Socially Anxious and Troubled!

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Reader’s Question

My girlfriend has trouble socially and she always tells me how her friends ignore her and that she feels people don’t like her. I always give her advice as to what she should do like go to a psychologist, confront her friends about it, or visit a school counselor and talk to them about it. I noticed that most of the advice I give I should consider as well, as I am also socially anxious. She also worries about what major she will choose in college, and I get anxious when I tell her to go visit a counselor and she doesn’t do it. I feel as if she should be better than me at decision making and social situations.

Psychologist’s Reply

Millions of people struggle socially in a variety of situations. What you described for both of you could be common to so many others as well. While some may find difficulty in specific social situations, such as public speaking, others may experience anxiety across a broad spectrum of other situations. Regardless, these issues are known to significantly impact people and their ability to function daily. Often, these problems can leave you feeling alone, isolated, and depressed.

A couple of things may be the source that you should carefully consider. Social anxiety disorder, often called social phobia, is characterized by a significant and very persistent fear about a social situation or fear of performing in a social setting. Frequently, the person describes fears that they will inadvertently act in a way that will be embarrassing, humiliating or bring on the scrutiny of others. One of the troubling side effects of these fears is that the individual will often end up avoiding those situations altogether to minimize the risk of anything possibly happening. The avoidance of these situations is what can be debilitating and cause considerable problems such as avoiding your workplace, school, or even shopping for groceries. The person can often say they know that the fears are irrational, but feel helpless to do anything about it.

Another thing that could be happening is something called avoidant personality disorder. Avoidant personality disorder often can look very similar to social anxiety, however the degree of the symptoms is often more significant. Those with this disorder tend to have very low self-esteem and strong reactions to rejection and feeling inadequate. There tends to be a stronger preoccupation with being judged or criticized. Those with avoidant personality disorder will see themselves as inept, inferior, and unappealing. This leads to avoiding not just social situations but even relationships and difficulty with trusting others, unless they are absolutely certain of being liked and accepted. Rejection and loss become so painful that often they choose just not to be involved at all.

For practical reasons, there is no significant difference between the two, although there has been much debate among psychologist and researchers. Both are dimensions of anxiety and can impact people significantly. In my treatment I tend to try to see if the individual is more troubled about their anxiety in social settings or more concerned with how others will react to them. Regardless, treatment for these issues can be very similar.

You mention that you have expectations of her that she should be better than you in managing her feelings with this. However, these feelings are tough for just about all of us. Partners of people with these problems can run into frustration and even fear themselves about how difficult these issues may get. Understand that she may also be worried about how you see her as well. Reactions of anger could just generate more anxiety and pressure for her to perform perfectly. This would only add to the struggles in the relationship and escalate symptoms for her. If you feel like you share some of these symptoms with her, be mindful of how difficult this is for you, how it has impacted your life. That’s a great starting point for building empathy and understanding towards her. If problems persist, perhaps going together for counseling would help both of you. Therapy, whether together or individually, could help if you felt like any of these issues related to you or her.

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