Empathy ~ An Unlikely Fix for Social Anxiety

Fear and anxiety can dull the senses, reshape the brain and kill neurons. The loss of sensitivity includes a diminished ability to recognize and respond to the feelings of others. Social Anxiety develops from repeated negative experiences, largely due to our insensitivity to others.

~ 2008 ‘National Geographic: Stress, Portrait of a Killer’ by Robert Sapolsky, Neuroendocrinologist, Stanford University

This may not be true for everyone, but when we experience anxiety, particularly anxiety that is centered on socialization, our powers of empathy may be weakened. Empathy is learned and is not a skill we’re born with. Does a child think about their parent when throwing a tantrum in public? Only when they’re older and have learned the skill of empathy do they learn to consider the feelings of others. Social Anxiety traps us in our heads where we cannot see outside to what others might be feeling. Our powers of empathy are diminished and with it, our ability to relate to the world.

Why it’s natural to live, surrounded by so many people every day.ASAC Busy Street

Let’s face it, if you have to work like most people, you have to leave your house and face the masses on most days. If you have Social Anxiety or are excessively shy, it may feel unnatural to encounter so many people on a daily basis. So how do the others do it?

Empathy is not a special ability that we only employ when trying to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It is an automatic response to the presence of others.  It is natural to get to like those around you such as neighbors and co-workers simply due to being in proximity. Over time, just by living near or working with others, most people will get to like those they’re around most often. That is a natural human reaction that can be lost with prolonged symptoms of Social Anxiety.

~ Excerpt from Theodore Newcomb, 1960 “Group Dynamics: Research and Theory.”

How to make Empathy work for usASAC Escape Hatch

A steady focus on empathy is one of the many escape hatches available to us. Focusing on the needs and feelings of others is an excellent way to help us get out of our heads and stop feeling self-conscious.

Focus on details of what’s happening with others. Make an effort to learn names by repeating them in your head. Make mental notes when people share current events of their lives and be sure to ask for an update the next time you see them. This focus on others helps us much more than it helps them.

People are smart.  They can tell when we’re paying attention to them. They can feel it. When we are not able to focus on what’s happening with others, due to our anxiety, we can sometimes look arrogant to them.

The Irony of Social AnxietyASAC PPL laughing

When someone that you’re not talking to laughs and perhaps glances at you, what do you feel? Do they know how uncomfortable you feel inside and are making some slight against you about how ridiculous you are? Probably not actually. More likely they glanced at you because when they laughed, your head turned to look what they were laughing at. They saw that and looked over at you instinctively.

For many of us with S.A., we feel conspicuous every day and every time we’re around people, whether it be at work, at a coffee shop or a house party. We tend to feel like people are looking at us and judging is with disapproval. This is essentially a model of socializing that puts us at the center. If our feeling is that people are laughing at us and talking bad about us, that means we’re the center of everyone’s thoughts. In other words, we assume that people care about us and are thinking about us.

The opposite is more likely to be true. Because we are tense and do not open up, people are less inclined to have us on their minds. True, they may be less than enthusiastic about socializing with someone who is Socially Anxious, but that does not mean that they think about us when we’re not around or that every joke they tell is about us.

The irony is that the more self-conscious we are and the more we believe someone is thinking about us, the more it causes those same people not to think about us or want to talk to us.

Anxiety causes muscle tension.ASAC MuscleTensionTitle

Your shoulders could be tensed and raised up to your ears. Your face might be scrunched up with a funny or irritated look. In one case, a woman with Social Anxiety was so nervous all the time that her neck muscles tensed up causing her head to be tilted back. That combined with an unamused look on her face made her look like she was arrogant. She essentially walked around with a look of disapproval and looking down his nose at everyone. The very image of arrogance to anyone looking at her.

The irony is that this women’s self-esteem was extremely low and all she wanted was to be accepted by others. She didn’t believe she was better than anyone at all. She was completely unaware of her appearance and was constantly hurt when people turned away from her.

It is liberating when we can finally accept that people are so caught up with their own woes and complications that everyone else is barely a blip on their radar. We live in a very competitive society where your fellow man is biting at the bit to put you down and leave you in the dust.  When people snub us and choose not to socialize with us, it is incredibly liberating to let them go.

If you have difficulty making friends and being accepted by others, maybe your only mistake is being a good human being with real feelings who wants to really relate to people.

Most people are actually a great deal more lonely than they show. They have spent a lifetime learning how to be somebody else, someone who is an expert at hiding that loneliness. Open yourself up by letting go of your attachment to their acceptance… because… they may not even be accepting of themselves. Show them something they may have never seen before… Empathy by considering that despite how they treat you, they are lonely too.

Thanks so much for reading!  Please tell us about your experience and leave a comment.

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2 thoughts on “Empathy ~ An Unlikely Fix for Social Anxiety

    1. Yes, it’s a vicious cycle. Being around people causes the anxiety and tension that makes us look unapproachable. The more people avoid us, the more anxious we become. We have to slowly, bit by bit reverse this cycle by practicing relaxation techniques and avoid at all costs the temptation to withdraw from the world.

      Liked by 1 person

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