We all have stereotypes about people with social anxiety. A lot of people falsely believe that social anxiety is the same as being shy. However, this isn’t always the case. In fact, quite often I’m asked “How can I have social anxiety when I’m such a social person?” These are people who enjoy being the center of attention, and who have a constant stream of funny stories and interesting things to say. People like this can actually be the most socially anxious people in the room.
Here is the key to understanding this: people can have social anxiety about different things. Everyone is unique. For example, some people are very confident in job interviews and with regards to the performance at work, but are terrified at the thought of making small talk in the lunch room. On the other hand, some people are very chatty and sociable with their friends and colleagues, but experience debilitating anxiety when it comes to their work performance. Therefore, when clinicians are evaluating social anxiety, it is vital to understand the idiosyncratic differences between people, as these can have a profound impact on cognitive behavioral treatment.
The details vary from person to person, and can be complex, but social anxiety often forms through a process like this:
- There is a particular incident in one’s life. e.g. in childhood
- People read into these events, and make inferences about themselves. Normally, these inferences involve highly negative interpretations.
- People take precautions to try to compensate for their perceived limitation of character.
- In reality, the compensations are overcompensation, and over time these behaviours keep the anxiety going.
An example of an overcompensation strategy is “non-stop talking” (hence, the most bubbly person in the room). These people are uncomfortable with silence because they interpret it as “if I’m not participating in the conversation the other person might think I am boring”. It is important to keep in mind that it is not the behaviour itself that is the problem, but the motivation behind the behaviour. It is the WHY that is important. For example, non-stop talking between long lost friends is to be expected.
Other examples include:
- always showing a lot of interest in other people’s lives (one of the recommendation in Dale Carnegie courses)
- making excessive positive comments
- asking a lot of questions
- making sure everyone at a party is having a good time
Once again, these are not bad things in and of themselves. It is important to consider WHY you are doing these behaviors. If your motivation is related to how you want others to perceive you, you are probably doing it out of social anxiety
A core part of CBT treatment is to test hypotheses. For example, seeing what happens when you stop overcompensation strategies. It is likely that you find people will accept you for who you are. This is done on an experimental basis, and individuals need to see the point of these experimentation. It is easier said than done, which is probably why therapist have to truly understand the theories behind the strategies they are implementing.
This type of overcompensation strategies are known in the literature as safety behaviors or subtle avoidances. I have recently published journal articles on the topic, and I will be chairing a roundtable at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America ADAA conference in San Francisco on April 8th, 2017 titled: Harmful Safety Behavior or Helpful Coping Strategy? Understanding Client Behavior in the Face of Anxiety.
Fjola Helgadottir, PhD, is a registered psychologist at the Vancouver CBT Centre, who has worked in Australia and at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. She is AI-Therapy’s director and co-creator of AI-Therapy’s Overcome Social Anxiety program and the author of Flourish: Living happily while trying to conceive. Twitter: @drfjola