exposed.”
She identifies the most common Reveals we fear exposing: that our anxiety itself will show; that there is something wrong with our appearance; that our entire personality will be deemed deficient; or that our social skills will be judged as wanting.
Hendricksen uses relatable anecdotes to illustrate her points, and describes the research behind awkwardness and social anxiety—much of which is as odious as it is enlightening. For example, in one experiment researchers have participants remember and write down four “cringe-worthy memories of socially anxious moments”—and then put them in a brain scanner while their written memories are flashed at them, one excruciating sentence at a time. (A cruel process which ultimately confirmed of the effectiveness of reframing.)
In another, participants were told that they would have to give a two-minute speech on camera, and that psychologist would be rating their speech to assess their social skills and public-speaking ability. (This suggested that anxiety causes us to dwell on negatives.)
Fortunately others suffered so that professionals like Hendriksen can provide tools for immediate and long-term relief from social anxiety.
The tricky thing about social anxiety is that the one thing that eases our anxiety—avoidance—is guaranteed to also exacerbate it. The less we face the fear, the less experience we have in testing the true danger of the world and our own ability to manage even socially awkward situations.
In other words—and it’s the point, Hendriksen writes, that she would most like to shout from rooftops—you feel less anxious not by avoiding life, but by living it. The brain is trainable; neural connections can become weak or robust. If we only confirm to our brain that our fears must be acceded to, then it develops accordingly. The more we face that which we fear without disaster, the more we strengthen our connections between social interaction and satisfying outcomes.
How to Be Yourself provides tools and strategies to help push past the wall of anxiety to full engagement in life to the degree you desire. (The difference between being socially anxious and being introverted is in the distance between the social life you desire and the one you have.) These include reality checking your inner critic; creating a role for yourself to play when you’re feeling cowed; turning your focus out to what’s happening around you and therefore away from your own inner stew of anxiety, and, as the book’s title suggests, this is not about changing your personality as much as it is freeing it. Hendriksen even points out that a little social awkwardness is often endearing to others.
How to Be Yourself culminates with a “challenge list” of your own minuscule to massive challenges you would like to master.
“What would you be doing if anxiety weren’t standing in your way? What would you want to do without overthinking? What would the you-without-fear do? Put those things, big and little, on the list,” writes Hendriksen.
With permission to start small, you then work your way up through your fears as you learn your own capabilities. How to Be Yourself will help readers figure out how.
How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety
St. Martin’s Press
304 pages, hardcover