So many of us feel socially anxious in life, fearing judgement of others and avoiding situations we feel afraid in. In fact, more than 1 in 10 of us experience social anxiety; it’s the third most common mental health challenge. Or it may not be that we’re so avoidant, but instead we feel so anxious about showing up and being seen as who we are in social situations that we cope by wearing a mask and hiding our true selves. Either way, we’re missing incredible opportunities for joy and connection in our lives, and we want it to be different. But the way we’re seeing ourselves isn’t granting ourselves the power to change.
Beginning with a belief
We’re growing up in a world where so many of us as children are told we’re ‘too much’ or ‘too inconvenient’. We learn we must be quiet, small, still or perfect to be accepted in our stressed-out families; so we start to believe that we are not enough -not worthy of belonging- and we learn to hide our true selves away; to be what we think the adults around us want us to be.
Then, as we go through life, small, quiet and afraid to make mistakes, with the personality we constructed to keep us safe at home that we now THINK is WHO we are, we start to receive messages that this is not good enough either!
We’re told by peers, teachers, colleagues, family, friends, partners and even social settings that we should be louder, more confident, assertive, fun and outgoing, at ease in the spotlight and outspoken in groups. Every message confirms our beliefs that there is something wrong with us; we are not good enough and not worthy of love and belonging. So believing we’re ‘broken’, we avoid any situation that could reveal our perceived flaws and leave us open to rejection. And if we cannot avoid it, we’re enduring those situations with intense panic. We’re holding ourselves back in every area of our lives. Disconnecting from others. Our own safety-strategy of self-rejection creates a self-fulfilling prophesy in our life, increasing anxiety and negative social experiences over and over again.
You are not ‘broken’
When –or if– we finally seek help, we’re labelled ‘disordered’ and ‘mentally ill’ which further confirms our belief that there’s something wrong with us. Not only that, it takes away the power to change. It starts a search for a cure for social anxiety, and promotes reliance on medication and doctors, looking for a ‘fix’ from outside.
But we don’t need fixing. The truth is we are not broken or defective because we’re having an anxiety response in a world that’s repeatedly told us we’re not acceptable. We have learned that it is not safe to show up as we are in the world, and so our body is doing its job, sending us signals that tell us don’t engage in this dangerous situation, in order to keep us safe. Even if, logically, we know we’re not really in danger. The threat of rejection, ridicule and shaming feels no better than a threat to life for us.
It’s okay to be quiet, and it’s okay to speak out too
What the world doesn’t readily tell us is that it’s okay to be quiet, or to feel anxious and self-doubting. And because no one is talking about this, we don’t realise how normal it is to feel this way. You are not an outsider when you feel anxiety and self-doubt, you’re on the inside with everyone else. We don’t see how very human these experiences are because we don’t know that feeling socially anxious and avoiding is a perfectly normal way to respond in a world that tells us we’re not normal or acceptable.
Instead, we have dealt with this by giving up our authenticity and moulding ourselves into who we think we were ‘supposed’ to be. After all, many of us grew up in a “kids should be seen and not heard” mentality that’s unconsciously trickled down through generations; in many households a child should never dare to question or disagree with the adults around us, or we were -perhaps unintentionally at times- ridiculed and shamed for making a mistake or simply showing up as ourselves in a way that triggered the adults around us. We behave as the people pleasers and the passive ones hiding in the background, thinking this is who we are now.
You are not the labels you’ve been given
But as we fail to notice that we’re disconnected from who we really truly are, the idea that we’re an ‘anxious person’ consumes us, dictating the life we lead. We unwittingly live the labels we have been given by others, keeping ourselves in the ‘shy box’ perhaps, or wearing the mask of an extravert, avoiding and missing opportunities and connections we would otherwise love. And how can we possibly feel like we belong when we don’t accept ourselves as we are? When we don’t know who we really are?
Still, it’s okay if you’ve never learned that you’re allowed to speak your mind; or that you can have opinions and a taste in music, fashion or politics that differs from your family and peers and still remain lovable. It’s okay if you struggle to say ‘no’ right now, and you haven’t yet had the opportunity to learn how to set boundaries and question other people. It’s also okay if you only know how to cope with the fear of social situations through avoidance and masks.
The way you are isn’t who you are
What you need to understand now is that the way you are isn’t who you are. In fact, what we see as our personalities is simply a mix of innate traits and coping strategies we picked up at an early age. The way you are isn’t set in stone. It’s fluid and you can change and grow. We all need to see that we each have the power to change; it’s not our fault that we learnt to behave this way in the world, but we are responsible for changing it now so we can show up in a way that really serves us in life… and we can. Because you are already so much more than you see and believe right now.
If you are on the path from socially anxious to quietly confident, find out all the ways we can help you today.