Beliefs And Worries Which Sustain Shyness, Insecurity, And Social Anxiety
If you're shy, insecure, or socially anxious you're likely operating under some common counterproductive beliefs and worries, even if you're not conscious of all of them. Many of these thoughts have various cognitive distortions at their hearts. They also have a general unifying theme of feeling every social interaction must go perfectly or something bad will happen.
These worries have the following negative effects:
- They damage your self-esteem.
- They increase the sense of pressure and risk you feel heading into social situations.
- They stymie you in your interactions by making you too cautious and overthinking.
- They make you feel responsible for outcomes you can't realistically control.
I list and debunk them below. I've roughly grouped them into categories (but realize several of the points could fall under more than one of them). A big part of getting past shyness involves thinking of social situations in less threatening, life-or-death ways.
Negative beliefs about oneself
"Being socially awkward is one of the worst things someone can be"
This one rests at the core of a lot of shy and socially anxious thinking. Someone might worry about coming across as awkward because they think it's a horrible defect. That's not true, and saying so is important enough that it deserves its own article:
"I'm just generally flawed and unlikable"
There are lots of things someone could get down on themselves about. Shy people are mainly insecure about traits that they think will make them come off badly in social situations. They might feel they're too boring, withdrawn, wimpy, or weird. They may also be concerned about the effect their weight, their crooked teeth, or whatnot has on the way others see them. They may believe one unattractive physical feature shuts the door on their ever having a normal social life.
I think it's important to take a balanced approach when thinking about these kinds of insecurities. It can be unrealistic to wave them off with a, "No! Everything's fine!" A person's view of themselves may have some basis in their social difficulties. Their self-doubt may be alerting them to issues they need to look into. On the other hand, there's a big difference between being a little clumsy with people, or not being physically perfect, and having no redeeming qualities. Plenty of people have their awkward moments, but they're still likable and have a lot to offer on the whole. Hardly anyone looks like a Greek statue, but we're all capable of having friends anyway. In a way your worries may have good intentions, but they're going overboard if they're telling you, "You suck. You're a complete failure. You'll never get what you want, etc, etc."
"I just know I come across as strange/annoying/boring"
This involves the cognitive distortion of Mind Reading. Shy or insecure types will often believe certain people don't like them, or find them dull or annoying, without any solid evidence to back it up. This view may be based in the thinking of, "Well it's so completely obvious to me that I'm lame and unlikable, so clearly everyone else feels that way." They're often too quick to interpret a vague sign as pointing to something negative, which has its own entry towards the end of the article.
Beliefs which inflate the perceived risk of social interactions
"I couldn't withstand rejection, disapproval, or an awkward interaction"
This is another foundational belief beneath shyness and social anxiety. A shy person may feel like being rejected or disliked would be too painful to tolerate, and try to do anything to avoid it. They may also worry about situations like an awkward silence during a discussion, or saying something inappropriate and having the moment hang in the air. They'll fear those outcomes to the point that they feel uncomfortable in many social situations or choose to dodge them entirely.
Obviously rejection can sting, but at the same time it's usually tolerable and survivable. Sometimes it's surprising how little it affects us (e.g., a co-worker doesn't want to hang out, and we go on with our lives). Even if it does hurt, it's still often not as bad as our fears make it out be. At times it can even be ultimately positive, like if we're rejected by people we weren't a good match for to begin with, or we gain some useful feedback.
This article goes into way more detail about dealing with rejection and mistakes:
"It would be terrible if people thought of me as shy, socially awkward, or nervous"
Many people's social anxiety is largely motivated by this fear. They're so tense in interpersonal situations because they think the worst would happen if they came across as shy or bumbling. Most people are actually fairly forgiving and understanding of awkwardness in others, especially once they're no longer teenagers. Some even find it human and endearing. And even if the odd person looks down on your for being shy, knowing they feel that way about you often isn't as bad as you'd imagine.
"Every social mistake will have horrible consequences"
Aside from worrying about giving off a generally awkward impression, a shy person my also dread making specific blunders. They feel that they can't make a single mistake, because if they do they'll be horribly humiliated or rejected for the rest of their days. Really, people make gaffes in social situations all the time. Usually they recover from them without any lasting effects. Again, on the whole people are pretty tolerant and forgiving. No one's perfect after all. Everyone's friends, family, and colleagues irk or disappoint them occasionally.
"If I do something wrong, people will care about it and think badly of me for a long time"
The well-known reply to this point is, "You wouldn't worry so much about what people thought of you if you realized how little they did." On the whole it's true. Most people are too busy with their own lives and problems to dwell on the fact that you got flustered and gave the wrong answer when you were called on in class.
However, that advice still implicitly endorses the idea that it's bad when people have a negative opinion of you. It just wants to reassure you it doesn't happen as often as you'd think. Like I've said, it's often bearable and inconsequential when others don't approve of us. So yeah, sometimes you'll do something 'wrong' and people will think poorly of you. And that's fine. No one is liked all the time by everybody.
Beliefs about the impact social situations have on self-esteem
"Every interaction is a test of my social skills and likability"
This is when you run into your co-worker in the break room and chat to her for three minutes. Except that in your mind you've built up the conversation to be some kind of barometer for how your social skills are coming along, and how worthy you are as a person. If it goes the slightest bit wrong, you're too quick to conclude, "That proves it. I'm hopeless. I suck with people." If everything goes okay you feel like you survived that test, but you can't rest easy because you could 'fail' the next one. I feel like I don't really have to spell out why this isn't accurate. Of course our self-worth is bigger than any one interaction, and doesn't need to continually be 'proven'.
"One social mistake brands me as a failure for all time"
This is similar to the one above. It's when you make one little error, say by not being able to think of a response to a question right away, and your mind instantly jumps to, "She asked me how my weekend was and I stumbled. I'm useless with people. I'll never get better." Again, there's that element of seeing something as "proof" for a belief that you're bad with people.
Beliefs which take on responsibility for things that can't be controlled
"I must make everyone like me"
Someone who's socially insecure can feel like they're shameful failures if they don't make everyone they meet like them. More typical people realize they can't click with everyone and don't sweat it too much. Certain personality traits or world views just aren't compatible. For example, it's not realistic to think someone who's a hardcore liberal is going to be able to hit it off with a bunch of radical conservatives.
Instead your average person tries to be fairly nice to everyone, and accepts a lot people will be benignly indifferent to them, and a tiny handful may actively dislike them. They know they'll still end up with a decent enough circle of well-matched friends in the end. Even when someone doesn't like them, it's not that bad either. How do most people react in real life if they find out someone dislikes them? They don't get down on themselves. Instead they tend to think, "They don't like me, huh? Hm... Well you know what? Now I don't care for them either. And now that I don't like them, I'm not going to lose any sleep over their opinion of me."
"I'm 100% responsible for how well an interaction goes"
Shy people can think that if their social skills were good enough they would be able to make any interaction go well. If it doesn't they put all the blame on themselves. Of course, the other people are responsible for pulling their weight as well. Someone who's an amazing conversationalist could still have a go-nowhere interaction if the person they were talking to was in a bad mood and gave them nothing but one-word answers.
Like I said, a more insecure person may believe that if their communication skills were at a high enough level they would be able to pull off a fun conversation with a grumpy, closed-off individual. They falsely think the socially savvy have the power to make any interpersonal situation turn out the way they want it to. More self-assured people tend not to think like this. They'll try their best, but know there's only so much they can do from their end. The other person has to contribute too.
"I'm 100% responsible for other people's reactions"
When someone responds to you in a certain way it often says more about them than you. They may not seem like they want to chat with you because their mother is sick, they just failed an assignment, they're simply a rude person, or they're shy and uncomfortable themselves. Many people know this and don't take it too personally when a social interaction doesn't go according to plan. That's not to say they don't think about what they could have done better next time, but even the smoothest, most likable person won't be able to win with everyone they talk to. More socially insecure people can feel that if someone doesn't react well to them then it's all their fault because they did something wrong. They assume if someone seems distracted or bored in a conversation it must be because they were so dull and easy to ignore.
Beliefs which exaggerate the difficulty of social interaction
"My social performance has to be at 100% at all times"
Most people get to a point where they accept that they're not going to be 'on' all the time. One day they may go to a party and be in the right mood and manage to work the room and hit it off with all the guests. They may go to another get together the following week, not be feeling it, and not have many of their conversations go that well. It happens, for all kinds of reasons. It doesn't make or break their entire life.
Shy or insecure people can hinder themselves by feeling they have to always be operating at maximum social effectiveness. If they're not perfect they'll beat themselves up. They may also feel that anything less than perfection will lead to failure. In reality people can often get by just fine in social situations when they're only running at 50% or so. A more insecure person has trouble going into a situation just thinking, "I'm feeling a little quiet and in my head today. Oh well, I'll do the best I can with what I have to work with."
"Everyone has super high standards for what they expect in others"
This is another worry related to feeling you have to perform and win people over. It's the idea that other people are very choosy and picky for what they look for in a friend or a conversation partner. It's feeling you have to be the most interesting, funny, self-assured person around or they'll want nothing to do with you. Many people aren't like this at all. All they may look for in a friend is someone who seems nice and who they have something in common with. The thing with having friends is that we can have as many of them as we want. It's not like dating where we have to be selective to find that one person who's the best fit for us. Conversation-wise, people are often happy to discuss routine topics, and don't need to be knocked off their feet every time they talk to someone.
"Everyone else totally has their act together socially"
When you feel like you're struggling to keep up in social situations it's easy to believe that everyone else finds this stuff super easy. They're all effortlessly confident and have a ton of friends. Hilarious jokes just roll off their tongues, then they lean back and soak up all the attention and admiration like they've done it all a million times before. Thoughts like that make you feel even worse about how you're doing.
It feels a little corny to say, and it's not like you don't know this already, but everyone has insecurities and weak points on their own. That woman who always seems to be the center of attention may be inwardly shy and continually wondering if her friends really like her. A guy who always seems to be meeting new people may have spent the last day feeling sorry for himself because none of his buddies wanted to come out when he invited them to the beach for the day.
And a few more
"I'm probably imposing on people"
When shy people try to initiate some form of social contact with someone, like trying to join a conversation, or extending an invitation to hang out, they may worry that their request is annoying and inconveniencing the other person. This can lead to them coming across as overly cautious and apologetic. This worry is rooted in them seeing themselves as unlikable, so of course they think their trying to interact with everyone else would be a burden. They may also inaccurately believe that people in general are socially intolerant and easy to irritate, and that interacting with them is a delicate act.
"This person is superior to me"
You may see someone as superior to you because they're confident, popular, or good looking, or because you've taken societal messages about particular groups to heart (e.g., the media often portrays people in fraternities and sororities as higher up the totem pole). Either way, if you see someone as above you you're likely going to feel more anxious while talking to them. Several of the worries above may affect you. In particular, you may feel more pressure to impress and win them over, and believe their opinion of you is an accurate measure of your overall worth as a person.
To a degree it's natural to feel a little off-balance around people who seem high-status and like they really have their act together. However, try to identify and question any harmful beliefs you've taken in about them. It's nice to have charisma or good looks or popularity, but if someone has these things it doesn't make them inherently 'better' than others. It doesn't make them the arbiters of other people's social worth.
"They seem friendly, but they're probably just messing with me and setting me up to be made fun of"
People who have been picked on as kids are more likely to think this way. If someone seems friendly or interested in hearing what they have to say, they can't help but suspect the person has ulterior, mean-spirited motives. They may hesitate to share any of their vulnerabilities for fear of giving a potential bully more ammunition. The occasional person is a jerk, but most aren't, and you're hindering your ability to connect with them if you hold back on the off chance they're out to get you.
General perception issues that exacerbate the other issues above
"She looked at her phone for two seconds. I'm totally boring to talk to" (Being too quick to interpret any ambiguous information as negative)
You texted your friend and she didn't get back to you right away? She hates you. Invited a friend out and he said he was busy? That's just an excuse. He just thinks you're too lame to be around. Said 'hi' to a classmate on campus and they seemed distracted? They couldn't wait to get away from you. You offered your opinion in a group conversation and everyone went quiet for a millisecond? They were all thinking, "Who is this guy? Why is he even here?"
"Ugh, I shouldn't have asked him how his weekend was. That was such a lame, unoriginal question." (Looking back on interactions after they've happened and dwelling on mistakes you 'know' you made)
Shyer people have a tendency to do post-mortems on their social interactions and then flagellate themselves up for any errors they felt they committed. In line with some of the other insecurities I mentioned, they tend to make their mistakes, if they were even true errors to begin with, out to be bigger deals than they were, and worry they'll have horrible consequences. Someone who went to a party and made a few drunken, slightly offensive jokes will fret that everyone was really annoyed, and that they've all decided not to hang out with them anymore. However, at any party most people do a dumb thing or two, and most of their friends don't give it more than a passing thought.