Social anxiety is a bit of an enigma.
Sometimes we fear one thing but not another. You may loathe cocktail parties with the fire of a thousand suns but be totally comfortable raising a glass and giving a toast.
Or you might dread your company holiday party, but be brave and adventurous in other areas—maybe you ice climb, you risked your last penny to launch a business, or your bucket list includes a meal of very tasty but potentially poisonous pufferfish.
So why is social anxiety so inconsistent? Why can we do hate some things but not mind others? What are we really afraid of? It’s not people, per se—we’re totally comfortable with those nearest and dearest to us. So why can we tear up the dance floor but we clam up when meeting our friend’s friends (or the other way around?)
There is one thing all social anxieties have in common: the fear of what I call The Reveal. It’s the fear that something embarrassing, deficient, or flawed about us will become obvious to everyone.
But there’s a twist: this supposedly obvious fatal flaw not only isn’t noticeable, it may not even exist. Social anxiety is like seeing ourselves in a funhouse mirror—what we see is exaggerated and distorted.
Regardless, it feels so real. Therefore, we go to great lengths in order to conceal our imagined failings. We avoid. We stay quiet. We don’t pick up the phone. We stick with our partner when mingling at a wedding reception, cross the street rather than deal with overly assertive petitioners, or strategically schedule our workouts for dead times at the gym.
We do this because, in our minds, if The Reveal comes to pass we’ll be rejected, humiliated, or exposed.
But social anxiety isn’t one big, monolithic thing. There are many different flavors—maybe not the fabled 31, but as theorized by Dr. David Moscovitch, a pioneering psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, there are at least four. So which one is yours? Which one will you vanquish?
Reveal #1: Our appearance.
In this type, we’re afraid we’ll be judged for something about our physical appearance: we’re not attractive enough. We’re underdressed. We’re fat and everyone is judging us. We look weird. Or it could be something more specific: Everyone will notice our zits. There’s something odd going on with our arms. Whatever it is, we feel conspicuous, as if we’re the lone person at work dressed up for Halloween.
This flavor of Reveal calls for disguise: sunglasses, hats. Always pants--never shorts or a skirt. Exposed skin makes us self-conscious. We retreat into our hoodies. No bright colors for us—someone might notice. We wear so many neutrals we’d make Switzerland proud. We channel our inner chameleon and blend in until we disappear.
Reveal #2: Our anxiety.
In the second flavor of social anxiety, we’re convinced the physical signs of anxiety itself will be Revealed. We worry we’ll stammer like a fourth-grader explaining why we forgot the book report, blush as if we just opened the bathroom stall door on the CEO, or sweat so much people will ask why on earth we went for a jog in our work clothes.
This is a cruel trick of the physiology of anxiety. We blush, sweat, or shake because we’re stressed. But then we get stressed because we’re blushing, sweating, or shaking. It’s a vicious cycle.
This variety of Reveal also results in creative disguises. Guys swipe just a teeeeeny bit of their girlfriend’s makeup to hide blushing. Our closet is full of black and navy blue shirts that strategically don’t show sweat. We stock up on clinical-strength antiperspirant. We won’t use a laser pointer during presentations because we don’t want people to see us shake. In desperation, we may have once tried sticking sanitary napkins in our armpits--we’ll never tell.
Reveal #3: Our social skills.
This is a big one. This is when our ability to talk, think, and even remember our own name seems to magically vanish when we sit at a conference table, walk through the door of a party, or do anything that involves the dreaded phrase, “Now let’s break up into small groups.”
We might worry it will be Revealed that we have no personality. That we are embarrassingly awkward. We can’t think of anything to say. We worry we won’t make sense, our mind will go blank, we’re too quiet, too boring, we’ll get emotional, we’ll be confusing, or no one will understand what we say.
We fear the uncomprehending stare, the awkward silences where time seems to slow down. We can tell when we’ve killed the vibe, sucked the air out of the room, or accidentally stopped the flow of conversation like the social equivalent of the Hoover Dam.
Reveal #4: Our character.
This is the biggest one of all. We might be worried about our whole personality: we’re not cool, not funny, stupid, a loser, an idiot, crazy, unqualified, inadequate, incompetent, or broken.
We may mutter to ourselves in moments of angst, “What the hell is wrong with me?” Answer that question and you’ll find your feared Reveal. Whatever it is, we’re worried it will show everyone we’re fundamentally deficient.
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This is why, for two people with social anxiety, the same scenario might be excruciating or a welcome relief. For instance, if your personal Reveal involves your appearance, you might dread walking into a movie theater full of people. But if your Reveal involves your social skills, a movie theater might be a place of comfort. After all, it grants you two hours of relief from talking and guarantees a built-in topic of conversation afterwards.
Still not sure exactly what your feared Reveal is? Think back to the last time you felt the urge to bolt from a social moment. (Or you actually did bolt, feigned illness, walked the long way around, or stared intently at your phone as if fascinated by your Twitter feed.) Then think: Whew! That was close. It almost became obvious that I am...____________. Fill in the blank. A loser? Weird? Turning a Heinz 57 shade of red? How you end the sentence is your personal Reveal.
But no matter your Reveal, you can conquer it. Your perceived fatal flaw may feel as obvious as the nose on your face, but with time and practice (and IMHO, some resources from this website), you can make it vanish faster than a toupee in a hurricane.
Be kind to others and yourself!