Social Anxiety: There is Something Wrong With Me

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Reader’s Question

I’m 34 years old and female. I’m an IT manager, and I could continue my education. But there is something wrong with me that maybe nobody could believe.

The big problem is fear of people. I can’t even order my staff to do something.

I have the same problem in other places. I can see other people who are very relaxed while doing their daily work life. But when I go to a meeting, do my personal work in an office, or go to a bank, hospital, or other places, I feel nervous without any specific reason. This happens even if I have gone to that place many times: I fear going to the bank where I have had an account for more than seven years and know the people who work there.

I can’t explain myself even if I’m right, and I can’t defend myself verbally. If it’s necessary to clarify something or there’s a subject that makes me upset, I can’t talk and I’ll cry immediately, so most of the time I prefer to ignore talking about them. I’ll cry when it’s necessary to talk with my boss. And I know the only reason that I still work there is that he thinks I’m good at what I’m doing for his company.

I can’t control myself, and I’m so afraid when somebody shouts at me. I just have a fear with people. I’m not even able to talk about things with my family.

I’m not a depressed person by myself and I’m very energetic and self-motivated for learning new things. I could change my job position, earn a higher degree, and earn a higher salary. But I just do work that doesn’t involve other people. I’m good at my job and I like it very much.

Can I someday be free of this fear? I know that I have a lot of positive potential that is limited by my problem.

Psychologist’s Reply

Yes you can.

I know this feeling, when you can’t find words or meet someone’s gaze, when you think by looking away no one else can see you. You hope they can’t see you. And if you stay that way long enough, then they all go away because they’re uncomfortable with the silence, but then you’re alone. I know this feeling. I think we all know it at some time in our lives. We each feel alone when it happens. It feels like no one else has ever experienced this and if they had, they didn’t survive. They couldn’t have.

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It amazes me that a body as fragile as ours, as vulnerable to accidents and injuries as ours, can withstand such emotional onslaughts and spring back, resilient and alive. Perhaps that’s one of the advantages of growing older; you have time to spring back, to do the emotional work of healing the fear and practicing the skills that you need to succeed. Now as an adult you have the time, independence, and inclination to do the work. Your goal is clear, but you need a way to get there and you need a guide.

The work I’m talking about is the therapeutic work. It can be a very anxiety provoking process because you focus precisely on those things that cause you the problem. That is, you focus on what you would most like to avoid. It’s ironic that one would choose such an anxiety provoking method to treat anxiety, but it is the only way to respect your pain and give you the time and attention you deserve. You are an intelligent woman. If you feel afraid, then you must be afraid of something. I don’t know what that something is, but you can find out. In therapy you can have that chance to shine a light on the fear and see if there is a less disabling way to deal with it.

There are two other approaches you can consider using together with therapy: psychiatry and assertiveness training. Psychiatry can help you medically dampen the anxiety to more tolerable levels. It relieves distress quickly and makes you more available to talking therapy. Medication support is not for everybody, and finding the right med for you can be a long, difficult and uncomfortable process. However, that way is open to you and I do recommend you consider it.

Assertive communication is the nuts and bolts of socializing and communication. By learning it, you will have a language skill-set that can see you through most interactions. It takes practice, so at some point you’ll need to graduate from the books and practice with a class or group. But that can wait until you’ve had some time with a therapist one-on-one.

The rewards for doing this work are clear to see. If you want a higher degree and a promotion within your job, feel tolerably comfortable in social situations, and most importantly feel good about yourself, then treat your anxiety aggressively. As I recently said to a young man with sexual confusion concerns (see “Social Anxiety or Sexual Confusion?”): “Social anxiety can be crushingly debilitating. You are troubled by this, but you’re not disabled yet. Take advantage of this chance for early intervention and start work on it right away, before habits and self-doubts become entrenched. An active, participating and empathetic therapist can help you a long way toward overcoming your anxiety.”

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