When teachers instructed students to read out loud in class, I shrank down in my chair, hoping and praying I wouldn’t be called on. If you were to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I probably would have said, “invisible.” Since starting conversations with people I did not already know made me anxious, I had a hard time making friends. Although I was a good student, my 10th grade English teacher gave me a “D” because I wasn’t participating enough in classroom discussions.
Judged, Criticized and Rejected
The fear I had is called social anxiety, and it is one of the most common types of anxiety that there is. It is a fear of being judged, criticized, and rejected by others. Feeling this way from time to time doesn’t cause problems, but when we’re socially anxious a lot of the time it can really get in the way of making friends, succeeding in school, and being happy and confident. The good news is, social anxiety can be overcome. When we understand where the fear comes from, we can see how to respond to it.
All fear originates in a small part of our brain called the amygdala, often called the fear center of our brain. Its job is to be on the lookout for danger. For example, if you were in the wilderness and you saw a bear, this part of your brain would sound the alarm, making you afraid and motivating you to either fight or run away. We need to feel fear sometimes for survival.
So why was my brain sounding the alarm and making me afraid of reading out loud in class or starting conversations with people? Those things aren’t dangerous, at least not compared to a bear. Why did they feel so threatening?
The threat I was afraid of was being judged by others, being made fun of, or criticized. These things can feel every bit as scary to us as the threat of a bear. This is because, just as wolves, chimps, and dolphins survive best in a pack, we humans survive best in a tribe. We depend on getting along well with others. If we were truly rejected by everyone, we couldn’t survive on our own. That’s why the fear center of our brain can get so easily triggered by the possibility of judgment and criticism. It’s trying to do its job of keeping us connected and safe within our tribe.
Would making a mistake while reading aloud in class or saying something stupid to a new person actually threaten my survival? Certainly not. If I had stumbled over my words, it is possible a classmate may have made fun of me or not wanted to talk with me if I went up to them, but I wouldn’t have been kicked out of my tribe! The fear center of my brain overestimated the threat, flooding my body with fight-or-flight hormones. And because I felt so afraid, I thought I should be. I thought that to be safe, I needed to be perfect.
If you are socially anxious, you believe that, when talking with people, you always need to sound interesting, smart, and funny. If you are in a conversation and there’s an awkward silence, you think it must be your fault. You must never ask a stupid question, you must always know the right answer, you must never make mistakes, and you must definitely not show any signs of anxiety like blushing or stumbling over your words! Sound familiar? When you think you have to be socially perfect, you’re going to have lots of social anxiety. Because nobody is perfect, not even the popular, confident kids in your class. (People who are confident socially are not more perfect than the rest of us. They just don’t believe they have to be perfect to be accepted.)
When you think you need to be perfect, you will end up avoiding things where you might make a mistake, like raising your hand to answer a question in class. You won’t want to start a conversation because you might say something stupid. You will avoid asking people to do things with you because you might get rejected. It is this avoidance that maintains your social anxiety and keeps you from gaining confidence and having the connections you want with others.
Hit the Target, Not the Bullseye!
In order to gain social confidence, you need to approach what makes you anxious — people! And to do this you have to let go of this idea that you always have to be perfect. Perfect is like hitting a bullseye, it doesn’t happen all the time. To make connection with others, all you have to do is hit the target.
When I was in college, I decided I wanted to work on becoming less socially anxious. I made it a daily exercise that when I went to class, I’d say “hi” to a classmate, ask them a question, and share something about myself. The last part was the hardest for me because I was worried I would sound foolish and they would be bored. I reminded myself that I did not need to impress them, that just saying hello and starting any kind of conversation was hitting the target. It made me anxious, especially at the beginning, but after about three months of target practice, I started to feel less anxious, and I was getting to know my classmates, and they were getting to know me.
I went on to become a therapist specializing in helping kids and adults overcome their anxiety. I write books and give trainings on anxiety, which means talking in front of large groups of people. My amygdala doesn’t like this, so my heart often races, and my hands sometimes sweat and tremble. But I know there’s no real danger. And although its uncomfortable, it is worth it. I’m following my passion, becoming more visible and authentic, and sharing the message that I write about in my books. Social anxiety isn’t a threat. Don’t let it stop you from following your passion and bringing your unique essence to the world!
Jennifer Shannon is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for anxiety. She has worked with children, teens and adults since 1985. She is the author of Don’t Feed The Monkey Mind, The Anxiety Survival Guide For Teens, and The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook for Teens published by New Harbinger Press. She has just finished her fourth book, titled A Teens Guide to Getting Stuff Done, on procrastination. She speaks regularly at local and national conferences and has been featured on numerous radio shows, podcasts, and news media. She was the co-founder of the Santa Rosa Center for Cognitive Therapy. She is a Certified Diplomat of The Academy of Cognitive Therapy , a graduate of the Behavioral Therapy Training Institute for OCD, and a member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and the International OCD Foundation.
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