Steven tries to appear cool as he gulps down his third beer. The others at the bar would never know how much anxiety he feels in social situations. They would be surprised by the degree to which this 31-year-old salesman obsesses about how people view him. Because Steven wants to be seen as being “on top of his game,” he has become adept at reading what people want and then managing their perceptions in order to meet their expectations. But inside he feels anxious and insecure when interacting with others. He is convinced that expressing what he truly thinks and feels will result in no one wanting to be around him.
In his earlier years, Steven was overweight and shy. He always felt inadequate, an outsider with his peers. All his life Steven has allowed the opinions of authority figures, peers and the norms of society to guide his decisions and define his worth. The price he pays is the inability to be his real self.
Steven’s situation illustrates the social anxiety that comes from over-reliance on external influences. Being concerned about how others perceive him creates unnecessary stress, and causes Steven to downplay his needs and be too accommodating. By conforming to other people’s ideas of how and who he should be, he tries to get approval and acceptance.
In our culture, the measure of success and acceptability is often based on projecting the correct image. However, allowing external influences to define you fosters perfectionism and self-neglect — and undermines self-esteem. You will have difficulty discovering and honoring your personal direction and hold back from pursuing that which is most important to you.
Feeling anxious about how others perceive you can cause you to be overly concerned with “fitting in” and being liked. In order to feel adequate and accepted you depend on validation from outside. However, if you are the one who determines your self-worth according to inner criteria, you are less likely to allow the views and expectations of others define your value.
The key is to shift from an external to an internally-based frame of reference and connect your self worth primarily with your intrinsic qualities. Over the years I noticed in my psychotherapy practice that for many of my clients, their inner person had either not been recognized or had been downplayed by their family.
When I ask them to think about someone whom they admire and respect, and describe what they believe makes that person a worthwhile human being. In response, I usually hear words like a good heart, sincere, perceptive, funny, resourceful. My clients tend to highlight what I call intrinsic qualities and, to a much lesser degree, emphasize the person’s achievements.
Sometimes I ask them if this person whom they admire were to be stranded all alone on an island and there was no one to benefit from his or her talents, would they see him or her as less worthwhile. It is rare when my clients answered “yes” to this question. I have also noticed something else. When I ask them the same question, but instead apply it to them, they tended not to equate their own inner qualities with their own self-worth.
Try this exercise: Make a short list of inner qualities that you believe make you a worthwhile human being (notice if this is difficult). It is important to omit your achievements and what you may provide to others.
For the next five days actively read your list daily out loud, following each quality with the phrase “and this is what makes me a worthwhile human being.” Remind yourself that your worth and acceptability have nothing to do with how others view you. This exercise is more effective if you look in the mirror or listen to a recording of yourself.
This exercise is only the first step of a larger process, but for now, as you speak these messages, pay close attention to any voices in your head that disagree or question what you are telling yourself. Try to notice any contrary or critical messages that may show up.
Understanding and counteracting these destructive voices will move you closer to embracing your intrinsic worth.
There are many variables that contribute to social anxiety. As your intrinsic qualities become the primary markers of your identity and self-worth, you will be less likely to be pushed around by external influences, not feel as anxious in social situations, and experience more freedom to live life based on your own core values.