Living in Fear

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

Hello, I feel that I’ve lived most of my life in fear. I’m terrified of meeting new people, going to unfamiliar places, using unfamiliar forms of transportation: in short, if it’s not my neighborhood, or I’m not in the presence of people I trust a lot, I’m too scared to make myself do anything new, really. And this makes me feel as if I’m missing out a lot on what life has to offer.

This has gotten worse as time goes on. In high school, because everyone is cliqueish, I never really noticed that I only spent time with a tiny select group of people, but I still felt as if I did not belong anywhere. At college, the feeling became very pronounced, and in job after job after that, I found that I really could not connect to anyone, and that I never really felt as if I fit in anywhere.

I’m angry with myself for having no confidence, and I’m always starting and stopping things that people always say boost one’s self esteem, like working out, reading self help books, practicing NLP patterns or setting smaller goals. It doesn’t matter; invariably, and increasingly, I find myself paralyzed by fear when I’m in an unfamiliar situation, and I won’t be able to make conversation, or even eye-contact with people I know, much less with strangers, and this has lead to my simply being left out of the gatherings of friends and family that I do know and would feel somewhat comfortable with.

I often feel torn between wanting to become “better” and hating myself for not being able to accept myself for who I am.

But I can’t help but judge myself through the eyes of others, and I always feel that I’m not as relaxed, or clever, or social as everyone else is.

The worst thing about all of this is that I feel trapped when I think about spending the rest of my life like this. The word I would describe it as is “claustrophobic”, because I feel real panic when I think about being on an airplane or a crowded train, and the feeling I get when I think about spending every day of the rest of my life in this condition is very similar.

Is confidence something that’s simply a genetic gift, like good looks and athleticism, or is there any hope that a guy like me can ever hope to have some himself? Is there anything that I can do that will at least give me the inner strength to speak to someone eye-to-eye instead of mumbling at my shoes? I know that I am intelligent and articulate, and as I desperately want social contact, I don’t believe that I have the sort of mental disorder that makes people unable to empathize with others. I just want some advice on how to develop a shadow of some self confidence, to perhaps be able to speak to a girl for once. Thank you for any help you can offer.

A. I’m sorry you’re experiencing distress. I believe the issue you’re dealing with may be social anxiety disorder. The hallmark of social anxiety disorder is a persistent fear of social and performance situations in which embarrassment may occur, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of mental health disorders. Oftentimes individuals with this disorder avoid social interaction. They do not like to be outside their comfort zone. They’re worried that others will judge them and believe they are perceived as weak or stupid. The disorder tends to significantly affect an individual’s occupational and everyday functioning and in some cases their academic functioning, social activities and relationships. Of course I can’t know if you have a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder, but you do seem to meet some of the criteria.

The good news is that social anxiety disorder is a very treatable condition. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular and effective psychotherapy for this disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy means that during the course of treatment the therapist will address both your behaviors and your thoughts related to anxiety. CBT usually lasts for approximately 12 weeks and may require you to complete homework, but the style of counseling depends on the therapist. Therapy sessions can be conducted individually or in a group setting.

If you recognize that you may have this disorder or anxiety in general then it is advisable you seek treatment. Social anxiety disorder often requires professional assistance. There is no one known “cure” for the disorder but treatment with a competent and seasoned professional can be effective. Left untreated, social anxiety can become more intense over time. To find a therapist near you please go to this link.

If you’re able to receive treatment, then you are not destined to a life crippled by fear. I understand that this disorder is not easy to deal with nor easy to treat. You may even feel anxious about the idea of meeting with a counselor. That’s understandable, but the best way to overcome your fears is to face them. You can do this with counseling.

One last thing. Please don’t be overly critical of yourself for not being able to overcome social anxiety on your own. It seems as though you’ve had this disorder since childhood. If that is true, the social anxiety has had many years to develop. Something that has had years to develop is not going to remedy itself overnight. It may take time and professional help, but if you put forth the effort you can overcome this issue and live a much better, anxiety-free life.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Nov 2009

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2009). Living in Fear. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 29, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2009/11/01/living-in-fear/