Social anxiety is a common psychological disorder, affecting about 5 percent of the population in a strong way and up to 13 percent of the population in a weaker way.
Social anxiety is not just shyness, but a much more profound problem. People with social anxiety disorder often become intensely anxious in social and performance settings, sometimes to the point of having a full blown panic attack.
As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
There are several core beliefs that drive social anxiety.
The first of these beliefs is that everyone is paying a lot of attention to you and your behavior. People are noticing.
The second belief is that when people notice you, they will then judge you harshly. (Since most socially anxious people are very judgmental of other people, they assume that everyone is equally judgmental.)
The third of these beliefs is that as a result of these harsh judgments, people will reject and/or humiliate you.
And the fourth belief is that as a result of these judgments you must feel very badly, full of shame and worthless feelings.
All of these beliefs are what we in Cognitive Therapy call ANTS, or automatic negative thoughts. Let’s go through them one by one and analyze how accurate or distorted they are. Then we can talk about some behavioral experiments you can do to dispute these beliefs.
The first belief: that everyone is paying a lot of attention to you and your behavior, is simply not true. Most of the time, most people are fairly oblivious, mostly thinking about things of concern to themselves. You’re not in the spotlight unless you are a genuine celebrity.
The second belief depends on the first belief. If people don’t even notice you, then they certainly aren’t judging you harshly. The other distortion in the second belief is that people will judge you harshly. Even when people do make judgments they are typically not particularly harsh.
The third belief, that as a result of judgments people will reject or humiliate you, most likely stems from grade-school teasing and bullying. In adult life, most judgments are never acted on, and they are never expressed. After all, the modern workplace has very little tolerance for negative teasing or humiliation. People may think some judgmental thoughts about you, but unless you imagine them thinking those thoughts, they will never have any impact on you.
The final belief that you must feel badly if someone else judges you negatively is also quite distorted. It’s quite possible to know that someone is judging you negatively, and feel fine about yourself. After all, all judgments are simply another person’s opinion, not truth. If another person thinks your haircut looks funny, that’s just their opinion. You have the right to have a different opinion.
An important concept in all social anxiety is the idea of mind-reading. Most socially anxious people practice this form of cognitive distortion constantly. They assume that they can read minds, and will read into every subtle expression a negative judgment. This is of course a major cognitive distortion. Nobody can read minds. A furrowed brow can mean many different things, and can even mean the person has a mild headache, or needs a new eyeglass prescription.
Most of the time, when the socially anxious person is mind reading, they are actually projecting their own insecurities about themselves onto other people’s judgments. Let’s imagine that I am particularly self-conscious about my thinning hair. As a result of this insecurity I may imagine whenever someone looks at my head that they are actually looking at my hairline, and thinking negative thoughts about my impending baldness. This is called projection.
In almost all cases of imagined judgment, what is actually happening is projection. You can quickly figure this out by asking yourself, “Is the imagined judgment coming from the other person actually something I feel quite insecure about?” If the answer is yes, then most likely you are mind-reading and projecting.
It would be nice if just a rational discussion of these distorted beliefs created change, but in my experience as a cognitive behavioral therapist, simple discussion rarely changes beliefs completely. But there are some behavioral experiments that are very powerful in challenging these beliefs.
The first belief, that everyone is paying a lot of attention to you, can be challenged using the following behavioral experiment. Do this with a friend or a therapist. Have the friend or therapist wear something quite odd, like a mask or something equally outrageous in terms of dress. Have them walk down a busy street. Walk about 10 feet behind them so that you can observe carefully people’s reactions. Before you start, write down your prediction as to what percentage of people will notice and react to your friend or therapist looking very odd.
Walk around, and keep a running count of everyone who seems to notice, and everyone who seems oblivious. When you have collected a fair amount of data, calculate the percentage of people who even noticed your friend or therapist wearing a mask. You can also track the type of response that you notice. Do people smile or laugh, or do they frown and seem judgmental in a negative way? Compare your actual data to your predictions.
I think you will be surprised at the results of this experiment. Once you have done this experiment I recommend putting a mask on yourself and walking around and noticing people’s responses.
In Part Two of this article I will discuss some other behavioral experiments that can help you overcome social anxiety, as well as discussing some issues of deep change.
Now I’m off to give my eulogy, which is scary but better than the alternative!
Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and other difficulties using evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.