We are such social creatures. It is clear that we need relationships and communities for more than the obvious companionship and support – they also offer us a reassurance that we are OK, and this touches us at our core. Unsurprisingly then, when we feel that we are not accepted, are being ostracised or are being judged or criticised, our internal subconscious survival mechanisms go into overdrive, and we can experience an anxiety that comes from a very deep place. It is essential for us to be able to live within a tribe because that is where we are safe, and if we think that we might not have that tribe to fall back on, we panic and become socially anxious.
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But we are not all the same. Those who had good primary carers (usually our Mums and Dads) when we were newborn to teens, who responded to us appropriately when we needed attention and gave us the emotional feedback that we needed, helped us to feel secure. This deep sense of security allows us to cope with life’s adversities including feeling cut out of the crowd.
If we have that robust sense of being secure, we can cope when occasionally people snub us or when we walk into a room of strangers and everyone looks at us. In those situations, we don’t automatically think the worst of feel vulnerable, we know that we can manage. We know that people don’t mean us harm, whereas if our primary carers were not there for us we can be left with a deep sense of low self-esteem. If Mum didn’t come to us when we cried, we can develop a sense that we are in some way a failure because we failed to attract her attention. Mum may have been depressed, addicted, grieving or have some other reason, perhaps other siblings to care for, that kept her from giving us the attention we needed, but the end result is the same: a sense that we are in some way not good enough.
This poor sense of self-worth manifests in later life in social situations when we can be plagued by thoughts of how people don’t like us (and in survival terms thats a big problem), or are in some way hostile to us. Instead of being able to flick off any rebuffs, we take them terribly personally, and instead of being able to be on our own for a while, we can crave attention and company.
Those whose primary carers were able to focus on them when they were little will develop a sense of resilience, of being able to cope with whatever life throws at us. Those less fortunate will be plagued by a sense of inferiority or failure, perhaps a sense that, at any moment, they will be relvealed for being the fraud that they think they are.
Of course if parents give children too much attention that can be just as bad because they never develop the ability to be resilient either. As we grow up we need a balance of having our childhood needs met and being encouraged to stand on our feet and explore, but knowing that our carers are there for us when we need.
Social anxiety can be fixed, if we can have reliable consistent people around us. By avoiding those who make us feel bad and nervous, and gravitating towards those who give us a good sense of self, social anxiety can diminish over time. One thing is for sure: pills are a very short-term ‘cure’ and to be avoided. There are many alternative approaches from yoga to psychotherapy with an experienced practitioner. Diet also helps, for if we get enough of the right nutrients we feel better in many subtle ways, and getting enough sleep. But the best cure is to develop supportive networks of friends, and come to understand that not everyone in the world is going to love you, but you have enough going on in your life to be able to live without them.