I had social anxiety for several years. I developed it as a side-effect of post-traumatic stress disorder when I was 18. When you have PTSD, you fear you are broken, and you don’t want others to see that, and to think less of you, so it can often develop into social anxiety, where you end up avoiding or fearing social situations – all because you are afraid of being judged, or ridiculed, or rejected.
People suffering from social anxiety fear the pain of rejection, so they preemptively reject themselves. They exile themselves from society, deeming themselves unfit for it – and then project that self-condemnation on to others, seeing them as cruel and insensitive bullies, when in fact it is they who are bullying and condemning themselves. (This is what philosophers call ‘alienation’ – you create a God, raise it above you, and then cower beneath it.)
And this constant evasion, this attempt to protect oneself from the judgement of others, leaves one cut off from life, cut off from other people. The defences we construct to protect ourselves from pain often turn into prisons, condemning us to an isolation and loneliness that is, ultimately, far worse than the pain we sought to avoid. Kafka said as much:
“You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”
Social anxiety affects as much as 12% of the population at some point in their life. As the cognitive therapist and expert in social anxiety, Richard Heimberg, told me: ‘You can’t get nastier than it. Anything that cuts people off from being able to bond with others leads to a very unsatisfying existence.’
Some people think social anxiety is a myth, something Big Pharma invented to sell drugs like Zoloft. But it’s not. I had it for years before I’d ever heard there was such a thing as social anxiety. And if you go to a social anxiety support website, you’ll see it’s full of people amazed and relieved to discover they’re not uniquely fucked up, and that millions of other people suffer from the same thoughts and feelings. It seems the mind can get stuck in certain destructive patterns or loops, and social anxiety is one of those patterns.
In that sense, there is a value to diagnoses like ‘social anxiety’. These are not always artificial inventions by psychologists and psychiatrists. In the case of social anxiety, I think it is a genuine condition, and it’s very helpful to people like me to discover that others fell into the same rut. Because, initially, you think you are uniquely fucked up, which makes you hide your condition even more.
And it’s even more useful to discover that some people have escaped from the prison of social anxiety. They got out! And some of those who got out were good enough to come back, and tell others how to get out – like Plato’s philosopher escaping from the cave then coming back to try and free the rest of us.
In fact, what helped me most to overcome social anxiety was a CBT tape course called Overcoming Social Anxiety Step By Step, by a man called Doctor Thomas Richards (pictured on the right) . Thomas had really severe social anxiety for many years. He heard about CBT, and used it to get better. Then he founded a social anxiety clinic and made his audio course, which has helped thousands of people escape from the prison of social anxiety. Thanks Dr Richards. You’ve made a lot of people’s lives a lot better.