People with social anxiety (technically called social phobia) fear public speaking, being assertive, going to parties, meeting new people, speaking up to authority figures (like a teacher or boss), eating in public, or similar situations in which they believe that others may evaluate or scrutinize them. Anxiety in those with social phobia usually includes physical symptoms such as sweating, rapid heart rate, upset stomach, flushed face, and shakiness. The prominent emotions are fear and dread. The difference between shyness and social phobia is one of degree—those with social anxiety have a very very bad case of shyness that leads to severe limitations in life.

For example, a man who fears public speaking might believe that his voice will give out, he’ll forget his lines, he’ll not be able to answer questions, people will laugh at him, or he will be so frightened that he’ll lose control and run off stage. A woman with concerns about meeting other people may be afraid that when she speaks her voice will shake, that others will reject her, or that she might embarrass herself by saying something inappropriate. People with social phobia believe that they will certainly be humiliated, embarrassed, or shown to be inadequate. It’s no wonder that those with social anxiety tend to withdraw from others. And the more they withdraw, the more anxiety wins control.

Social phobia can be successfully treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Elsewhere in this blog we have written about exposure which is the “B” in CBT. Exposure involves coming face to face with fear, usually done in a planned, systematic way. The cognitive part of treatment involves looking at the way thoughts influence feelings, helping clients identify unhelpful thoughts, and replacing them with more adaptive thoughts.

Self-absorption is a common theme of the thoughts of those with social anxiety. Self-absorption involves paying excessive attention to oneself. It’s like a video camera is constantly turned on to you and the picture it transmits is too bright and quite unflattering. Common thoughts related to this theme include:

  • Everyone is staring at me.
  • My voice is shaking and people are all thinking that I’m scared to death.
  • I’m making a complete fool out of myself.
  • I look ugly.
  • People will think I’m stupid.
  • I never know the right thing to say.

So how does one address the self-absorption underlying such socially anxious thinking? First, try experimenting with “putting your ego on the shelf.” Realize that the rest of the world does not focus on you nearly as much as you think. Typically, people walk around more focused on their own concerns than on judging you or others. Second, start noticing how often you see other people engaging in the very actions you worry so much about. For example, listen to two people talking at a gathering. Inevitably, you’ll hear a few unintelligible phrases, social gaffes, boring, or grammatically incorrect statements. So what? Do you evaluate others as harshly as you do yourself? Probably not. In addition, you might consider these coping phrases when you are in a difficult or embarrassing situation:

  • Everything isn’t all about me.
  • So what if a few people have negative thoughts about me.
  • Mistakes just make people human.
  • No one is going to remember what I did a week from now.
  • What matters is where my heart is, not how I perform.

If your social anxiety interferes with your life, makes you miserable, or keeps you from doing what you want to do, there are treatments that work. Please seek help. Take care.