“Most people who feel trapped by shyness or social anxiety will settle with the status quo and never seek help, be it from a knowledgeable therapist or from finding a scientifically based self-guided program and tackling it on their own,” writes Dr. Eric Goodman.
Instead, social anxiety becomes a sort of silent suffering that is endured for years, coloring the way we think, interact, and feel when around other people.
Yet, the idea that social anxiety is a disease that needs to be cured is just one of the many myths that often keeps us from getting help.
In his new book, Social Courage: Coping and Thriving With the Reality of Social Anxiety, Dr. Eric Goodman offers a different look at social anxiety — as something that is part of the normal human condition and something we can find freedom from.
“You may feel that social anxiety makes you wrong, broken, or defective. Instead, I’d like you to think that it is your birthright. Rather than it setting you apart from your fellow humans, it is actually something that ties you together with the broader human race,” writes Goodman.
Often it is our response to the feelings of social anxiety that turns normal anxiety into a phobia. Paradoxically, the more we think we shouldn’t have social anxiety, the more discomfort it causes.
“Much of my professional life is spent working with teens and adults who are extremely concerned about their social anxiety. Most of them are wishing for the day when their anxiety leaves them in peace so they can carry on with life,” writes Goodman.
Too often, social media reinforces the ideas that we should not make mistakes, be imperfect, or fail to meet social norms.
Goodman writes, “The problem is that you are again seeing a one-sided portrayal of the complexity that is human life. Underneath the social mask in the picture of the smiling friend is the jet lag, diarrhea, hangover, and the stress and pressure to have maximum fun, which of course ends up dampening the fun.”
No one will ever reach a state of nirvana where life is perfect and social anxiety leaves us completely. And the fear of rejection is common to the human condition. But for those with phobic social anxiety, the consequences of social rejection can feel catastrophic.
Goodman writes, “Public speaking, parties, assertiveness, conflict, dating, small talk, or even rejection are NOT what causes you anxiety. It is when your brain interprets the situation as a threat (a “danger interpretation”) that anxious feelings naturally emerge in those situations — or even at the anticipation of entering those situations.”
The anxiety then motivates us to avoid the situations that cause us discomfort, or engage in safety behaviors — such as staring at our cell phones instead of interacting with others — and in doing so, we reinforce the anxiety and maintain the problem.
“When you have a fear of something that, inherently, is not dangerous, and you engage in avoidances and safety behaviors to prevent a catastrophic outcome, you do not get to learn that the situation was safe,” writes Goodman.
No situations in life are 100 percent certain, and much of learning to cope with social anxiety is learning to embrace uncertainty.
Goodman writes, “Anxiety wants you to desperately try to achieve 100 percent certainty, therefore your counter rule is to seek out and embrace uncertainty as a way to build up your uncertainty-tolerance muscles.”
We can also learn to allow anxiety to exist simply as background noise and not something that leads to emotional reasoning or to inaccurate judgements that the world is not safe.
Another important key to breaking the cycle of social anxiety is self-compassion. “Rather than heaping shame upon yourself for these unavoidable thoughts and feelings, you can choose to foster an acceptance of them as a natural part of life and learn to cope and even thrive in their presence,” writes Goodman.
Similarly, rather than trying to change our anxiety ridden thoughts, Goodman tells us, we should learn to change our relationship to them.
By learning to accept our thoughts and cultivate a logical and compassionate response — as opposed to a shame-ridden one — we can also come to see that our perceived faults do not warrant social exclusion.
What this often enables us to do is put our social anxiety to the test, leave our social comfort zones, and ultimately realize that our fears are not true and no longer need to confine us. And even in the case of rejection, we often find that not only is the experience not as bad as we might’ve predicted, but that we are even stronger for it.
Packed with helpful tools, tips and exercises, and the encouraging message that social anxiety is a normal experience, Social Courage should be required reading for anyone looking to feel socially brave and less confined by anxiety.
Social Courage: Coping and Thriving With the Reality of Social Anxiety
Exisle Publishing, August 2018
Paperback, 210 Pages