Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist, regular contributor to Scientific American and host of the award-winning podcast The Savvy Psychologist. Her new book about social anxiety, How to Be Yourself, has been described by Susan Cain (bestselling author of Quiet) as “groundbreaking”.
What is your definition of social anxiety?
Social anxiety is often thought of as a fear of judgment or a fear of people, but that’s not accurate. Social anxiety is a perception that there is something embarrassing or deficient about us and that unless we work hard to conceal or hide it, it will be revealed and then we’ll be judged or rejected as a result.
For instance, we might have the perception that we are boring, awkward or have nothing to say, or any one of a million perceived flaws. We might avoid parties for these reasons, but we might also avoid them covertly by going to the party and only talking to the friend we arrived with, by scrolling through our smartphones or standing on the edge of groups.
So the root of social anxiety is fear of this reveal, and it is grown and maintained by avoidance.
Social anxiety disorder is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). When does it become a mental health issue?
It’s the point at which social anxiety starts getting in the way of living a life or causes great distress. For example, a student who decides to forgo the class participation part of their grade because they don’t want to raise their hand, or an office worker who passes on a promotion because then they’d have to start doing presentations.
Social anxiety, shyness, lack of confidence, impostor syndrome, introversion – there’s a lot of slippage and overlap between these terms…
It’s a big Venn diagram. I think social anxiety and shyness are the same thing, but introversion is something different. I like to say that introversion is your way, whereas social anxiety gets in your way. So introversion and extroversion are personality traits, they are pretty much set, they are about where you get your energy – so introverts recharge and get their energy by being in blissful solitude, one on one with someone they trust or in small groups of people they know well.
You write that there are some upsides to social anxiety, that it comes with some powerful skills…
That’s absolutely true. I like to think of social anxiety as a package deal, it comes bundled with strengths like high standards and being empathetic. We’re often good listeners, we’re conscientious, we work very hard to get along with our fellow humans… it’s important to note that those traits don’t go away even as we work on our SA and our fear decreases. Those good traits are here to stay.
You say “we” – can you talk a little about yourself and about why you were drawn to study this topic?
This is the book I wish I’d had 20 years ago – these are the things I wish I’d known. I wish I’d known that how I felt wasn’t how I looked; I wish I’d known that the things I was doing to try to make myself feel better, like avoid eye contact or be overly nice to people – that those self-preservation strategies – were just keeping me anxious because if bad things didn’t happen, those strategies got the credit. I wish I had known that the things I had avoided, they were not going to turn out as bad as I thought.
You write about various examples of people who have overcome their anxiety by doing cognitive behavioural therapy exercises or learning new interpersonal skills. Why does that not seem obvious? We accept that training is required to learn, for example, a sport, but we seem to accept the psychology we’ve been dealt as fixed…
I think perhaps we’ve been conditioned to think that our social anxiety is part of who we are. I’ve often spoken to people who have said something like, I wish I could just hit Pause on my life and the world, retreat and work on myself until I have some confidence, then press Play and rejoin life and be able to do the things I’ve wanted to do. I like to say, that’s fantastic, but let’s do it in the opposite order.
We do tend to think confidence should come first, then action. Whereas we gain confidence through action – we have to do the things before we feel 100% ready and then our confidence catches up.
Isn’t this common sense? Don’t we kind of know this, but still we don’t act?
It’s because of our perceived consequences. If we’re trying to get fit, the worst that can happen is that we don’t make it very far or we feel out of breath: nothing dire will happen. But with social anxiety, taking those steps feels like a risk; there is that perceived fatal flaw, the perception that there is something wrong with us, that we are annoying, boring and so on.
That perception feels true and people will see it and reject us. The stakes are high, the consequences are higher. And that’s why we don’t take the risk: we would prefer to stay safe and lonely. It’s the devil we know.
Why are our inner voices so critical, more critical than any other human we might meet in real life? Where does it come from?
Each of us – we are each our own worst critic. It is necessary that we each have this inner critic because a healthy dose of self-doubt helps us monitor ourselves and our behaviour. I like to say: “We doubt ourselves in order to check ourselves.” And ultimately, that means we get along better with our fellow humans. A total lack of insecurity is actually a sign that things have gone wrong, so the few people who have none can be classified as narcissists or psychopaths – and that’s not what we want.
Although if you want to find a fierce critic these days, you could probably find one on Twitter…
Social media is judgment in public. Your likes and followers, you can count the number, everyone can see, it drives comparison. By now we know social media is the highlight reel, it’s curated. Yet it’s hard not to compare and feel inadequate.
But presumably online communication can be a boon to people who find communication in real time stressful
Email and posting comments does give us time to compose, edit and perfect, so that can allow someone an entrance into socialising – a lot of people feel better having a screen in front of them rather than a person. Which is fine, but talking in real time is really different: there is no time to compose and edit – so if we lose that experience, we assume it will go badly.
Living in a “filter bubble” is reassuring…
Anxiety is driven by uncertainty, and technology allows us to reduce uncertainty and control our world. We can stay immersed in worlds of our own choosing but then there is less time to spend navigating an uncertain world. So while we can use Google Maps when we get lost, or research menus before visiting restaurants, at the same time the world has gotten much more uncertain for big things. Careers have been replaced by the gig economy, or in romance the rise of online dating means there’s an uncertainty in relationships – am I really with the right person for me or is there a better match a swipe away? So we have less experience dealing with uncertainty at a lower level but we are faced with a wider world which is much more uncertain. That’s not a great combination.
Isn’t a lot of online anxiety driven by perfectionism?
I’m thinking a lot about perfectionism. It could be a driver of social anxiety in that we have to perform perfectly, make the perfect comment, or we have to connect immediately, and when we don’t we think we’re awkward. Perfectionism is a misnomer: it’s not really about trying to achieve perfection, it’s about never being good enough – that sense of never really measuring up, of always being less-than, is a feature of so many areas of life.
• How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety by Ellen Hendriksen is published by St Martin’s Press
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