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
- Freaked out
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Put words to your uncomfortable feeling. Choose them from the list above and/or add your own. Naming a feeling instantly reduces its power.
- 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.
- Start exposing yourself to group situations a little at a time, with support.
- 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.