I’ve been battling against social anxiety for decades of my life, with alternate successes. Sometimes I am really happy, relaxed and enjoying the interaction with friends and feel no fear of having to talk with strangers. Other times I’m the total opposite.
It comes and go, basically. I’ve often wondered where social anxiety comes from for me and have come to realize it is a deep seated belief that originates with my parents. That unfortunately means it is not easy to unravel from my brain, and probably at this age I won’t be able to 100% get rid of it.
For the sake of this article, I’m writing “social anxiety” but am referring to “social anxiety disorder (SAD)“. Mild forms of social anxiety are common among the majority of people but the disorder affects about 10% of the world population, at least occasionally.
The common cause of Social Anxiety
Most people suffering from social anxiety, and most psychologists agree, have identified a specific collection of reasons for it: social rejection, in the forms of past embarrassments, peer rejection, love rejections, bullying, sexual abuses, an excessive self consciousness that resulted, multiple times, in public “mistakes”, or perceived like so. Over the course of years these occasions accumulate and those suffering from social anxiety tend to be more wary, scared or downright terrified of social events, interacting with friends and even their loved ones.
That’s truly debilitating, as you can imagine. I haven’t had the extreme forms of it, luckily, so my life hasn’t been affected that much from the pains associated with the disorder, but I do have had a long series of lost chances and declined invitations due to social anxiety. So it is life, sometimes.
Point is, while all the social rejections, self-consciousness and so on do indeed contribute to social anxiety and can 100% alone cause it in some subjects, I didn’t find it was not the case with myself. I remember only a handful of social embarrassments in my life, which I bet is common with everybody on Earth. Who doesn’t commit mistakes from time to time? That’s perfectly normal.
Nor I had any super-embarrassing public moment where I felt terrified and wanted to disappear on the spot. On the contrary, most of the time I had to show up in front of a medium/large audience I did it fine, notwithstanding the normal anxiety, and barely anybody told me I looked anxious at all. Nor I was ever bullied in my life, nor had extreme bad luck with girls (I’m very unlucky at gambling to balance it). Nor any sexual abuses, thankfully. Nor anybody who didn’t believe in myself and my skills, quite the contrary actually, as family and immediate friends always put me on a higher level that I considered I deserved.
I couldn’t find myself in the classical model of the causes of social anxiety. I did wonder why for years and slowly came to realizing where social anxiety comes from for me.
The origin of my social anxiety
I was brought up in an over-protective family. Mostly by my parents as the larger family was scattered around Italy and we rarely met with uncles and aunts. Therefore, the over-protectiveness felt like the only form of interaction with others I had throughout my infancy and a large component of social interactions through adolescence too.
That alone wouldn’t explain social anxiety but it was what was associated it with that did: coldness.
My parents weren’t warm with each other. They loved each other, sure, but didn’t show it in front of me. More like not wanting to explicitly making a show of themselves and preferring to have all forms of affection in their private room. Same to me, unfortunately: I wasn’t much hugged, physically appreciated, kissed. I didn’t feel like I could count on anybody, physically, if I had to rely on somebody. The lack of human touch can do that, sadly. That united with the total disinterest showed by my parents toward my skills, hobbies, studies and later work, that made me grow up doubting of them all, like they weren’t actually complaining but I always could do better.
That in turn generated in myself the feel that anytime, anywhere, I could do more because it was expectedto. I felt my parents expected more out of me, despite not directly telling me; their coldness communicated me that they weren’t exactly happy of what I had become, of how I turned up to be and what had accomplished. They occasionally complimented me, but words somehow were overridden by acts, of lack there of. It was mostly like a polite compliment, that acquaintances can give to each other, nor what you would expect from your dad or mum. I definitely felt like they expect me to excel at more than I was throughout my childhood.
I became then a confused adult. On one side friends, my parents’ words and the actual accomplishments in my life told me one truth, on the other side the lack of affection, coldness and disinterest of my parents told me a different truth, opposite to the former. I reacted with striving to do better, to learn more, to be better, to work harder, because stupidly I felt that if I had done more, perhaps my parents wouldn’t have given just polite compliments but they would have meant them, with total honesty.
That of course wasn’t the cause of their coldness. They simply weren’t good in expressing their feelings towards me, and even towards each other. But I couldn’t know this as a child. And at this point in my life I don’t believe it would help anymore with my social anxiety if they would be more warm and if we had a completely honest conversation on what they expected and what they are unhappy about me. Plus my father is no more so that wound can never be sealed.
I’ve by now learnt to cope with social anxiety by improving myself as much as possible and it has undoubtedly its advantages, but it is also stressful and causing me to suffer from time to time of social anxiety more than I should. A self-reinforcing cycle of striving more only to get more stressed about not achieving enough and back to square zero.
A possible solution to social anxiety
I don’t believe much in pills nor therapy. Take too many tries and too long, and often both cure only the symptoms, not the cause. If you are suffering from social anxiety and it is caused by the relationship you had with your family, having a long, honest, liberating talk with them would immensely help, if you are still young. For older people, not that much but I would try it nonetheless.
More importantly, learning to forgive the others that bullied, rejected or just didn’t understand you in the past is the foremost step to start overcoming social anxiety. A very hard step indeed. I doubt I could forgive bullies or abusers, and luckily don’t have to, but it is helping me to think of people whom rejected me in some ways as imperfect human beings, more imperfect than me, that committed lots of mistakes, among which the ones towards myself. They probably didn’t mean it, and if they actually did, they are not the kind of persons I would have liked to hang with anyway. So, remove the weight their actions have had on you by making them less important in your eyes. It’s a bit arrogant, that’s true, but it’s working.
Hope it helps you too. Social anxiety disorder is difficult to understand. If you like to open up a bit, I would love to hear your experience with it in the comments 🙂