Welcome to Week 2 of our multi-week focus on mental illness as it relates to dating and relationships. Last week we talked about anxiety disorders; this week we’ll focus specifically on social anxiety.
What is Social Anxiety?
The Social Anxiety Institute defines social anxiety as “the fear of interaction with other people that brings on self-consciousness, feelings of being negatively judged and evaluated, and, as a result, leads to avoidance. Social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.”
Social anxiety disorder is one of the most common psychological disorders. People with this condition often experience significant emotional distress in the following situations:
- Being introduced to other people
- Being teased or criticized
- Being the center of attention
- Being watched while doing something
- Meeting people in authority (“important people”)
- Most social encounters, especially with strangers
- Going around the room (or table) in a circle and having to say something
- Interpersonal relationships, whether friendships or romantic
Social anxiety can be viewed as extreme shyness, but it’s a little more complicated than that. According to OvercomingSocialAnxiety.com, the main difference between the two is that the symptoms of anxiety will fade when a shy person becomes familiar with a situation, whereas with a socially anxious person, they won’t. This is why the whole “put yourself out there” thing won’t fly with socially anxious people like it does with shy or introverted people.
And that’s important. Over time, I’ve seen people who classify themselves as shy or introverted absolutely resist any attempt to get them to smile at others or engage in a little small talk. My guess that these people may suffer from social anxiety and either haven’t figured it out or don’t want to admit it.
Many people feel social anxiety on some level from time to time. I know I do. But when the symptoms are stronger (or disproportionate to the situation), if they’re chronic, or they interfere significantly with your everyday life, that’s when social anxiety may be social anxiety disorder.
Remember: mental disorders aren’t binary. You don’t have them or not have them, like strep throat. They work on a continuum ranging from non-existent, to mild, moderate, and severe. You typically have to veer closer to the moderate to severe side of the spectrum to obtain a diagnosis for many disorders, especially the more commonplace ones we’ll be talking about in this series. However, you do NOT have to have an official disorder for the problems to affect your life — and your dating and relationships — in a negative way.
Social Anxiety and Relationships
As you can imagine, social anxiety can put a pretty serious damper on your love life. Dating and relationships, by definition, are social activities. They require meeting strangers, being introduced to new people, being watched and evaluated by others… the things on that above list that send socially anxious people to that dark place. If you’re socially anxious, dating is very difficult, if not impossible. Relationships have their own challenges as well, and people who suffer from social anxiety might find themselves constantly wondering if they’ll be rejected, if things can last, or how they’ll handle it if the relationship ends. They may worry about getting close, then worry about being too distant, and engage in a variety of problematic behaviors to deal with their anxiety (e.g. being controlling).
In other words, meeting new people is scary, but so is getting closer to someone you like, and the anxious person has a host of hurdles to leap over that the rest of us can’t fully relate to. In this article, Kyle MacDonald talks about anxiety in relationships. Some of what he says goes back to our discussion on attachment in relationships, and that some people are anxious attachers, always worried about the possibility of being rejected or not getting the love they need.
If you know (or are involved with) someone who shows signs of social anxiety that just won’t go away, avoid trying to talk them out of their feelings. Telling them they just need to “jump in” or to “relax” is like trying to tell a grieving person to “just get over it.” It isn’t supportive, it doesn’t address what they’re really dealing with, and it doesn’t work. Instead, encourage them to get treatment.
If you suffer from social anxiety and it’s harming your dating life or your relationships, it’s time to get it treated. Anxiety disorders, including social anxiety, are treatable. Looking back, I realized I’ve known many people who had some version of social anxiety and I watched it shred their love lives. Some had no idea they suffered from something that has a a name; others knew but refused to get help. This is your life and your happiness we’re talking about. Don’t be stubborn. It won’t go away on its own.
Have you dealt with social anxiety or dated someone who has? Tell us about it.