Social Anxiety: A Rational Fear?

Many therapists and psychological experts say that our social anxiety fear of being judged by others is irrational. That people aren’t really thinking the negative things about us that we believe they are. While it’s true, you can never know what another person is thinking, we can’t ignore the fact that people do judge other people, often negatively. I know, because I do it myself. When I see someone do or say something foolish, I’ll negatively judge them— find them stupid, weird, or whatever else. Which is exactly what I and others with social anxiety are so afraid of other people doing to us. The irrationality of social anxiety comes with how much importance we give to those negative judgements of others.

Let me explain with an example. A couple of weeks ago, I went shopping at a local store, and there was a cashier, a guy around my age (25-35). He had messy short cropped hair that was balding with visible dandruff on his head and shoulders. My initial thoughts were this guy is disgusting. Doesn’t he care about the way he looks? He can easily get rid of that dandruff. Why doesn’t he? And because he was close to my age, I couldn’t help but compare him to myself. I was glad that I wasn’t working what is probably a minimum wage job as a cashier like him. Then when he told me the total price for my order, his voice sounded nervous and awkward. And when he handed me my change, his hand was trembling nervously. After I left, I thought to myself, damn, that guy was really weird.

The point of the story isn’t to put that guy down. Or to show that I’m a horrible person for having those thoughts about him. Who knows if that guy had any social anxiety himself, or if he feared that I would be negatively judging him for the things I judged him about. If I was him, working as a cashier, I would have those fears. That people would think my hair or clothes looked weird. Or that I spoke too nervously and handed them their change awkwardly. Or that I was a loser for working a minimum wage job at that store. Are those fears completely irrational? No, because I did have those negative judgements about him. Perhaps I’m more critical than others, but I’m sure other people were bound to have some of those same thoughts, as well.

The true irrationality of social anxiety comes with how much stock we put into those negative thoughts. Should that cashier quit his job and never go out in public because I thought his dandruff was gross and he spoke awkwardly? No. The truth is, if that very same guy were to talk to me the next time I go to the store, I would be nice to him. I would forget about those initial negative judgements and give him a chance. And if I learned more about him, maybe we’d find that we had similar interests, and maybe we’d become friends. He may still be balding with dandruff and speak awkwardly, but I wouldn’t care so much about those things anymore.

My point is that the negative social anxiety related thoughts we have aren’t completely unfounded. People may very well think our ears look pointy or our hair looks weird or our voice sounds awkward or what we said was stupid or whatever million other negative thoughts may pop into our heads. The problem comes with how obsessive we become with those negative thoughts and how much value we give to another person’s judgements. Because the truth is, those people that we fear… They don’t give their own negative thoughts about us much value at all. People may in fact think I’m dumb, awkward, ugly, or nervous, but those are just a few of millions of other fleeting thoughts they will have in their day. But ultimately, those negative thoughts don’t matter to them, so why should they matter to us.

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