Social Anxiety, like so many other “anxiety disorders”, is not really about anxiety. If we look a little deeper there is almost always something else at stake...
Anxiety as Substitute Emotion
Quite frequently, anxiety acts as a substitute emotion that takes the place of the real issue that therapy needs to focus on. Anxiety is to our internal dilemmas, as loss of consciousness is to alcohol consumption. Both serve to shut down something in order to keep us safe.
In the case of alcohol consumption, loss of consciousness prevents us from drinking more and thus from dying of alcohol poisoning. It is our body’s inbuilt safety mechanism.
Similarly in the case of anxiety: I become anxious because I cannot contain some truth, some emotion, or some problem in my conscious awareness. The danger is here the danger of my own awareness, which has the power to destroy me psychologically, just like alcohol can destroy me physiologically. My anxiety indicates that I am not at peace with myself or that some admission of a banished truth or feeling would have dire consequences for my current self-understanding.
Social Anxiety as a "Disorder" of Shame
In the case of my social anxiety, the danger to my self-understanding is activated in relation to others. Others are perceived as passing judgments on aspects of my natural, spontaneous self.
However, the judgment I expect from others is already a judgment that I have passed on myself. Only if I have come to dislike or devalue some aspect of myself, can others now be in a position where they can expose this most shameful part.
What is at stake in social anxiety is thus the public shaming of an aspect of myself, which I am unable to love. This is why labeling social anxiety an anxiety disorder, is really to get lost in the symptoms, rather than to understand the cause. Social anxiety is not really about anxiety, but is about shame and self-worth.
A Cure through Love
Shame, of course, develops in and through my interactions with others. As French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre has stated, “For me the Other is the first being for whom I am an object; that is, the being through whom I gain my objectness”.
Who we feel ourselves to be is thus always tied to the many ways in which others have reacted to our internal experiences and natural self-expressions. When these reactions have been kind and affirming, we have internalized a sense of love and acceptance, and when they have been critical or invalidating, we have internalized a sense of shame or wrongness.
To truly rid ourselves of social anxiety is thus not simply to conquer a fear, but to develop compassion for ourselves. We must often revisit moments in our memories when other people’s reactions to us, hurt us or made us feel dangerously exposed.
These wounds to our sense of self must now be attended to, rather than hidden away for no one to see. In my opinion, this is how good therapy can help us get to the bottom of what social anxiety is really about. Therapy provides a new kind of validating relationship in which all parts of us can be seen, and in which we can now see ourselves through the eyes of an “other” who no longer judges us for being ourselves.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, Texas with a different approach to psychological issues. Learn more about my insight-oriented approach to treating social anxiety.