I have many clients and potential clients approaching me, wanting to resolve their social anxiety. They describe difficulties in certain social situations, feeling unable to interact with others without experiencing heightened self-consciousness, uncomfortable feelings and accompanying physical symptoms. These can include feeling nervous, stammering, wanting to run away and be alone, sweating, dizziness, feeling numb and palpitations, amongst many others.
Social anxiety is the inner voice that tells us, whilst we are in, or are contemplating being in a social situation, that we are not good enough, not interesting enough, that others are judging us negatively. It can be accompanied by shyness however we can have social anxiety without being shy. This critical inner voice can become so insistent and powerful that it builds a wall between the other/s and us, and we are no longer fully present and available to engage freely with them. Rather than focussing on the interaction we become fixed on our critical voice, which is disapproving of our behaviour. We start to feel a whole host of emotions including anxiety. As a result we feel more and more ungrounded until we are overwhelmed and the only option is to flee.
Social anxiety can lead to avoiding or struggling in certain social situations. These vary according to the individual. Some avoid one-to-one relationships, others avoid group scenarios, for some it manifests at work and stops them applying for roles with more responsibility or a higher profile which includes public speaking.
Why is it? The socially anxious individual considers themselves deficient in certain social situations. Therefore the basic self-belief is, ‘I’m not good enough’. At the heart of this issue is non self-acceptance. Ultimately the key to change is to be in better relationship to oneself: self-acceptance. This is a theme that is widely talked touted in spiritual and self-help books. I imagine that it is certainly not new to the reader. But what does that mean? It sounds so simple and yet seems so difficult for many of us to truly understand or put into practice.
Firstly it can help to consider and become more aware of how it is that we have such a harsh relationship with ourselves. I sometimes invite clients to advise an imaginary friend who shares the same social anxiety issues that they have. They speak to their ‘friend’ in a much gentler and more forgiving way than they do to themselves.
In Gestalt therapy we talk about ‘introjects’. These are beliefs that we have taken to be true due to hearing them voiced by our carers when we were too young to analyse them objectively and then perhaps reject them. ‘You bad girl’ could be one such belief. ‘You ugly thing’ could be another. These are extreme examples however these parental messages can also be implicit. A parent ignoring us when we are angry in order to teach us a lesson, a parent who becomes anxious when we act vivaciously. We deduce from these situations that what we did was ‘not ok’. As a child the next step from that is that “I am not ok’. Children also often pick up these messages about themselves when parents separate or when the family is undergoing huge stress and transition or when a parent becomes less available due to sickness, depression or addictions, amongst other things.
Once we have increased our understanding of the origins of the critical voice then we can start to become more aware of it in our daily life. When we catch our critical voice calling us ‘fat’, ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’ we observe it. We don’t give ourselves a hard time about it, that’s just being critical about our critical voice (which defeats the purpose!). According to the foundational text of Gestalt therapy theory ‘awareness is like the glow of a coal which comes from its own combustion’ (PHG, 1951:75) i.e. awareness alone is enough to cause change. Therefore simply by noticing our critical voice and how insidious it is, we are already setting in motion a change. After a period of of simply increasing awareness, we can move on to challenging the critical voice. If it accuses you of being lazy how might you reframe that? How would you respond to a friend that described himself or herself as lazy for not preparing for a job interview? You would probably look for other explanations. Maybe their fear of getting things wrong has got in the way of job preparation. Or maybe they don’t really want the job and doing the interview because they think they should, that it’s the kind of job they ought to be doing rather than a job they enjoy. Or perhaps they simply do not have the time as they are also working full-time, running a household and looking after two young children. I invite you to try and speak to yourself from that place of compassion, looking for the good in you rather than what is not good enough. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen every time or even at all to begin with. However it is the first step towards building a better relationship with yourself. And remember, if you do catch yourself repeatedly slipping up then that does not matter at all, just don’t give yourself a hard time about it!
A second way to tackle social anxiety is to become aware of how we ‘project’ our critical voice on to others. Projection is a natural phenomenon common to most of us. It simply means ‘‘a process of disowning an aspect of myself which is then co-created as a relational experience’ (Joyce and Sills, 2010, p115)’ It comes in handy for appreciating the arts such as a painting or a piece of music. It is also necessary for empathy. Through projection we can step into the others’ experience and imagine how they are feeling based on how we might feel in a similar circumstance. However projection is less helpful when we imagine that others are criticising us the way we criticise ourselves. Clients often say, ‘well that’s terrible that I project onto others’. They start to become critical of themselves. I always react with ‘ouch’ when I hear them say that. Firstly I explain that projection occurs at a subconscious level therefore we are not aware that we are projecting. Secondly, giving oneself a hard time about a natural mechanism is simply allowing the critical voice to stamp all over us again. An awareness experiment I suggest instead is a tried and tested Gestalt technique called ‘I notice, I imagine, I feel’. I ask my client to look at an image or if they are up to it, myself and to state what they notice. The aim is to simply state what is noticed such as ‘I notice brown hair’, ‘I notice a leather jacket’, ‘I notice lines on the forehead’. Often individuals doing this exercise say things like ‘I notice she looks happy’ or, ‘I notice she seems strict’, and I point out that this is no longer noticing but imagining. I then ask them as a second step to go with their imagination and say what they notice and imagine. For example ‘I notice the sleeping cat and I imagine it is dreaming’, or ‘I notice the lines in his forehead and I imagine he is angry’. The last step of the exercise is to state the feeling that occurs. For example, ‘I notice the lines in his forehead and I imagine he is angry and I feel worried’. Here we can clearly see how it is easy to imagine all kinds of things about the other based on what we notice, our subjective reality. Individuals who suffer from social anxiety will often imagine that others are viewing them negatively and this experiment is helpful for becoming aware of the projection process and challenging those assumptions.
A third way to beat social anxiety is to feel as grounded as possible. What does grounded mean ask some of my clients. That is a good question in itself and can mean different things to different people. What does it mean to you? There is definitely a link with having a sense of one’s body. The opposite of grounded is feeling light-headed, spaced out, insubstantial. When we are feeling anxious, tight chested and breathless then we are not grounded. When we feel dizzy or have numb or tingling fingers that can accompany anxiety then we are not grounded. When we are grounded we feel calm and we are often in touch with the feeling of our feet in contact with the ground. Our toes may feel warm and tingly. When we are grounded we breathe lower down in our bellies. When we are grounded we feel balanced. Some exercises to get grounded include belly breathing, shaking, and body awareness mindfulness exercises, amongst others. I will describe these more in another article.
Just as I have had many clients approach me wanting to resolve their social anxiety, I have had many clients leave therapy with their social anxiety a ‘non-issue’. Of course there is no magic wand and I am not saying that all it takes is to read and engage with this article. Each person has their own story with their own particular circumstances that have led to social anxiety. Nevertheless in my experience at the core of social anxiety is always the inability to accept oneself. I’m not saying it is an easy task to change this and it can take time. Often the support of a therapist is necessary. However as we start our journey we find lots of other hidden treasures along the way.
Joyce, P. & Sills, C. (2010). Skills in Gestalt Counselling & Psychotherapy. London: Sage.
Perls. F, Hefferline, R, Goodman, P, (2009). Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. London: Souvenir Press Ltd.