Looking at it from an evolutionary point of view it makes sense. For most of our evolutionary history we lived in small familiar groups. Strangers usually meant danger. Furthermore, assuming a dominant position over strangers (like we do when public speaking) might usually be expected to lead to death.
For some men, their anxiety of social situations is so strong it actually stops them from doing things. It stops them from public speaking, going to the pub, playing sport or even chat up women. Why do some men find social situations so difficult?
To answer this, it’s worth reflecting on what happens in social encounters that are not marked by anxiety. In the non anxious case, both people pay attention to each other, and concentrate on what each other says. The conversation moves back and forth, and all of the attention of both people is focussed on the other person.
In social anxiety it’s different. The socially anxious person is highly concerned about how they are coming across. They are scared they look anxious, for example, or that they look ridiculous, or are coming across as stupid. So in addition to paying attention to the other person and what they say, the socially anxious person is also paying attention to themselves, and how they are coming across. We call this ‘processing yourself as a social object’.
Of course if you are continually monitoring yourself, rather than pay attention to the other person, you’re not going to be as effective at communicating as you would like to be. There is also a high likelihood you will be processing yourself in critical and negative terms … and if you do that you are going to feel anxious.
What can be done to help people with social anxiety? Well like all anxiety problems social anxiety responds well to psychological interventions. In the case of therapy for social anxiety, it can also be fun. Ultimately the beliefs people have about how they come across need to be tested in the real world. If the person is scared of looking ridiculous, for example, what, actually, would happen if they went out deliberately looking ridiculous?
One of the things I used to be scared of was looking foolish. The way I tested this was to start doing stand up comedy. You can’t do stand up comedy and look cool … it’s just not the way it works. So I did a course, built up a routine, and launched it on the world (or more precisely a back room in a Manchester pub).
What did I learn? Well I won’t be giving up my day job! But I did discover I can make a fool of myself in public and nothing much changes. It really doesn’t matter. However, because I learnt I don’t have to be scared of making a fool of myself on stage, I also learnt I don’t have to be scared of making a fool of myself anywhere. And that meant freedom!
Dr Phil Tyson is a Men's Psychotherapist based in Manchester in the UK. He offers:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (cbt) for men in Manchester
- Counselling for men in Manchester
- Psychotherapy for men in Manchester
- Telephone and Skype counselling for men wherever you live
- Supervision and consultative support for therapists in Manchester
- Mediation for employment disputes in Manchester and the UK