SOCIAL ANXIETY DISORDER
In publications and workshops, we emphasize that anyone committed to positive change must shoulder unequivocal responsibility for his or her condition. While not responsible for the cards dealt, we are responsible for how we play the hand given. Those of us resolved to modify our behavior or condition cannot abrogate responsibility to another. That being said, there are limits to this responsibility. Let’s explore this using social anxiety as our point of reference.
Social anxiety is the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people. It is the debilitating fear and anxiety of being negatively evaluated and judged. It is a pervasive disorder that affects multiple areas of a person’s life. It keeps people in self-initiated solitary confinement. Fittingly, its acronym is SAD (Social Anxiety Disorder). SAD is chronic because it does not go away on its own―but it can be remedied. Since less than 37% of those suffering choose to receive treatment, the nickname, SAP (Socially Anxious Person) suggests that a person with SAD is, indeed, a SAP if he or she chooses to avoid successful methods of recovery and continues to wallow in misery and isolation.
Anxiety disorder is the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults or about 18% of the population. In the LGBT community, somewhere between 30 and 60 percent deal with anxiety and depression at some point in their lives. That rate is 1.5 to 2.5 times higher than that of their straight or gender-conforming counterparts. Our San Francisco based, gay social anxiety workshop generated over 300 participants in the first year. You are not alone!
Let’s assume you are a person with SAD. When you enter a social situation, you are affected by the unsubstantiated criticisms of others. These feelings are aggravated by your own self-defeating narratives. You worry about your appearance, what you might say, how you are perceived by others. Your Integral Human Complex (body, mind, and spirit) is overwhelmed by self-doubt. Physically, you may hyperventilate, your stomach in knots, as you avert your eyes and sidle to a safe zone. Emotionally, you’re consumed by self-doubt and hesitancy; spiritually, depression and isolation overcome any sense of belonging. The irony is, you have far more to fear from your own distorted perceptions than the opinions of others. Your imagination takes you to dark and lonely places. Upon leaving an event or situation, different self-esteem issues emerge as your imagination creates false scenarios and you obsess about your prior behavior.
Your neurosis underscores a degree of self-absorption that borders on narcissism, the psychoanalytic definition of which is self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external object―from the reality of the situation. This is a common characteristic of SAD. Narcissism does not have to be a disorder, however. To clarify this abstract assertion requires an understanding of classicist definitions of love.
The Greeks’ delineated eight types of love including sexual passion, brotherly love, puppy love and so on. Philautia describes a type of love that can be either selfish or selfless. The adverse is self-centeredness―a destructive preoccupation with the perceptions of others. Healthy philautia, on the other hand, is the kind of self-affirmation produced by an inveterate sense of inner-worth and value―the emotional competence that allows you to embrace your capacity to empathize. It is extremely difficult to accept love unless you have the ability to initiate and reciprocate, and that ability is generated by your own sense of self-assuredness. In the throes of your illness, you immerse yourself in the selfish aspect of philautia. As you recover from SAD, recollection of your own suffering encourages you to become increasingly sensitive to the needs and conditions of others.
Conditioning is an individual’s current state of being as consequence of his or her reactions and adaptations to experience and circumstance. Each of you is blessed with the qualities and uniqueness of your conditioning. It is these sensitivities that dictate your beliefs, peculiarities, fears, aspirations, and so on. They define you and you are defined by them. They unremittingly adapt to, and are augmented by new experience and circumstance. No individual can truly grasp at your totality because you are in constant flux. You are subject to your unique conditioning. Perceptions are, at best, uninformed and biased speculations. We emphasize this to illustrate that opinions are specious and inaccurate reflections of individual, singular fears, prejudices, affections, disappointments. They are perpetually flawed and not worth a proverbial tinker’s damn. Only your opinion of you is an opinion worth examining.
It is your own negative self-worth that permits you to be negatively affected by the opinions and thoughts of others. Accepting their impressions and opinions as certainty is a self-defeating existence. It is your uniqueness and individuality that is of import and, if your condition is flawed or distressed, then it is up to you to seek remedy for your own self-mortification.
Not Your Problem!
When we expose ourselves to others in social situations, we subject ourselves to three correlating forms of feedback: first impressions, reactionary opinions, and post-impressions
First Impressions are meaningless. Initial reactions are prejudicial and gratuitous consequences of an individual’s condition. No one can make a well-informed assessment of someone they see for the first time. Yet, it is your own stuff, your personal negative narcissism that legitimizes these non-constructive impressions corrupted by another’s experience and circumstance. You may physically remind someone of an abusive ex-lover or an annoying teacher. An obese person may be affronted by your figure. In any case, one thing remains constant. An assessment generated by first impression is meaningless. It is Not Your Problem!
Reactionary Opinions are assumptions made during or immediately following interaction with a person or group. Best-selling teen author, Simone Elkeles writes “Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one but they think each others’ stink.” They are emotional reactions to scattered aspects of your presentation. Your presentation is the way in which you present yourself and any reaction to this presentation is perverted and distorted by condition. Your personality may conjure images of a mother-in-law or a teenage bully. The tenor of your voice may bring an unconscious memory, your race a bias, and so on. It is imperative that you recognize that you are not responsible for someone else’s uninformed and meritless opinion. If you are attempting to be as authentic as you can be in your current condition, there is no reason in-the-world to assume responsibility for unsubstantiated perceptions. It’s Not Your Problem!
Post-impressions: once you have left the event or situation you, obviously, have no control over what people think. What’s done is done. You can’t revisit the past. You can’t change it. Yet, more often than not, this is when your fragile psyche subjects itself to the greatest damage. Why did I tell that joke? Did I drink too much? Why didn’t I talk to him? Did I wear the wrong color socks? It’s called Second Guessing Neurosis (SGN). SGN is defined as retroactively changing the construction and outcome of a situation or event. In colloquial jargon, it’s fantasizing a different result. So you made a mistake, called someone the wrong name, said something inappropriate. Join the club of this too shall pass. Learn from it and move on.
One more piece of irony. Not only does your insecurity seduce you into rewriting reality, it compels you to subvert the positive. In other words, because you doubt the probability that you made a good impression, you dwell on your perceived gaffes and errors-in-judgment. No matter how good an impression you make, you pervert the experience by tearing it down. It’s characteristic self-destruct by the SAP. You have the choice between darkness and light and you choose to blindly walk into walls.
Overall, you worry too much about what someone else thinks of you. In the film Bridge of Spies, Rudolf Abel, the Soviet agent faces the possibility of the death penalty. His lawyer, befuddled by Rudolf’s impassive demeanor, whispers, “Aren’t you at all worried?” The convict shrugs. “Would it help?”
Rather than bemoaning, why did I do that, rechannel the emphasis. Why did I do that? What persuaded me to react or respond in that way? Everyone makes errors-in-judgment, says something inappropriate, tells a bad joke. A good comedian will take the ‘bomb’ and turn it into humorous self-deprecation. A teacher who is not getting though to a student will instinctively try a different approach. A politician will change the subject. Although they make it appear spontaneous, they have rigorously trained themselves to do so. Rather than obsessing about your mistakes and miscalculations, use them as learning tools. You’re only allowed to blame yourself for your mistake if you ignore the lesson―if you don’t learn from it. You’re not stupid or an idiot or a jerk for making a mistake or acquiescing to your fears―you’re human! (You are a few fries short of a Happy Meal, however, if you don’t attempt to fix the problem.)
Change Your Focus
Your being, your totality is blessed by three separate yet complementary components―mind, body, and spirit. It’s important for your health to find a balance amongst the three, and to learn to use them in support of one another. For example, when you perceive yourself being attacked, learn to rechannel that sinking sensation with something positive. Mentally replace the injury by going to a familiar place of confidence. Rechannel your emotional reaction by intellectually affirming that unjustified criticism has no validity. Temper your angst, spiritually, by closing your eyes, breathing deeply, or taking a short walk. Simply stated, train yourself to instinctively replace the maladaptive behavior or reaction with one of positive and superior value. Rather than feeling persecuted, control the situation.
Step outside yourself in your tiny world, and visualize the situation as an outside observer or film director. Analyze your presentation from an intellectual perspective. Study your behavior, evaluate it. Compliment the things you did well and work on what you perceive are deficits. That’s cognitive behavioral therapy in a nutshell. In simpler terms, know yourself.
You are unique. You have distinctive DNA, different experiences, beliefs, sensibilities, tastes. Some of you are great at math, some nature lovers, some like astronomy, some are intuitive. There is no one like you, you are one of a kind. That makes you special. Reexamine the qualities that celebrate your uniqueness and rechannel any perceived lack of self-worth into pride of your individuality. If you are doing your best and truly desire to tap the kindness and strength resident within you, then you have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to fear.
ReChanneling is a method of recovery and revitalization for those who struggle for self-affirmation. It is a program designed to assist in developing ways to replace negative addiction and maladaptive behavior caused by your neurosis through cognitive-behavioral therapy and auxiliary learning techniques―mechanisms constructed to teach you to rediscover your innate value and self-worth.
Creator and facilitator of ReChanneling, Dr. Mullen suffered from SAD for many years. His recovery is illustration of the dynamic potential inherent in all of us.