William James (1890) made an important distinction between the ‘I’ (the private inner self) and the ‘Me’ (the self as an object of self reflexive thought), and argued that the latter had material, spiritual and social aspects. He famously argued that we have as many selves as there are people about whose opinions we care, and so the self changes from one situation to another. This view was to influence the work of Cooley (1909) who spoke of the ‘Looking Glass Self’ – a reflection of the imagined judgments about ourselves made by other people (cf.ac.uk). For people with social phobia / social anxiety, this reflexive view of the self becomes central and distorted. That is to say that, in social situations the person with social anxiety becomes fixated on, and exaggerates the perceptions others may have.
According to William James, to understand the “me,” we may begin by dividing the history of it into three parts, relating respectively to-its constituents; the feelings and emotions they arouse; and the acts to which they prompt. The constituents of the me [he says] may be divided into Two classes, those which make up respectively-the material me; the social me; and the spiritual me (Roth 1969). The one that is most relevant here, of course, is the social me.
According to James: “A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind. To wound any of these is to wound him” (Roth 1969). When we apply this notion to our everyday life, we see that our self-image and our actions are heavily influenced by the people in our lives. This illustrates how important the perceptions others have of us are to the development of our self-concept. To the person with social phobia, these perceptions are of increased importance. The individual may become almost obsessed with the way they are viewed by others-or the way they believe others view them. When a person is preoccupied with what any given person may be thinking at any given time, it is easy to become frightened of any social situation. As one author stated it, “The world’s a stage and you have stage fright” (Markway Ph.D. 2001). This is Social Phobia.
Social phobia is the second most common anxiety disorder, and significantly impairs the lives of 2-3 percent of the population, while an additional 20% have less distressing forms of social phobia because they are able to avoid the situations that bring on the anxiety(Markway Ph.D. 2001). Some in the psychiatric community say that social anxiety is actually the third largest psychological problem in the world today, but few really understand it (Richards 2004). There is so little understanding of social phobia that the first book to deal with the issue was not even published until the 1990’s. Furthermore, social anxiety disorder is often misdiagnosed and those who have it are sometimes even labeled as schizophrenic.
Properly speaking, a person with social phobia is one who experiences high levels of anxiety in social situations, and as a result usually tries to avoid such situations. One distinction between this and other disorders, such as schizophrenia, is that a person suffering from social phobia knows that the fear is irrational (Benjamin 1990). Social fears occur in many situations, most commonly in situations that involve public speaking, entertaining an audience, eating in public, writing in public, using public restrooms, dating, and taking tests. Intense fear over one of these situations is called a specific social phobia, wehereas, a person who experiences anxiety in most or all of these situations is said to have generalized social phobia (Markway, Ph.D. 2000). Whatever the type of social phobia, specific or generalized, there are certain characteristics and symptoms common to social anxiety.
Symptoms of social phobia are divided into three classifications, Bodily symptoms, Cognitive symptoms, and behavioral symptoms. Bodily symptoms are the unpleasant bodily reactions that one experiences during times of high anxiety. These may include: Rapid heart rate, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath, sweating, abdominal distress, blushing, and dizziness. Cognitive symptoms refer to the maladaptive thoughts that occur in social situations. These are negative thoughts such as: I look out of place, I sound stupid, I don’t fit in, or I’m going to mess everything up. Behavioral symptoms are the responses to anxiety. The first behavioral symptom is atonic immobility or freezing. i.e. paralyzed by fear. The other extremely common behavioral symptom is avoidance (Markway 2001).
Avoidance is a very common aspect of social phobia. Probably everyone has engaged in some sort of anxiety driven avoidance. As it relates to social anxiety, there are two types of avoidance, total avoidance-avoiding social situations altogether, and subtle avoidance-going in to the social situation but then leaving quickly. The latter is called escape behavior. In addition to these symptoms, there are three mental components of social phobia-unrealistic beliefs, inaccurate expectations, and maladaptive thoughts.
We know that the symptoms and the events that trigger them are primarily mental. We know that these fears are directly linked to irrational thoughts. That still leaves the question of the root cause. In other words, what is the basis for it? Is it nurture or nature? Is it psychological or physiological? There are many different factors that contribute to social anxiety/ social phobia. Environmental Contributions involve the learning process. This includes the theory that social anxiety can be learned by observation of a parent with the anxiety disorder. Biological Contributions include the theories of Inherent sensitivity to disapproval, and Genetic predisposition (Markway 2000). While it is important to understand the causes, many would say that it is more important to focus on treatment.
There are many ways of combating social anxiety. There are numerous drugs on the market designed to alleviate anxiety, however, these only attack the symptoms not the root causes, and these medications only treat the problem temporarily instead of curing it. Therapy is another tool used against social phobia, but therapy is not for everyone and a person with social phobia benefits most from short-term treatment rather than therapy drawn out over several years. Possibly the best tool against anxiety is exposure.
Psychologically speaking, exposure involves being exposed to the things that bring on anxiety; after sufficient exposure, feelings of anxiety will dissipate, but exposure can only be successful when the subject is ready for it. Through whatever method, it is important to battle social phobia, not only for the individual, but also for society. Consider how the world would be different if Ronald Reagan had not been able to speak in public, or if Martin Luther King Jr. had not been able to march with thousands of people for freedom.
Dying of Embarrassment, New Harbinger Publication, INC.
Barbara G. Markway, Ph. D, ET all
The Moral Philosophy of William James
Edited by John K. Roth
Copyright 1969 by Thomas Y Crowell Company, Inc.
How to overcome social anxiety and reclaim your life
Barbara G Markway, Ph. D, and Gregory P. Markway, Ph. D
Psychology, Second Edition
Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr. et al
Macmillan Publishing Company 1990
Social phobia / social anxiety association
Article by Thomas A. Richards
The Social Relevance of Shyness