Social anxiety (or social phobia) is the debilitating fear of interacting with people. At its heart is the belief that you are being negatively judged, which leads you to avoid those situations where being judged is a possibility. To make matters worse, it is a self-reinforcing fear in which the more often you avoid situations, the more established and habitual the fear of negative judgement becomes.
You can understand the nature of social anxiety by seeing it in its evolutionary perspective. In our evolutionary past, strangers were dangerous. Being wary of them helped us to survive. There were the family and close friends inside our circle of trust, and then there was everyone else. There was only ever ‘us and them’.
The world is not as dangerous as it once was. The foundation for dealing with social anxiety is to understand at a rational level that in today’s world we do not need to be so scared of strangers. As dangerous as they might once have been, today they are less dangerous. To watch the news on TV or read the newspapers, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world is a dangerous place indeed, but that is a distortion of reality. Every year the world becomes a little safer and more civilised as Stephen Pinker points out in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
Rigorously enforced laws that guarantee individual rights have seen to that. We all know that if we attack someone we will find ourselves incarcerated with a criminal record. We have learned to restrain our violent impulses. On the rare occasion when someone does become violent, often under the influence of inhibition-reducing alcohol, they are publicly shamed on TV news and sent to jail or made to pay a hefty fine.
The carrot and the stick. Since Roman times, violent offenders have been put in prison where they cannot breed. At the same time, altruistic behaviour is rewarded by society. This carrot and stick approach is gradually reducing the overall proportion of people with violent tendencies in the general population, while increasing the proportion of helpful, well-intentioned people. This process has been on-going for nearly 2,000 years, which represents roughly 6,000 generations of people.
I am not suggesting that violence does not still occur in the world, only that it is gradually declining, a fact which is proven by the hard evidence presented by Professor Pinker.
We did not evolve surrounded by millions of strangers. We do not need to fear strangers in the way our ancestors did 10,000+ years ago. In those days, people lived in small nomadic groups, very often a single multi-generational family group. Everyone knew everyone else. Children were raised by the community. There were no towns or cities, much less the mega-cities of today. Even though we evolved as small group dwellers, the reality of life today in the 21st Century is that more than half of the world’s population lives in cities where you live surrounded by millions of strangers. This is always going to be stressful for people in whom the age-old instinctive fear of strangers is still strong.
If you suffer from social anxiety, it is helpful to understand that what you have is a natural instinct that is being outraged by the conditions of modern life. The instinct is over-reacting; the perceived danger has become blown out of proportion to the actual danger. You are not defective; you just need to dial back the instinctive reaction to a more rational level.
You can take a big step towards overcoming your social anxiety by activating your rational, logical mind and coming to understand the truth of modern city life. Our instincts tell us to be afraid of everyone we don’t know, and while some of those strangers should definitely be treated as potentially dangerous, the vast majority of strangers are normal, civilised people who would not dream of harming you.