Surveys have shown that one of people’s greatest fears is that of public speaking, which ranks higher than fears of illness, flying, and terrorism. This is one form of ‘social anxiety’. Others include shyness in one to one encounters, or nervousness when trying to initiate a conversation in a social setting, call a stranger on the telephone or perform before a group. Social anxiety can be defined as a grossly exaggerated fear of being the focus of attention and receiving negative evaluation from others. A person may be worried about being considered weak, inferior, or inept; this in turn creates a feeling of shame and humiliation.
Avoiding difficult social situations, hiding from them, is a common way of protecting oneself from the negative feelings associated with them. This can be considered, from a psychological viewpoint, a safety behaviour. Safety behaviours are tactics, or patterns of behaviour, that are used to avoid or cope with difficult, stressful or threatening feelings.
One of the paradoxical features of hiding is that it creates a self fulfilling prophesy which brings on that which is feared most. This occurs because the apprehension of a negative outcome causes physiological changes such as tension, increased pulse rate, sweating and blushing, and impedes clear thinking, recall and speech. These sensations in turn increase the negative apprehension, creating a vicious cycle that increases the anxiety rather than reducing it. There are several methods that can help in overcoming social anxiety.
There are several methods that can help in overcoming social anxiety.
1) Accept your feelings
Sharing painful feelings of inadequacy or embarrassment with a close friend or therapist acts to reduce the feelings and normalize them. This is facilitated by having a relationship built on trust and unconditional acceptance.
2) Challenge your critical thoughts
A person who feels a sense of inadequacy projects this out to the world and presumes that the world perceives him/her in the same way. This is often a complete misinterpretation of the truth, just as paranoid people project their own fears outwardly. A cartoon I once saw showed a person speaking to his therapist. The client said “I think there are 6 billion people who hate me,” to which the therapist replied “I think it could be more accurate to say that 5.99 billion don’t really care either way.”
3) Re-evaluate childhood messages
Often, shyness or lack of confidence arises from feelings of inferiority experienced in childhood. This belief that one is not adequate can follow a person into adult life. Taking a new look at childhood beliefs will often show that these were based on incorrect or immature perceptions and assumptions. Even if these assumptions were true at one time, they may no longer be accurate now. Realising this can alleviate one’s negative self perception and make one less fearful of social rejection.
4) Change behaviours
A person who is uncomfortable in social situations should confront the anxiety provoking situation, as our imagined fears are generally worse than the reality. This is done by taking small steps forward, starting with the least difficult situation and gradually leading to the most trying. Albert Ellis, the originator of cognitive therapy, was very shy as a youth and trained himself to become more outgoing by striking up conversations with strangers in the local zoo.
5) Improve your skills
There are often practical steps that a person can take which will help him/her overcome feelings of shyness or fear of public speaking, such as assertiveness training, learning relaxing techniques and building social skills. Improving one’s self esteem in other areas of ones life can also create greater confidence in a social context.
Applying any one or a combination of these approaches can be highly effective in alleviating the anxiety that plagues the lives of so many people.