If social anxiety is something that affects your life, you know just how seriously debilitating it can be. Clinically known as social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, it is the fear of being judged or evaluated negatively by people, and often leads to intense feelings of inferiority, embarrassment, depression, and inadequacy. Like any mental illness or disorder, it's considered an issue when it interferes with your ability to function, but even if you just experience it on occasion, you'd understand how painful it can be.
An excessive or unreasonable fear of being in social situations doesn't just leave you occasionally red-faced and leaving every party at 9 p.m. Ultimately, it can affect the way you connect and communicate with others, two skills which aren't just important, but are crucial to being able to survive and thrive as a human being. In everything from work relationships to friendships, we need other people — companionship is not an optional component of a healthy, fulfilling life.
However, what people with social anxiety come to learn over time is that said companionship can — and should — exist on your own terms. That is to say, you get to define what friendship means to you. Maybe going out and drinking in a dim, loud bar isn't how you feel connected to others, and instead, you discover that you are more comfortable having a friend over for wine and dinner. The point is that overcoming social anxiety is realizing that socializing is a personal thing, and more importantly, the fears that kept you from defining relationships on your own terms are largely irrational.
Dismantling that irrational thinking is the bulk of what it takes to heal — so here, four common thinking habits that typically accompany, or result, in social anxiety. We are all guilty of utilizing these to some degree, but when they snowball out of hand, it can be more dangerous than one would expect.
Mind-reading is automatically making the assumption that you know what other people are thinking. This can happen in ways you don't expect: You likely judge your clothes in the morning by "mind-reading," or how you imagine other people will perceive you. In the end, this isn't just false, it's also informative. What you assume other people are thinking is largely a projection of what you are thinking, or fearing. In the end, solving this is first acknowledging that you do not know how other people think, nor what they are thinking at any given moment in time; and secondly, that there is a difference between being conscious and aware of other people's feelings and preferences and letting delusional assumptions control your life, and it is largely determined by whether or not you simply take the time to speak to people, ask what they're thinking, and go from there. It is never your place to assume people mean anything other than what they tell you. It is their responsibility to communicate with you the truth.
Fortune-telling is when you not only assume to know what the future will hold, but when you go out of your way to try to predict the outcome of a situation prematurely. It is when you assume an action or comment means something about what will unfold in the future, and most of the time, it is a product of fear and delusion. Fortune-telling is more or less ingrained in us (think of tarots, horoscopes, and "gut feelings") and is what happens when our fear reflexes activate and try to keep us "safe" by imagining (what we perceive to be) the likely outcome of a situation. The difference is that fundamentally, this serves to tell us that a lion chasing after us in the wild means we will die, not that because Ben hasn't responded to our texts in one hour, that he hates us. (Get the picture?)
Catastrophizing is another way to say "jumping from A to Z," which is a very common symptom of anxiety. Catastrophizing is assuming things are worse than they are or assuming the worst will happen. It's imagining every possible negative outcome in an effort to protect and shield yourself from the repercussions. Relief from catastrophizing can be found in the stoic practice of "negative visualization," which is imagining the worst outcome and then deciding what you'd do if it were to come to pass. The difference between the two is that the latter involves a focus on what actions you'd take to cope, whereas the former focuses on how painful and scary it will be. (One is productive; one is not.)
Personalizing is a way of ascribing meaning where there is none intended. Not everything is a subtweet or a slight against you. The world is not out for you, people are not thinking of you nearly as much as you assume (or really, at all!) and in this, there is a certain kind of freedom. We all imagine that people are thinking of us far, far more than they ever really are, and believing that we are at the center of everyone else's world is the best way to ensure that we never really live in it.