Sara* is in a relationship with Dan. She often questions his love for her and tests him by pushing him away when he tries to hug her or nags at him for what Dan feels are small things. She is often stressed and has social anxiety: worries about how she is perceived by others and whether they will like her or not. Sara is often looking after others and being helpful. Deep down she fears that if she was to say “no” to any requests by others whether at home or at work, she might be rejected. She just wants to be liked.
Growing up Sara’s parents worked a lot. She and her little brother went to different childminders and nannies. Her parents separated when she was 12 years old and she had little contact with her father since then. When growing up, Sara learnt to be a “good girl” and not cause any trouble to her parents by being too difficult or demanding. She was always very compliant and did her homework and succeeded at school.
Similarly, Will* worries at work whether he is competent enough and whether someone will soon find out that he is really not up to speed with the demands of the work. Will has mostly received positive feedback on his performance, but he questions how genuine his manager and his colleagues are with him or they just haven’t found out yet. He particularly experiences social anxiety and is constantly observing how others behave around him.
Will grew up with a mother with mental health difficulties. She had bouts of depression sinking into her own existence and being unable to connect with Will as a toddler. When his mother was better, she would be very attentive to Will playing with him, it was very confusing for little with when mother then became ill again and was not responding to his needs promptly. Will’s father tried to be there for him, but as he worked a lot to keep the family going, he was really only able to spend quality time with Will during the weekends and holidays. Will was also bullied during his school years as he did not fit in with “the cool crowd” and this left a deep wound on his confidence.
Will learnt as a child that his needs were not a priority and he kept monitoring his mother for any changes. He was happy with his mother when she was well but then he felt lost as mother drifted away to depression.
Is there something that resonates you about Sara’s and Will’s experiences? Perhaps you spend a lot of time thinking about others in your life, what will they think of you and how to ensure that you won’t be rejected by them or avoiding social situations to reduce the likelihood of being rejected. Social anxiety is very common and can be very debilitating. It is about fear of social interactions, being judged or rejected by other people. I wanted to write this post to give some insight into how social anxiety may impact a person and the drawback of being so focused on others and looking after their needs of others as a priority. People may have many reasons for (social) anxiety, but here are just a couple of examples.
When the focus is always on the other, you may be neglecting yourself
Social anxiety accompanies being preoccupied how the other views you and the focus being on them. I see it so often: being really helpful of others to the point of sacrificing personal needs and ending up in a crisis point because one’s resources are empty and at the same time worrying about how the other will react if I don’t deliver anymore or look after their needs as a priority. Being focused on how other people view you is exhausting.
Whilst you are worrying about how others see you, it is likely that you forget to connect with your needs and who you are as a person. Do you know how you really feel or perhaps you have learnt to hide your true feelings? Is it difficult for you to say “no” to people when you have previously said “yes” and feel guilty if you say “no”?
What contributes to social anxiety and fear of being rejected?
Social anxiety often has its links to our early life experiences. Particularly early experiences often shape the way in which we view others and the world around us. As an adult in certain situations, you may experience similar feelings you did as a child growing up. For example, if you had a very critical parent who always pointed out your “flaws”, you may be fearful of being criticised by your boss or fear of being judged by your peers about the choices you make in life. It may be difficult for you to trust your judgment in life.
Alternatively, you may suffered abuse or bullying when growing up and this has affected your view on people and how they are around you. It is natural that you have become weary and fearful of your experiences being repeated, but it can be very isolating.
Children think that if they feel bad, it must mean they are bad and these thoughts and beliefs are then carried to adulthood. If you had a parent who was at times there for you and other times not available to you emotionally, you may have grown up being on super alert all the time watching people for their reactions as a way to manage your anxiety and fear of being rejected.
This can be exhausting. You are probably very skilled at reading facial expressions and people’s body language, but at the same time, you may make quick decisions about what their behaviour means and your judgment may not be accurate.
You might find my previous post on Childhood Emotional Neglect useful too. You can read it here.
How to start shifting the attention to you and reduce social anxiety?
- Focus on self Draw the attention to yourself and notice how you feel. You may now say, but this is selfish. We are all equal and you deserve the same attention you give to others. Think about your needs: What do you think you need just now?
- It’s ok to have some level of fear of rejection Deep down all of us want to be loved, needed and cared for by others. Accept that being concerned about how the others view us is only natural.
- Set boundaries If you have a very emotionally needy person in your life and whose needs you have always prioritised in life, now start setting boundaries. I can understand that this may feel difficult to start with. It is about setting healthy boundaries to value your personal space and how you wish to be treated by others, it can also act as a way to model good self-care. Take a small step at a time.
- Be kind to yourself Start thinking about yourself as your own best friend. What would you best friend say to you when you are in a social situation and feel anxious about it. You are probably not alone with your feelings and someone else has similar feelings.
- If you are quick to jump to conclusions, slow down to see if there is evidence to support your judgment You may be a harsher critic of yourself than others and jump to conclusions about how other people see you. When you notice yourself doing this, stop and pause to see what happens next.
- Mindfulness Start paying attention to your bodily sensations and feelings practicing guided meditation and mindfulness. I have recorded something that might be helpful for you. Download FREE guided self-compassion meditation here.
- See a therapist If you are really struggling with (social) anxiety, it may be a time to see a professional help you to reconnect with yourself and work through those past hurts that may be contributing to your (social) anxiety.
Shifting lifelong patterns doesn’t happen instantly, but your brain can be rewired. When you start paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physical sensations, you can gradually make a difference to your well-being. I hope you have found this article useful. I am always interested in hearing feedback, so feel free to drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org
Now download a FREE 5 Steps to getting to know your feelings and dealing with them – E-workbook to get you started on shifting the focus from others to yourself. Get instant download here.
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*The case examples do not refer to any actual previous or current clients, but are a combination of stories I have heard over the years.
©2017 Dr Mari Kovanen, CPsychol. All rights reserved.