Social anxiety happens. It happens to millions of people, and it feels excruciating and isolating. Many of us have been in the grip of social anxiety: that panicky feeling when we would rather disappear into thin air than being around (certain) people.
Sometimes we have no choice. We can’t get away, as much as we’d like to. We have to be around our boss/coworkers/family members/God knows who else.
Here are five tips how to survive a social anxiety attack:
1. Take a break to recharge
When you feel you are deteriorating, take a bathroom break and go through the exercises below.
2. Do not judge yourself
The worst thing you can do is reprimand yourself. Self blame like “I am such a loser,” “something is wrong with me,” “there’s a good reason why people ignore me” and the likes will only make it worse. There is always a background story as to why you feel uncomfortable around other people, and it is vital that you side with yourself in that moment.
If it feels like you have to walk on eggshells, that doesn’t mean your partner has a borderline personality disorder. They might just be a gentle soul on the verge of a breakdown.
One of the couples I see, let’s call them Phil and Jen, have these kinds of exchanges frequently. Jen is highly sensitive when it comes to her appearance. All her feelings of inadequacy have been displaced onto her body, which is now the battleground for her ongoing self improvement projects.
Phil thinks there is nothing wrong with Jen’s body. He doesn’t mind that she has a little fat around her belly, and is honestly convinced that she is beautiful. Jen tries to believe him but can’t quite pull it off. The belief that she is unattractive is stronger than his loving reassurances.
So many of us have been made to grow up as pleasers, as “good girls” and “sweet boys.” The expectation of our parents was that we behave at all times. It wasn’t allowed to have an angry meltdown, or even to cry in desperate pain.
Some of us were disciplined and forced into submission. We were reprimanded and yelled at and punished for apparent “misdeeds” that are completely normal for kids, like soiling yourself or breaking something accidentally.
Others had to take care of an anxious or fragile parent who wasn’t able to withstand any kind of challenge. They had to protect their caretakers from the pain they went through themselves.
Maybe they were bullied in class but couldn’t tell their mother about it, because she wouldn’t know how to stand up to the offender, or would deteriorate emotionally in the face of the pain her child had to endure.
Sometimes just a harmless scratch on a child’s knee will make their mother react with hysterical worry. The kid learns a lesson: “My mom can’t help me when I’m hurt and gets too upset, so I better don’t tell her about it.” This is how children become the caretakers of their parents.
Projections are a funny thing. Just like we project those parts of ourselves we don’t like all that much onto others (as I described in a previous post), we project the good parts as well.
We call it falling in love. When we fall for someone, it’s often not so much about the other person. It’s about ourselves.
We find ourselves irresistibly attracted to character traits of the adored other that we seemingly don’t possess.
“He seems to be the perfect fusion of male strength and female sensitivity” one of my friends recently gushed about her new lover. “I can’t stop thinking about him.”
What she neglected to see was that she herself is a pretty well rounded person. She is compassionate when compassion is needed and assertive when assertion is needed. But she can’t picture herself that way because she keeps thinking that she really is inadequate.
I’ve recently been reading Robert A. Johnson’s work, who is a Jungian analyst and well versed in matters of the psyche. In his book “We – Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love,” he links that period of falling for someone to an inner ideal we have of others and ourselves.
This idealized image represents the noblest and most cherished character traits we seek – and in some form already possess within ourselves but which remain ignored and unrefined.
One of my clients has been going through a rough patch in her marriage. She has struggled with depression and anxiety and was laid off from her job. While she was trying to recover, her husband went through a stressful time at his job and ended up having an affair.
The healing was difficult to achieve. Once trust has been broken it’s hard to recover. Both were going back and forth about whether to reconcile or to split. Much harm had been done. But after months of pondering they decided to make it work.
This is often the one thing that is missing when relationships go sour: the determination to stick it out. It has been said that the biggest difference between couples who separate and those who stay together is simply deciding that breaking up is not an option.
I keep thinking about a quote I read somewhere by either Will Smith or his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith. When they got married they were well aware that especially in Hollywood the options to be tempted by someone else are plentiful.
They decided that they would just commit to each other, fully knowing that there would always be other attractive people but making a conscious decision that they would simply not allow someone else to intrude.
How well that works for them I cannot judge. But it sounds like a good idea to me. It’s what many people of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation have long practiced.
Modern relationships place a lot of importance on how much couples have in common and how the other can expand our world view. It’s certainly nice when that happens. But it’s not essential.
The behavior that is most difficult to deal with is anger. When a parent has more than just a bit of a temper and regularly flies into horrific rages, it will affect his children.
I used to see a young man who came to therapy because his girlfriend complained about his unpredictable, angry outbursts. He would easily fly off the handle, even for minor snafus, and the volume in his voice grew gradually scarier the longer the outburst took. He was far from becoming violent, but his screaming started to frighten the people around him.
When talking about his anger to me it became quickly obvious where he had it from: his father was the same kind of yeller who could not contain his frustration and made his environment – most of all his own family – suffer.
At some point the father would even act out his fury on the family dog, and kicked the poor animal into a corner just because he wanted some attention.
“He is flaky and unreliable and always needs to be the center of the attention” she said angrily. “I can’t stand the guy. I find him appalling.”
I’ve been working with Rebecca in psychotherapy for a while so I had a hunch what this was about. But I was surprised about the intensity of her feelings. I had never seen her so upset about something so seemingly irrelevant. This was just some random guy she barely had to deal with. There was something else going on.
She is an indoor-outdoor cat. She loves snooping around the yard and preying on birds and squirrels. Once she killed a baby rabbit right in front of our eyes. Pussycat is a predator after all.
But a couple of weeks ago she met her master. The huge red stray that walks around the neighborhood entered her territory and engaged her into a fight. I heard the screams from inside the house.
Shortly thereafter she came up the stairs. When she crouched down over her eating bowl I saw blood dripping into the food. Although hardly visible and camouflaged by her black hair, Pepper’s left ear had a deep tear.
We fixed her up and gave her penicillin, and after a tired day of sleeping she was as good as new.
But she wouldn’t leave the house.
After a few days she would climb out the window onto the roof for a visit, but she stayed put safely behind the walls of her home. Meanwhile, the ear began to heal.
Maybe a week later she was ready for a brief visit on the front stoop, while my husband cleaned out his car in the driveway. When he walked inside, she came right with him.
Another couple of days later she dared to embark on her first stroll into the great outdoors on her own. She was back in 15 minutes.
There is a rhythm to every emotion we have. It goes in and out, depending on whom we encounter that day and how our bodies react, and just how much we are in the grip of a sadness that won’t go away.
Depression is a dreary, drab misery that seems to take on a life of its own and keeps us imprisoned in the belief that we can’t, and won’t, and don’t have the power or even the will to just take control. It has taken the life out of us.
The other day I found myself in the grip of depression. The endless wait for something that may or may not come. The feeling stuck with nothing to be done.
It is an automatic, ongoing, hardly conscious wallowing in some version of “I can’t have,” “I lost,” “I’m incapable,” “I have no choice,” “I am a target,” “I am a victim” and so on.
But then, in an instant, I became aware of a fine distinction: