This Pandemic is a Good Time to Face Your Social Anxiety

Are you secretly relieved that social distancing is giving you a built-in excuse? Few social demands, fewer social gatherings, canceled group activities?

Remember how you used to feel when you were invited somewhere? All kinds of things went through your head as your discomfort grew:

How many people will be there?

I prefer one-on-one.

I’d rather be alone.

I don’t like being in a group.

I don’t want to go.

Most people enjoy parties, reunions, conferences, and group activities of all kinds. But there’s a fairly large subset of people who feel so exquisitely uncomfortable in a group that all they can think about is:

When can I escape?

How many times have you thought, or said, one of the sentences above? If your answer is, “Many,” I want to assure you that you are not alone. Being in a group requires a different level of confidence and different social skills than spending time with someone one-on-one.

Having talked with countless numbers of folks who avoid groups, I can say with confidence that most likely it’s not the group itself that you’re avoiding.

Actually, you’re avoiding a particular feeling or set of feelings that you have when you’re in a group.

Here are some of the feelings I’ve heard described over the years by folks who are uncomfortable in groups:

  • Left out
  • Trapped
  • Lost
  • Overlooked
  • Freaked out
  • Anxious
  • Sad
  • Ignored
  • Judged
  • Panicked
  • Confused
  • Self-conscious
  • Alone
  • Invisible
  • Inferior

What causes these feelings? What is it about being among a number of people that would cause a person to have any of these uncomfortable emotions? Is it a result of anxiety or depression? A social phobia? Is it a weakness or a fault?

Sure, some of these can be possible. Depression can make you feel like isolating yourself, and anxiety or social phobia can make you too nervous to enjoy the company of others.

But if you’re reading this looking for answers, I want you to dispose of the idea that your discomfort is a result of personal weakness or fault. Neither of those is the answer.

And now I’d like to give you a far better explanation than any of those. Chances are high that your discomfort in groups is caused by one of three factors.

3 Reasons You May Be Uncomfortable or Anxious in Groups of People

  1. The prevailing feeling in your first group.  And by this, I mean your family group. I have seen that those who grow up feeling uncomfortable in their family group often carry those uncomfortable feelings with them. So think back to when you were growing up. When your family was together did you feel ignored? Overlooked? Left out? Alone? Invisible? (All of those feelings are typically a result of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN). Or did you feel trapped? Inferior? Targeted? Were you constantly preparing for some unpredictable eruption of anger or erratic behavior of a family member? Whatever your prevailing feelings were, you naturally carry them forward into your adult life. These old feelings then arise in situations that mimic the family experience. Like being in a group.
  2. Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Research has shown that when we expect people to treat us a certain way, we can unwittingly pull for it from other people. We actually unconsciously bring it upon ourselves. In a landmark study, it was shown that children who were labeled and treated as extra smart by their teachers actually acted smarter, and did better in school, regardless of what their IQ truly was (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). Since 1968 it’s been discovered that self-fulfilling prophecy happens in many different ways and in interpersonal arenas of all kinds. So expect to be treated as an outsider by a group of people, and you may actually bring about exclusionary behavior in the people around you.
  3. The Fatal Flaw. The Fatal Flaw is a feeling that something is wrong with you. It’s a sense of being different; of being missing some vital ingredient that everyone else seems to have. A surprisingly large number of people walk around with this feeling. It can lie there, under the surface, making you feel on the outside at social events both professional and personal. The Fatal Flaw can make you feel you don’t belong, even when you really, really do. It has the power to make you avoid group situations.

Notice that none of these potential causes of your discomfort are a product of the group itself. The actual people in the actual group are not the problem. The problem is a feeling that you have; a feeling that you bring with you wherever you go. 

And now the good news.

You can’t control other people (except perhaps unconsciously, thanks to Self-Fulfilling Prophecy). But you can control your feelings. Feelings can be managed. And now, during the pandemic, while the pressure is off, it’s an excellent time to start working on your discomfort!

Steps to Overcome Your Discomfort in Groups

  1. Come to grips with the true nature of your discomfort. The people are not the problem. It’s a feeling inside of you that’s the problem. Is it Cause #1, 2, or 3 above? Or is it a mixture of several? Understanding what you’re truly bothered by, and why, is a powerful Step One toward resolving it.
  2. Put words to your uncomfortable feeling. Choose them from the list above and/or add your own. Naming a feeling instantly reduces its power.
  3. Talk with a trusted person about the feeling and how it makes you want to avoid group events. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with a friend or family member, talk with a therapist about it. Sharing your feeling with another person will even further reduce its power over you.
  4. Start exposing yourself to group situations a little at a time, with support.
  5. Before you go to the group event, set an amount of time you will be there. Remind yourself that you have to manage your feeling while you are there. Talk back to the feeling when you feel it:

These people are fine. They’re not the problem.

You’re an adult, and no one in this group can hurt you.

You’re a good person and you belong here.

It doesn’t matter what other people think.

It’s just a feeling. It’s old, and you don’t need it anymore.

You’re a person, on equal footing with everyone else here. And you matter.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, The Fatal Flaw, and how to overcome both, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

This article was initially published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and reproduced here with the permission of the author and Psych Central.

Jonice

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Mark - September 14, 2020 Reply

Hello Dr. Webb,

I’m having difficulty using this phrase “It doesn’t matter what other people think” when talking back to my feeling of anxiety in groups. How can it not matter what other people think? If I didn’t care what other people think, then why even be around other people?

    Jonice - September 16, 2020 Reply

    There are so many reasons to be around other people that have nothing to do with caring what they think. I think what you’re missing here is how vital it is to be yourself and let people either like you or not. Turn your attention to being who you are.

Linda - August 20, 2020 Reply

Curious as to the connection between social anxiety and CEN – these are commonly connected?

I have both and didn’t really think that the SA was connected to the CEN.

Thanks!

    Jonice - August 23, 2020 Reply

    Dear Linda, CEN makes you feel you are different, flawed, and don’t belong, and this is the crux of many people’s social anxiety. Beginning to get in touch with your feelings instead of walling them off helps resolve it.

Thessaly - August 1, 2020 Reply

Or maybe some people who don’t like groups are introverted and it’s not about anxiety. I have no problem being in groups, I’m not anxious and I don’t feel left out or judged. Honestly I would rather stay home because gatherings are simply not fun and it doesn’t matter who is there. I wish that more people, especially mental health professionals, would acknowledge and normalize introvert behavior. We’re not broken and we don’t need to be more outgoing. I’m not suffering, I’m just different.

    Jonice - August 2, 2020 Reply

    Dear Thessaly, introversion is a completely different characteristic than social anxiety. This article is about anxiety but I have written others about introversion too.

Leanne - July 21, 2020 Reply

Thank you Jonice, this article was very thought provoking as usual.

I left a moms group that I had been part of for 9 years. One of the moms ganged up on another mom and the rest of the group seemed to back her bad behaviour. I felt very uncomfortable, even though it wasn’t directed at me.

I always felt judged, ignored or had to fight to get a word in with that group. Same as how I felt growing up interestingly enough.

The girls asked me to stay and work things out but the confrontation felt to hard for me.

Should I have stayed to work things out? How do I deciper if that group was toxic for me or if it was just my interpretation of events and feelings due to Serious CEN caused by my emotionally devoid childhood?

    Jonice - July 21, 2020 Reply

    Dear Leanne, CEN does indeed make it difficult to judge what’s toxic and what’s just natural conflict between people. I’d suggest running things like this by someone whose judgment you trust to help you make decisions. And start learning about your own feelings because that’s an important part of the route to get better at handling situations with others.

Leez - July 20, 2020 Reply

What should be my goal when I’m in a group I feel uncomfortable with? I have been avoiding one because when I go I feel inferior, like a failure and I put on a bravado. I can’t imagine my goal is to not feel those things at all. What am I going for?

    Jonice - July 20, 2020 Reply

    Dear Leez, instead of trying for a particular feeling, which will not work, focus on what you do feel when you’re in a group. Your feelings, and figuring out why you have them, hold the key to changing this.

Val - July 20, 2020 Reply

thank you for this article, naming this issue Jonice. Now I see it’s real, I’ll follow your guidelines to make some different choices. I’m ‘glad’ to see it’s a real issue and not just me being ‘difficult as usual’.
cheers

Kara - July 20, 2020 Reply

Thanks Dr Webb for another enlightening article and also for the helpful tips – if we ever get out of lockdown I’ll definitely try all of them. In the meantime I’m one of those people you describe in your opening paragraph.. infinitely grateful to have an excuse not to deal with groups! I’m okay if I’m formally leading a group eg as a manager or a trainer; in fact most people I’ve led seem to appreciate my contribution. It’s more in the social setting that I struggle, experiencing the “exquisite discomfort” plus all those thoughts you mention, while pumping out the “awkward” vibes. It’s like torture and all I can think of is escape. So, sometimes I can be quite extroverted and other times debilitatingly inhibited. Actually when I think about it, self expression and leadership were not required in my family of origin. Being quiet, obedient and good were valued above all. Therefore once I became older and experienced leadership situations I was coming to them without the inhibiting influence of that first group. I understand personality is fixed, something we are born with. So I wonder, does CEN suppress a person’s natural extroversion and push them more towards introversion? Or are we talking about something else altogether? I’d appreciate your thoughts. Thanks

    Jonice - July 20, 2020 Reply

    Dear Kara, great questions. Different kids respond to CEN in different ways. A naturally outgoing kid may learn to keep quiet and feel more comfortable alone, or may learn to make superficial connections with lots of people instead of deeper, more meaningful connections. It’s a complicated picture and it sounds like you are doing a good job of thinking through your own personal experiences and results.

Anne D. - July 19, 2020 Reply

Illuminating artlcle . . . I was a constant target of verbal and emotional abuse by my mother, and the rest of the family either stood back or ganged up on me. (Cause #1) Of course, when I went to school, I acted like an animal at bay: wary, defensive, and often antagonistic. My attitude evoked hostile reactions and some bullying. (Cause #2) By the time I was a young adult, I was convinced that I was an eternal outsider, who belonged nowhere. (Cause #3) I’ve had better experiences in the decades since, found real acceptance, and deal much better with groups now. Nevertheless, there’s always that vigilance and sense of alarm in a new situation: am I going to be dealing with a group–or a mob?

    Jonice - July 19, 2020 Reply

    Dear Anne, that need for preparedness when going into a group situation was programmed into you by your childhood. Good for you for the work you have done to overcome it! Keep working on it.

Joel - July 19, 2020 Reply

What things might cause the opposite problem – groups being easier than 1:1? Although some groups are better than others, getting stuck in a long 1:1 conversation is far worse for me.

    Jonice - July 19, 2020 Reply

    Perhaps you are more comfortable with superficial conversations than ones that require you to make a true connection? It’s something to think about.

Glenna - July 19, 2020 Reply

Hi Dr Jonice,
Thank you for your articles. I find being highly sensitive contributes to my being uncomfortable in groups. Then add to that CEN … and DID …
I have been trying to reconnect with a highly sensitive group of people I know, but am struggling to cope with Zoom. Real life is easier for me.
I had to teach myself social skills, when I left home. I have come a long way.

    Jonice - July 19, 2020 Reply

    Dear Glenna, I know Zoom can be difficult, but it’s so important for you to keep trying. You have come a long way so you can go even further, I am sure.

DB - July 19, 2020 Reply

Where is the list of uncomfortable feelings mentioned in step #2?

    Jonice - July 19, 2020 Reply

    I’m sorry, DB, it’s meant to say the list above. I just corrected it.

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