Do you worry about things like these:
- If I start talking, my voice will be all shaky and everyone will notice.
- What’s wrong with me? Why am I so tongue-tied whenever I talk to people?
- Everyone else seems so confident and self-assured? Why am I so nervous?
- If a conversation feels awkward, it must be because I haven’t been adequately interesting or articulate.
- My hands are always so clammy. I hope I won’t have to shake anyone’s hand.
- It’s embarrassing how sweaty I get when I’m nervous. People must really think I’m strange.
The human brain has been evolving over hundreds of millions of years, and in fact our brain structures date back to times before humans even existed, when reptiles and other creatures roamed the earth. What this means is that within our brains we have many emotional and behavioral systems that we share with animals. Like them, we can become anxious and angry. Like them, we have impulses to form relationships, friendships, and attachments, and to fight for status. And like them, we want to be part of a tribe where we know we’re accepted and wanted.
So, many of our basic emotions and our basic motives for social behavior are the product of evolution and are deeply wired into our reptile brains. The way we are is wired into us because evolution designed us that way and because our own life experiences go on to shape us even further. What this means for people with social anxiety is that the problems you have with social anxiety are not your fault! They are not because you’re some sort of defective person who lacks savoir faire. It’s vital to know this so you can stop beating yourself up, and can instead free yourself up to work on making the changes that will make your life better.
It’s just a fact that there are differences between people such that some people feel more comfortable and some people feel less comfortable in socially stressful situations. You may just have a brain that is sensitive to certain social situations. And all that means is that you’re going to have to approach things a little bit differently in order to overcome the hurdle. I know it’s a challenge and it’s not fair…… but ….knowing it’s not your fault and also that it’s not some fatal flaw frees you up to get to work on making the changes that are possible.
The goal of therapy for social anxiety is not to make you into the life of the party or a big extrovert. My guess is that you’ve tried that and you know it doesn’t work. My guess is also that you’ve tried yelling at yourself, berating yourself, and feeling awful about yourself, and that you’ve found those don’t work either.
There are three basic emotional systems in our bodies. There is 1) a system that looks for threats and responds to threats; 2) a system that involves feelings of motivation and desire; and 3) a system that promotes feelings of contentment and safety. So when you feel unsafe socially, your body’s internal threat system tends to be very activated. If you then compound the issue by beating yourself up for being anxious, your threat system becomes even further activated.
How to break this vicious cycle? We will enlist the aid of your contentment and safety system through self-compassion and self-kindness exercises and practices. Once you start learning how to nourish your own safety system, you will discover that your threat system starts to “dial down” enough so that you find you have other resources to bring to bear.