Blog Post: Social Anxiety

Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal. Albert Camus

Can you recall the last time you avoided, or tried to avoid, a social encounter? Maybe you were just walking down a street and see an acquaintance, but you thought you looked terrible, for instance, you hadn’t ironed your cloths before leaving home; so turned around to escape their perceived judging eyes. Or possibly you were, say, at the dentist, when you started to have constant thoughts about your self believed bad breath, and further thoughts about the dentist making judgments about your bad breath, this led you to leave without resolving the longstanding and very painful tooth ache. Perhaps it is something you have never experienced, but I can imagine that is a slight possibility. I think to a certain extent social expectations and our self-esteem (our overall subjective emotional evaluation of our own worth) has led us to feel fear and anxiety about participating in some form of social exchange or event, be it, for instance, going to the shops, or talking to someone over the phone.

It is interesting to find gender differences in those experiencing social anxiety disorder (the persistent and overwhelming fear of social situations). Men with social anxiety appear to fear social situations such as urinating in public toilets, returning goods to a shop, dating, being single, unattached or living alone. Women with social anxiety, on the other hand, appear to fear and avoid situations in work settings such as speaking up at meetings. Further, a common behaviour of people with social anxiety is submissive behaviour, for instance, facilitating non-violent interactions such as avoiding eye contact in public or slumped posture. This behaviour has the desired effect of reducing subsequent attacks on the person with social anxiety. In people with low self-esteem, submissive behaviours can also lead to feelings of shame or the idea that the person holds unattractive physical attributes, personality characteristics, or has engaged in unattractive behaviours.

It is worth thinking about characteristics of social anxiety, submissive behaviours and shame from the position of what is socially expected of Women and Men. In most cultures, although in the UK gender equality has come far, but still further to go; it is considered acceptable for Women to employ submissive behaviours because this is what the ‘paternal’ society expects. For instance, “the Woman’s place is at home,” while the Man is the “breadwinner.” Moreover, Women are often stereotyped as “too emotional,” while for Men, on the other hand, stereotypes cluster around the theme of dominance. Men are generally expected to be powerful and successful and often avoid ways that can be considered too feminine. We have all heard such sayings as “you big girls blouse” or “why don’t you man up.” For Men, submissive behaviours conflict with the theme of dominance. Therefore, socially anxious Men, worried about not violating social norms such as being the “breadwinner” or in a powerful position may detect an inconsistency between their submissive behavioural displays such as submission and their gender role. This supposed inconsistency of social norms could ultimately give rise to internalised shame in socially anxious Men, more so than socially anxious Women.

Thinking about gender roles from an evolutionary perspective also helps. From the perspective of parental investment, Women tend to be more selective when choosing a partner, due to greater investment in their offspring, for instance, pregnancy, providing the infant with nutrients in early life. This suggests that Women look for Men that will presumably be able to support and protect them and their infant through securing food, shelter and safety, amongst other things. Therefore, due to Women presumably spending more time raising the infant, this limits the number of Women in the population, hence creating competition between Men to secure opportunities to mate. Thus, this may lead socially anxious men to encounter dominance threats such as violent eye contact and verbal threats more than socially anxious Women.

Researchers from Temple University, Pennsylvania, United States recently found when they tested Women and Men with social anxiety, that submissive behaviours mediated the relationship between social anxiety and shame in Men, but not Women. Although this study can be criticised for its limitations, for instance, it tested only those with extreme presentations of social anxiety, plus it used only self-report measures over other forms of data collection (e.g. physiological or behavioural measures), hence, limiting its interpretive power. It still offers insight into the mediating role of submissive behaviours in the relationship between social anxiety and internalised shame in Men, but not Women with social anxiety.

It also shines a light on the role of real or perceived social norm violations, such as Men not taking on the dominance narrative, and how this may instigate and lead to internalised shame. So, for me, it has been important to learn to recognise the social constraints placed on Women and Men and how such limitations, i.e. Men having to confirm to the dominance narrative, can affect our quality of life in negative ways. I think we would do well to emancipate ourselves from these restraining narratives that lead to constantly judging others according to the roles we expect them to play.

Zimmerman, J., Morrison, A.S., Heimberg, R.G. (2015). Social anxiety, submissive behaviour, and shame in men and women: A moderated mediation analysis. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 54, 1–15.

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