Think about the last time you had the urge to share your thoughts in a large discussion, but withheld your input out of the fear you might sound ignorant, strange or downright idiotic. Now, recall those (probably numerous) instances when another, perhaps more outspoken, individual chimed in and voiced your very thoughts on the matter and received accolades on their insightful response. You probably felt like kicking yourself over a seemingly silly fear of messing up, and yet you probably withheld your input the next time too because, in that moment, the fear of judgment superseded even your most compelling thoughts.
Social anxiety is universal
Why is it so hard for us to express ourselves? Are we really at risk of saying something so off-the-wall or senseless that others would completely discredit us? And why is it that even in a society that shares many of the same interests and concerns, we cannot find the courage to express our own thoughts on these matters? The answer — social anxiety, and it’s widespread.
The DSM-IV defines social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder) as “a marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others,” and according to U.S. statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, up to 12 percent of the population will meet criteria for this diagnosable disorder at some point in their lifetime.
Specific types of social phobia include:
- public speaking;
- eating in front of others;
- writing in front of others; and
- discomfort in general social settings.
It should be noted that simply being anxious in social settings is not a “disorder” in and of itself — a disorder implies that there is significant distress and/or impairment in the individual’s life. While social phobia is considered one of the most prevalent anxiety disorders, social anxiety (a term I will use to incorporate clinical as well as subclinical symptoms) is even more widespread.
Patients united in anxiety
In my work conducting the Structured Clinical Interview for the DSM-IV, I interact with a range of individuals, from 18-year-old high school students to 60-year-old CEOs. An aspect of these interviews I find so striking is the common experience of social anxiety; it seemingly transcends age, gender and ethnicity. Many self-described “reserved” or “shy” patients share with me how envious they are of their peers on the unit who seem “confident,” “gregarious” and “secure,” yet interestingly, when I interview these “outspoken” patients, their accounts of social anxiety are uncannily similar — they, too, feel inept, anxious and fearful.
Isn’t it ironic that a fear that seemingly unites us in common experience is the same fear that keeps us apart? And yet, despite its widespread prevalence, people are often hesitant to discuss it. Perhaps this reluctance is rooted in the fact that introverted, socially-anxious people are often stigmatized in a society that favors those who are more extraverted.
Feeling anxious around strangers, experiencing nervousness when speaking in front of others, even worrying about how others perceive you are all very common experiences and not necessarily something to that should raise concern. Even the most confident among us suffer from some form of social anxiety. For those whose anxiety is limiting, however, effective treatment options such as cognitive behavior therapy, exposure therapy or psychiatric medications may provide relief.
So, the next time you hesitate to add your “two cents” to a discussion because of the fear of judgment, just remind yourself: There are at least several other people in the room feeling the same way, and who knows, maybe your input will give them to courage to also speak up.
Editor’s note: Check out other recent blog posts by Heather: