Social Anxiety and the Need to Belong
For most people who suffer from anxiety, the idea of social interaction can form a major trigger point for their feelings of hopelessness and isolation. The desire to belong and fit in can affect how you feel or see yourself. In this article, I discuss how people who struggle with social anxiety can take steps to overcome their anxiety as they seek to relate positively to others.
The “Rules” of Social Engagement
When it comes to social interactions, people with anxiety tend to view these interactions through a series of “rules” that are imposed by society and by themselves. These “rules” often don’t allow people with anxiety to comfortably engage in an authentic way. The importance of first impressions, for example, has been a mantra touted in our country since its inception. However, with the rise of social media and social networking, initial impressions have acquired a new weight that was previously unheard of. As a result, one often finds that withdrawal and isolation is the most comfortable option for people with anxiety when engaging the outside world. In short, society as a whole has created a whole new barrier that causes ordinary people to struggle to connect meaningfully with one another, let alone someone with anxiety.
The Need to Belong
The fear of not being control of one’s image is common for someone with social anxiety. Being judged or somehow being dependent on another’s acceptance in order to belong rattles the anxious mind and causes feelings that can lead to an anxiety episode. However, it is important to recognize the difference between belonging and fitting in as this can help you with your feelings and help to prevent the thought process that takes you down a negative path.
First and foremost, there is nothing wrong with wanting to belong. A desire to belong is an innate human quality that we all in some way need to have fulfilled if our lives are to have meaning. This need to belong helps us to form relationships, both personal and professional; it helps us to determine what values we hold dear and even helps us when we get ill. When you belong, you feel whole and at peace with your place in the group. This can help you to acquire a positive mindset and can support you in upholding your values and beliefs. There are many benefits to feeling that you belong and to belonging to a group that supports and accepts you as you are. But this is rather different from “fitting in” and stands in stark contrast to it.
The Difference between Belonging and “Fitting In”
While “fitting in” often presents itself as belonging, it is merely a substitute for the real thing. Through implied influence and emotional manipulation, people will alter themselves to adapt to the larger group. The group dictates what is acceptable, lead by a few who choose which new members are acceptable. This is the anxious person’s worst nightmare: “In order to gain acceptance, I must find or curry favor. And what if I don’t meet their standards?” This is the problem with fitting in: If your values or beliefs don’t line up, you lose the connectional benefit. This in turn leads to the negative thoughts and feelings associated with anxiety and stops you from living your life to the fullest.
Tips for Building Social Confidence
As a Christian counselor, I have witnessed how my clients have successfully increased their confidence with regard to social interactions. Here are a few tips that many individuals have found helpful.
- Learn to relax before you relate. Give yourself time to breathe and make sure you find your center before venturing out with others. Determine that your goal is not to “fit in” but to explore whether this person can become part of your community. Challenge the distortion of an all or nothing mindset when engaging with others.
- Expose yourself to uncomfortable surroundings strategically. Many of my clients will make it a goal to engage in one uncomfortable social event with someone they trust. This allows them to get out of their comfort zone and to identify what makes them anxious. It also gives them permission to challenge the perfectionist mindset that gets them stuck in a freeze position.
- Stay focused on the “right now.” Social phobias tend to focus on what others are thinking of us, instead of focusing on the person right in front of us. Focus on the person in front of you. When we place our focus on others, we don’t have time to figure out what is happening to us in the moment. Ask questions and stay curious.
- Give yourself permission to unplug from negative social media settings. There are times when we should take a vacation from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Find time to establish face-to-face interactions. Go to the library or take a walk in the park.
Christian Counseling to Overcome Social Anxiety
Getting a grasp on anxiety can be hard, especially if you suffer from social anxiety. Christian counseling can provide a safe space in which to address your fears and find a way forward. Talking to a licensed counselor can help you to identify your core values and explore healthy ways of coping with anxious moments.