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You’re not broken: What causes social anxiety?

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“What’s wrong with me?”

Have you ever wondered why you feel so anxious in social situations? What’s the reason you behave the way you do? Where has this social anxiety come from? If so, you’re not alone. The majority of us cannot pinpoint an event that first triggered social anxiety, so it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. After all, most of the time, you can see that your anxious thoughts and feelings are irrational. Yet, these difficult thoughts, feelings and responses show up anyway and they get in the way of the life you want to lead. You might even start to wonder “what’s wrong with me?” or think that you might be broken in some way. I know personally, I always felt that I was defective; that this was just who I am and I couldn’t change it.

It was so freeing for me to finally see that I can change. That the way I was showing up, wasn’t actually who I was; it was just how I was at that time.

How you are isn’t who you are

What you might not already know is that our fearful, anxious, avoidant and people pleasing thoughts, feelings and behaviours aren’t who we really are. They’re not a part of us, even though it feels this way sometimes. They’re just ways that we have learned to respond to certain situations in life – very automatically and unconsciously.

Separating how I responded from who I am, showed me that I was capable of responding in new ways. But for me to see this, it was vital for me to discover how I learned to think, feel and behave in the ways I did. I needed this piece of the puzzle so I could let go of the idea that I was ‘broken’, ‘defective’ and ‘wrong’ in some way. This was a tough learning for me, and part of me felt resistant to it for reasons I’ll share later. But part of me deeply knew that this was my truth. I allowed myself to move into acceptance, which is the first step to creating the change we want to experience.

So, because this was such an important piece of the puzzle for me (and so many others I have worked with too), I’m going to share with you what I have learned, written from a place of wholehearted compassion; and I invite you and all of your curiosity to join me in this space of learning…

Our minds creation

We know that our thoughts are not the same as reality because all of the information we take in through our senses gets filtered in our mind based on our beliefs, past experiences and expectations. This means we automatically and unconsciously delete tons of information and make a lot of assumptions, and so the story that comes out the other side isn’t necessarily that reflective of reality (psst! if you missed that memo then check out this article). You actually create the world you see and experience with your own mind.

However, before we create the world around us with our minds, society creates our minds. We pick up messages from the people around us as we grow up that shape our minds and our nervous system and sets us up with go-to patterns of thought, behaviour and beliefs which, for a huge proportion of us, includes ones that aren’t entirely helpful.

How our minds are shaped

You see, we’re growing up in a culture where so many of the adults around us are stressed; over-worked; financially struggling; experiencing mental health challenges (diagnosed or not); carrying around unprocessed hurt and grief; suppressing their feelings and authenticity; resisting vulnerability and tough conversations; seemingly detached and emotionally unavailable; and seeking some kind of peace, fulfilment and freedom from their own uncomfortable thoughts and feelings in ways that aren’t always healthy for them, or us as their children.

Parenting children in a way that promotes self-confidence and self-acceptance as well as healthy connections and boundaries is especially challenging when you’re wrestling with your own unprocessed issues or packing them down, trying to ignore it and carry on. Because we can’t ignore these emotions. The more we try, the more intense they get; the more easily triggered we are, or the more shut down and detach; and the more we feel the need to numb those uncomfortable feelings.

If we’re choosing to be honest with ourselves, we notice that this can show up in our families as anything from drinking; drugs; unhealthy relationships; sex; rage; shaming; lack of communication; passive aggressiveness; refusing to acknowledge and accept emotions; persistent dieting or binge eating; staying constantly busy in work; avoiding uncomfortable discussions; a lack of boundaries; controlling behaviour; or being in a perpetual state of people pleasing or rescuing others.

So is it any wonder that so many of us as children receive the message that we’re ‘not enough’, ‘too much’, or we’re ‘inconvenient’ in some way? Often we learn that to feel accepted in our stressed-out families, we must be ‘good’ in a ‘be quiet, small, still or perfect’ kind of way ‘and don’t make mummy and daddy upset or mad’.

Taking perspective

The consequences of not meeting the expectations held by adults around us as children, be they realistic for the child’s developmental stage or not, can range from criticism, ridicule or shaming, to shouting or slapping, or disengagement and avoidance – and any of these strategies can be harmful for a child. Have you ever been told you’re ‘loved but not liked’ or something similar as a child because a parent felt emotionally triggered by how you were showing up? Ouch! Seemingly small, offhand negative messages like this quickly add up for a young person.

From the parent’s perspective, they don’t usually have bad intentions. They’re probably experiencing anxiety themselves and trying to control a child’s behaviour so that they can feel better within themselves, and they’re just not considering the effect on their child. Yet, on the other side of the interaction, it’s a huge threat to a child’s wellbeing. Children depend on the adults around them for survival and so, as a youngster, we will mould ourselves into whatever we believe the adults around us want us to be; surrendering our authenticity and disconnecting from who we really truly are in order to fit in with the family norms.

Resisting new knowledge

Here’s where I struggled with learning about this. I love my parents. I grew up to be extremely protective of my mother and I wouldn’t accept a bad word said. Sure, there were things in my childhood that were upsetting but my childhood ‘wasn’t that bad’. I mean, I wasn’t physically abused and I had a roof over my head, food and clothes, so it can’t have been my childhood that affected me, right? It was far easier for me to choose to believe that I am flawed as a person, than to accept that I could be affected by my parents. I didn’t want to blame them because I knew that they struggled too. They did the best that they could – and who am I to say that wasn’t enough?

Adverse childhood experiences

It might surprise you to know that much of this treatment would be considered Adverse Childhood Experiences, which are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood and affect 3 in 5 people. I say ‘potentially traumatic’ because, according to Dr. Gabor Mate, trauma isn’t about what happens to you, it’s about what happens inside you as a result of an external event (rather than the event itself).

Furthermore, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris uncovered how some of us have protective factors and someone to speak with about hurtful events that mean that trauma doesn’t actually manifest inside of us. Many of us, however, do not feel that we have safe and empathetic people to work through difficult feelings and experiences with and so we keep our pain to ourselves, maybe even convincing ourselves that we must be deserving of it.

Accepting our reality

We often speak with people who describe having a ‘happy childhood’ with no experiences that could trigger social anxiety. Unsurprisingly, many will later share events and parenting patterns that we now know to be adverse childhood experiences. So I know I’m not alone in wanting to push away the idea that I’ve been shaped by my upbringing (which sounds ridiculous now I type it – how could that not be the case?).

Whilst trauma can be quite the triggering word that we might understandably want to dissociate ourselves from, the reality is that an adverse childhood experience can be as common as your parents divorcing, or as simple as feeling that you weren’t loved or thought of as important, or that your family didn’t seem to support or feel close to each other. So it’s easy to see how our parents’ own issues; their physical and emotional availability and their own stress responses, can impact a child here, right? Our parents’ actions, or lack of interaction, are more about where they are in their lives than about the child. Yet, as children, we naturally make everything about us.

Letting go of blame

We wholeheartedly advocate letting go of any unhelpful beliefs that there is ‘something wrong with you’ or you’re ‘wrong’ or ‘broken’ in some way. And we’ve learned that understanding the impact of the negative messages we receive in childhood (subtlety and unintentionally or otherwise) is often essential in this.

However, let’s be clear that this isn’t about placing blame on our parents for the way that we are right now. They’re in the middle of this domino effect too. So often it’s passed down from one generation to the next as intergenerational trauma and repeated until someone moves into healing. It didn’t start with you, or your parents, so there’s no one to blame here. It’s simply a cycle that so many of us have found ourselves in.

We don’t know how to do better until we learn about it. We might not feel capable of changing until we see ourselves in a different light. Or we might be ‘stuck’ in our ways without getting the right support.

We’ve adapted

When we experience trauma, we’re adapting from the inside out. Our nervous system learns to bypass our natural social engagement system, and leans towards a fight (anger and defensiveness), flight (running away or distracting), freeze (shutting down or isolating) or fawn (people pleasing and putting yourself last) response as its new go-to setting. We’re acting and thinking from a place of pain and fear. We might not know how we feel or what our bodies are telling us we need. We may be less flexible in our responses and act more defensively.

Essentially, what we’re experiencing is an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging”, known as shame as defined by renowned shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown. I noticed this pattern of people experiencing social anxiety feeling flawed and unworthy early in my work as a coach. Brené’s work helped us to connect the dots, whilst further research confirmed the relationship between trauma and shame.

When we experience shame, we tend to default to using certain behaviours as self-protective ‘shame shields’. Researcher Linda Hartling describes three of these strategies of disconnection. Take a look and consider which one you most gravitate towards using:

  1. Moving Away – Withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves and keeping secrets
  2. Moving Towards – Seeking to appease and please others and be seen as ‘perfect’
  3. Moving Against – Trying to gain power over others through aggression, blaming and shaming

How does this fit with social anxiety?

Social anxiety is characterised by anxiety and avoidance, which is triggered by an intense fear of negative criticism in performance and social interaction situations. We know that, whenever possible, people experiencing social anxiety will attempt to avoid their most feared situations. Whenever it is not avoidable, they will endure the situation, often with feelings of intense distress and panic.

Well, when our deepest belief is that we’re flawed and unworthy, we’re expecting to be criticised and rejected. Why is this so scary for us? Because, as a social species, we’re wired for connection and dependent on each other. It wasn’t so long ago in the history of humanity that being outcast from the tribe would lead to certain death! This is no longer true. A lack of acceptance from one person or group does not mean we’re rejected from all of society. But our brains have not evolved to understand this yet. So any perceived threat of rejection sets off our internal panic alarms and puts us into survival mode.

So to self-protect, we adopt these shame shields as a way to try to fit in and hide our flaws. What we’ve seen in ourselves and the people we work with is that, when we experience social anxiety we primarily adopt the Moving Away strategy. However, in situations where avoidance is not an option and interactions are necessary, we’ve seen a common tendency to pick up the Moving Towards strategy. Whenever we’re using these shame shields, they’re moving us further away from our own authenticity. We’re hiding who we truly are. And this is what trauma really is, it’s a disconnection from yourself. It’s like we’re rejecting ourselves now so that someone else doesn’t get a chance to later. But this isn’t the end of your story.

You can change how you are

You may have learned to respond in this way due to things that were outside of your control as a child, but you do not have to continue with the same old patterns now. There’s no magic pill or quick fix that somebody else can give to you. However, if you can learn something, then you can unlearn it too. Human beings are amazing like that.

Once you realise that how you’re seeing the world and how you’re showing up isn’t fixed; you have the ability to question those old unhelpful beliefs, thoughts and behaviours that have been holding you back; and to practice choosing to respond in new ways that do work for you.

This means seeing that you’re the one person who can now begin to recognise those old, automatic patterns that are no longer serving you. Then start to do the work to change them so you can show up as your true, authentic self.

As Gabor Mate tells us: it is not the world -not what’s outside of us- but what we hold inside that traps us. “We may not be responsible for the world that created our minds, but we can take responsibility for the mind with which we create our world”.

 

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