Got Anxiety? Social Anxiety – and its core beliefs (part 3)
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
During approximately the first 15 years of our life, we begin to form a set of beliefs related to how we interpret the social interactions we have with those whom we consider most important in our lives (e.g., parents, teachers, friends, etc.).
Throughout this process, we develop attitudes regarding concepts such as fairness, trust, vulnerability, competency, etc. How we view our world is like the window we look through each morning — it’s our frame of reference, the very CORE of us — our personal “belief system.”
These beliefs we carry with us all our lives, help us understand why other people behave in a particular manner, as well as the views we hold about ourselves; worthy or worthless, competent or inept, trusting or suspicious.
Every core belief we hold, is associated with a list of memories that are quickly recalled during certain situations; serving as “proof” for validating that particular belief.
For example, when a high school student with a diagnosis of Social Anxiety is praised for having given an excellent class presentation, he may then dismiss the compliment since it does not fit his core belief of incompetence.
Instead, he misinterprets the praise as synonymous to offering food to a homeless person.
When we consistently think in a negative manner regarding ourselves, and how others treat us, we soon become prisoners concerning a set of self-imposed rules.
THE ‘RULES’ OF CORE BELIEFS
Consider Jim, an individual with a diagnosis of Social Anxiety. Jim grew up in a household consisting of a father who was overly critical of any mistake he made.
If he made a mistake when conversing with family friends at dinner, his father would label Jim incompetent, and unworthy of being one of their family members. He would also remind Jim he was adopted, insinuating others did not want him.
As a result, Jim began to form core beliefs related to a lack of competency, as well as abandonment issues; beliefs that would surface again, under similar circumstances.
For example, years later when he arrived late for work, Jim feared his employer would interpret his lateness as a sign of ineptitude, resulting in being fired (abandoned) from his job. Jim’s internal monologue reminded him — “Remember, people will eventually discover your social facade, and then reject you.”
Since childhood, Jim has viewed himself as inept, flawed, unworthy of having friends, sustaining a job, or ever finding a future wife. His core beliefs dictated specific rules he must follow, such as:
DON’T share your feelings with others; these feelings are not worthy.
DON’T risk exposing the real you; people will see you’re a phony.
DON’T initiate conversations; you will say something stupid.
As the result of Jim’s core belief regarding his lack of self-worth, it makes sense for him to follow these rules; thus allowing him to escape a sense of social vulnerability. He believes taking risks could result in social rejection and humiliation.
In essence, Jim’s core beliefs become a crystal ball for MISinterpreting the meaning of future life events.
CORE BELIEFS & SOCIAL ANXIETY
Raised in an environment consisting of individuals who provided primarily negative feedback, as opposed to encouragement for approaching challenging tasks, will often result (particularly when combined with a genetic family history of anxiety) in the development of several core beliefs associated with Social Anxiety (lack of competency, abandonment, etc.).
However, the two core beliefs most strongly associated with the future development of this condition would include the following:
Intolerance of uncertainty:
For those with a diagnosis of Social Anxiety, their default manner of thinking can be best summarized as, “What if I make a mistake; what will others think of me?”
They believe that social situations which involve uncertain outcomes represent potential threat (negative evaluations by others), prompting one to “error on the side of caution” when needing to engage in social events.
Overestimations of social threat, along with an underestimation of one’s perceived ability to handle making a mistake when interacting with others, leads to an exaggerated focus on negative thought patterns associated with uncertain outcomes.
This feeling of uncertainty culminates in a heightened sense of vulnerability when needing to “perform” in a variety of social environments.
Overestimating probability of danger:
Since those with Social Anxiety were typically raised in environments consisting of the potential for experiencing social humiliation, they learned to “expect the worst,” and avoid the social interaction if possible.
Their most common way of thinking can be summarized as … “When is a social setting, assume I’ll behave in an inept manner. In order to protect myself, I must take on the perspective of an outside observer, being certain to detect ANY instance of disapproval from those I am interacting with.”
In our next article, we’ll discuss strategies for helping to manage the most common symptoms of Social Anxiety.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatment inclinevillage.com to learn more.