Social anxiety is maintained by resistance to the possibility of judgement and rejection, due to intolerance of the feeling of embarrassment and shame and/or catastrophic thinking about the consequences of judgment. Let’s call this fear of evaluation.
Notice my focus on the possibility of judgment and rejection. It’s always a possibility. Remember from our discussion last week that one form of inflated responsibility is trying to control what other people think, feel, do, or say. One thing none of us can control is how other people perceive and respond to us. All the time. It’s always uncertain. We never have any control over it.
Some of us persistently having the feeling of certainty about relationships. What a gift. My sense is that a lot of people don’t have the good fortune to persistently feel safe and certain about all of their relationships across their life. As you reflect on it, can you tell that in some relationships, you do feel persistently comfortable? Do you have any relationships where you feel like you always know the type of interaction you are going to have and in that relationship you will feel safe? I hope you have that template somewhere, if only at Huddle.
I’m constantly thinking about the interaction between your biological vulnerabilities, your life experiences, and your present day cognitive and behavioral patterns. Your biological vulnerabilities make you vulnerable to sensitization. Your life experiences will make some situations more sensitizing than others. Your present day reactions to your biological vulnerabilities and your current life circumstances will play out as cognitive and behavioral patterns that either maintain and intensify your suffering or alleviate it and reduce it in the future.
Let’s apply this to fear of evaluation. Biologically, if you are sensitive to the feelings of embarrassment, shame, and loneliness, the possibility of those feelings is going to seem like a threat. Everyone feels embarrassed sometimes and everyone sometimes feels lonely. If, when you feel those feelings, you criticize yourself, these feelings become bigger threats. If you avoid experiences that might make you feel embarrassed or lonely at all costs, situations that could trigger those experiences will give you anticipatory anxiety and begin to feel like triggers.
Thinking about life circumstances, fear of evaluation can be prominent for both people who have been judged and rejected a lot and those who have never beeen judged or rejected.
Notice that your reaction to your own history of rejection matters more than your actual experience.
You could think, “I’ve been rejected so many times that I just can’t bear it again.”
OR, you could embrace it as an opportunity:
“I’ve been rejected so many times… And, here I am! I can handle it! Rejection doesn’t scare me!”
Similarly, you could think, “I’ve never been judged or rejected in a significant way before. If it were to happen, it would ruin my life. I can’t make mistakes because I can’t risk being rejected.”
OR, embrace that as an opportunity:
“I’ve never been rejected, so I wonder what would happened if I tried? If I tried something uncertain, where I might not success, would something catastrophic actually happen or would I just handle it?”
The important message here is that your response to your present life circumstances is more important for overcoming social anxiety than “processing” the emotions from your history. And, social anxiety is common for those without traumatic interpersonal histories, too.
That said, if you’ve lived through traumatic interpersonal experiences — including but not limited to persistently critical, rejecting, or emotionally neglectful parents, bullying, ostracization, shaming, and discrimination due to factors like gender, sexuality, race, religion, nationality or political beliefs — new experiences where you might feel judged might, understandably, give you some anticipatory anxiety. Before, during, or afterwards you might have memories of previous experiences and ruminate about them.
It’s still important for you to notice your catastrophic thinking about being rejected and the sensations and feelings that show up as the consequence of those thoughts. Allow the sensations while getting distance from the thoughts. If you automatically ruminate or start building a case, you are likely feeling angry. Let’s talk more. If you automatically have memories that are intrusive to you, let’s talk more about all of the different feelings you have about those memories. As you identify and accept those feelings, those memories will start to feel like memories, not intrusions that can attack you at any time.
Let’s discuss some of cognitive and behavioral patterns that maintain or intensify social anxiety.
When you notice that you feel sensitive, insecure, or embarrassed about something that someone else could judge:
- Don’t minimize and don’t hedge. Refrain from making a joke about yourself, your appearance, or your performance at the task. Making fun of yourself before others due does not protect you from embarrassment.
- Don’t try to figure out what other people are thinking. Whether through the questions you ask or the replay in your head, it might feel like you have more control if you think you know what others are thinking. You don’t know. You can’t know. Act how you want to act and let go of trying to control how others respond.
- Don’t ask for reassurance and don’t check messages or social media. You can tell by the feeling in your body whether the texts you are sending or what you are posting on social media is a preference or a compulsion. If it feels urgent, and like you need to do it, slow down. Observe what you are thinking and feeling. What do you fear? Is it actually happening? If it happened, what skills do you need to access to handle it?
Fear of evaluation is a complex mix of your biological sensitivity to embarrassment, shame, and loneliness + your reactions to your previous experiences + your cognitive and behavioral responses to your current life.