Face-to-Face with Social Anxiety
Leaning in to our fears about people...
I want to talk about social anxiety. This is a subject that hits close to home for me, because it’s something I’ve struggled with from a very young age, and continue to manage on a daily basis. It’s also becoming a silent epidemic in our culture. Technology and the internet is making social isolation convenient and easy, and fanning the flame of social anxiety.
When I was a child, I would have met the criteria for a diagnosis that didn’t exist back then: F94.0 Selective Mutism. This is an anxiety disorder that makes it difficult to speak in social situations outside the child’s comfort zone. For example, I could chatter my mom’s ear off all day long, but put me on a playground with other kids my age and you’d be lucky to hear me say “hi.” My sweet kindergarten teacher saw that I had an issue. She worked with my parents to “bribe” me to speak in school by holding a contest between my twin sister and I (she also suffered from Selective Mutism): the first one to speak in class without being prompted would “win” a Barbie doll that we’d both been pining after. Cute, right? To my little 6-year old brain, they were asking me to achieve something that felt impossible. It took an ungodly length of time before either one of us won that Barbie doll. It sat high up on top of our entertainment center, out of reach, but in plain sight. It taunted us every day to face our fears and speak up in school. My teacher, refusing to give up on me, signed me up for Speech class. I was allowed to bring a friend with me—which was a real dilemma for me, because I didn’t have many. Eventually, Mrs. H convinced the most outgoing, confident little girl in my class to play with me at recess every day. I was embarrassed at first—so ashamed that I was so inept at such a basic human skill that my teacher had to find a friend for me. But it helped. This little girl was totally opposite from me—socially aggressive. She pushed me to do things I was afraid to do, challenged me to play with other kids, and eventually a few of them became familiar enough that I started talking, and I won that Barbie doll. I will never forget the surge of pride I felt when I told my parents and they lifted that shiny pink Barbie box from the top of that shelf.
In adulthood, the Barbie doll rewards we receive in exchange for social achievements are not tangible. They result in community, friendship, emotional and physical intimacy, a sense of connection, and all sorts of other warm fuzzies. These happen when two people make eye contact, speak words that land in the other’s heart, and form a psychological connection that they hadn’t had before. Or it happens when a group of friends is gathered around a table, eating a meal together, and enjoying a dialogue about a subject they all feel passionate about. These experiences happen in person, in the flesh, with words audibly spoken, and one set of eyes meeting another set of eyes. I’m not saying you can’t feel connected to someone on the internet, and I’m not saying you can’t connect with a person via text. I am saying that no digital screen, typeface, emoji, or chatroom can adequately substitute the emotional, psychological, and physiological benefits of face-to-face relationships. Even passionate techies know this is true!
And yet, here we are. An entire culture who is hypnotized by the power of social media. Did you know there are studies that show the average teenager is more comfortable texting their friends than talking to them? Even if that friend is sitting right next to them? We are creating a society where social anxiety is the norm. It is even becoming increasingly common for couples to have the bulk of their conflicts via text. This removes the potential for one of the most important purposes of conflict—the growth of intimacy. I firmly believe the only way to reverse this issue is to start talking to each other—face-to-face!
I wish I could say that I conquered my social anxiety for good at the early age of 6, but the truth is that it’s not gone. I struggle with it daily. My early experiences in kindergarten taught me, however, that leaning into my fear led to great reward. Not just a Barbie, but also a dear friend and more confidence. I’ve had other experiences in my life that have challenged me to acquire skills to manage my anxiety. I learned how to approach perfect strangers and start a conversation with them. I’ve been a leader in dozens of group settings. I’ve spoken in front of hundreds of people on a stage. I’ve left friends and started from scratch making new ones. None of it has been easy, and the anxiety never goes away, but I’ve gained skills to manage it.
One of the most helpful experiences I’ve had in managing my social anxiety is group therapy. I did it for 3 years while I was in graduate school, primarily because I wanted to receive feedback about how others experienced me in a social group. I always felt awkward and weird, and fought the urge to flee anytime I was in a group of more than 3 people. Group therapy helped me to learn that people enjoy me, want to hear more from me, and feel just as awkward as me.
If you are someone who struggles with social anxiety, has a fear of offline or “IRL” (In Real Life) connection, or experiences a lot of insecurity about how others experience you in social situations, I strongly encourage you to consider group therapy. Group therapy creates the opportunity for you to experience yourself and others more authentically than average daily social interactions. The conversation is facilitated by a leader who prompts feedback from others, asks clarifying questions, and encourages vulnerability.
We offer several different types of therapy groups at King Therapy Associates. We’d be happy to help you find one that suits your needs. Click the “Groups” menu above to learn more.
Written by Kendra Bralens MA LMHCA
Kendra is a practicing counselor at King Therapy Associates
Find out more at https://kinghealthassoc.com/kendra-bralens-ma-lmhca