A few years ago, I was visiting my cousins in Canada and we were sitting around a camp fire discussing our social anxiety. Now, if most people saw the three of us discussing our resistance to going into a grocery store where we might bump into someone we know, they would be surprised and maybe even in disbelief.
If any of you have met me, you will know that I don’t exactly appear shy. In fact, I really love people and connecting with others on a human level. This is a great joy to me. Also, my two cousins who I was having this conversation with are strong, confident and vivacious individuals. They teach school, coach sports teams, lead community groups, etc.
So, this idea of social anxiety doesn’t seem to fit the bill, right?
Well it does. And from the conversations that I have been having with many people, AND many of my teaching friends, it is clear that it permeates society, regardless of one’s level of perceived social ease.
What is social anxiety?
According to Schlenker and Leary, “social anxiety arises when individuals are motivated to make a preferred impression on real or imagined audiences, but perceive or imagine unsatisfactory evaluative reactions from subjectively important audiences” (1982). Basically, social anxiety is this fear of not quite measuring up in other people’s eyes.
Many of us suffer from this. I suffer from this. My friends suffer from this. I’m not sure if my dog suffers from this. She’s pretty shameless. In a good way.
However, why would I be afraid of not quite measuring up in a grocery store? I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve come to the realization that this is probably due to my, in my mind, somewhat outwardly perceived by others, extrovert personality. What if I go into that store and don’t feel happy and go lucky? What if people see that I am actually a bit tired, weary and I haven’t washed my face today? What if people know that I don’t feel like talking and that I am a bit shy and unsure of myself?
This spills over into my teaching practice. Almost always, before I have to teach, I think to myself ‘Why am I doing this to myself? I don’t need to teach. What if I forget something? What if I misunderstand my participants? OR… and this is the best one: What if they don’t like me?’
The fear of not quite measuring up floods me. Social anxiety at its best.
I like to call my social anxiety ‘the hump’. I need to get over ‘the hump’ before I step into a grocery store, before I answer the phone, before I sit on my cushion to teach. However, once I do get over the hump, it all falls into place and I am fine. I am able to step into my self and rest assured that it is all going to be OK, it is OK and I find my voice. Which is usually quite loud. ?
Over the years, I have built/gathered some reserves/resources to get me through ‘the hump’. Primarily, they come from my compassion training. Whenever I feel that insecurity set in, I employ the self-compassion break or self- tonglen. These are both practices that we teach on our Level 2: Responding with Compassion course. I also have developed my own compassionate gesture that eases my body on a physiological level. I usually rub my belly as I move into the Self-Compassion break of quietly noticing that this is a moment of struggle, that I’m not alone (I mean, even my cousins suffer with this), and I ask myself- what do I need to hear right now that would be helpful? This whole system can take seconds, minutes, as long as it takes, but I find it extremely helpful. My compassion practice enables me to be my full self- even when my social anxiety surfaces. And for this I am grateful.
So, this week’s challenge is see if we can notice when we have feelings of the fear of not quite measuring up- or if there is some sort of social anxiety present. If there is, can we be kind to ourselves? Can we remind ourselves that it’s hard, but we’re not alone and then ask ourselves- how can we be kind to ourselves in this moment?
And if you see me rubbing my belly, maybe send me a kind smile.
Heather and I will be starting and teaching on our Level 2: Responding with Compassion course, this July in Samye Ling. Why don’t you join us?