What Social Anxiety Feels Like and Where It Comes From

Girl covers face with transparent handsDo you often dread parties, anxiously fearing awkward conversations that expose the contents of your mind for all to see?

Do you cringe at the thought of meeting people?

Around others, do you find yourself spinning with worry about what they think of you or how you measure up?

These are just a few of the manifestations of social anxiety.

Social anxiety can be a paralyzing, frustrating, and chaotic experience. It’s a very out-of-control feeling that can leave you very torn: torn between the human need to be social and connected to others and the feeling of wanting to run away and hide from what feels like an oppressive, all-consuming monster. It can feel as though you have no clothes and no skin—as if people can see right inside you.

And when you’re alone again, away from the social scene, you may notice your immediate relief being slowly replaced by feelings of isolation, disappointment with yourself, and hopelessness.

Social anxiety can derive from many sources: early traumatic experiences, generalized anxiety expressing itself in particular ways, and a more sensitive disposition interacting with a highly stimulating world, among others.

In the paragraphs that follow, I want to address one aspect of social anxiety and offer some tips for how to think about and work with it. Specifically, I want to discuss how social anxiety can be a reflection of what is happening for you on the inside.

Social Anxiety as an Internal Mirror Image

If you struggle with social anxiety, you may be projecting onto the outside world what you feel inside, perhaps partially or entirely unconsciously. Inside, you may feel the (self-fulfilling) constellation of thoughts and feelings you notice in social settings:

Social anxiety can derive from many sources: early traumatic experiences, generalized anxiety expressing itself in particular ways, and a more sensitive disposition interacting with a highly stimulating world, among others.

  • Anxious anticipation of socializing or being with people, about being judged or exposed, or just having to deal with awkward conversations.
  • Heightened anxiety (maybe manifesting in sweaty palms, pale skin, or rapid heartbeat) in a social setting, particularly if you feel what you anticipated you’d feel: anxiety, feeling judged, awkwardness, and the feeling you don’t belong.
  • Often what goes along with this, even when things are going OK, is a running inner commentary of comparison: how everyone else is NOT anxious, just you. How everyone else is able to connect and has so much to say and is so articulate, just not you.
  • Depending on how difficult it gets, you may want to run, but first have to devise the best escape route in order to not attract attention.

These thoughts and feelings may echo how you felt as a child in your family of origin. If so, you may have internalized them, and now replay them in social settings of one type or another.

Specifically, as a child, you may have felt alone, anxious, and not quite adequate in relation to your family. Especially if there was anxiety, insecurity, or self-criticism in the family system, and no one was really aware of or dealing with it, you may have internalized it and made it your own.

Attending to Your Inner World

In order to reduce social anxiety, especially if the family scene I described resonates for you, it’s important to attend to your inner world in a consistent way. Here are five steps you can take:

  1. In a journal, draw a line down the center. On the left, write “Family Environment” and on the right, “Social Anxiety.”
  2. Spend some time thinking about your family environment. Look for any similarities you experience in your social anxiety and your childhood. Specifically, was there a lot of criticism? Anxiety? Did you feel judged? Insecure? Write your observations down in the left-hand column.
  3. Track the thoughts and feelings you notice in social settings. (This is a great exercise because it distracts from your anxious thoughts and gives you an immediate tool to work with your anxiety.) Write down any repetitive thoughts and feelings you experience in the right-hand column.
  4. Take some time and compare and contrast. You might be surprised how much you learn about how your past affects your present experience. Write down any insights and, especially, feel whatever feelings arise.
  5. When feeling social anxiety, breathe into your belly consistently. Reassure yourself. Tell yourself that, most likely, everyone in the room is anxious in one way or another.

These are some great initial steps that may open your eyes to how your inner world, especially memories and emotion, affects your present-day experience. For more in-depth work and permanent change, psychotherapy is an excellent way to work with social anxiety because you can, in real time, observe and share your anxious thoughts with a trained professional who can help you navigate the memories and hurts that keep you from having a more satisfying social life.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ben Ringler, MFT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jessa

    March 31st, 2016 at 8:31 AM

    So glad I stumbled upon this because I feel like this practically every day. There are honestly some days where I don’t want to have to leave the house because the thought of interacting with other people simply overwhelms me. I don’t know really how I became like this because I used to think of myself as an extrovert but not really anymore. I have a job where I do have to work with the public fairly regularly and it feels like there are times when that is draining the life out of me.

  • Margaret

    April 1st, 2016 at 1:34 PM

    I know what you mean. Groups of people, all the energy and competing demands. It feels like having no boundaries unless I can get by myself for a few minutes once in a while.

  • kellen

    March 31st, 2016 at 10:51 AM

    I grew up in a home with a fair amount of criticism, making us kids feel pretty worthless. I think that this is where many of my own thoughts about myself stem from, I think the same things about myself that I was always told when I was younger.

  • Ben Ringler

    March 31st, 2016 at 2:10 PM

    Hi Jessa,
    I hope this article is helpful to your struggle. I highly recommend considering therapy to find a way to feel more alive and rejuvinated in public. Best to you. Ben Ringler, MFT

  • Ben Ringler

    March 31st, 2016 at 2:12 PM

    Hello Kellen,
    Sounds lik a painful experience, but I have faith that if you find the right person to work with, over time, you can boost your self esteem. Best to you, Ben Ringler, MFT

  • jeff

    April 2nd, 2016 at 11:48 AM

    For me it feels like a freight train running over me.
    Any time that I know I am going to have to get up and speak in front of other people
    all of the air is totally knocked out of me.

  • Yvette

    April 4th, 2016 at 8:40 AM

    When you feel internally like all is topsy turvy then it makes sense that this is the kind of reactions that you are going to show on the outside./

  • Samantha

    April 8th, 2016 at 6:39 AM

    This is me. The childhood part really resonated with me for several reasons. I’ve had self esteem/social issues my entire life. I know most of it stems from my childhood but I don’t know how to fix it and move on. I’m literally afraid to talk to anyone about it because I don’t want people to think I’m looking for attention. I get a lot of unwanted attention already.

  • Chris

    October 9th, 2016 at 4:26 PM

    Great post! This is a very detailed and useful perspective. I love the explanation of different ways someone’s inner experience can be reflected in the outer world.

  • Steven

    June 4th, 2021 at 8:34 AM

    At 45 and only recently discovering just what this is and why my almost entire life from being a young adolescence has been affected by it, is hugely frightening. Countless decisions, many subconscious that Ive made throughout my life born from my mental and social anxiety issues. Behaviour patterns also governed by this dark shadow that has hung over me since my early teens and possibly younger. I cant believe how guided ive been throughout my life by this. Even now, married with 2 children for over 20 years, my inner thoughts and desires are crying out for me to leave my family and be alone. Its so strange but it feels like SA has a plan for me and that its winning.
    I hope not and yet my inner me wants me to be alone. its crazy.

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