Beyond Shyness: The misunderstood sting of social phobia

While shyness certainly can lead to uncomfortable social interactions and a hesitancy to venture into unfamiliar social territory, shyness in itself is not a disorder. Most of us feel shy or even moderately socially anxious in certain situations.

A diagnosis of social phobia, on the other hand, may be warranted when one’s level of social anxiety leads to impairment in interpersonal and/or vocational activities or quality of life. People with social phobia have a phobia of rejection by other people in the same way that one might have a phobia of heights, snakes, or needles.

Even though social phobia is often discounted as merely being shy or introverted, the consequences of this disorder are all too real. People with social phobia marry later than other people, if at all, and are more likely to be under-employed (“What do you mean that if I accept this promotion I’ll have to manage people and lead meetings!!!”). They are certainly at risk for painful loneliness and feeling apart from the human herd. At times depression may be social phobia’s most intimate companion.

Yet, social phobia is the most common of all the anxiety disorders, affecting millions of people every year. Some people have specific-type social phobia where they are terrified by certain social interactions (public speaking, dating, shy bladder, etc) but can be completely worry-free in other areas, while other people are more generally socially phobic.

With social phobia there are two primary concerns:

1.      I am likely to be rejected by other people

2.      The rejection will be unbearable

People with social phobia, for the most part, overestimate their likelihood of being rejected. They perceive themselves as seriously flawed in some way. These flaws might be thought to involve their physical appearance, ability to hide their anxiety, their personality or “character”, or their social skills. For the most part these deficits are imagined or exaggerated. Sometimes someone will have avoided social situations for so long that their social skills may be rusty or under-developed. Usually, however, this is not the case. A good rule of thumb for most people with social phobia is that they present themselves much better than they think they do. Most of the time, the problem is inhibition of social skills, not lack of skills.

Often people with social phobia will “misread” neutral encounters as being rejecting. The sour look from the man passing them in the street must be because of something they did, rather than the fact that the man was having a bad day. Thus, not only is there a negatively distorted view of themselves, but also other people are often seen hostile, judgmental, and unfriendly folk.

This misreading of other people and their own performance is made worse by the fact that many with social phobia are focused internally during social encounters. They may be thinking about what to say next, rehashing what they just said, and all the while staring at an internal funhouse mirror of their own and other’s behaviors. After leaving the social encounter, they then engage in Monday morning quarter-backing of their performance, hashing and rehashing their perceived social blunders. Problem is…because they were internally focused during the encounter, they are reviewing something out of their own distorted imagination (and it likely gets more distorted with each subsequent recollection of “events”).

Additionally, people with social phobia avoid their feared situations when they can or enter these situations using safety behaviors designed to hide their perceived social flaws (minimizing eye contact, self-disclosure, and openness, staying close to familiar people, staring at their iPod, etc.). Of course the things they do to minimize their “social flaws” might actually detract from their social performance—creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One key to overcoming social phobia is that people with social phobia must shift their focus externally in order to observe that when one faces feared social situations without safety behaviors, their feared outcome is unlikely to occur and even if it does, it is unlikely to carry a costly or catastrophic outcome. Look and see what is really happening; you’re doing better than you think you are! Practicing new social skills and maybe even some relaxation skills might be helpful as well.

If you have social phobia, there is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a real and serious disorder which responds well to cognitive-behavioral therapy. There are excellent books and free resources on the web about social phobia (see the links on my website I recommend that you educate yourself and start today to make a recovery plan. If you need further help, contact an anxiety disorders specialist in your area.

Eric Goodman, Ph.D.